Could you ever be moved to tears over the plight of Mario or Princess Peach? Could a game system be designed that moves you in this way? I maintain that it cannot.
Back in December 2008, I wrote a piece entitled A Game Has Never Made You Cry, in which I first advanced my claim that – tears of frustration not withstanding – videogames have only ever made people cry via their fictional elements (cut scenes and the like) and never via their game systems. I recently tweeted a few comments along this line and attracted some interesting counter arguments that encourage me to update my argument.
Craig Perko observed that many people have cried over the outcome of hands of poker, and Dan Cook notes that being picked last in a game of kickball can also lead to tears. I have to agree – but then, it’s not entirely clear that these are consequences of game systems. In the case of poker, players cry because of what they lose – their car, or large sums of money, for instance. I could argue that if they lost these same things outside of a game, they would still be moved to tears – but this isn’t a complete picture of these situations. Having lost it via a game of chance does enhance both the immediacy and the depth of the emotion that results. Even if we want to assign the cause of the tears in this case to real world losses, the game system still has an effect on the emotions.
Dan’s objection is very similar, except what is staked in a picking teams is not material goods but what is called social capital. Being picked last is distressing – particularly if you were expecting to be picked sooner – and this experience can move people to tears. Does this count as a consequence of the game system? In this respect, it is parallel to the poker case. The loss of social capital required to move one to tears can be identified as the cause, but in this case the rules of the selection process within the game are part of that mechanism. They directly lead to the emotional state that might cause a child to cry.
Nicole Lazzaro pointed out two other cases I had overlooked – tears of laughter, particularly likely when playing with a group of friends (but perfectly possible with just the game itself) and tears of joy, such as the tears of a sporting champion when they finally heft the trophy. However, I believe the first can be considered to be primarily a consequence of the fiction rather than the game system – I don’t think there is such a thing as a funny rule, although there are funny fictional consequences to rules. (I welcome counter examples to this claim!). Tears of joy from triumph over adversity, on the other hand, seems similar to the poker case – real world stakes were involved (social capital, at least) and that intensified the ultimate experience. But it cannot be denied in such a case that the game has caused tears.
Hamish Todd raises another fascinating objection, observing that we can be moved to tears by “simple beauty”. He notes: “I have cried over Sigur Ros' Stralafur and Jon Mak's Everyday Shooter." Putting aside my shock that anyone would find Everyday Shooter so beautiful that it would move them to tears, I have to accept that games can be incredibly beautiful, and this beauty could move someone to tears. It is an open question to what extent the game system contributes to this aesthetic response. Would it move you to beauty if you weren’t playing it? If so, the sensory depictions (rather than the game system or rules) are the responsible element. But I am willing to consider that an experience like Everyday Shooter or Res has its aesthetic beauty deeply implicated in its play.
In all these cases, games have made people cry. However, all these cases are closer to the case of a game causing a player to cry out of frustration, which I explicitly excluded before making my claim that a game has never made you cry. Looking at all these cases makes it clear that there are so many different ways that a game can make you cry that stating the problem in these terms just isn’t sufficient. Games do make people cry, and for many different reasons. But when we talk about whether a game has made you cry, our interest isn’t actually tears (no-one cares that an onion has made you cry!) but the ability to be moved emotionally by tragedy, i.e. the ability to evoke empathy. And this can only occur in the fiction.
Not long after writing A Game Has Never Made You Cry I read Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe and began writing about game design as make-believe, the topic that forms the core of my latest book Imaginary Games. On Walton’s theory, all fiction is a kind of game – specifically a game of make-believe, related in form to the games children play with toys as props. The game of make-believe associated with a painting or a stage play are more rich, and the artists behind them have the capacity to make them much more intrusive on the play that results – such that, for instance, the viewer of Van Gogh’s Starry Night has few choices in how to interpret that painting as a prop. Nonetheless, the ‘player’ of Starry Night is an active participant in the game of make-believe that causes the fiction concerned to come to vivid life in their imagination.
What lead me to Walton was a philosophy paper by Colin Radford entitled How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina? Radford identified what is called the paradox of fiction – that we can have apparently genuine emotions in response to something that we know is false. This argument is closely related to my claim that a game has never made you cry – or rather, if a game has made you weep for a character, it did so in its fictional elements and not as a consequences of its rules. In other words, even though a Mario game might have moved you to tears through frustration, loss of social capital, laughter or victory, you have never shed tears for Mario himself, nor for Princess Peach, Bowser, or any other character in the Mario world. No rule that could occur in these games could cause you to weep for Mario, because that emotional response must occur in the fiction and not in the rules as such.
However, accepting Walton’s philosophy complicates this issue considerable – because understanding fiction as a game of make-believe means that the fiction itself is fundamentally construed of game rules (the tacit rules of the make-believe game), and conversely the game rules are themselves a kind of fiction. Although it can be useful to divide functional and fictional elements (Juul’s rules and fiction), this division will not hold up as a distinction between what is real and what is not (Juul, conversely, thinks rules are ‘real’, a claim I dispute). I do think we can understand a distinction between the functional and the fictional elements of games, but we have also to recognise that this distinction is more of degree than of kind.
We will not get far trying to lay down a firm barrier between the games system and its accompanying fiction, but perhaps we can at least set aside the non-interactive fiction from the interactive fiction – if you cry because of a cut-scene, we can be confident the game system had little to do with it. But even here, the intimacy of the connection between rules and fiction can trip us up. As Brian Njenga observed: “I believe it is possible… to provide a series of choices that reinforce a tragic element in a game's narrative.” This is an important objection to my argument, one that runs parallel to the poker or kickball examples – even though the tears in those cases were closely related to another cause (material or social capital), the game still had an important role to play in the outcome. The same is true in the relationship between the fiction and the rules of a videogame: even if catharsis requires non-interaction (as I argued previously), the intensity of the emotional response can be heightened if the game is designed appropriately. There are possibilities for the game designer to affect how the game makes you cry.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that no rule you could add to any Mario game would cause the player to weep for Mario – and this for the simple reason that the fictional world that Mario inhabits does not seem to be open to these kinds of emotions. Perhaps Mario could be transplanted to another fictional world where we could be moved to tears for his plight – but even if we did so, would it be the game system that caused our tears? The fiction is the vital game here, the functional game system is only a supporting player. We can design games to affect the emotions of the player, and to intensify them – but the empathy for fictional characters that Radford found so curious remains a property of fictional worlds, of Walton’s games of make-believe. As such, there will be no tears for Mario, even though games have made us cry, and will continue to do so in many surprising ways in the years to come.
Imaginary Games is available 25 November 2011 from Zero Books.