Co-operative Play
Brief Interlude

Emotions Revealed

What is an emotion? How many different emotions are there? Are all emotions universal? The journey towards understanding, whether the knowledge of science or the wisdom of philosophy, is as much about the refinement of the language as it is about experiments and treatises. In the context of emotions, there is still much work to be done in building a coherent framework of terms thanks in part to the generous scope the word ‘emotion’ has acquired. Paul Ekman’s work is a substantial and invaluable step towards achieving this goal.

Ekman’s Emotions Revealed (subtitled ‘Understanding Faces and Feelings’) is the second book that I have read as a direct consequence of Nicole Lazzaro’s GDC talks. This, in many respects, is the underpinning of Nicole’s Four Keys model, which collects patterns of emotions collated from direct observation of players with their favorite games. Despite my love of Nicole’s work, I was rather underwhelmed with Cziksentmihalyi Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience which, after presenting a great thesis in the first chapter, spent the rest of its time tediously repeating the same information in different contexts. Ekman’s work is of a far greater pedigree.

I will catalogue the emotions Ekman uses in his (still incomplete) taxonomy of emotions in the footnotes below (for my own future reference). In essence, the book works its way through sets of related emotions examining the key work by other researchers in the field, before moving on to discuss the specific signs that allow emotions to be spotted in other people.

This is the aspect of the book which is most outstanding. Ekman has analysed all the muscles in the face, and identified how these muscles react when different emotions are experienced. He provides a series of facial pictures (some composed digitally) which demonstrate the signs and signals of each emotion in turn. This is astonishing work, like nothing else I have seen in the field, and will doubtless ensure Ekman’s work is remembered for a long time to come.

Not to be underestimated in assessing the importance of this book is the manner in which it completely yet politely destroys the assumption that there are no universal signals to emotions. It recognises that emotional behaviours and triggers vary from culture to culture, but firmly and surely identifies common responses that hold true around the world. Cross-cultural studies are immensely difficult to execute, and Ekman must be soundly lauded for his work in this area.

Ekman’s observes in passing that emotions can override drives which some psychologists have claimed are the most powerful fundamental motives – hunger, sex and the will to survive. This is a significant point, although vastly outside the scope of the book to explore fully. He also observes that when under the influence of an emotion individuals become temporarily incapable of accessing information inconsistent with their current emotional state. The recognition of this refractory state can be a valuable aid to anyone struggling to reach a more balanced emotional state.

Emotions Revealed is not the ultimate scientific reference book on emotions that it could have been, simply because so much of the research in the field is still vastly incomplete. It is nonetheless the most exhaustive and carefully observed guide to emotions that has been seen so far, and is written with the goal of improving people’s understanding of their emotional states which in itself is a worthy goal. Few scientific books combine a self-help perspective with such erudite work. When the ultimate reference book on emotion is finally written, many years down the line, Ekman will be substantially referenced, and warmly remembered.



Emotion: Ekman’s definition of emotion is at the back of the book, and is too complex to reproduce in full. In short: an emotion consists of [1] a set of sensations experienced [2] briefly (longer experiences Ekman considers moods) [3] about something that matters to the person experiencing it. [4] Emotions happen without the experience being chosen consciously; [5] a subconscious appraisal process triggers the emotion. [6] While an emotion is being experienced there is a refractory period during which information inconsistent with the emotional state cannot be accessed. [7] People become consciously aware of an emotion once it has begun. [8] There are universal emotional themes that reflect our evolutionary past, and culturally learned variations which reflect our individual experiences. [9] The desire to experience or not experience an emotion motivates much of our behaviour, and [10] a clear, rapid and universal signal informs others of how an emotional person is feeling.

Mood: if an emotion lasts for hours, Ekman considers this a mood, not an emotion. He deploys separate terms for moods than for emotions.


Non-enjoyable emotions:

1. Sadness and Agony
Sadness: dysphoria, helplessness, hopelessness

 Agony: intense and painful version of sadness; elements of protest
2. Anger

  range of states from annoyance, through frustration to rage
3. Surprise and Fear

 Surprise: short lived response to the unexpected
 Fear: retreat from the threat of harm; physical or psychological
4. Disgust and Contempt

 Disgust: feeling of aversion, repulsion
 Contempt: disdain; experienced towards people or their actions

Similar emotions are grouped together. Separate terms are used to indicate that there is a different sign for display, and differences in the triggering states. Disgust and contempt, for instance, seem related, but have different facial expressions and radically different triggering states. They appear to be two separate emotions.

