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Can Videogames Make You Cry?
This is the original, extended version of the article by Hugh Bowen that appeared in Game Informer Magazine. The complete survey results can be purchased for $999. Email Bowen Research to order.

Why do some videogames move people at a gut level, while others don't?

Twenty years ago, as a young producer at Activision, I'd written in my college reunion notes that I hoped to work with the Hemingway of developers. But really, have any of us?

I like to read novels about the civil war, where my great grandfather and his brothers fought. The best of these novels transport me to a place of sacrifice, purpose, trial, wrong and honor. They evoke feelings. Do games do that? Games like Medal of Honor deliver some of the thrills of combat, but none of the pathos.

I'm not the first to ask: Can games be more than thrilling, but shallow, special effects? Can we make people cry, as Walt Disney had wondered about his early cartoons?

I recall the 1982 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. That summer I'd spent far more time working on Space Shuttle than I'd spent with my family. I'd test and cajole night after night. Finally taking the game to CES, I was demo-ing late at night, in a dark room, filled with 50 people, mostly sales guys who'd been drinking. As I took off and docked in the (then) complex simulation, the room quieted and they watched with rapt attention. I managed to re-enter the atmosphere and land, without the game (or me) crashing. The room exploded in cheers. My boss cried. It was a moment.

The feeling of heroism, the obsession of most 14-year-old boys, is the basis of most games. It was the feeling I had that night in Chicago. In videogames, we often fight the bad guys and feel good about it. Whatever our critics may say, I think that's worthy.

The 'feelings' aspect has always seemed important to me. The emotional component is elusive, and we should better understand how it impacts our business. Being a researcher, I decided to conduct a survey. So I fielded a national online survey with 535 gamers to explore how important the range of emotions is to the success of any particular game. Here's what I found.

What role does emotion play?
Over a third of the participants report that games are quite an emotional experience. 8% think they're tremendously emotional, 29% quite a bit.

Still, when asked what art forms speak the most to us, games don't rank at the top. Ranked 1 to 6, where 1 is the most emotional, the order was: movies, music, books, video/PC games, paintings/artwork, and last cars. (OK, so I have a thing for cars…)

Heavy gamers have more of a feeling for movies. Lighter and younger gamers are more moved by music.

For genres, I thought MMOs would top the list, but RPGs are the runaway winner – by far the most emotional genre of videogames. Interaction with computer characters seems richer (at this stage of development) than interacting with people in MMOs.

Here are the genres in order of the percentage of gamers who ranked them as emotionally powerful:

Role playing games78%
First person shooters52%
Action49%
Adventure48%
Fighting39%
Sports34%
MMOs32%
Racing31%
Real time strategy24%
General strategy/puzzle15%
Flight simulators8%
Flying8%

Among individual titles, a role playing game, Final Fantasy, is far and away the richest emotionally (the number of mentions is shown).
Final Fantasy series, 104
Resident Evil series, 27
Halo, 15
Silent Hill series, 11
Metal Gear Solid, 11
Madden (football), 9

Action games, the biggest genre, drew these comments: "Action games can lead to a state of frustration, panic, exhaustion, exhuberance, and suspense. Then, anger, spitefulness, relief and worry kick in." As an example, "In Max Payne you could see the anger and sadness in his life due to the loss of his family."

Role playing games: People get real cranked up. "You see life and death and magical things occur." Players get involved with the characters due to the depth of the story (that "rival novels"), cut scenes, "sweeping" musical scores – and of course the dozens and dozens of hours of play.

The death of Aeries in Final Fantasy VII, where she's thrust through with a sword, appears to be a defining moment for our industry. It was mentioned in the study time and time again. Many cried, and couldn't forget it. People spent months trying to revive her, appealing to Square Enix for a repreive.

Gamers said about Aeries' death: "I couldn't play the game for like a week after that, because I was so depressed." "Friends still talk about their surprise, shock and denial when they reached that point in the game." A father was playing the game with his two young sons, and apparently Aeries' death was too much for them: "For months, we couldn't even listen to the musical theme … without one of the boys bursting into tears."

