Top Ten Videogame Emotions
April 09, 2008
What are the most popular emotions of play in videogames?
Based on the 1,040 responses to the DGD2 survey, I have ranked the top 10 emotions with their average score out of 5 to get a rough-and-ready estimate of the popularity of various emotions. This isn’t a strict scientific measure, as such, but the highest scoring emotions are those for which the majority of people not only recognised having that emotion while playing games, but recognised it enhanced their enjoyment.
(For reference, the top answer that could be given in each case was “Yes, [I recognise this emotion in my play] and I seek out games that give me this feeling” and the next highest was “Yes [I recognise this emotion in my play] and it enhances my enjoyment of a game”. The bottom answer in each case was “No, I never feel this way when playing games.”)
I have included my hypothetical deductions concerning the underlying neuro-biological mechanisms where I have some idea of what is involved.
10. Bliss (3.26)
At the bottom of our Top 10, the feeling of utter joyfulness, which is probably the experience of highly elevated levels of the neurotransmitter seratonin. While 27.7% of respondents said no videogame had given them this feeling, 59.9% of people gave this emotion one of the top two responses (with 22.1% actively seeking out games which give them this feeling). I’m actually quite doubtful that so many people have experienced bliss in the sense intended by emotions-expert Paul Ekman (although a study could easily determine this), and I find it more likely that people are taking the description “utter joy and bliss” to mean fiero (the emotion of triumph over adversity), which we will come to below.
9. Relief (3.28)
Relief, which may be the experiential analogue of the hormone cortisol, has already been acknowledged as an important emotion of play (as we discussed before in the piece on rushgames). Despite this, 21.5% of respondents said no videogame had ever given them this feeling. However, 43% said it enhanced their enjoyment of games, and 14.4% said they sought out games that gave them this feeling.
8. Naches (3.57)
Here’s a curious one – the emotion of pride in the accomplishments of one’s students or children, referred to by emotion researcher Ekman by the Yiddish term naches. Players seem to really enjoy training their friends and family to play games, with a whopping 53.4% saying it enhances their enjoyment, and another 12.9% saying they seek out games that give them this feeling. (I don’t have the data yet, but I wonder if such people play mostly MMORPGs?) Only 10.9% had never had the experience in the context of videogames. Perhaps, as Katherine Isbister has suggested, more videogames should include a co-operative Tutor mode?
7. Surprise (3.59)
Another emotion we’ve seen in the context of rushgames, surprise is closely related to fear and thus probably relates to the hormone and neurotransmitter epinephrine (adrenalin). Few people (8.1%) had never been surprised by videogames, while more than half the respondants (51.9%) said it added to their enjoyment, and another 14.4% saying they sought out games that gave them this experience.
6. Fiero (3.89)
Yes, arguably the most prominent of the videogame emotions, fiero (the feeling of triumph over adversity – probably a cocktail of norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine) didn’t even make it half way up the top ten! It wasn’t because it wasn’t highly rated – in fact about three quarters of respondants (77.1%) gave it the top two marks, with about a third (32.7%) saying they seek out games that give them this feeling. Still, there were five other emotions that scored more highly, and three other emotions which scored higher in terms of players actively seeking out the feeling...
5. Curiosity (3.92)
I wasn’t surprised to see curiosity in the Top Five, but to see it edge out fiero was unexpected! Curiosity, which is an expression of what some psychologists refer to as interest (and could be seen as a behaviour rather than an emotion) seems to relate to the beta-endorphin neurotransmitter, which is involved in a mechanism encouraging animals to explore and seek new stimulus. Nicole Lazzaro was the first person to relate it to videogame play, and with good cause! It pulled in big numbers, with once again about three quarters rating it highly (78.8%) and of these about a quarter (24.3%) seeking out games that give them this feeling. Just 5.4% had never had the experience in videogames.
4. Excitement (4.02)
Well no surprise to see this one near the top! Excitement, as discussed previously, is an expression of epinephrine (adrenalin), and an extremely common experience – just 2.7% of respondents claimed they had never experienced it in the context of videogames. 8 out of 10 people (82.1%) gave it one of the top two responses, with about a quarter (26.3%) actively seeking it out. This emotion also produced the highest incidence of the second-to-highest response (55.8%) in the survey, that is, a strict majority of players recognise excitement as a major contribution to their enjoyment of play.
