Stories and Games (1): Art
Stories and Games (3): Experiencing Fiction

Stories and Games (2): The Emotions of Play

Missed part one? Click here for Stories and Games (1): Art.

Skyrim 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

The inspiration for this short series of posts, my philosophy of games book ‘Imaginary Games’ is available from and all good booksellers now.


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What's common to games and films (and all other arts) is that they are a discourse. This makes them sign systems of the second order. The meaning of that is that they may use any substance (even something as empirically stable as a human) and put it in the service of a conceptual framework that asks certain operation being carried out by the "reader". We clearly see this in games, where your body gets re-configured as something that functions in the service of the grammar and logic of the fictional game universe (once you accept to take on that role of course). The point here is that a "player" is a function that is no longer to be confused with a real person. You see the same in the case of the model reader in novels, a "function" of the text where all codes come together to be processed so that signification can take place. Discourses may make use of a variety of matter and substance, the difference here mainly being that different types of perceptual activity get involved into the mix. It's not really a matter of which of the media is more suitable to the task, but whether you as a author/designer manage to evoke all other senses with those types of sense-data that your medium allows you to use. It's a matter of transliteration of senses, what Eisentstein calls film sense in the case of film, and Steve Swink, game feel, in the case of games.

Since we deal with discourse (or secondary order languages) here, you can't avoid narrativity: You will find tenses, modalities, and characters (doesn't matter if they are fully depicted humans, or extremely abstracted objects). They will be in a chrono-logical relationship to each other which can be subject to story-telling techniques.

From Callois to Wittgenstein, to Juul, you see a lot of game researchers listing substances and matter used by games. It often arrives at a point where we turn to "reality", because we cannot overcome the logical paradox that sets up a game and turns it into a discourse that can be experienced as both fiction and real. But substance or matter is being borrowed from the reality of primary order language, and when it is given back to us as part of the game world, it belongs to the secondary order language. It has nothing to do with "reality" anymore, even if it makes use of real people or real physics. Because they now serve to a world that has it's own serious and real order, even if it is just fictional. To build onto Juul's notion of Half-Real, we must speak of Behalf-Real here. Otherwise we continualiy find us theorizing the twilight, assigning substance and meaning to things that have been turned into form by the conceptual framework of the discourse, to become operational and create meaning on another level. We just repeat what a player-turned real person does: seeing a system of facts, where there is a system of meaning.


Forgive me if I am completely misinterpreting this, for I am not well versed in linguistics or discourse analysis, but what I'm getting out of this is that as soon as you play the game, you're saying that the player is no longer real, but is instead simply a part of the discourse of the game. Their reality is cut off and replaced by being part of the artifact (that is, the game). I'm not sure how well I can get behind this, as it suggests that every player approaches every game the same way. It seems to suggest that the human experience isn't important, and that a player's history and personality are thrown away as soon as he or she enters the game-space. And I just can't discount the player's experience as being the same from person to person. People are different. They get something different out of the game. The same person may not even get the same experience out of the game if they play it ten years later. I cannot show you a single human being who is so immersed in a game that when they play it, they are only playing the game and do not bring anything from the outside into it. There is no blank slate person who does not temper play with his or her own experience from outside the game. Games are not written only by the designer, but are co-written by the player. Reality seeps in and becomes a part of the game.

Again, I may have misinterpreted what you were saying. I'm not an expert in that form of rhetoric. I'm seeking clarification if I'm not getting it. As you've written it, to someone from outside those methods, I just don't see something I can agree with. I just see it as a denial of human experience.

Hi Incobalt,

You said: as soon as you play the game, you're saying that the player is no longer real, but is instead simply a part of the discourse of the game.

No, I'm not saying that persons aren't real anymore. But to come to terms with the discourse, the real persons are being asked to give up some of the features that they possess in reality (or, they are given additional qualities that they do not feature as real persons).

It's these kind of operations of the game, that abstract the real person into a "player", an entity that can serve in a way that makes (and creates sense) in relation to other rule-defined game elements: For example in football a real person is asked to give up his hands; in Taekwondo some of his body parts will generate penalty points when being hit by the opponent.

