Researcher Hugh Bowen on how video games affect us emotionally.
by Gwynne Watkins
December 19, 2005
In Hugh Bowen's study Videogames: The Impact of Emotion, five hundred gamers discussed the depth of their emotional connection to games, as well as their overwhelming belief that the genre is an art form in the making. To read their testimonials ("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") is to glimpse the potential that videogames hold for the rest of us. Nerve spoke to Bowen, the founder and namesake of a gaming research firm, about Final Fantasy, Jane Austen and the universal appeal of Pac-Man. — Gwynne Watkins
The study is fascinating. Where did you get the idea?
It came about in a dream. [laughs] Actually, the dream was more of a question in my mind: are videogames really an art form? Are they just sort of a cheap physical experience, or could they really convey emotion? That's how I chose to measure its viability as an art form, the way it touches people's hearts.
What did you find most surprising?
Two-thirds of all these gamers think that as an art form, games will equal or surpass books, movies and music in the future. I'm an English major, and I'm used to thinking of books — you know, Jane Austen, etc. — being sort of the pinnacle of western culture. But if you stop to think about it, in a way, games have some things going for them that books and movies and music do not.
What are the factors that make people more emotionally involved in some games more than others?
The thing about the role-playing games is it's all oriented around the storyline, which is in the control of the game developer. These characters are developed in a careful way, so that you have feelings about them, you learn things about them, you see them go through certain struggles and trials — a little bit like real life, right? And it's immersive. When you play your character in a role-playing game, and you develop and you're working your way up, sage to cleric to warrior or whatever, I think people really identify with that. When the dad [in the study] said that since the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII — which appears to have been the peak moment of emotional involvement in gaming so far — he says his sons would break into tears as soon as they heard the music.
You had many participants tell you that the most intense emotion they've ever felt when playing a game was that very moment.
Yeah, it's amazing. It must have just totally hit a chord with people. And that was a few years ago, too. One other thing about games, if you think about it, novels have been around for hundreds of years, and essentially, in a way, every new novelist can draw upon the work and the quality of everything that's gone before, and really gain from that. And of course, games are so brand new — that heritage isn't there. So that's another reason that makes me think, give it another fifty to 100 years until that gets built up, and then people will start studying Aeris's death in Final Fantasy VII just like I used to read Jane Austen. It gives you something to build on.
Your survey shows that sexuality is low on the list of priorities for gamers.
Yes, but I'll tell you a funny thing. There was a survey in one of the gaming magazines some years ago about who are the sexiest women in America, and I think number one actually was a video game character. I think it was Lara Croft. But yeah, I just think sexuality is hard to do in a game. I mean, it has nothing to do with gaming, kind of. Besides that, there are obviously these scantily clad women in a lot of games.
But when you hear about games being controversial, it's usually something like when they found that sex scene in Grand Theft Auto, and all those politicians made a huge deal out of it. With that kind of reaction, you'd think that sex in video games is a huge thing.
I don't think it really is. And if you get these really attractive women, then what are they doing half the time? Running around shooting shotguns.
What do you think the differences are between emotional experiences of gamers of different ages? For example, the study says that teenagers are the most into role-playing games, whereas older people talk about flying games.
Well, I'm just kind of speculating here, but I mean, teenagers are more emotional about everything. So that makes sense.
I'm wondering about the different attraction to games, or the difference between the way you play games, when you're a kid and when you're in your late twenties, or your early forties or your sixties. Because before now, people in their sixties haven't been able to play video games. People growing up with games is kind of a new thing.
I've found there are a lot of gamers between thirty-five and forty-five. I think these are the people who grew up with it, who are just as involved in gaming and probably as intense in their feelings about it as the younger ones. So, I think the intensity and the involvement doesn't necessarily really drop off in your mid-thirties. I had 84% of teenagers saying that [video games] gave them a powerful sense of emotion, it was 78% for those nineteen to twenty-nine and 73% for those over thirty. So you know, there's a difference, but — yeah, it's not that much different.
Women seem to get less emotionally involved in games than men. And we think of women as more emotional. Is that just because women aren't playing video games or that there is something not being tapped into for women?
I think just fewer women play video games. In this study, we had 407 men, we had eighty-three women. That's sort of typical; there's a lot more men involved. But of the women who are playing, 76% said they found role playing games very emotional, and the number was 78% of the men. And for these other genres, women are lower on sports, but for role-playing games, they're actually pretty comparable. I mean, somehow the whole genre is a thing which just doesn't appeal to women as much. I mean, Pac-Man was, like, 50% women playing and 50% men. And there were some extraneous running theories around. Women have always liked puzzle games more; I did some focus groups last week and the women were all talking about playing puzzle games. If you want some bizarre archeological-historical guess at that, women throughout history, they were the gatherers, so they had to go out and remember where the mushrooms grew in the southeast corner of a certain meadow, so maybe that has something to do with the pattern- and memory recognition. But that's just a wild guess.
Another thing that makes video games unique: you die all the time as part of the game. Do you think that heightens the emotional experience, or do you think it diminishes it because you can always get a new life?
I think the dying part in action games has nothing to do with deep emotional experience. To me, the essential driving thing about video games is frustration and overcoming obstacles — you just want to be able to do this. And so, you keep dying, you keep falling off the ledge, you can't shoot all five guys the way you need to, so you just get all concentrated and driven to try and accomplish those goals. That, to me, has nothing to do with deeper emotion. A compulsion, an o.c.d. thing: "Let's get this done!" I think the dying is almost contrary to the depth — I mean, if a character dies that you've been around with for months, obviously then it's a big deal, like in Final Fantasy, but if he dies every ten minutes, there's no emotional significance to that.
What direction do you think video-game companies are going in terms of emotion being an important part of game playing?
I think it's going to continue. If you look at the Nintendogs game for Nintendo, where you've got a pet and take care of it — I don't know if you've seen that one — it looks unbelievably like a real dog. And it's been this huge success with kids; they're taking care of the dog, training it, petting it, brushing it, teaching it tricks, all this stuff, and those kids have an emotional connection to their pets. To me — I could be wrong about this, but to me, most of the genres don't seem to have a whole lot of potential for it. But you know, the wonderful thing about this industry is that it can always surprise you.