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  • Writer's pictureBhuvanesh Tekavade

Emotions by Design

(Isbister, Katherine. How Games Move Us : Emotion by Design, MIT Press, 2016)

The book talks about how games draw out emotions differently from books, movies, or televisions. The book does not necessarily portray games as a superior for of emotional entertainment, instead just points out the major differences that makes Video Games stand out.

For the current purpose of research, I have taken a single chapter (A Series of Interesting Choices) as my primary source and tried to understand it or more precisely tried to draw inspiration for my own project.

This chapter discusses the different palette or structure that video games have to draw out emotions and how its still not a fixed structure. It does direct comparison how of movie makes or musicians use their set of knowledge and how game designer take that understanding to push it even further by the added layer or interactivity in games. As Katherine says. “ Unlike film, fiction, or music, there isn’t yet a common language among designers, players, and society at large for what is going on and why in the hearts and minds of players.” The book talks about to unique things that video games provide to display emotions, choice & flow.

Meaningful Choices

Choices, or the ability to chose via interactivity is the fundamental feature that separates a game from a book or a movie. There is rare exception in both books and movies that break the wall of linear story telling by introduction choices and make the audience feel for their choices.

The ability to have actions that lead to consequences in the players/ audiences’ hands leads to a new set of emotions being born that makes video games different. As the mentions, movies & books can make the audience feel sad or happy or confused via the story being showcases, but games on the other hand, can add more emotions into the mix by letting the player choose their own fake delivering emotions like Grief, Achievement, a sense of responsibility as these events are the consequences of the decision that the player has actively taken while in game.

The book also takes into consideration the research and experiments done by Psychology & Neuropsychology Research which shows the audiences the difference in emotions felt by the viewer and the player itself.


The book states, “The ability to choose and control your actions gives rise to the second unique quality of games: the ease with which players can enter a pleasurable, optimal performance state that psychology researcher Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi calls “flow.”

Flow is the emotional sense of losing one’s senses in the middle of an action. Video Games have the ability to let the player enter that state of Flow via delivering certain factors. These factors that effect the state of Flow in Video Games are:

  • A challenging activity — Objective

  • Merging of action & awareness — Growth

  • Direct, indirect Feedback — Quest/ Navigation

  • A sense of control

  • Loss of self-consciousness

  • Altered sense of time

If a game has the ability to deliver these factors to the player, then it has the ability to let the player enter a state of Flow while playing the game and when mixed with meaningful choices, that makes some of the best games we know.

The book also talks about Designers like Jenova Chen and how his work in replicating the factors that affect the flow made into a famously engaging game Journey. Nine Much of the jargon used by players when discussing the emotions, they experience when playing games pertains to flow (curiosity, excitement, challenge, elation, or triumph) or the absence thereof (frustration, confusion, discouragement).

This leads us into the final topic of this particular research, Social Emotions.

When a game has the ability to provide the player with interesting choices and let the player immerse in the flow, they develop a higher level or emotional experience that can be related with their personal experiences and relationship with other. This also leads to a stronger connection with the story and a deeper understanding or attachment to the character of the game which is something that Video Games have the ability to do.

Video Games provide the creator or designers a platform or an ability to invoke specific emotions through their form of storytelling.


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