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Fake Feels and Free Passes
by Jamie Madigan on 01/02/14 11:41:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The Capilano suspension bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia is kind of a big deal in certain psychology circles, and I think it can illustrate why people have ignored the flaws in games like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead during the last few Game of the Year debates. The bridge, which is only a few feet wide, soars among the treetops of the surrounding Capilano Park, and these are TALL trees. If you were to glance over the side of the bridge as you crept along, you'd see a stomach flipping drop of about 230 feet to a river that's only deep enough to make you wet in addition to very dead if you were to fall. On top of all that, the bridge sways and creaks alarmingly with every little breeze and footstep. Crossing it is so unnerving that many people who try experience increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and short breaths.

 In other words, they get scared.

So imagine that you're crossing that bridge. Good, now, to make the scene a little more interesting, imagine that there's a woman standing at the middle of the bridge. Even better, she smiles at you as you approach. (Also, if need be, imagine that you're a hetero dude.)

Researchers Art Aron and Donald Dutton set up an experiment along these lines at this very bridge back in 1974. The woman, who was working for the researchers, asked male bridge crossers to complete a short survey that involved telling a story in response to an ambiguous picture. After completing the task, the woman gave the men a phone number, telling them that should they have any questions they should totally call her. The researchers then repeated the scenario miles away with the same woman, but on a stout, low to the ground, and thoroughly unintimidating bridge.

Half the men who got the number of the girl on the scary bridge tried to call her up. Only about 12 percent of the ones on the blase bridge in the control group made use of those same digits. Also, remember those stories the subjects were asked to make up about the ambiguous picture? Those who did so while swaying slightly back and forth over the Capilano River were much more likely to come up with narratives involving sex. Aron and Dutton also did another iteration of the experiment where a male confederate stopped other males on the bridges with the same spiel, and the effect of being on a scary bridge disappeared.

 The suspension bridge story is my favorite illustration of how misattributions of emotional arousal can trip us up. And despite the "boy meets bridge meets girl" nature of the tale, I don't mean "arousal" in just the sexual sense. Psychologists use that term to describe anyone experiencing any number of intense emotions and the accompanying physiological responses. In the case of the bridge crossers, fear was presumably in play, yet the subjects got it confused with some variation of sexual or romantic arousal. Later, Aaron and Dutton did another study where they paired a male subject with a female confederate, scared the bajeezus out of him by making him think that he might receive painful electric shocks, then asked him how cute he thought the girl was. Those who were nervous about the impending shocks tended to rate her closer to the "smokin' hot" end of the scale.

Why? Because the fast moving parts of our brains are marvelously adept at drawing the shortest line possible from cause to effect. My heart is racing and my skin is flushed. This woman is talking to me. She must be cute! This won't happen if she's clearly hideous or covered in spiders, but it may be enough of a nudge otherwise. Especially if the relatively slow moving, rational part of your brain that usually stops and says "No, dummy, it's probably the scary bridge" is preoccupied or tired. In that case, then we're much more likely to automatically misattribute our arousal to whatever explanation is the most salient and requires the least mental effort.

I think this explains why certain games get overrated.

Or at least certain aspects of games. Take the first season of The Walking Dead for example. That game did a great job of making you care about its characters, and every chapter featured predicaments and decisions that really got people worked up. Anxiety, fear, regret, and melancholy were frequent visitors during my time with that game. And the game did a fantastic job of strategically spacing emotional story beats right before and after action and exploration sequences. As a result, I'd often be emotionally aroused while searching through cupboards or fumbling through QTE sequences. And like those bridge crossers meeting the woman at the most nerve-wracking point of their trek, I was predisposed to attribute my intense emotions to "having fun navigating dialog trees" or "Looking through every drawer in this dilapidated kitchen." Even though those sequences sometimes sucked.

You may wonder what kind of idiot can't parse the sources of this arousal and separate them. But you'd be surprised. Physiological and psychological states of arousal can persist for several minutes during which you think you've calmed down, and misattribution of arousal can still happen. For example, in one study researchers had subjects run on a treadmill. Then, after they stopped and felt they had calmed back down to normal, the experimenter showed them a clip from an erotic film. Even though the subjects felt that their pulse and general agitation had returned to normal, there was still enough undetected residual arousal to make them report being more hot and bothered by the film relative to a control group.

The same thing may be happening to inflate your appreciation of a boring game sequence that follows from an intense, arousing one --even if you think you've calmed down and gotten over it. Or the inverse may happen in either The Walking Dead or The Last of Us: you may misconstrue the emotional high from an intense action sequence as feelings of parental affection for Clementine or Ellie, respectively.

