By Jade Fell
“If I was feeling depressed or frustrated about my lot in life, all I had to do was tap the Player One button, and my worries would instantly slip away as my mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen in front of me.” ― Ernest Cline, screenwriter
What do you see when you hear the word ‘gamer’? If your immediate vision is that of someone pasty white, sat hunched over a keyboard, face lit only by the pale blue light of a computer monitor, insistently clicking away for hours on end with no real aim in mind, then get ready to re-evaluate your stereotype.
For years now filmographers and music researchers have analysed the emotional effect of film and music, while the computer game industry has been largely ignored as un-emotive. Katharine Isbister poses the question – why should games be any different?
In ‘How Games Move Us’, Isbister attempts break down the negative stereotype surrounding computer games and open up public conversation up to a more sophisticated approach to computer games as a cultural medium. The book serves as an exploration of the emotional experience of gamers, as well as how different games are used, explored and experienced by different people
“People talk about how games don’t have the emotional impact of movie. I think they do – they just have a different palette. I never felt pride, or guilt, watching a movie.” – Will Wright, designer of The Sims.
Far from being devoid of emotion, video games, Isbister argues, can actually elicit strong emotional responses in players in a multitude of ways, ranging from a simple feeling of anxiety in horror-based survival games (think Amnesia, or Silent Hill); to the inexplicable feeling of guilt which arises from spanking a pet Tamagotchi, or worse, letting it die. Delving further into the simulated world of gaming, Isbister also analyses how certain games create strong emotional bonds between players and non-player characters, and social connections among players in networked games.
Isbister analyses the techniques used by game designers to create these emotional responses, drawing examples from across the gaming industry. Isbister analyses games ranging from much-loved classics such as The Sims and Little Big Planet, to more obscure, one-off projects, including Anna Anthropy’s cooperative maze-navigation game Keep Me Occupied, and the once great massively multiplayer online role-playing game City of Heroes.
Many of you may take issue with a researcher attempting to define games as a whole – Isbister does not try to do this. The huge variety of games are not merely thrown into the melting pot labelled ‘computer games’ – she differentiates but does not attempt to define, focusing on certain games within sub genres while acknowledging the partiality of her analysis.
How Games Move Us is an incredibly interesting, enlightening, and poignant read, and will no doubt evoke similar feelings in a reader as it strives to explain in a gamer. Isbister presents a new way of thinking about and understanding games, a medium which, though misunderstood, offers players unique opportunities to explore and understand themselves, and the world around them – much in the same way as music and film.