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Postcard from GDC 2004: Why We Play Games: The Four Keys to Player Experience

March 26, 2004

At "Why We Play Games: The Four Keys to Player Experience," on Friday afternoon, Nicole Lazzaro of XEODesign spoke about emotion in gaming from a research-oriented perspective. Specifically, she focused on gameplay-driven emotional experiences, and delineated four types of emotion that players derive from their games.

Story-Driven vs. Gameplay-Driven Emotion

Lazzaro began the session by distinguishing between story-driven and gameplay-driven emotional experiences. Most discussions of emotion in gaming deal only with story-driven emotion, she said, but emotion that stems from gameplay is in fact the more common and relevant type of experience.

Many games induce a notable lack of emotion in gamers, Lazzaro said, but a notable few generate strong emotional reactions - the same few that rank among the most popular. Lazzaro wanted to discover what those games are doing right, and how other games can emulate their success.

Each participant in Lazzaro's research study was asked to play their favorite video games - games that ranged from action titles like Halo and Grand Theft Auto 3 to puzzle games such as Tetris and Snood - while cameras recorded their facial expressions. Lazzaro then analyzed players' reactions to the games on a moment-by-moment basis.

The Four Reasons that People Play Videogames

Lazzaro found that factors such as genre, licensing, difficulty, and presence of cut scenes had little bearing on which games caused a player to react most strongly. Rather, it was the experience of a game - the "feeling of what happens" when a person plays - that caused the emotional reaction.

Lazzaro was able to divide that feeling into four distinct types:

  • Emotions from Hard Fun: Meaningful Challenges, Strategies, and Puzzles. Some players are drawn to games by a love of challenge and excitement. These players enjoyed overcoming "hot" emotions such as anger and frustration, and tended to prefer games such as Need for Speed: Underground or Unreal Tournament. The common thread was the desire for a cathartic experience and an opportunity to triumph over adversity.

  • Emotions from Easy Fun: Attention-Grabbing Ambiguity, Incompleteness, and Detail. Other players prefer a more spine-tingling kind of fun, one in which the immense beauty or improbability of a game produced feelings of awe or wonder. In these cases, it was not so much the challenge of the game as the experience of exploring the world within that created the emotional state. Games in this category included Halo, Star Wars Galaxies, and Myst.

  • Emotions from Altered States: Changes in Perception, Thought, and Behavior. Some players saw gaming as a form of therapy, in which they used games to relax, become stimulated, or otherwise escape from the real world. Whether enjoying an adrenaline rush with Grand Theft Auto 3 or entering a state of mental focus with Tetris, the common theme was a desire to alter one's emotional or mental state.

  • Emotions from Other People: Competition, Cooperation, Performance, and Spectacle. The fourth category of emotion related to the shared experience of gaming, either with other players in the same room, or with online games. Common emotions here included anything from amusement, to rivalry, to pride at the accomplishments of friends. The connecting thread was social interaction, and examples included Soul Caliber 2, SSX Tricky, and Everquest Online.

Category-Crossers: The Broadest Appeal

The most interesting point of the study, though, was that the most popular video games - titles such as Halo and Grand Theft Auto 3 - appeared in all four categories, meaning that these games were enjoyed by players of every type.

That, said Lazzaro, is the key to creating a successful title - cycling between hard and easy fun, allowing opportunities for altered states of perception, and encouraging enjoyable social interaction. A game that does that, she said, will cover the range of potential gaming experiences, and thus appeal to the broadest number of potential gamers.

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