This isn't to say that playing a game to experience emotional reactions to it isn't a valid reason to love a game or give it a coveted spot on a "best of" list. And it isn't to say that the emotions you feel don't exist, whatever their source. If you have an emotional reaction, you have an emotional reaction. In fact, The Last of Us is one of my very favorite games from 2013 pretty much only for its emotional resonance. My point is that you should take a step back and be honest about it. You're not gripping your controller and staring at the screen in slack-jawed amazement because the combat system is so great --or the animation or the voice acting or the script, or whatever other easy explanation is in front of your lazy brain. When you're feeling strong emotions your mind looks for an explanation, but the quickest one to present itself and the easiest one to accept isn't always the correct one.

 That said, here's the real lesson you should take from all this: the next time you get to choose where to go on a date, take him or her on a roller coaster. It'll make you seem way hotter.

Follow me on Twitter, or Facebook or my website for more on the psychology of video games.

Cantor, J., Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1975). Enhancement Of Experienced Sexual Arousal In Response To Erotic Stimuli Through Misattribution Of Unrelated Residual Excitation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(1), 69-75.

Dutton, D. and Aron, A. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30. 510–517.


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Steven Kilpatrick
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I think this happened most recently with the "narrative" driven "Gone Home".

The game's narrative is relatively banal, and it steps in the structural spiked pits that we warn undergraduate after undergraduate about. If the story had been told in a bright house full of normal lighting, in a bustling city, middle of the day, kids and cars all around--would we be talking about it?

I'm not sure that we would. I think the spooky mood, the red herring plotline involving the supernatural, and the manipulative plants about death and suicide--these created a false sense of tension that the actual action and reaction of the game never earn.

All the important choices and revelations happen not only off camera, but outside of the player's agency. Yet, because of these deft manipulations via fear and atmosphere, we somehow ignore that nothing ever happens in Gone Home, and that most of the story wouldn't pass muster during a CW TV show without everyone we know rolling their eyes into the back of their heads.

I found something to enjoy about all three experiences, but it's pretty clear that some of that joy had to do with the scenario of the adventure, and not always the adventure itself.

The same is true of my current experiences with 7 Days to Die (a sort of Minecraft meets Day Z mashup). You can play with or without enemy/zombie spawns. I tried it without zombies to get a hang of the crafting, and it was nearly boring compared to the tension, ferocity and subsequent satisfaction of surviving the night when everything wants to kill you.

Most of the mechanics were identical, but there is a marked difference, and it's one we ought to be aware of as players AND as developers. There's nothing wrong with giving the player that feeling. Fun is fun. But if that aspect is, or can be, important, it's very valuable to ask that question during development.

Luke Meeken
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You are absolutely right. If Gone Home were excised of everything that makes it notable (the setting, the unconventional way for framing a pretty conventional story, the playing with player expectations), it would no longer be a notable game.

And, likewise, a game where the central mechanic is surviving zombie attacks is much less remarkable when those attacks are excised.

I look forward to your treatise on why War & Peace doesn't deserve its 'literary classic' status because it would be so much less interesting without all of that war and peace going on in it.

More seriously, your line of criticism doesn't really seem fruitful at all - what use is it to conjure up hypothetical worse versions of the game and then slag them off? The obverse tactic - hypothesizing more successful forms/choices the game could have employed - at least provides feedback that the creators can choose to incorporate into their next project. All your criticism does is, I guess, remind the developers of Gone Home not to remake the game in a bustling, populous daytime setting...Which is probably not something they are tempted to do.

Adam Bishop
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I don't think your criticism is fair. The Napoleonic wars are central to the premise of War & Peace (it was written as an attack on the "Great Man" theory of history). You literally could not tell War & Peace without a war involving a powerful historical figure because that's what it's about.

The fake horror element of Gone Home is not in any way central to what the game is actually about (SPOILER the story of the main character's sister coming out as gay and falling in love for the first time END SPOILER). You could easily tell Gone Home's story without pretending it might be a murder/suicide mystery. You could not tell War & Peace without war.

Jennis Kartens
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I would agree on your overall image, though I wonder why you've picked these examples?

I mean this is the very reason why games such as a Call of Duty get contstantly high rated. Because they offer a continuous arrousal line (by the way the word has a general meaning outside of "psycology" - arrousal as such is not limited to sex) where most other senses or adavanced thinking are not really needed.

