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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 Page 1 of 9 Next

Bacchus: The Orgiastic Ritual Game

Bacchus is a multiplayer dancing game with a religious theme. The selling point is its ability to evoke intense emotions.

Imagine if you will, a decrepit theater filled with writhing, dancing people. The lights flare and swoop in time and the people chant in unison. A massive screen shows a mirror image of the hall like some surrealistic portal into an alternate universe. Instead of blokes and lasses in street clothes, the onscreen spirits are clad in ornate ritualistic garb. The movements on each side of screen are eerily synchronized. The pitch of the chant rises.

The screen zooms in on a girl in the center of the room. The crowd, as one, turns and watches her figure on the screen. She begins to dance. At first her movement is controlled and intricate. The screen pulsates and she yells to its beat. The room takes up her words and amplifies them, giving them god-like resonance. Bass mixed with reverb mixed with primal, guttural passion. Her dance becomes wild. The pace increases and she begins to confess.

The theater reacts. Each word she utters shimmers on screen, merging with ghostly photos from her past. In a beat, the entire room witnesses her sorrow over the death of her mother, her time alone in an empty apartment, and her first kiss. 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 and the girl collapses to the floor in fervent religious swoon.

The crowd goes wild. The screen zooms out and the next god dancer is chosen.

Later, the girl writes to her online friends that the night she danced was the single most powerful spiritual and emotional experience in her entire life. It was the night she was touched by a higher power while playing a video game.

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau - The Youth of Bacchus (1884)

Bacchus: The Gedankenexperiment

The game Bacchus is a thought experiment, not a real game. It exists merely to explore, in one design, several effective, yet rarely-used techniques for inducing emotion through gameplay. It happens to have a religious theme, but I’m primarily interested in exploring how designed experiences can yield intense player emotions.

The game designer’s palette of emotion has traditionally been limited to boredom, frustration, and triumphant mastery. There is very little published research on how to evoke a broader range of emotions and designers have very few practical or theoretical tools at their disposal in the quest to create meaningful, emotional experiences for their players. Designers interested in evoking emotion fall back on:

  1. Stealing techniques from non-game media. “And then we show a movie of the faithful heroine being stabbed by the evil villain!”
  2. Copious handwaving. “See, this pink pulsating blob represents ‘Feelings’”, explains the designer to the confused player.

The resulting experiences are far more emotionally simplistic than we might dream of creating.

To expand beyond the present constraints, I set forth a personal challenge. What if you wanted to create a game that pushes the player through a sequence of emotions, from joy to sorrow, to perhaps even religious ecstasy? What current or future techniques would you use? Is it even possible for a game to evoke a rich palette of emotions?

In order to build a game that induces such a complex emotional spectrum, we need to dig into the fundamentals of evoking emotions in games. It turns out that many folks in the scientific community have been studying tangentially related problems for quite some time.

What Is Covered In This Essay

This essay has five parts

  • Two factor theory of emotion: First, we’ll look at the psychology behind our emotions. I’ll lean on this to explore four pragmatic techniques that are demonstrated in Bacchus.
  • Technique 1: Tapping existing emotional memories.
  • Technique 2: Using relevant stimuli in order to evoke an emotional response.
  • Technique 3: Biofeedback for controlling physical state.
  • Technique 4: Social norm setting for seeding appropriate cognitive labels.

With each technique, we’ll cover the theory, how you can put the theory to use, how technology can help, and some of the limitations.

Article Start Page 1 of 9 Next

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