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Constructing Artificial Emotions: A Design Experiment
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Constructing Artificial Emotions: A Design Experiment

October 26, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 9 Next

The basic system of recording and recalling emotional memories that underlie these reactions is present in every single one of us. In normal circumstances, the recall of emotional memories is a healthy and helpful aspect of basic human cognition. Storing emotions in good and bad times and then recalling them instantaneously if a similar situation occurs is a great evolutionary benefit. When you see the mountain lion the second time around, your body is instantly primed for flight. You don’t have to think or analyze the situation. You simply feel the correct course of action. The upside of all those millions of years of evolution for game developers? Your players have spent their lives collecting a deep pool of strong emotional memories that is just waiting for you to tap into with the appropriate game design.

Technology: In Bacchus, the confession is a game mechanic that encourages the players to tap into their emotional memories. Confessions are effective because the player self-selects memories with strongest, most pertinent emotional content and voluntarily shares them. For most people, this has the effect of turning on an emotional fire hose.

In order to make the recall as intense as possible, we want to augment the verbal recall with a few simple technologies. Human memory is stored like a sparse set of data points in a connected network. When a person remembers, they pull on related data points to flesh out the memory. You can increase recall by feeding the user related data points, thus lighting up more bits of their memory and increasing the clarity of the final result.

The classic example is a group of people remembering an event. A single person might remember a few key elements and have a fuzzy memory of the event. However, when a group of people gets together, each one contributes a small piece of additional information that helps light up a highly detailed map of the memory. Technology can serve a similar role.

  • Voice recognition: Publicly stating the confession allows voice recognition software to turn phrases into something the computer can understand.
  • A database of tagged photos: In the next twenty or thirty years, it is easy to imagine that many younger people will have lived a highly documented life. An individual will be associated with a massive archive of thousands of photos, videos and electronic messages that track almost any important aspect of their emotional and social life.
  • A free form association algorithm: Once we have a list of what the person is saying, we can start pulling up pictures that reference people, places and key times. When the player views these pertinent images, additional neural pathways are triggered that ideally enhance and clarify the recall of the memory associated with the confession.

The result of this particular system is the intense recall of very personal memories. With intense recall comes the highly desirable stronger physiological reaction.

Benefits: The main benefits of using the recall of personal emotions is that you are almost always going to get a solid emotional response, especially in newer players. You are digging up the raw materials of their most personal emotions and the results can be explosive.

Limitations: The downsides of using emotional memories to generate physiological responses are substantial.

  • Responses tend to be context-specific: The subject activates numerous cognitive labels in the process of activating the memories. When you are feeling sad about the death of your first dog, it can be hard to transfer those feelings to another topic. This can cloud any authorial intent on the part of the game designer when they try to introduce their own labels into the game.
  • They become less powerful upon repeated recall: If emotional memories are recalled in safe environments, they start losing their emotional power. The brain learns that maybe it isn’t worth getting all worked up about a false alarm. Many therapists use this fact to decondition those with phobias, but it becomes problematic for repeat players who are actively seeking the jolt that comes from recall.
  • Risk of trauma: Some people have severe psychological issues that are exacerbated by free form recall. Games that make people cry aren’t always healthy for the players that have serious issues to cry about.

Technique 2: Evoking emotional memories with relevant stimuli

“[T]he onscreen spirits are clad in ornate ritualistic garb… The room takes up her words and amplifies them, giving them god-like resonance. Bass mixed with reverb mixed with primal, guttural passion. An inhumanly beautiful electronic chorus rises, matches and turns her words into a song. Her movements become a blur. Her glowing eyes are ecstatic. At the peak, her spirit on the large screen explodes in light…”

In Bacchus, the player is surrounded by rich, evocative visuals and symbols. These also play an important role in priming the player to feel emotion. This technique builds upon some of the elements of emotional memories, but uses relevant stimuli instead of the blunt trauma of actual recall. We broadly evoke the player’s existing experiences with religion.

Theory: Once upon a time, I had a workmate that had an irrational fear of house plants. When she was a child, an aunt played tag with her in a greenhouse. At some point, the game stopped being a game. The girl desperately wanted the aunt to stop, but the aunt assumed the girl was still playing. The intensely emotional memory of being hunted, terrified, and surrounded by clinging, suffocating plants was seared into my workmate’s memory. This is in keeping with our discussion of emotional memories.

What I found fascinating is that recalling the specific event was not the only trigger for her phobia. Instead, stimuli peripherally connected with the memory, such as particular shades of green, a swaying vine, or a delivery of flowers with a bit too much leafy foliage on Valentine’s Day could set off a panic attack.

Emotional memories need not be triggered by recalling the exact event that embedded them. Instead, rich contextually coherent descriptions of similar situations can trigger those same pathways, though perhaps to a lesser degree. You may feel joy when you remember your first kiss with that shy girl from next door. But you may also feel joy if you hear the story of someone much like you who kisses the shy young princess. Enough nodes in your memory are triggered for you to react to the related story.

There is a rather broad cognitive theory of media at play here. In short:

  • The contents of media, be they sounds, images, physical or social situations inevitably intersect with rich existing palette of emotional memory found within almost any human being.
  • In order to process new stimuli, we tap into our memories and experiences relevant to the new experience. The nodes associated with intense emotional memories given priority during the act of recall since these are likely to contain the most relevant information to survival. An image of a hammer is more likely to generate the recall of that time you drove a nail through your thumb than the thousand previous nails you pounded successfully.
  • The result is a real emotional response to the stimuli, even though we may not be able to consciously make the connection with the original memory.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 9 Next

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