That is what a lot of other games play actively with, while especially The Walking Dead became beloved is because it broke with that kind of stuff and offered a lot more as traditional games had. Mainly authenticity instead of stereotypes (in a way)

Kyle Redd
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Likely because Call of Duty (as well as the vast majority of other major game franchises) don't provide the parental or sexual arousal factor that the psychology needs to work.

The point was, I believe, that the relationships at the center of games like The Walking Dead (with Clementine) and Last of Us (with Ellie) is given greater weight and importance than they have otherwise earned, because of the intense gameplay that surrounds those relationships.

Jennis Kartens
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Mhm yeah, that makes sense, but in that case I'd still disagree.

I found it nice to care for her in the first season, because I liked her character and it's writing. It is beyond the Barbie-syndrom.

It is still out of perspective, but for the sole reason that TWD was the only game that had writing and characters I longed for ages. It sure has flaws, but the mere fact that it does almost anything entirely different, even the opposite, as the "common game" (I think BioWar titles may be closest to that, in the overall scenario) is what makes it stand out to me personally.

Don't know for TLoU though. I personally already dislike the little girl very much from all the trailers, exactly BECAUSE of the reason above (but again, haven't played it) - TLoU seems to be a lot more stereotypical, like any other AAA game.

Kyle Redd
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I guess we'll need more games with girls as main characters to make a broader evaluation. To me though, Clementine seemed to be a very stereotypical child character - wide-eyed and precious and pretty much nothing like how a kid in that sort of catastrophic scenario would actually behave. Perhaps not coincidentally, I also didn't find the gameplay to be as intense or scary as it was described by critics.

So my personal experience is consistent with Jamie's argument, at least.

Nick Harris
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DICE may have been trying to arouse the player at the end of the Tashgar Dam mission in Battlefield 4 only a lack of testing compromised it with not one, but two serious bugs. It is interesting that right after the destruction of the Dam takes place and you regroup with your squad that you are on such a high from having got past the bugs and survived that its original form of exfil makes you whoop with joy.

The 'choice' at the very end of the game brought me to the verge of tears, so despite all its flaws DICE did manage to get something right. Let's hope multiplayer is fixed before Chinese Democracy.

Jarod Smiley
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@Jennis Not like other AAA titles IMO, story stays true the whole length, definitely some cliches in there, but well made on all fronts IMO. Worth checking out when you get a chance, hype doesn't always under deliver. Ellie stands out particularly in video game narrative.

Yulan Cardoso
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I can feel it in Beyond: Two Souls. It's an interesting story and a good visual and emotional experience, but as a game it sucked in a lot of ways for me. Most of the time I kept asking myself "Why is it interactive right now? Do I actually have any choice at all?" to the point that right in the first minutes I was already wondering why is it a game and not a movie. Even if some choices *did* matter to the plot, I felt like a lab rat, in a bad bad way.

Ben Sly
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That experiment is commonly cited as support for the two-factor theory of emotion: emotions consist of both an underlying physiological state (like level of arousal) and the cognitive label for it (fear, anger, boredom, exhaustion, etc.). So, given a certain state of arousal, a person will find a label and explanation for it that befits the circumstances (and a number of other psychological experiments support that assertion). A game designer (or director, or writer or anyone else creating a narrative) can use this fact to chain together like emotions to encourage the audience to feel the way the designer wants them to feel.

I wouldn't really consider this a cheap trick that is behind a game getting "overrated" any moreso than creating a main character to be empathized with, pacing a story well, or using tropes intelligently is. All of those examples are hallmarks in good writing precisely because of their emotional effect on the audience.

Val Reznitskaya
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Rather than "overrated," it sounds like this technique makes those games "more than the sum of their parts." If we evaluate them based on the overall experiences they create for the player (rather than breaking them down into visuals, gameplay, etc.), they were pretty successful at what they set out to do. They certainly were not flawless, but rather than using this method to hide the flaws, it seems to me that the developers simply prioritized the overall experience.

That said, very informative article. I really enjoy reading your site.

Galen Ryder
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It is an interesting theory, you would think that the emotional effect would dull a bit on looking back on it though, especially with a game because you can replay and re-examine it clinically afterward, which is what has kind of been happening with Bioshock Infinite as people pick its gameplay and story apart. But I think there is a bit more to The Last of Us winning GOTY awards than emotional gut reaction.

