Missed part one? Click here for Stories and Games (1): Art.
Why are games fun, and are they fun in different ways to films and books? This can be a tricky question to explore since a great many of the games that get the most attention are actually part film and part game – they switch between interactive sections of gameplay and non-interactive movies. As I argued last week, those movies are still a kind of game, but they are a different kind of game and a different kind of art. There's a sense that a game with a lot of cut scenes is really a mixed media artwork, but as it happens this distinction is not necessarily useful. Plenty of modern art requires that the appreciator reads the descriptive card displayed alongside or at least knows the title, but we don't consider such artworks mixed media, and neither is the collision of text and image in a graphic novel considered problematic. It is already the case that much of contemporary art refuses to stay bounded in one clear medium, and we can scarcely be surprised that games do the same. Nonetheless, there is a powerful sense that the fun of a game and the fun of a story are different in some way. What is that distinction?
In my research into how and why people play games, I have (with the assistance of contemporary emotion researchers like Paul Ekman and, in the context of games, Nicole Lazzaro) identified a suite of emotions that could be called the emotions of play. What's more, by looking at the neurobiological foundations of these emotions, I have been able to tie this set of feelings into what I believe is a fairly coherent description of play, one that is described in some detail in Imaginary Games. At the root of the emotions of play are two sets of features in our brains (and indeed the brains of all mammals) and a corresponding collection of neurotransmitters – chemicals that relate to specific emotional states. There are also two additional features intimately connected with stories that are required to complete this picture since, as I have already suggested, all stories are also games, specifically, games of make-believe continuous with the kind of imaginary games that children play.
For games-as-games, putting aside the explicit elements of story and fiction for the time being, the first and arguably most important feature is the reward system of the brain (the nucleus accumbens and related brain structures, and the neurotransmitter dopamine). Without this biological heritage, there could be no concept of winning in games, and although not all games involve a win condition (tabletop role playing games in particular need not have one) we still tend to think of goal states and win conditions as quintessentially 'gamey'. The emotions that relate to these biological features are satisfaction and triumph – what emotion researchers call fiero, the sense of conquering adversity that causes you to punch the air or raise your hands above your head. Satisfaction is a small release of dopamine, and triumph a large spike of this reward chemical, which is why winning feels good, and why everyone likes to win.
Secondly, there is the fight-or-flight response, with its neurotransmitters epinephrine (commonly called 'adrenalin') and norepinephrine. This biological feature intimately involves stress – yet stress can be good fun. An action movie or a rollercoaster releases epinephrine, thus creating the experience of excitement, and although your body is in a state of stress this is generally experienced as fun. Of course, the rollercoaster may be an experience of fear, rather than excitement, if the amygdala (a tiny and biologically ancient brain structure) interprets danger in what's being experienced. Although not everyone enjoys being terrorised (some people will never get aboard a rollercoaster!), everyone enjoys excitement as long as it doesn't tip into fear, and both fear and excitement have the same chemical (epinephrine or adrenalin) at their root, which underpins the 'flight' part of fight-or-flight.
The 'fight' response relates to norepinephrine, which is experienced as emotional responses varying from mild frustration to blind fury – all being different degrees of anger. These emotional responses are vital to many games because, as I mentioned before, the experience of triumph requires a sense of adversity to overcome. Beating an easy game is not as rewarding as beating a tough game (even though many fewer players can beat a tough game). Therefore players who want to experience triumph – who want to conquer games for the dopamine-reward of doing so – have to experience frustration or anger beforehand. As it happens, many players (about 40% according to my research) do not enjoy being frustrated in this way, while some (about 20%) actively seek out the higher degrees of challenge that will frustrate them precisely because they want that big hit of dopamine for overcoming impossible odds. Testosterone – which is not gender-specific, but affects men and women in the same essential way – may be key to this distinction, since testosterone has been demonstrated to promote persistence, and without the desire to persevere no tough challenge is going to be beaten.