3. Wonderment (4.07)
Another expression of the interest mechanism mentioned under curiosity, wonderment is probably also related to beta-endorphin. Here, the feeling is more intense – and it seems players respond to the greater intensity. Whilst a larger number of people could not relate the experience to their play (8.1% had no experience of it in videogames), 41.5% said it enhanced their enjoyment and an additional 41.2% (for a total of 82.7%) said they sought out games that gave them this feeling. In fact, of all the emotions studied in this survey, this was the highest scorer in terms of respondents actively seeking it out, as even the top 2 emotions did not clear 40% in seeking out the emotion. It seems amazing players is one of the most effective techniques videogames can muster.
2. Contentment (4.09)
I said before the survey began that I suspected that the research community had underestimated the importance of contentment to videogames, and although this crude ranking is far from definitive, it does seem I was correct! 82.7% gave this emotion one of the top two marks, with 38.2% seeking out games that would give them a sense of contentment. Like bliss, this probably connects to serotonin, but whereas more than a quarter of players had no experience of bliss to draw upon, just 5.8% could find no memory of contentment in their play.
1. Amusement (4.28)
But head and shoulders above every other emotion in the survey was amusement (for which I have no biological mechanism, although psychologists link it to the resolution of inconsistencies, and it will involve an endorphin of some kind as well as the pre-frontal cortex). The fewest number of people responded that they had no experience of amusement in videogames (just 1.7%) while a whopping 92.6% gave this emotion one of the top two responses, and 39.7% stating they actively sought out this feeling (second only to Wonderment for the rate of response in the top answer).
It seems that if we want to make better games for everyone, we should be looking at how to make our games funnier, not more challenging!
Bottom of the List
Finally, you might be interested to know what the bottom three emotions were. At number 20, it was Sadness (2.08), at number 21, Guilt (1.91) and bottom of the barrel at number 22 was Embarrassment (1.70). In all three cases, more than half the respondents said no game had made them feel this way. Oddly, 1.1% of respondents said they actively sought out games that made them feel embarrassed – even allowing for some fatuous respondents, this is still odd. I guess it truly is different strokes for different folks!
results from the DGD2 survey data soon.
Very informative results. Certainly you are right about contentment being under served by the research community. I have never looked at it and I don't recall anyone in my school doing so either (I'll have to ask my supervisor).
I must point out that Thomas Malone identified curiosity in game play long before Lazzaro, in 1980. His work was really quite excellent, given how early it happened in the life span of computer games. I'll PM a couple of papers, in case you haven't read him, if you want.
It would be highly interesting to look at how the breadth of these emotive experiences of play crosses with the depth of cognitive action in play - as in, 'pure' cognitive responses to input, like Flow.
How we process stuff, in tandem with how we emotionally react to stuff.
Then there's also: how we store stuff (might be another days' work :D ).
Posted by: zenBen | April 09, 2008 at 07:55 PM
Interesting work, and very surprising results so far! I'm curious about the mentions of neurotransmitters - are you planning to use that information in analyzing the study?
Posted by: Line Hollis | April 10, 2008 at 01:38 AM
zenBen: yes - I'm in a literature review at the moment, and if you have some stuff on curiosity I would love to read it. Please pass on your knowledge. ;)
As you probably know, I don't think play can be decomposed to a single element - so Flow, for instance, can tell us about focus-immersion (and possibly world-immersion too) but that is only part of the story of videogames. You also need to look at the emotional landscape of the games, and also at the relationship between player skills and game challenges (which you can put into learning, if you like).
The user experience is always more complex than researchers and game designers would perhaps like - that's what makes game research and game design such a challenging arena! :)
Line: no, I'm not *planning* on drawing on the neuro-biological level in analysing the data, per se, but that doesn't mean it won't happen. :) Essentially, I'm in the middle of a big literature review - I don't know how the analysis of the data is going to play out, so I'm looking at anything that might be relevant.
It might be that the DGD2 player model we end up with can be expressed in terms of neuro-biology, or it might just be that this is an additional layer of description in the report.
