(More Than) Moving Pictures: The Importance of Emotional Engagement in Games


When I was a kid, I loved all kinds of video games. What captivated me the most, however, was sprawling, epic JRPGs such as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, and Xenogears. I was drawn into their larger-than-life coming-of-age character arcs and their earnest, melodramatic narratives emphasizing the importance of love and friendship amidst various impending apocalypses. Video games have long been based around some form of narrative impetus, even the very simplistic (rescue the princess, shoot the aliens/enemy soldiers, explore the dungeon), but it was the emphasis on story and characters alongside the strategic battles and conflicts that made those grand 16-bit and 32-bit games so compelling. Surely it helped that such games were introducing my teenaged self to watered-down versions of literary, filmic, and philosophic tropes, all passed through the filter of older video games and anime. It’s also doubtlessly significant that I was perhaps within the prime Western demographic for such games (white, male, aged 12-16, angst-ridden, geeky). Such Japanese games were, I believed, about ideas, strong feelings, and the speaking of human truths. I was convinced that such games were on par with great films and literary works, and indeed, they inspired me to seek out the kinds of works that so obviously inspired them.

Then I entered high school and other things began to take priority. For one, recovering from surgery, I lost use of my eyes for several weeks. Not being able to play video games for a time, it was though a spell had been broken. Soon I turned my attention to other, ostensibly more important things, such as music, sex, and my burgeoning sense of political consciousness. Video games were superficial, or so I thought. When I finally did return to games, I saw them as just entertainment and a pleasant distraction from studying real art. After all, video game narratives couldn’t complete with other, more mature artistic mediums of communication. They were simplistic, derivative, and often too melodramatic for my increasing belief in philosophical logic and rationality. As a result, I largely ignored most major game releases and industry developments from about 2000 to 2007.

I began to think of myself as a “gamer” again in graduate school, however, when books, films, academic theory, and politics had all pretty much lost their lustre and become associated with work in my head. Nowadays gaming is my primary hobby, and a major part of that is because when I play games, I let myself be drawn into the feelings and mood set forth by the game’s developer. Inseparable from my love of gaming as a hobby, moreover, is that I’ve become more and more interested in cultural debates over the designation of some artistic works as “high” and others as ”popular,” “low,” or not even worthy of being seen as art and/or communication at all. Games have become for me simultaneously a space of escapism, where emotions can roam free, but also one the most perplexing and interesting sites in which to witness cultural assumptions, hopes, dreams, and anxieties.

The fact that games are capable of moving us emotionally says a lot about their positive potential as a communication medium. Part of the incredible power of emotions is in their ability to affect us not only mentally but also physically, despite our continued cultural investment in a purely rational mind unswayed by the material conditions around us.1 Emotions are as much material experiences as mental ones, as dependent on having a body through which to express them as having a mind to experience them (for even if a brain in a vat could cry with the right cocktail of external stimulation, how would it recognize itself as doing so?). If video games can affect us emotionally, then they are just as much a vehicle for sharing and learning about human experiences, memories, and values as books and films. This is significant given that games are increasingly one of the dominant (and increasingly profitable) forms of entertainment we have. While my exposure to popular culture and media has increased exponentially since my time playing 1990s RPGs, I will still take melodramatic, over-wrought and overly-earnest games that at least try and tug at my heartstrings over cool, ironic detachment 99% of the time. They are simply more satisfying emotionally. If we accept the positive emotional benefits of games, however, we must also be prepared to defend them on those terms when they are singled out by politicians, governments, and lobbyist groups as sources of negative emotions, as we’ve recently seen with renewed controversies regarding video game violence. When developers (both big studios and indies) and players take seriously the emotional potential of video games, I see it as one way the industry moves the medium’s potential forward.

Fucking hipsters.

In 2012, I didn’t have to settle for any one kind of emotional experience in video games. Even just among the new games I managed to play, the driving force behind what were my favourite titles of the year was not score-chasing, puzzle-solving, or the originality or ingenuity of their narratives. Rather, it was their emotional impact. Mass Effect 3 deservedly generated a whole lot of controversy concerning player choice, publisher versus developer tensions, and obnoxious precedents for downloadable content distribution. However, it still managed to limp to the finish line and close what is a grand narrative that relies as much on problematic militaristic fantasies as it does well-written relationships between characters with whom I connected. What I felt Monolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles lacked in a compelling main narrative was excused by the fact that it was the little side stories and humane interplay between characters and communities, advanced by side-quests, that actually made the game as charming and as emotionally-engaging as it was. Finally, Thatgamecompany’s Journey, critically acclaimed for being nothing if not “emotional,” largely dispensed with expository narrative to tell what is by now a clichéd tale–––the destruction of a human-like species by its own hand. Like the best video games, its narrative elements were dependent on its much more unique combination of aesthetic and mechanical elements (imagery, music, co-op play). I would argue that Journey’s embedded message gave it an emotional impact that empowered and accentuated the potential of the parts of it that made it a video game as opposed to a piece of visual art or a film.

When I think back to my beloved 1990s RPGs, what I feel fondness and nostalgia for is not the specific characters and narratives within those games themselves. I still enjoy those titles, but when I’ve tried to go back and play through them again, it’s inevitable that I put them down to try something new. I’ve come to realize that what sticks with me is the sincerity of my emotional reactions and connections that I had with my favourite games at the time that makes them so significant. I still remember how it feels to have been moved by those narratives, even if I am less moved by and more critical of them now. Looking to games for embodied, emotional experiences that stick with me is, I’ve realized, the primary reason I play them.
1. For a variety of wide-ranging academic approaches to this subject, please see the work of scholars such as Linda Williams, Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed, and Teresa Brennan.

This entry was posted in Gamer Profiles and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • http://twitter.com/parnopaeus Lauren Collister

    I can completely identify with this post, and it’s great to hear some positive reinforcement of my own experience with gaming.

    Additionally for me, especially with games like the ones you mention (Final Fantasies, Xenogears, Mass Effect, Dragon Age etc.), my fondness for them (and the significance I attach to them) happens more after I am done playing the game. That’s when I can think about the experience I’ve just had and take in more surrounding the game by participating in fandom or discussing the games with friends. That’s a way to prolong the connections I’ve made in the game and make them even more meaningful. Do you have a similar experience?

    • Jon Smith

      I hear what you’re saying. Generally a game that sticks with me
      emotionally is one that I am thinking about when I’m not playing it (or
      after I finish it). I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed Mass Effect II
      until after I finished it, and I felt the need to somehow try and stay
      connected with that world. I was enthusiastically talking the game up to
      anyone who would listen (gamers and non-gamers). Lucky for me, Mass
      Effect III came out soon after. . .

  • http://www.facebook.com/hari.mackinnon Hari Mackinnon

    This whole thing was great and actually pretty creatively inspiring, which perhaps wasn’t what you intended the article to be but you can’t knock that right? The stuff you said at the very end about nostalgia being for an unfiltered, sincere emotional response to something rather than the thing in itself struck me as profoundly true and it’s something I’ve been trying to articulate for a while now. I’m glad someone beat me to it.