A game doesn't completely take away the real life of the real person, for it needs him "alive" to place the concepts that define "player" onto him. As a "player" the real person has become subject to a certain degree of abstaction, which is just an aspect of the overall process of abstractions in a game.

We must see that "player" is the signifier of the set of rules (or values) that it is associated with. As a form filled and shaped with the values and concepts of the game, "Player" is a function on the signification layer first, and not first on the empirical layer. The "player"s primary function is not performance, its the creation of meaning. Performance (or the empirical player, if you wish) is given to the service of signification. The discourse steals the real player from the empirical layer, configures it, and then puts it back as a player. "Player" is not identical with "real person".

You said: "Games are not written only by the designer, but are co-written by the player."

Yes, you are saying it, co-written by the "player". Being a real person (that is, not accepting the rules that reconfigure you as a "player" but just stick with who you are and what you can do as a real person) would first and foremost mean you do not contribute to the process of signification, because your performance doesn't produce readable or meaningful outcome. Other players would just ask you to "play serious", that is, to play like a "player".

Interesting sidebar discussion Altugi and Incobalt...

"What's common to games and films (and all other arts) is that they are a discourse."

Since Foucault, this kind of interpretation has only gained in popularity, but really there's no ontological precedence to the "discourse" approach. Personally, I don't find it moves any further than Wittgenstein's language-games, and I prefer this since approach since games are my bailiwick. :) Since there is no privileged position from which to determine the ontological ground of experience, neither 'discourse' nor 'game' nor any other umbrella term can claim priority.

"It has nothing to do with 'reality' anymore, even if it makes use of real people or real physics."

I'm not sure why you think you can privilege "reality" here... I'm a fictionalist, and I come at this from the opposite direction. All our experiences are mediated by fiction - even supposedly 'real' experiences, so I find the attempt to put a clear line between the two problematic. Stephen Yablo's critique of Quine is pertinent to my view here. For a brief introduction to Yablo's philosophy, see my interview with him from earlier this year:

Where Incolbalt says: "Reality seeps in and becomes a part of the game" I am inclined to say "The game seeps in and becomes the reality" - or rather, the games, since there's never just one game or fiction in operation. Perhaps the ultimate case in point is the individual, the person, which even diehard empirical rationalists like Derek Parfit and Daniel Dennett are forced to admit are (in Dennett's phrase) a "centre of narrative gravity". The game or the fiction is primary element of our experience. You would say the 'discourse', Altugi, but under the hood we're largely talking about the same thing. :)

Take care!

PS: If you have any interest in my take on fictionalism, an entertaining introduction is "Pluto and Eris: a dialogue":

Hello Chris,

thanks for sharing your perspective.

I believe to see two problems in approaches to games:

In the discoursive/fictionalist approaches the semiotic "mechanism" that makes metaphoric use of already established sign orders is being ignored. This results in assigning substance to something that is merely form for the metaphor that is being created. Hence you would see people trying to explain meaning in games based on notions that contain "reality". This anchors meaning in reality, and does not see it as a product of the text. Juul's approach is the most obvious, because with Half-real, he can't give up fiction nor reality, hence he assigns substance to what is just form. But you see that kind of prevailing of reality in Malaby's work too: he's speaking of games as "contriving contingency", and this implies that meaning is kinda there in reality already, and from there carried into the game. This ignores that it is the order of the game that creates the meaning of objects, regardless what they mean in "reality". In the earliest semiotic texts we are being warned of this problem. I would say that Foucault is always aware of not making this mistake. His notion of discourse clearly speaks of the metaphoric use of already established sign orders, including the "I", the "subject" of discourse (or metaphoric function).