Adventure games have some of the feelings of RPGs, but not the depth. They have "the thrill of discovery. The tension of surviving." Some adventure games, like Sam and Max Hit the Road, and much of the older LucasArts work, is "flat-out hilarious." Myst had extraordinary "moments of peaceful beauty."

First person shooters, as you might imagine, are "violent, get your rage and blood pumping." You feel "the ruthlessness of being the hunter, the fear of being the hunted…" Again intense, but narrow. These games, as one said, send "that chill down the back of my neck." And, don't forget the competition.

Massive multiplayer online games evoke emotions chiefly due to interaction with other real people. If someone kindly takes time to help you with a spell, or is a lying cheat, you have an emotional reaction.

Horror games, well, yes, they can scare the living daylights out of you.

Sports games give the purest form of competition. Playing ESPN Hockey 2004 with his best friend, "We were tied 2-2 going into triple overtime when I scored the winning goal with 6 seconds remaining. I jumped off my bed and screamed YEEEEEEESSSSS!!!! Then we both took a deep breath and admitted it was a great battle and one of the best 45 minutes ever spent."

Fighting games, like sports, are about "losing, struggling, winning." They also "help solve rage issues."

Real time strategy games are really more about thinking. Still, they offer a rich world, "it's like having a fantasy novel read to you inbetween the action." "You identify with the struggles of your people." These too can be humorous.

Fighting/strategy puzzle and flight simulators don't evoke much emotion.

So how important is this, anyway?

Half of all gamers say emotion in games is extremely or somewhat important.

As an English major I spent my time starving and writing. I just know books mean more than games. But this may change somewhat in the not-too-distant future. The most startling survey result for me was that two-thirds of all gamers think games exceed, could exceed or could equal the emotional richness of other major forms of art and entertainment:

Games already are beyond books, movies and music 9%
in inspring emotion

Games could go beyond them 32%
Games could equal them 27%

Here is a list of feelings that gamers say videogames most strongly inspire. The ones at the top are what you'd expect. But the middle feelings surprised me, and the last ones suggest where innovative games could go.

competitiveness
violence/excitement
accomplishment
frustration and wanting to overcome it
danger
hate
honor/loyalty/integrity
awe and wonder
delight
beauty
sadness
compassion for others
sexuality
love
spirituality

Here are some gamers' most intense emotional moments in games:

In a role playing game, the hero and his girl are saying how much they love each other, "I don't know why, but I just teared up and couldn't stop smiling…"

"I will never forget the feeling of love between Squall and Riona in Final Fantasy 8, nor the broken-heartedness of Yuna at the end of Final Fantasy 10."

During Xenogears, when a character "is sacrificing herself to save her friends, I'm driven to tears every time I see it."

Resident Evil, "I didn't want to play it alone…"

In Silent Hill, the heartbreak of having "that silence broken by a ringing telephone, picking up the phone and hearing your missing daughter (in the game) crying out to you."

Silent Hill, "Throughout the entire game your nerves are constantly being tweaked by the radio static, fog, growling, ambient sounds and the shuffling of the more malformed enemies."

In America's Army, a first person shooter, "I was the last person alive in my unit and I was up against 5 enemy soldiers. The first guy went down then I caught two others crouching together in a room; with each kill my heart beat a little faster. By the time I had killed the last guy and won the match for my team, I could feel my pulse beating in my jugular."

"Devotion" to Metal Gear Solid, "I played that for 12 hours straight until I finished it (no actual meals, no going outside, no breaks." One wonders, what is a non-actual meal?

Games like Medal of Honor from WWII, give you "strong feelings of determination, rage, valor, patriotism, and strength because you feel like you are actually serving on the front lines for something you believe in."

Hugh Bowen and his firm, Bowen Research (www.bowenresearch.com), specialize in research for the young male market, with expertise in electronic entertainment and other high-tech products and services.

National News Coverage
Videogames: The Impact of Emotion

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