For me I examine The Last of Us and The Walking Dead directly against other similar games instead of idealistic design views that might not fit with production realities. The Last of Us builds off the Uncharted combat and stealth mechanics and swaps climbing for crafting and light RPG mechanics. The gunplay in the Uncharted games is not quite as solid as Gears of War or Max Payne 2 (my personal favorite 3rd person shooter) but it works well enough when paired with Drake's climbing abilities. The Last of Us adds more sway to the weapons (that you can spend RPG points to remove), leans heavier on the stealth (which benefits from the crafting) and adds weapons to the melee combat (bet you forgot Uncharted had melee combat because you barely used it). They also added one-hit kill enemies which combined with their combat/stealth changes makes it a more tactical experience than Uncharted. Personally I love games that let me unravel combat encounters as puzzles so I enjoyed myself but I can understand that is not everyone's bag.

Talking to a lot of friends and co-workers about why they stopped and what they thought once they returned to get further into the game I think there are two primary problems. Difficulty Spikes, this game loves throwing you curve balls where you need to overcome an encounter that you are not experientially prepared for, causing a lot of people to probably say "F**k this combat!" (emotional reaction). Gear unlock pacing, a lot of the more interesting craftable stuff takes a while to unlock and the game doesn't really teach you about any of it, this game expects you to figure out what to do with a lot of its gear. Bill's town teaches you about nail bombs but I think most people get through the majority of the game before figuring out how essential smoke bombs are. The Last of Us succeeds in creating characters and a story that avoids the cognitive dissonance found in the Uncharted games, something that Naughty Dog themselves have the villain (Lazaravich) talk about at the end of Uncharted 2 but never addressed in Uncharted 3. They address it in The Last of Us by asking why kind of characters would be homicidal enough to survive through all those combat encounters.

For The Walking Dead I compare it to Telltale's past work. Jurassic Park is bad, really bad, easily the worst series they shipped. They tried to make a facsimile of Heavy Rain's gameplay and completely blew it with terrible interface, truly terrible quicktime events and bugs galore. They even blew it in the story department by switching you between too many characters with conflicting goals resulting in it being hard to care about anybody's plight. I seriously thought after Jurassic Park that Telltale wasn't cut out for more serious subject matter and that they should go back to creating funny adventure games in the style of Lucasarts. But they proved me very wrong with The Walking Dead. They finally managed to figure out an interface that worked well for both PC and Console. They created a game filled with interesting choices and as Game Design God Sid Meier says "A [good] game is a series of interesting choices.". They streamlined their puzzle solving and incorporated the puzzles into their dialogue trees which fixed many of the pacing issues in their previous series. The Walking Dead is Mass Effect without the questionable combat. Sure the game could be a bit janky but Telltale series are actually budget priced games delivering 10-15 hrs of content for about a third of the price of their competition. Telltale is the only developer to deliver on the promise of episodic gaming, something much bigger companies failed at, like Valve.

I don't necessarily think I was emotionally tricked into believing these games are better than they actually are. I think compared to their peers these games can hold their own, all games are flawed. Just because The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are better written than almost everything else doesn't alone offset their flaws to be top GOTY candidates, they are more than that. If you take Obsidian Entertainment for example, a developer known for creating deeply flawed games that have strong writing and interesting narrative mechanics. Their game, Alpha Protocol is one of the best games last generation for showing how player choice can affect the game state, what they achieved is much greater deltas between player experiences than the Mass Effect series did. But Alpha Protocol's gameplay is terrible, the combat is truly horrible and the stealth mechanics are buggy and extremely primitive. The first 4hrs are nothing but bad combat encounters and its only after crawling through that trash do you start making choices and even then the combat never gets better, you just need to exploit its broken skill tree system and cheese your way to the ending. I'm never going to play it through again and I don't recommend it to anyone unless you have a strong stomach for bad game design but that game does have one of the strongest narrative choice systems I've ever played. On the other hand I'm looking forward to The Last of Us DLC and will probably play through the game again soon. I'm playing The Walking Dead Season 2 and looking forward its next episode and the next episode of The Wolf Among Us.

Do the emotions that The Last of Us's story elicit put it higher on my list than games with arguably stronger design? Sure, Tomb Raider is probably a better game from a mechanics perspective but The Last of Us is no slouch in the design or implementation departments and its Naughty Dog's craft of combining solid mechanics with world class storytelling that both push it over the top for me, not one compensating for the other.

Jarod Smiley
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@Gaylen well said, TLOU was one of my favorite games this generation. But you think Tomb Raider has better mechanics? I put 4 hours into it and could barely stand the gameplay. Arrow, pistols, make-shift tools from the environment were all nice on paper, but none of it felt "believable" like TLOU. I think the heavy-ness of the characters (much like Gears) helps those mechanics tremendously, while with Tomb Raider, I still just felt like I was playing with triangles.

