By: Nicholaus Noles, GameSpy.com
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Gaming is an interactive experience. We play games -- but at the same time, games play us. In this column, psychologist Nicholaus Noles explores how video games manipulate our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, all in the name of fun.
Work the Body
We primarily think of gaming as a cognitive activity. It's something that we do with our minds: We solve puzzles, we execute strategies, we navigate mazes, and we make choices. Of course, superior reflexes and good hand-eye coordination are necessities when playing some games, but these skills can all be learned and honed from the comfort of a cushy chair or couch. Most of the time, we don't even consider the role that our bodies play in gaming until we suddenly realize that we're hungry or exhausted from playing for too long. In fact, I consider it a sign that a game is really great if I realize that I've been putting off going to the bathroom just so I can play a little longer. We don't think about it much, but our bodies play a central role in our gaming experiences. is a perfect example!
One of the most important ways that game designers manipulate our experiences is through our bodies. In particular, they manipulate our level of arousal. Now, before your mind goes straight into the gutter, let me clarify: I'm talking about a general kind of arousal that is related to fight-or-flight responses, referred to as autonomic arousal. If you've ever felt amped up from a good workout, or a near-disaster, or seeing a beautiful person naked, then you've experienced a high level of autonomic arousal. We interpret each of these situations as different "feelings," but the underlying physical sensations that accompany each of these experiences is very similar.
People often believe that feeling an emotional response leads to a physical sensation. Our hearts race because we're in love -- but in reality, experiencing emotions is a post-hoc process. We typically feel the sensations first, and then we experience an emotion. Why is this important? Well, if game designers can push you into an aroused state, then they can expose you to images and experiences that manipulate your emotions. This process is called excitation transfer.
Here's how it works. Imagine that Joe Gamer is leaving the gym after a hard workout (I know that this already sounds unlikely, but stick with me). Post-workout, he's in a state of high arousal, and it will take him most of the walk home to return to normal. Critically, even though Joe is highly aroused, he can't tell that his body is autonomically aroused. If Joe runs into a cute girl on the way home, his mind will interpret this additional arousal as sexual, and he'll be even more attracted to the girl than usual. Similarly, if Joe sees someone walking his way in the dark, he'll be more frightened than usual, because his aroused state will be interpreted as fear. The arousal itself is not emotionally positive or negative; it's just lurking in the background, and Joe's mind is trying to figure out why it's there.
This guy? Scared senseless!
Game designers use excitation transfer in two ways. In some games, excitation transfer is used to create peak emotional experiences. The abundance of zombies and scarcity of bullets made Resident Evil a tense game, but one scene pushed the game from tense to terrifying: One minute, you're walking down a hallway... and the next, a zombie dog bursts through a window in a shower of broken glass. Suddenly, the days of peacefully walking down corridors in video games was over. One of the most terrifying moments in video games was made better by excitation transfer.
Another way that game designers use excitation transfer is to improve our experience of relatively mundane gameplay. After the dog jumps out and you put on a fresh pair of urine-free pants, you return to the basic shoot-and-avoid-zombies action of Resident Evil, but the gameplay is subtly more fun because the leftover physical sensations from the zombie dog jump scare are now being attributed to the "fun" of Resident Evil's core game mechanics. Excitation transfer's utility in games is not limited to the horror genre; seeing Liara (or Ashley or Kaidan or FemShep) scantily-clad may enhance Mass Effect's endgame, and some payoff must exist for the disgusting and titillating imagery in Duke Nukem Forever. Right?
Big games make us feel big emotions, and excitation transfer is one of the ways that games control how we feel. By exploiting the connections between our minds and bodies, games can reach us in ways that are unique to the medium. So, the next time you're playing Dead Space 2, and you jump at every noise and creep by every glass surface, listen to your body. It's telling you that this game is getting better.
To go deeper, go to the gym, and then go on a date.
Nicholaus Noles is a dad and avid gamer. He writes about psychology, games, and the psychology of games. Nicholaus received a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Yale University, and works as a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan.