By Clive Thompson — 02:00 AM Nov, 07, 2005 EST
I could tell something was wrong as soon as I saw my friend's eyes. It was back in 1997, and he'd been playing the recently released Final Fantasy VII. That afternoon, he'd gotten to a famously shocking scene in which Aerith, a beloved young magician girl, is suddenly and viciously murdered.
He looked like he'd lost a family member. "I'm just totally screwed up," he confessed as he nursed a lukewarm beer at a local bar. Nearly all my friends were playing Final Fantasy VII too — so, one by one over the next week, they all hit the same scene, until every nerd I knew was sunk in a slough of despond.
Everyone knows video games have a powerful purchase on our intellects. But what about our hearts and souls? Obviously, games trigger many adrenaline-soaked feelings like excitement or anger; I felt both last week while cowering behind a tree in Far Cry, as gibbering mutants hunted me down. Even a low-fi puzzle game like Bejeweled tosses me back and forth between frustration and triumph.
But I often wonder whether games can go deeper than that. Like a good novel or a play, can they tap into subtler feelings — like Schadenfreude, sadness or envy? Can a game make you cry?
Apparently so, according to Hugh Bowen, a market researcher who recently published Videogames: The Impact of Emotion. He asked 535 gamers to describe how deeply their favorite games trigger various emotions, on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the most intense).
As you'd expect, those high-stim feelings — competitiveness, fear and a sense of accomplishment — ranked at the top. But halfway down the list, the emotional tenor became much more unpredictable, and much more interesting. A sense of "honor," "loyalty" and "integrity" got a quite high score of 3.5, because war games tend to trigger patriotic feelings of esprit de corps.
Even better, the next-ranked emotions were "awe and wonder," followed by "delight" and "beauty." This makes perfect sense to me, because they're probably driven by the sheer enormity and lushness of today's virtual worlds. When I caught my first sight of the skyscraper-size enemies in Shadow of the Colossus, I was utterly dumbstruck; when I took my first ride on a flying Gryphon in World of Warcraft, I dragged my wife over to the screen to show off the magnificent, sprawling forests below. Taken as a whole, the emotional profile of gamers looks less like the coarse bloodlust envisioned by Hillary Clinton, and more like the psychic life of the Medici.
Not all games offer such a wide emotional palette, of course. Bowen found that role-playing games were the most emotionally potent genre, with 78 percent of gamers singling it out. First-person shooters came next, with 52 percent of gamers in agreement. Flight simulators and flying games finished dead last, at 8 percent each.
Why? Probably because RPGs and first-person shooters rely most heavily on a narrative structure, and narrative is one of the world's oldest technologies for transmitting an emotional payload. Indeed, when Bowen asked his respondents to pick the single most emotionally affective game, the far-and-away winner — with a remarkable 61 percent of votes — was Final Fantasy, one of the most narrative-heavy series in history.
As it turns out, my friend back in 1997 wasn't alone. Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII was "a sort of watershed moment for the gaming industry," Bowen argues, because in their written notes on the surveys, many gamers singled it out as the first time a game caused them genuine heartache. I went back and re-watched the scene, and I can understand why; it's nearly Wagnerian in its sadness. As Aerith collapses, a ball of life force seemingly emerges from her body and falls slowly away, each bounce triggering the opening notes of her funeral melody. No wonder teenagers are now lining up to watch symphonies perform music from the game. It's that heart-piercing.
Mind you, games have an enormous amount of catching up to do with other media. In Bowen's poll, everyone agreed that films, music and books were more emotionally affective than games (in that order of preference). Yet 63 percent predicted that games would eventually equal, or even surpass, traditional media.
Personally, I think they're difficult to compare, because unlike static media, games exist partly to create a sense of play. They're engineering new blends of emotion that will always be queerly different from a novel or movie — though no less powerful.
When Aerith went down, "I actually wept," one player confessed to Bowen. You can't argue with real tears.
Clive Thompson's column Games Without Frontiers appears in Wired News every other Monday. He is also a contributing writer for The New York Times.