As I say, I don't quite know how it's all going to play out, but I'm very interested to see what happens!
What will happen, however, is that I will write a piece summarising my discoveries about the biology of play at some point soon, independently of how the data analysis proceeds, as I have now quite a bit of information about which brain structures, neurotransmitters and hormones are involved in creating the key play experiences.
I don't believe that strict reductionism is the best way to examine this sort of thing (player experience doesn't necessarily decompose along these lines) but I do believe that a little knowledge can go a long way. ;)
Posted by: Chris | April 10, 2008 at 12:10 PM
"As you probably know, I don't think play can be decomposed to a single element - so Flow, for instance, can tell us about focus-immersion (and possibly world-immersion too) but that is only part of the story of videogames. You also need to look at the emotional landscape of the games, and also at the relationship between player skills and game challenges (which you can put into learning, if you like)."
Totally agree. This would be my idea of a good research direction in support of a broader understanding of the cognition and psychology of optimal experience. So much brain work focuses on pathology because those are the outliers. Game play would be a great place to study normal brain operation - and in return you get great insight into play to leverage in game design!
Posted by: zenBen | April 10, 2008 at 01:37 PM
Fascinating read, this one.
I checked back to the survey (though I did complete it, I tend not to memorise survey questions for future reference...) and note that option 2 ("Yes, I sometimes feel this way, and I don't like it.") suggests that if the emotion were evoked by Game X, that player would be pushed away, whereas option 1 ("No, I never feel this way when playing games.") simply states that this emotion hasn't been evoked by games thus far.
I honestly feel that the questions 'have you experienced this emotion before in games/how much' and 'would you like to/did you enjoy experiencing this emotion in games' should be split up. As is, I'm sure people chose option 1 for some emotions they would love to experience in a game, but simply haven't had evoked yet.
That was certainly the case for me.
I accept that being evil, you're unlikely to change your ways, but suggest you make that alteration for the next iteration. Then we could (slightly) more reliably know how much emotions are seeked out.
By using 'I always encounter this emotion in games, I often encounter this emotion in games, I rarely encounter this emotion in games, I have never encountered this emotion in games' it might also be possible to see more clearly where games are failing to deliver on the desired emotions.
Personally, I seek out games that truly embarrass me (though I can't remember my answers, which are never definitive, only reflecting my opinions at that particular moment). I mean, it's good to be humbled once in a while. Though embarrassment (for me) only regularly happens when the toys include other people and perhaps unusual behaviour, language, bodies etc. and most often in games of my own devising. Not really an emotion I find evoked by computerised games.
Posted by: Bezman | April 11, 2008 at 04:31 PM
Sounds interesting. I would suggest that, given what is known about its role in mania and addiction, elevated dopamine activity probably plays a role in Bliss. I look forward to your further pieces on the subject!
Posted by: Line Hollis | April 12, 2008 at 12:05 AM
This study does not seem to have much validity (I am a doctoral grad student in psychology). The emotions examined are complex, and easily misinterpreted. Most participants in the study will not be emotionally attuned enough to accurately report on the intricacies the researches are looking for. Bateman pointed out an excellent example of this in his discussion of Bliss: most gamers probably misinterpreted the psychological concept of the word.
Another example is the vague concept of Amusement. Most survey respondents will understand this emotion as its dictionary definition: entertainment or pleasure. You will be hard pressed to find a pursuant of a recreational activity that is not entertained and pleased by the activity. A more specific definition of the word needs to be provided for the survey participants.
I suspect that the feelings of Naches reported have more to do with validation and narcissism issues than they do with actually playing video games.
Also, there is a significant uncontrolled variable: the types of games being played. Players that seek curiosity in the type of games they play (I imagine this would be exploratory type games, like the original Legend of Zelda) are more likely to be playing a game that inspires curiosity. However, games that inspire Curiosity may not be as accessible or easily available as games that inspire Fiero, and therefore, fewer respondents reported strong feelings of Curiosity when they play.
Last of all, this data has little utility to game designers, as it is only measuring respondents' reactions to currently available material. For example, true Bliss may be the most rewarding, sought after emotional experience a gamer can have. However, as this data (and common sense) demonstrate, Bliss is the least common emotion experiences- most likely because very few games actually inspire it. Game designers would therefore benefit most from making games that inspire Bliss- a conclusion that cannot be reached using the current data.