In the empirisist or object-oriented approaches you see a return to the "thing", a search for the "uninfected-by-meaning". In Wittgenstein the problem is that he does not elaborate on the relationship that creates the meaning in play. Otherwise he has found all the forms that are needed in order to set up the metaphoric or mythic mechanism: forms of life, move, grammar, language game. But he fails at seeing the semiotic operation that sets up the unique relation between them. At the end he turns to the "world" as the ultimate source of meaning. In Bogost on the other hand, I have the impression that he tries to overcome the problem of semiosis by equaling everything into a "unit", and all these units influence each other. He cares to emphasize that there is a relationship between these that creates meaning (a rethoric, so to say), but again he does not seem to recognize the mythic function, the mechanism of metaphor that makes the game seep in to become a "reality of its own" (which is the function of the mythic mechanism, after all). Hence, his unit operations have no vertical relationships, the whole relationship is being perceived horizontally, and him speaking of a "flat" ontology somehow confirms this horizontal model. Again, the earliest texts on semiotics put emphasis on the difference of the language levels at which signs are at work. We would be wrong to ignore this, because it doesn't necessarily imply that we see a hierarchy between discourses, or give something the privilege of being "real". We just explain a mechanism in the "semiotic realm" so to say, which itself can be subject to very same mechanism that it is. The flatness that we need in order to understand this is not one in which we care to keep all kind of discourse at the same level to avoid that one is given privilege; the equality here is rather in the potential vulnerable aspect of discourses: they are all equally open to become subject to the mechanism of metaphor, and they are all equally open to be worn out and lose their credibility over time.

Altugi: Thanks for expanding your thoughts here! I'm not enormously well versed in semiotic theory, so most of my remarks will be in the margins of your thoughts. :)

"In the discoursive/fictionalist approaches the semiotic 'mechanism' that makes metaphoric use of already established sign orders is being ignored."

Really? It seems to me it is being foregrounded, not backgrounded.

"In Wittgenstein the problem is that he does not elaborate on the relationship that creates the meaning in play... At the end he turns to the 'world' as the ultimate source of meaning."

He certainly was exploring the importance of the background of understanding - I think this is what you are calling 'world' here. As I say, I'm not sufficiently well versed in semiotics to know how this differs from your first and second order terms. I don't find anything problematic in Wittgenstein - his focus is different from (say) Foucoult, but his insights were timely and indeed ground-breaking in so many ways - particularly from the historical perspective of analytic philosophy.

"In Bogost on the other hand, I have the impression that he tries to overcome the problem of semiosis by equaling everything into a 'unit', and all these units influence each other... Hence, his unit operations have no vertical relationships, the whole relationship is being perceived horizontally, and him speaking of a 'flat' ontology somehow confirms this horizontal model."

The flat ontology comes from the work of Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, and is expressly hostile to the kind of semiotic work you are grounded in - this seems to be a hallmark of speculative realism in some respects. Again, I don't see any inherent primacy to one approach over another here, so it's hard for me to back a side.

With respect to Bogost's intentions, however, his goal is to put games onto the same footing as other texts for the purpose of critical analysis. I don't see the ontological aspect of this as relevant to his goals, and so I tend to set that to one side. I think what he's doing works, but strikes me as using a sledgehammer to crack an egg - I'm not really convinced it's necessary to use such an extreme method to put diverse media onto equal footing.

From the thrust of your arguments, it seems you would agree, even though you would have other specific complaints to level at Bogost's approach. :)

Best wishes!

I'm afraid you already lost me before I've even gotten very far:

"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."

First of all, I think that sense is right: a videogame can indeed be a collection of other, more "pure" media. Mixed media painting is an apt phrase to consider in this context. One way to use the design principle of elegance is through purity of media, and therefore there is value in understanding what exactly constitutes purity.

Second, I would suggest that, while an artwork is not usually mixed media by itself, the *pairing* of experiencing some artwork plus its statement is precisely a mixed media experience. I would argue that one of the reasons so many people get frustrated about contemporary art is that so many artists start to consider the mixed media collection of the artwork+statement+gallery as a medium in itself, and started to create in that medium instead of the more specific medium of the artwork itself. In other words, things got too meta for most people. :P

Lastly, I would argue that distinction can be extremely useful if you're trying to find out exactly what makes up this medium in an attempt to explore new ways to create successfully, especially without causing dissonance by using structures of meaning that have forms not well-suited to the medium of videogames.

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