Five Minutes With...

Five Minutes with Katherine Isbister

In How Games Move Us Katherine Isbister examines the ways in which video games can influence emotion and social connection. Below Playful Thinking series coeditor Jesper Juul interviews her about the new book.

JJ: You have previously written about character design and about the design of user interfaces for games. What prompted you to write a book about emotions in games specifically?

KI: My other books were written for game designers and developers, to help them improve their craft. I wrote How Games Move Us primarily for people who aren’t immersed in game making. This book aims to help a broader set of readers understand the design innovations that have taken place in the medium, that shape how we feel when we play. 

Over time, I realized many people I talked to about games outside the developer community had vague, sometimes sensationalist notions about how games make players feel. As a culture, we haven’t yet developed a rich vocabulary for taking apart a game’s impact the way we do a film’s. This book aims to give people some useful ideas and terms to work with so they can get a more nuanced understanding of what games do and why. 

JJ: I suspect some readers will balk at the idea that games engender a rich range of emotions in the player. Can you explain briefly how games generate emotions and how they compare to emotions in other media?

KI: Games have a tremendous advantage over other media, in that the player is active, making many small and large decisions all along the way. Psychologists point out that our feelings are powerfully and primitively shaped by our goals and their outcomes. If I really want to win a race I run, I feel very frustrated and sad if I don’t, and proud and excited if I do. Games harness these goal-based emotions very effectively. 

Games also open up a rich emotional terrain for players that comes out of doing things together with other people (real or imagined). A game can lead a player to feel shame or pride about how they’ve treated someone within the game, for example—did the player help out, or leave the person hanging? This is something tough to pull off with a medium like film or  written fiction. So games turn out to be great for creating empathy and connection, things that people may not typically associate with how a ‘gamer’ feels. 

Many people don’t have the time or inclination to sample a broad range of games across many genres and formats. In How Games Move Us, I give many examples, illustrating how rich the emotional terrain in gaming really is and can be. 

JJ: In the introduction, you talk about a renaissance in games. In what fora or channels do you see this happening especially? And do you think research and academic institutions have a role to play in this respect?

KI: As you know, there is a tremendous range of independently designed games available through online platforms like Steam, which has made it possible for very small teams to get a game to a broad potential audience of players. In 2014, Steam reported 3,700 available games. In some sense, our issue is not diversity of game experiences, but connecting the right audiences to these games to help them thrive. 

I believe this book can contribute to that goal, by bringing readers deeper into the range of possible game experiences they could have. I think researchers and universities can help by offering game literacy training to students, as well as by cultivating great new voices in game design and development and getting word out about their innovations. 

JJ: Do you think video games (I am thinking especially of experimental video games) are moving in a more emotional direction, or is it rather that we are seeing new emotions represented in video game form today?

KI: I do believe experimental video games are exploring a broader swath of emotional terrain than pure entertainment—there are deeply moving autobiographical games, games that frame the emotional complexities of fraught political situations, games that provoke and question. There are also games that reassure the player and artfully recreate cozy familiar everyday experience. Not all games focus on this kind of emotional work, of course! 

JJ: What is the most surprising thing you learned writing this book?

KI: Not surprising exactly, but I was struck by the excellent game journalism available now, which attempts to put words on these ephemeral feelings that games can evoke. And also, by moving player accounts in online forums. The book includes quotes from some of the best of this writing.

JJ: And I have to ask you: What about virtual reality? You discuss the experience of inhabiting an avatar that you see on screen. But does virtual reality make this process stronger (because you see the world from the character’s eyes) or less (because you don’t see the character)?

KI: In the ‘Bodies at Play’ chapter, I discuss a VR experience called Deep, which combines a breathing sensor and a VR headset. The ‘player’ simply breathes and looks around the environment. Yet people have found this experience potent in reducing anxiety. 

VR brings the body deeper into play, by completely taking over peripheral vision and hearing and putting those senses entirely ‘in-game’. So the body is sending powerful ‘bottom up’ signals to the brain that the experience is real. I would say this increases the visceral sense of immersion for the player profoundly, allowing for potentially even stronger emotional impact of in-game events and decisions.