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Constructing Artificial Emotions: A Design Experiment


October 26, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 7 of 9 Next
 

Small group discussions can be used to seed a group with positive new concepts. You can build up a vocabulary of new cognitive labels that are then triggered at a later point during gameplay.

Technology: By creating controlled social environments, we can encourage and influence the norm-setting process. Online games with their absolute control over social connections, language filtering and feedback mechanisms offer an ideal voluntary environment for norm resetting. Concepts, terminology and even desired behavior can be seeded in a group by putting them together, present those new ideas and discussing them in a positive, constructive light.

Imagine that our Bacchus players have an online hangout. They meet up after each bout of group dancing. They discuss what they’ve felt, discuss concerns and how they can improve. A higher level character acts as a moderator and feeds the group more refined descriptions about what they have experienced. It is, in many ways, no different than a Bible study group. The setting provides an effective manner of setting up the context for the next encounter and seeding the players with language to describe the physical experience in emotional or spiritual terms.

Benefits: If you look at the social trends in the United States, a growing percentage of the population prefers to live alone. This naturally limits the amount of ambient socialization by that individual. They have no spouse to share the events of the day with, nor do they know their neighbors. Outside of the workplace, community and culture has less and less practical meaning to the modern man. If these isolated individuals turn to online communities in order to fill out their social network, there is an enormous opportunity to create a new set of designer virtual norms that are rarely if ever challenged by outside forces. The individuals that buy into the game will behave according to the standards of their dominant social group, fellow gamers dancing through life in an artificial, designer-manipulated culture.

Limitations: One of the biggest limitations with using small group discussions is that norms set in the group tend to deteriorate outside of the context of a group. You can see this phenomenon occur with the ubiquitous company offsite. A team comes together in a new environment and agrees to change the world and their behavior. As soon as they get back to the office, the hothouse atmosphere of the offsite dissipates and the regular rhythms and expectation of families, bosses and existing processes take hold again.

It takes repeated indoctrination, especially at a young age, to embed social norms deep enough that they can be relied upon to the produce the desired results. Isolating the group from external normative forces is also highly effective. There is a good reason why cultists pragmatically isolate their believers in walled-off compounds.

The other issue that comes up with setting up a new collection of social norms is that existing groups react defensively against those who step out of line. Protection of group boundaries is an impressively powerful social force that must be tampered with using great care. A title like Bacchus, with its overt religious theme and focus on resetting social norms, would likely raise at least an eyebrow or two.

The near future

The four techniques demonstrated in the Bacchus design will hopefully provide some food for thought. The question that occurs to me is “how realistic is any of this?” Let’s put aside the navel-gazing for a moment and look into the future with our crystal ball.

Technology: Some of the technologies I’ve discussed are already beginning to make their way out onto the market. We’ve seen a couple of generations of video cameras built into consoles. Voice recognition software is readily available to PC users. The Wii and the Wii Fit balance board are continuing the trend towards more physical game play. It is a natural evolution to add heart rate and skin conductance monitors. As the years unfold, there is immense opportunity for hardware designers to differentiate their platforms by increasing the accuracy with which games can track the player’s conscious and unconscious actions.

Game design: Though the availability of the appropriate technology does not worry me much, the lack of proven, field-tested game design techniques for inducing emotion does. Bacchus is a thought experiment and though it may stimulate discussion, I hold no illusions about its practicality as a blueprint for a working title. For emotional game design to truly blossom, there are several obvious areas of investment.

  • Fundamental research into the biometric patterns that allow computers to distinguish various emotions.
  • Labs within game studios that allow designers to identify the flicker of emotions that run through their test subjects to a degree not offered by simple observation. This data allows the game design to iterate on and perfect how the games affect the player’s emotions, not just whether or not they made it through the latest boss battle.
  • Designers trained on group psychology and practical techniques for influencing and manipulating populations. We are slowly starting to see some of this expertise emerge in the online game design community, but it has yet to become a major focus.

The techniques I’ve mentioned in Bacchus are really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of possible design tools. There is a wealth of research on using intense sounds or visuals, sleep and food deprivation and of course, various drugs to alter the player’s physical state. Every year, novel and effective biometric techniques continue to improve in accuracy, cost and usability in the field. Setting appropriate cognitive labels is perhaps less well studied, but we can draw heavily upon the realms of advertising, propaganda and organizational psychology.

At first blush, the success of a game design like Bacchus seems bizarre and unlikely. Yet, when I look out into the market and see the success of emotionally rich games as diverse as World of Warcraft, Spin the Bottle or Survivor, it seems that such games are inevitable.


Article Start Previous Page 7 of 9 Next

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