The Lure of Emotionally-Complex Video Games

In the game Life is Strange, the main character, Maxine Caulfield, is an 18-year-old high school student with an interest in photography. She has recently moved back to her Oregon hometown, and upon entering a school bathroom, witnesses the shooting of a girl with blue hair. Maxine, who goes by Max, holds up her hand and yells, “No!” Then the scene suddenly rewinds. Realizing she has the power to turn back time, Max returns to the bathroom and pulls the fire alarm, preventing the murder. Eventually, she discovers that the blue-haired girl is an old friend named Chloe. The two team up, determined to figure out what’s behind the sudden disappearance of a fellow student.  

One of the game’s themes is the butterfly effect, the idea that a small change, like a butterfly batting its wings, can spark a much larger change, like a tornado. And so it is in the game, where the player must make small choices that can alter the story’s outcome. Do you steal the money you and Chloe find in the headmaster’s office? What about the gun you discover in Frank Bowers’ vehicle? When given the opportunity, do you kiss Chloe?

When the first episodes of Life is Strange were released in 2015, reviewers likened them to a Stephen King novel and to “Twin Peaks.” The series was widely embraced, and video game researchers say it is indicative of a shift in the industry. Historically, video games have focused on what characters do below the neck — things like kicking, running, and shooting, Jesse Schell, a game designer and gaming professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in an email to Undark. Movies and books, meanwhile, were more likely to explore the inner workings of characters’ minds. But more recently, game designers have turned their attention above the neck, too, creating games with complicated plots and emotionally nuanced characters.

In the game Life is Strange, the player is challenged with a host of decisions that dramatically affect the characters around them. A growing body of research shows that such games evoke a wide range of emotions that encourage players to self-reflect.

That’s perhaps not surprising. Research indicates that many players, particularly longtime gamers who grew up in the 1980s and 90s, now crave games that make them feel something — not just happiness and excitement, but also sadness, guilt, shame, and remorse, said Nick Bowman, a gaming researcher at Texas Tech University. In short, they want the kind of meaningful experience more commonly associated with novels and film. Thanks to technological advancements in graphics and sounds, developers are creating games to meet that demand.

And a modest but growing body of communications and psychology research shows that players do, indeed, feel a wide range of emotions while playing games like Life is Strange. Engaging with unpleasant topics can cause a player to reflect on important real-life issues and “grow as a person,” said Daniel Possler, a media researcher at Hanover University of Music, Drama, and Media in Germany. In fact, some research suggests video games are uniquely suited to provide these emotional experiences because they are competitive, interactive, and often social. Still, it is unclear how long these emotions last, or whether feeling them has a downside.

This type of game isn’t entirely new. In 2007, David Ciccoricco, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, published a paper describing a growing genre of games with literary and artistic qualities. His analysis focused on Shadow of the Colossus, which features a wanderer who travels on horseback to defeat giant beasts known as colossi. In addition to fighting battles, players spend long periods of time simply riding a horse. “What does one do when riding alone all that time?” writes Ciccoricco. “You think. You think about the fact that you are about to bring down another one of these awe-inspiring creatures even though you know that they have not wronged you in any way.” The game, notes Ciccoricco, is full of moral ambiguity, and it invites reflection.

Researchers have described this shift in style as a move from the hedonic to what’s called the eudaimonic, a Greek concept referring to a meaningful experience or a feeling of well-being. “While the first is focused on pleasure,” said Possler, “the second is focused on really developing the best in oneself.”

Historically, video games have focused on what characters do below the neck — things like kicking, running, and shooting, wrote Schell.

To gauge how people feel during or after a game, researchers use a variety of methods, including asking players to complete surveys, as well as monitoring brain activity and heart rate. In a review published earlier this year, Possler and others analyzed 82 individual studies and found strong evidence that some games elicit eudaimonic feelings and experiences that are meaningful, emotionally moving or challenging, and reflective. And while books, films, and visual art can spark a similar response, the authors note that players may be influenced by elements specific to video games, including their interactive nature.

“The vast, vast majority of the time, people come away from playing these kinds of games that have those emotionally heavy experiences, with a sense of like, ‘Wow, I’m so glad I played that.’ It was painful, it was difficult, it was hard, I cried,” said Kelli Dunlap, a clinical psychologist and game designer. “But that gave it meaning and enriched the gameplay experience.”