Hmmm...maybe I was still in the "intro" part of the game, give it another go.

Luis Guimaraes
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I don't know if two-factor theory is everything. People like one game or another because they want to. It's that simple IMO. There also people that would like the same games if they we're regarded as "the best thing ever we don't need any better" so often, because it's looked at as a threat to actual evolution.

More or less self-awareness is always a factor and so is two-factor emotion theory but I don't think it's in such a priority layer that it can effect the binary "to like or not to like" answer by itself. It can make you enjoy something more or less, but not totally change your view about it.

Anyway, a few interesting articles talking about the same subject:

Ben Sly
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The two-factor theory isn't everything. Carefully applying it certainly wouldn't turn a terrible game into a great one, nor would ignorance of it ever prohibit a game from being emotionally effective. What it does do is lend scientific support to the idea that chronologically grouping events intended to inspire emotions with a similar arousal level will deepen the emotional draw.

Nobody is going to say, "Wow! The game is great because the two-factor theory of emotion made me feel attached to the characters!" But psychological study after psychological study has demonstrated that people's preferences are heavily influenced by things that they are not conscious of and refuse to believe *could* influence them - the Capilano suspension bridge experiment described in the blog post is a major example of that. I think that applying this theory well at a critical plot point can very well be the difference between the binary "to like or not to like" decision especially if done early; the lasting impression may well be enough to change the player's actions towards being engaged with the game, which can easily snowball into liking or not liking it.

Luis Guimaraes
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That makes a lot of sense. I seen people talking about liking a 'game or movie based on the ending of it. Pretty weird to me but I cant deny it exists.

"nor would ignorance of it ever prohibit a game from being emotionally effective"

This confused me, maybe I read it wrong. I meant to say that the more self-awareness, the less one's able to fall prey for the confusions of emotional mixing between cause and effect.

Thanks for the reply!

Ben Sly
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I meant that a developer who is ignorant of the two-factor theory of emotion could still develop an emotionally compelling game. Looking back at it, my wording is ambiguous. My apologies.

Adam Bishop
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I find this article strange because the reasons you cite for these games working (the tense atmosphere, the emotional stakes, etc.) are precisely why they worked for me. But more importantly, I thought it was obvious that that was supposed to be why they worked. It's true that the relationship between Lee and Clem wouldn't have seemed as important or emotionally engaging if it had taken place at Disney World during a time of tranquility, but the whole point (I think) is that this harrowing situation forced an unlikely pairing together and taught them to rely on each other.

Declan Kolakowski
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Now I understand why some people called for a Last of Us ending in which Joel started a romantic relationship with Ellie...

Bart Stewart
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To what extent did sample bias produce the results in the bridge experiment?

My first thought after reading the description was, "Well, of course the guys who thought it would be fun to walk across a narrow, twisting bridge over the Gorge of Eternal Peril would be more likely to call up a girl than the guys who chose to walk over a short, safe bridge." Unless the bridge-walkers were the same people (which doesn't appear to be the case), it seems completely possible to me that people who are sensation-seeking risk-takers in one thing (high-bridge-walking) would be consistent with that behavioral style in other settings (e.g., guys calling up a girl).

There might still be some kind of arousal effect, but how do you know that if other possible explanations aren't controlled for?

(Note that there's still a connection to game design here. If your game selects for players who show up for one form of sensation-seeking risk-taking gameplay, they'll probably be naturally receptive to other opportunities for that same kind of play even without any kind of short-term stimulus effect.)

Luis Guimaraes
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The other version of the experiment only used some form of threat (that there would be needles in the test or something) and then asked guys/girls to rate pictures of people from the opposite sex ased on attractiveness, and the threatened people gave higher ratings than those not threatened.

For me it still looks like a very simple "I'm going to die, better reproduce/enjoy life" situation.

Both experiements involve dangers and sexual affairs, so are they really about emotions in general or just about that specific subject? But maybe there's truth to the theory outside of basic survival so I'm not counting it out.

Bart Stewart
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In that case, I would want to know how many people opted out of participating after being informed that there could be needles (or some other threat) involved. ;)

In other words, informed consent (for ethical experiments) means you have to tell people there could be some danger, even if there's really none. But once you do that, you're creating another self-selection condition -- the people who agree to participate may also be the kinds of people who are more easily aroused to begin with.

I'm being careful here not to claim that any of these experiments are invalid. I'm just asking whether other factors that could account for some of the observed results were controlled for.