Monday, July 21, 2003

The Emotional Palette of Games

Neurologists tell us that no learning can occur without emotion. It doesn't really matter what that emotion is, so your stomach-curdling terror of Sister Mary Godzilla is just as good as the pulse-pounding fun of Math Squad. This actually shouldn't be surprising - learned taste aversion is one of the most powerful learning effects known (it needs only a single instance and lasts for years if not forever), and of course is linked to the sense of disgust. This is one of the reasons that people are looking to computer games as learning tools; far more than traditional classroom dynamics, games have been effective at exciting emotion. In fact, classrooms have been stamping out emotion for decades, whether fear or fun.

But while any emotion might do for learning (or perhaps not; these things are only on the borders of the understood), it seems strange to me to place such a burden on a medium that is actually quite narrow. Games, while quite effective at eliciting some emotions, are not so effective at the broader palette of subtler emotions. Especially as compared to film, a notoriously powerful medium for transmitting and creating emotional reaction. Games can certainly do fun, and excitement, and fear. But other emotions, or even variants of those: awe, or dread; affection, or disgust; rage, or peace. I recently watched the film Das Boot for the first time, and thought about all of the submarine simulation games out there, none of which could capture the mix of boredom, claustrophobia, and dread that Wolfgang Peterson conveyed so effectively. Well, maybe the boredom part.

So is this a structural limitation to the medium, or just a market dynamic? For sure, Hollywood spends little time trying for the subtler emotions: action and comedy cover most of the bases these days. Is it the limited input range of a comparatively tiny screen and tinny music? Perhaps VR will allow for all sorts of innovative genres of games. This is a question similar to that of why comic books (in fact, note the name) are vastly predominantly about superheroes, a bizarre little sub-genre. There used to be army comics, and western comics, but no more (of course, those genres have largely disappeared from all media). Why? Why are 24-page graphic artworks only about superhuman psychopaths in tights? Why aren't there computer games about angst, or boredom, or unhappiness, or unrequited love, or frustration, or community, or joy, or a sense of the divine, or selfless service, or sacrifice? Maybe there are, but only for the Nintendo, so I haven't played them?