Enjoyable emotions:

1-5. Sensory pleasures
 Visual pleasure
 Tactile pleasre
 Olfactory pleasure
 Auditory pleasure
 Gustatory pleasure
6. Amusement
 from slight amusement, through to intense amusement with laughter and tears
7. Contentment

 the feeling that there is nothing more that need be done
8. Excitement

 response to novelty or challenge
9. Relief

 felt immediately after a strong emotion subsides
10. Wonderment

 feeling of being overwhelmed by the improbable and incomprehensible
11. Ecstasy (or Bliss)

 intense self-transcendent rapture
12. Fiero

 triumph over adversity, commonly seen in sporting victories
13. Naches

 pride in the accomplishment of a child or student (or of a parent or tutor)
14. Elevation

 uplifting feeling in response to unexpected kindness and compassion
15. Gratitude

 appreciation for an altruistic gift that provides benefit
16. Shadenfreude

 delight in the suffering of enemies (in the context of play, of our friends)

Regrettably, the bulk of the book is concerned with the non-enjoyable emotions, and only a single chapter is devoted to these sixteen emotions. There is clearly much research still to be done.

Emotions not covered by this book:

1. Guilt (no clear signal)
2. Shame (no clear signal)
3. Embarrassment (no clear signal – blushing cannot be observed in dark-skinned people)
4. Envy (no clear signal) 

Not covered, and not considered emotions:

5. Jealousy (Ekman does not consider this to be an emotion, but an emotional scene or plot; it is expressible in terms of the other emotions)
6. Love (Ekman does not consider parental or romantic love to be an emotion on the following grounds: emotions can be very brief, but love endures) 

Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings is published by Phoenix, ISBN 0-75381-765-9.


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I'm reading Cziksentmihalyi's later book, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, which applies the flow theory to the human creative endeavor. It's really fascinating, although I'm only three chapters in, so it might get bogged down later in the book.

That book in particular has been a great at jogging my mind when I'm coming up with ideas for how to encourage creativity in a large-ish game studio.

The thing I really appreciate about your blog, Chris, is that you boil down some really thick books and get the pearls out. The process of emotion listed at top is very thought provoking for me, and it synchs with some earlier ideas I've had about interactive storytelling algorithms.

1: the hard data of the discourse, composed of events driven by verbs

2: the context of the discourse, the game state composed of nouns

3: the is the crucial step, one that most games ignore; you've got to let your system keep a model of the player to the end of providing a general effect. While you could do more complex AI where every agent is interpreting sense data and having emotions applied, it would be easier to produce a good play experience by having everything, from stages to agents, directed by the Drama Management AI (DM) to the end of the player's emotional state.

4&5: to that end agents are "subconsciously" cued by the DM, this can include the player agent, or "blind captain" of the character.

6: the emotional impression both alters the player's relative vision to an extant, as well as changes the information possibly available, since the emotional bottom line is the result of a whole system's behavior. So if you're playing a desperate housewife who gets jealous, the system will gear you towards interpreting that sort of info.

7: before long the player catches on to what the system is rigging for, and might take tangential action.

8: because Jung's ideas are decent, a designer can craft and write a web of concepts into the DM's program, with the thematic logic in that memetic sphere determining what concepts can associate with others, so that the player generally has some other emotional flow to slip into

9: the goal of such a system is to provide the user with agency, to whatever desired ends, so the system needs back-doors to handle the player actively subverting the current emotional flow, as well as encourage the player when co-operating with the system

10: user feedback, which ties it all together. Facial animations are the new health bar, as far as interactive storytelling is concerned. Gestures and demeanor and vocal tone may come into play in the second or third generation of drama engines.

Darius: There's no doubt that Cziksentmihalyi is a smart guy. I think part of my problem with Flow was that he has a very materialist world view (in the philosophical sense), and advertises it like this was the only choice. I found this quite irritating. I'm not alone. The person I got my copy of Flow from gave it to me after becoming so angry and frustrated with the way Cziksentmihalyi presented some of his more dogmatic beliefs in a factual manner. A lot of scientists have this blind spot around belief and science; I personally find it highly unappealing. I do use Flow theory in my work, I just happen to not get on with the authors prose style and concept of book structure very well. :) Glad to hear you're getting some real value out of his work!

Patrick: I'm sure I've said this before, but it's going to be really interesting to see what you come up with when you secure some funding. I suspect you're going to find your goals are beyond the reach of the 'low hanging fruit'. Still, *any* successful steps in this direction are going to prove most interesting!

Actually Storytron exhibits functionality in regards to parts 1,2,4,6, 9 and 10. Siri's Utopia exhibits functionality in regards to parts 1,2,3,7,8 and 10 and Facade gets it all, except for the associative symbolic webbing (their beats were at a more "chuncked" level of abstraction), though their langauge processing problems make it difficult to appreciate the DM's handling of tangential and counter-subversive matters.

So when I do reach for that fruit I'll be standing on a whole generation of incomplete attempts, and capturing this process would make for a good second generation plaftorm. All the stuff I've been saying about adaptive content, that would could AFTER we get the emotional feedback loop right, as a third generation platform.

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