Bowman cited Red Dead Redemption II as one such game. It’s a John Ford-quality Western with a protagonist who has a troubled past and who dies of tuberculosis just as he begins to address his misdeeds. The cinematics are so realistic and the plot is so compelling, says Bowman, that players are completely immersed in the game.

“The emotional demands of this game are no longer just the basic emotions, like happy, sad, frustrated, angry,” he said. “You put that controller down and you’re trembling, and you go to bed crying after playing. Think about who would pay $60 to cry? The answer is, a lot of gamers who want that.”

According to Bowman, in 20 years, middle school English classes may approach Red Dead Redemption II like a piece of literature. “It’s that deep,” he said. “It really is complex.” He added: “I remember actually being shocked during gameplay, setting my controller down and just being done for the night. And not because I was offended, but because I was sad.”

Some games evoke not just sadness, but also downright unpleasant emotions not typically associated with eudaimonia, including guilt, shame, and remorse. Researchers say this could be a problem for some players. “Our research and work by my colleagues suggest that at least on a case-by-case basis, emotionally charged experiences can be overwhelming to some, leading to strong feelings of mental discomfort,” wrote Elisa Mekler, a professor of human-computer interaction at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland, in an email to Undark.

Mekler cited a game called Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which features a Celtic warrior, Senua, whose goal is to rescue the soul of her dead lover by doing battle and completing other challenges while also struggling with psychosis. The game was developed in consultation with neuroscientists, released in 2017, and then updated in 2018 so that it can be played with a virtual reality headset. The game can be intense, said Mekler, especially when played with a headset. “We don’t know yet if this can cause long-lasting detrimental effects on players,” she wrote. What’s known now is that some players do stop playing certain games when they become overwhelmed by emotionally challenging content.

Life is Strange, the game with the time-bending high school student, features a suicide scene that some researchers say is potentially harmful to players. While Max can redo almost every action, the attempted suicide of her friend, Kate Marsh, is not one of them. Max must talk Kate out of jumping off the roof of their dormitory. If Max is successful, Kate lives. If Max is not, Kate dies, and there is nothing Max can do to change that. Dunlap worries this irreversible scene could be upsetting for vulnerable players, particularly those in the LGBTQ community who like the game because it has LGBTQ content.

“The developers made a decision to heighten the tension, to make this really impassable, because this is something you cannot change in a game where you can change everything. And that, to me is crossing an ethical line,” she said. “It’s suicide. You don’t need to amp up the volume.”

Still, many researchers see a place for video games that elicit unpleasant feelings. Paul Formosa, a professor of philosophy at Macquarie University in New South Wales, Australia, conducted focus groups with players of a game called The Great Fire. Players expressed guilt and remorse about some of the moral choices they had to make, like killing one person to save three.

“Players took these choices seriously and imagined what they would do in that situation,” he wrote in an email to Undark. “The immersion that people experience during gameplay is thus a useful way to experientially transport players into tough moral situations that allow them to explore their moral identity in a realistic but safe way.”

“The vast, vast majority of the time, people come away from playing these kinds of games that have those emotionally heavy experiences, with a sense of like, ‘Wow, I’m so glad I played that,’” said Dunlap.

Studies show the richer the narrative and the more background and complexity given to the main character, the more guilt a player will feel. And when those characters commit immoral acts, players have been left feeling guilt and shame, especially if they felt transported or wrapped-up in the narrative.

In another study, “Negative Emotion, Positive Experience?: Emotionally Moving Moments in Digital Games,” researchers analyzed 121 players’ accounts of emotionally moving game experiences like loss and character attachment and found that negative emotions like sadness were enjoyed or at least appreciated by most players. The researchers also found the emotionally rewarding and thought-provoking experiences, while negative, can still make the game enjoyable.

With some team-based games, like World of Warcraft and League of Legends, players can experience negative emotions, said April Welch, the director of esports and digital arts at Illinois Institute of Technology. Some of these players have been on the same teams with the same people for years, building bonds, relying on each other, and when a player lets their team down by missing a shot or killing the wrong person, they feel genuine remorse, she said.

“This is how people are spending their time, and they’re very invested in it,” Welch said. “And part of the reason they’re so invested in it because it’s such an emotional journey.”

Depending on where a player is emotionally, Welch said, any experience can be scary and set them back, but when they’re playing a game, they get an opportunity to overcome those fears — and to do it in a safe place. “There’s so much positive that can come from just facing those fears, and doing it over and over,” she said. The uncomfortable experience, she added, is “well worth it.”

Caren Chesler is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired U.K., Scientific American, Slate, and Popular Mechanics.