These two biological features – the reward system and the fight-or-flight response – represent what might be called the primal emotions of play. The biology concerned is truly ancient, and is found in almost all the multi-cellular life on our planet, and indeed the same biology is intimately involved in survival. Play, you could say, is a subversion of survival, at least in the terms I've outlined here. (I would avoid the temptation to call play 'practice for survival', however, since this predicates survival as the only important feature of life, and even for non-humans this simplification does not hold much water). The 'gamey' aspects of the games we play are all involved with these features – thrill-rides (excitement), games of chance (triumph), and games of competition (anger and triumph) are intimately associated with games and game design. Indeed, there is a myopic tendency in certain people to collapse play into just the quest for triumph (or, equivalently, the desire to overcome challenge), a simplification that probably reflects a preference for testosterone-dominated kinds of play.
Related to these primal emotions are the social emotions of play, including the closely related amusement and schadenfreude – the joy we take in the misfortune of others. Multiplayer games would be considerably less fun if we were not terribly entertained when disastrously bad things happen to the other players, and we laugh uproariously when we knock the other player's car off the track, or blow them up with a well placed grenade. These social emotions are not necessarily central to play, but they are important to our experience of play in practice, since competitive play in particular is enriched by our strange biological response to absurdity.
Play is more nuanced than just the primal and social emotional experiences, however, and a third biological feature relevant to both games and stories is the curiosity or interest mechanism discovered by Biederman and Vessel. When we encounter richly interpretable information, our brains release a chemical called endomorphin that ultimately triggers the reward centre and releases dopamine. Small amounts of endormorphin are associated with curiosity, or maintaining interest, while large amounts correspond to the emotion of wonder, which as Nicole Lazzaro points out is a full-body emotion just like triumph, the clear sign of which is the dropping open of the jaw. Games need this dimension as well as the primal emotions, otherwise we wouldn't keep playing. The joy of a game of exploration like Skyrim or a Zelda lies in part in indulging our curiosity. But stories also rely on this emotional response – what keeps us interested in the resolution of a film or book is precisely the intensity of engagement, as film-philosopher Noël Carroll has observed. When it comes to interest, games and stories are on equal footing.
Lastly, there is our natural ability to empathise, which connects to recently discovered mirror neurons. This feature of our biology is essential to understanding our ability to appreciate stories, since it is only be identifying or empathising with fictional characters that we become swept up in a narrative. Indeed, in many cases it's not clear that our interest would be held purely by our ability to interpret complex information that is associated with endomorphin if it were not also the case that we can imagine ourselves in the shoes of other people. Sometimes this is literal – many people do imagine themselves taking the role of the protagonist of a story. Sometimes, it is more indirect. Empathy is what we call our ability to care about the emotional states of other people, and because we are imaginative creatures our empathy extends to the fates of fictional people just as much (sometimes more!) than those of real people. A great many people tune in for the final episode of a TV show, while rather less care about real children dying in squalor in distant lands.
Thus the emotions of play consist of the primal emotions of excitement, fear, anger, satisfaction and triumph, the social emotions of amusement and schadenfreude, the powerful interest emotions of curiosity and wonder, and the emotions of imagination and empathy which include every possible emotion. Both games and stories make use of the interest emotions but we can say, crudely speaking, that games-as-games primarily leverage the primal and social emotions, while conversely, stories-as-stories leverage empathic emotions. These empathic emotions can include, oddly enough, all the primal and social emotions! We can experience schadenfreude when the hero kills villainous lackeys, fear when the heroine is in danger and triumph when victory is eventually achieved. Stories can get at the full emotional repertoire, whereas games-as-games focus more narrowly on the emotions of play.
Games are fun because the emotions of play provide access to a wide variety of pleasant experiences – some of which are attained via unpleasant experiences like anger and fear. Stories are fun because our imagination allows us to become swept up in the fate of fictional worlds. Both games and stories are also fun because they maintain our interest in various different ways. When it comes to videogames, which are often fun both as games and as stories, these two elements become intimately intertwined – the fictional world of the game is frequently vital to our enjoyment of that game, even though this isn't necessarily leveraging the primal emotions of play. Players of Skyrim or GTA, for instance, are not just enjoying their victory over the various challenges the games affords but are also enjoying entering the fictional world of the game. If this fiction were removed, the game simply would not be as much fun. Even an identical set of control challenges to that involved in (say) fighting a dragon would not be as emotionally involving as the fiction of fighting a dragon. This is a vital clue that the story of a game – its fiction – is just as important as the game mechanics – its rules.
Next week, the final part: Experiencing Fiction