Posted by: Alex | April 14, 2008 at 10:16 AM
Bezman: I agree there's room for improvement in the questions... I find in these things it's difficult to get everything just right, and we also had to balance detail against brevity: there were a lot of questions in the survey, and I tried to keep it manageable.
There has also been some discussion in the wings about whether or not we should have used a Likert scale (i.e. statements that people rate 1-5) although I think in the case of the emotions questions there was merit to the division of the answers, even taking into account your criticisms herein.
I'm also fascinated to read your account of (potentially) seeking out embarrassment in play: I can see how this would make sense now, whereas before it was a head scratcher!
Alex: thanks for the "peer review", but I must point out this isn't the results of the study that we are conducting, but just some data I am skimming off the top of the study and posting for general interest.
The actual study involves looking for patterns of response across a variety of metrics, of which self-assessment of emotions is only one field.
I'm working on the data with a statistician at the moment; a paper will eventually be produced on the main study. In the meantime, I'll cough up the odd thing thrown out by the survey here on the blog. :)
A few responses to your criticisms:
"The emotions examined are complex, and easily misinterpreted. Most participants in the study will not be emotionally attuned enough to accurately report on the intricacies the researches are looking for."
I agree, but don't see this as a fatal flaw. We have a modestly large pool of respondents (over 1,000), and we are looking for statistical patterns of response in their answers - that self-assessment of emotions will contain mistakes will hopefully be smoothed out by the statistical analysis, as a statistically significant correlation in the data will still tell us *something*, and we have a later case study phase to investigate more closely just what that something might be.
Obviously a FACS observational study (in the manner of Ekman) would produce superior results in the context of emotions and games, but it would also take more time and resources. A survey study is sufficient for our purposes - which is modelling patterns in the audience for videogames. Plus, Nicole Lazzaro has already conducted a FACS study which informs this research effort.
So to reiterate this point: while clearly self-assessment of emotional response is not as strong as an observation study, it still represents data that can be assessed for patterns of cross-correlation. Flaws in the survey form (such as the ambiguity of common words used like 'amusement') aren't going to give us any major problems is my instinct.
If answers in any field correlate with other factors, we have found something to investigate in our case study phase; the survey doesn't have to get it right first time, if you see what I mean.
"Also, there is a significant uncontrolled variable: the types of games being played... games that inspire Curiosity may not be as accessible or easily available as games that inspire Fiero, and therefore, fewer respondents reported strong feelings of Curiosity when they play."
Well there's a question here as to which variables are worth attempting to be controlled. The survey gathers self assessment of game types played, emotions experienced, and skills used, as well as other reference points (such as favourite games). Patterns we find between these elements are the focus of the study; that the kinds of games that are available vary in their ability to deliver different emotions doesn't strike me as a factor when it comes to finding cross correlations between, say, types of game enjoyed and emotions enjoyed.
(For reference though, games that can evoke curiosity are at least as well distributed as games that evoke fiero).
"Last of all, this data has little utility to game designers, as it is only measuring respondents' reactions to currently available material."
Now here I do disagree with you - as a game designer myself, I find considerable utility in this snapshot of data from the survey (never mind what the actual study will produce!) Measuring respondents reactions to the currently available material must necessarily be the nature of any study into videogame players (one cannot investigate what is not!) so I find it hard to see this as a flaw.
I'm uncertain why you think a ranking of preferred emotional responses wouldn't be of interest to game designers, irrespective of the flaws in the data collection method... It's certainly of interest to me as a game designer. :)
Just to reiterate: this is a snapshot of the data from a study I am conducting, not the study itself; that will follow later, and involves a lot of statistical analysis. I hope you will lend your peer review skills to that when it is published. :)
Posted by: Chris | April 14, 2008 at 03:20 PM
My emotion is usually stressed because I get too wound up.
Posted by: Joe the Dog Lover | September 09, 2008 at 10:56 PM
Joe: you are not alone - a strange thing about videogames and emotions is that some players enjoy the stress, and some detest it. Thanks for sharing!
Posted by: Chris | September 10, 2008 at 07:07 AM