May 132009

Gamasutra has a report from a GDC Canada session discussion the role of emotions in games — that is, a researcher who is not Nicole Lazzaro! And it sounds like a fun and meaty discussion.

The counter is fear, which can cause physiological responses due to the “fight or flight” impulse. Many people love that sensation: “Look at the prevalence of the horror movie; it’s everywhere. Look at horror games.”

“Surely there’s no harm in that? Well, actually, there is,” said Chandler: Scientists have recently determined that after sustained fear, bodies stop producing adrenaline and being producing cortisol, which begins to break down non-essential organs and tissues to feed vital organs, increasing pain, promoting heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

So, here we have “games can cause heart disease!” 🙂 Though it should be noted, so can shock horror movies… or perhaps excessive rollercoaster riding.

There’s also a bit bolstering the arguments I made not long ago about how we have unconscious predispositions towards people and things that looks like people (such as avatars).

Speaking of which, there was a lengthy discussion on that topic on the latest “Shut Up. We’re Talking” podcast, which has led to even more debate and controversy.

Unfortunately, I think the SUWT crew missed the point a bit by saying “well, maybe mature or experienced gamers learn not to have these subconscious reactions.” Unfortunately, I don’t think that is true — any more than informed and mature people sail through those tests of their reaction times with photographs of people of mixed races. This is not an easy bias to remove…

  8 Responses to “More on how the body & brain react to games”

  1. I agree with your point focus, “Unfortunately, I don’t think that is true” because it is correct. As our culture has fragmented from Villages > Extended Families > Nuclear Families > Pieces and Parts, people don’t have enough elders in their life to remind them of the ultimate good advise here, “In all things: moderation.”

  2. If the fight-or-flight response were a constant, this would indeed be bad, but I don;t think that is how it works. I recall my first encounter with DOOM left my heart pounding and palms sweating, but with repeated play the threat response turned to a thrill response – more of a roller-coaster effect rather than a chased-by-Freddy-Krueger effect.

  3. Even if you don’t remove the subconscious reactions, that doesn’t mean you can’t notice them and then correct the conscious reaction so that it’s less of an issue. So yeah, there’s a bias, but we do have the ability to respond to it if we stop and think before acting.

    Course, just because players are capable of thinking through those ingrained responses doesn’t remove the responsibility of developers to be conscious of what they’re doing. Blizzard’s actions were rather negligent here. Especially since a consent popup would’ve avoided the entire problem.

  4. This is common across all entertainment – just consider the poor sports fan whose team loses.

    Professional sports, books, movies, video games… all of these media are entertaining precisely because they’re immersive, and they’re immersive because they invoke real physical reactions and real emotion.

    Otherwise, they’re not engaging, and they’re not fun.

    I never play video games to relax anymore, because I find they tire me out, more than anything. All that emotion comes at a price.

    It’s quite intuitive to think that an experienced gamer will become calloused and desensitized to certain things (“Oh boy. Another goomba, I’m terrified”), without ever suppressing the subconscious reactions. They may be hard to scare, but once you scare them, they still become genuinely afraid.

  5. Even for experienced gamers, any virtual environment that demands constant vigilance on pain of death is going to keep that physiological “fight or flight” response on tap, with long-term consequences. Whether the initial adrenelin rush produces anxiety or exhileration is largely immaterial.

    It’s important to have a rhythm to the action that allows players to catch their breath, and to give them a refuge where they can talk, flirt, brag, make friends or fall in love in comfort and security (producing those anti-stress hormones that counter cortisol damage).

    Shooters are all about “fight or flight”, but even they stage the action in rounds and have a chat room or lounge to hang out in between matches. Consider that before designing the Dungeon o’ Death to offer non-stop action for hours on end.

  6. I found out long ago that I don’t enjoy simulating (or stimulating) the “Fight or Flight” response. I find the sensation of adrenalin being released deeply unpleasant and go out of my way to avoid it, hence no roller-coasters and no horror movies.

    MMOs, on the other hand, give me no problems at all, because they almost never generate the response in the first place. Back in the day, when EQ death meant hours, even days of achievement lost, I was often very jumpy and stressed while playing, and much adrenalin got pumped. Fortunately, as MMOs developed into a more mature, rounded form of entertainment and “death penalties” receded into history, it became possible to play in a relaxed state.

    If something “bad” is going to happen in a MMO now, I just let my character die and start over. It’s much less stressful and apparently it’s better for my health too. Once you know that nothing of any significance is at risk, your glands stop reacting in their primordial way and gaming becomes relaxing rather than “thrilling”.

    Very, very great improvement in my book.

  7. One of my favorite PC games is Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Within the game is a quest to visit an abandoned hotel, and rid it of a particularly pesky poltergeist.

    The visual and audio effects in this encounter are so well done that it raises goose bumps, causes chills, increases my heart rate, and makes me want to turn on the lights throughout the house.

    It’s the only game I’ve ever played that gave me this response, which, I think, is why I still enjoy playing it, five years after its release. And having played through several times, I still have this reaction.

  8. I’m in agreement with EastwoodDC – I would argue that in games the fight-or-flight response is something experienced prior to engagement with the object of fear. Once the object is engaged, the player then goes into one of the two states, either fighting or fleeing, which produce a very different sensation, often of euphoria, leading me to believe that the chemical mix involved must be different.

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