Can Games Make Us Feel?

Everyone, at some point, has been in a pretty dark place, mentally. Whether it’s just one of those days where you miss the bus only to have a second one splash muddy water all over your new shoes, or the day someone you loved left the realm of the living, we’re all old friends with sorrow.

Videogames tend to be our escape from the mundane, and more commonly, emotionally difficult aspects of life. Have an argument with your folks, jump online on Halo 3, shoot seven hells out of the opposing team, and feel better, or simply delve into the world of Grim Fandango and forget anything exists outside the Land of the Dead. But do videogames represent the sorrow we experience throughout the course of our slow journey towards the afterlife?

Almost everyone I’ve ever spoken to was horrendously upset when Aerith died in Final Fantasy VII. To have such a crucial character die to the lead antagonist was horrifying – I assumed because she was the female lead, she wouldn’t die, and her death caught me off guard. As someone who was yet to hit their teenage years, it was a traumatising experience, but definitely a new one. I didn’t bat an eyelid when Bambi’s mother died, nor did I care too much about Pocahontas (the ridiculous Disney representation, not the Native American feminist icon).

So why are games capable of making me, and possibly some of you, feel anger, sadness and fear? Is there some verisimilitude in the emotionally-charged situations we find ourselves in when playing certain games, or are we simply forcing ourselves to feel something that isn’t reality?

When I returned to the world of Bioshock‘s Rapture last week, I felt fear, and fury. I would jump at splicers sneaking up behind me (playing on minimum volume negates the creepy whispering, but also mutes the footsteps that clue you in to an enemy’s approach on your location), and then turn on them, gunning them down in fury. Yet, at the same time I felt emotionally torn at the concept of killing people who were, essentially, Christians who had become addicted to drugs to help them escape an environment where religion was banned. Corpses were strung up like Christ himself in several places, and it was not uncommon to hear a splicer sing "Jesus loves me, this I know, because the Lord God tells me so" before going completely bananas and trying to melt my face off.

Play through Grim Fandango and try not to think of death, because it’s fairly difficult. You’re surrounded by characters paying homage to the skeletal visage of the Mexican Day of the Dead festival, and you live in the underworld. It really does ram home the "what comes after" effect, far more than watching your recently-severed head roll across the floor to lie at the feet of a turret in Team Fortress 2. Games like TF2 and Halo 3 do a lot to instil feelings of what comes after death by showing your corpse on screen, as life goes on. But while that may make us angry and recklessly vengeful when we next spawn, is it possible it could also make us think about those we know in the military, currently doing their best not to get shot?

Have you ever felt scared whilst playing a videogame? It could be any kind of fear; fear of being caught by ghosts in Luigi’s Mansion, fear of losing a match in Pro Evolution Soccer, or simply fear of the horrific twist in Bioshock‘s dark, winding narrative. Take that fear, and read into it a little more. Are you scared because you don’t want to lose, or are you scared because you think that Big Daddy is genuinely coming to get you, and not your avatar? Fear is a powerful weapon in the right hands, and in the hands of game developers it can make or break the experience they create for the end user.

For some, true emotion tends to tie in very closely with titles that use stealth as their main mechanic. You could show me a hundred guards outside Buckingham Palace, but show me one normal person with an exclamation mark suddenly popping up over their head and I’ll run for the nearest locker. Metal Gear Solid did a lot to get the blood pumping, and your healthy fear of the guards eventually turned into merciless glee when you were finally granted the ability to guide Nikita rockets up their backsides. You overcame your fear, and turned it into a type of productive rage; almost as though the game was therapeutically curing you of the fear of authority, encouraging you to take risks and live dangerously, because ultimately, you get a rocket launcher (or spend the day in Paris on a workday, but I’d prefer the weapon).

Music, characters, narrative… all of these elements matter when you’re playing through the final few stages of a game. Even if it’s topping the global leaderboards at Geometry Wars 2, or losing in the final stages of a Counter Strike championship, you’re engaging with the medium in a way that gives it more depth than the majority of films or novels. Your personal involvement with the eventual success or failure of your avatar in-game is far more immersive than if you were to simply play out the action with nothing on your part dictating risks taken, ammo used or choices made.

On that note, can we just simply nip the problem in the bud? I’m talking about moral choices in videogames, as they’ve become the new "press X to not die" quick-time event. In my first ever column on this site I stated that Fallout 3 suffered in places because the emotional reaction of my character just didn’t exist, simply because I was supposed to react instead as he was simply a vessel for customisation and various moral paths. All games suffer from this. Have a protagonist shoot an innocent person, or take the wrong turn for the sheer hell of it. Even the BAD moral choices in videogames can help players engage with the content emotionally. Just let them be a part of something, not all of it. No one wants to be lonely, or bored.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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