Thousands Tears for Video Games – The Role of Emotions

Soroosh Mashal

The role of emotions in video games is undeniable. Countless tears have been shed by unforgettable moments in video games. Whether it’s yelling in excitement, or screaming in fear, we can see a thousand cases that games made us emotional. Those were the moments we were connected to a character, a story, an event, or even an object so much that its elevation or destruction caused a shared reaction across all players in the world. Those were the moments we laughed and cried. Those were the moments we felt human.

As immersive as movies

Video games are specifically good at this because of their immersion in comparison to movies or TV series. In video games, we are embodied in those characters and we live inside that virtual environment. This makes it easier for us to connect to events and narratives of the game and get affected by emotional aspects. Games are a special form of art because we are inside them. We become a part of them and step in the shoes of the characters that we relate to. Through those experiences, we make decisions and those decisions change our perception.

Journey, Legend of Zelda, World of Warcraft and others

Some of these moments are so iconic that they have found their way into our collective consciousness. Games like Journey ended the conversation of art vs. games and still stand as a bold testament to the borderless creativity of humankind. Rewarding moments like retrieving Master Sword in Legend of Zelda are etched into our memories. Whether it was the moment when King Varian sacrificed himself for all lives on Azeroth in World of Warcraft, or that gloomy afternoon when Snake kneeled by the graveyard in Metal gear solid, or that day in the hospital when we felt the pressure of dealing with another loss as the Joel did in The Last of Us, we experienced something that moved our core. We touched the inevitability of death when Clementine had to either kill Lee while being human or leaving him to turn into a walker in the Walking Dead. You can hardly find any human with a heart who played “That Dragon, Cancer” without crying because we all felt the love and pain of the Green family with every piece of our body and soul.

Communication through our emotions

But let’s swallow our nostalgia and take a step back to see how things can be better. In all of these examples and countless others that are not mentioned here, the games delivered their message, but they couldn’t use our emotions. As humans, we have evolved for thousands and thousands of years to communicate through emotions. Even something as old as language is pretty new in comparison to emotional communication.

Thanks to neuroscience and brain imaging discoveries, we can see the emphasis of emotions and their role in our perception and communication. This brain image shows an illustrated picture of neurons and their connections. Usually, the signal from senses comes from below (your nervous system) and goes to the surface (the lobe). They all work together, but some parts are more engaged in specific activities than others. For example, the left side of the image which is the part behind your forehead (a.k.a. frontal lobe) is mostly responsible for logical thinking and processing. That’s also the newest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective. The part in the center where the Amygdala is located is also heavily responsible for emotions.

When a signal comes, it goes through multiple stages of processing. Noble laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” explains that the majority of our decisions, perceptions, and actions are based on fast thinking. It means we rarely bring stuff to our forehead to analyze them deeply and think slowly and logically about them. The reason is simple: it’s not efficient. Emotions and feelings are the best examples of such mental processes. You receive the signal from your eyes, ears, skin, tongue, and nose and without any conscious analysis, you have a smile on your lips or your scream in excitement. That’s the power of emotional communication. Those who learned this form of communication and used it for the right purpose have been able to build empires and form movements that shaped the world into what we see today.

The use of emotions in game design

Artists and creators know these clues and they use them to express their emotions. Video games are no exception. Your smiles and tears in the examples above show how well artists could convey those emotions. However, in the next post, we will see why their hands are tight. We see how games communicate emotions but commonly ignore the interaction cycle.

In our next post, we will explain the use of emotions in game design and the cycle of emotional interaction.