Psychology in games as a strategy to move you | Games

A region desolated by war. Tanks, shots and bombings everywhere. Shops and hospitals destroyed, water and food scarce, buildings still standing by a thread. You are in the middle of this chaos and you need to try to save yourself and as many as you can. But there is a catch: a super-armed soldier is not the super hero of this story. You are just an ordinary person; someone who will have to make difficult choices if he wants to stay alive.

This is just a summary of This War of Mine, a game in which the player controls the fate of a group of civilians trying to survive in a besieged city, with almost no basic resources, and with snipers and hostile collectors always lurking. What, or who, would you be willing to sacrifice to stay alive or to save someone you love? How would you deal with the consequences of those choices?

The narrative in games, when well built and grounded, instigates good and bad emotions, as well as social reflections and, why not, welcome debates about the applicability of psychology in the games industry. First, it is good to understand that the narrative is not restricted to writing and dialogue. There are titles with incredible stories, as in Ori and the Will of the Wisps, without almost anyone saying a word.

This War of Mine

This War of Mine (Image: Disclosure / 11 bit studios)

Far beyond dialogue

Psychology student and digital communicator, Lisa Guerra, tells in an interview to Tecnoblog that “games have always had the habit of touching people’s emotions, whether due to the characters or the impactful narratives”.

“We see several games that make us immerse ourselves both by graphic factors, color composition, soundtrack and ambience, as well as moral dilemmas, so that we get into the characters’ skin and wonder what we would do, or about what the game induced us to do. to do ”, comments Lisa who has a YouTube channel where she talks about psychology in series, films and games.

Guerra also cites examples of titles that promote this moral immersion, along the lines of This War of Mine, how: The Last of Us, Life is Strange and Detroit: Become Human – for example. “Everyone brings with them this strong emotional charge, as if they were an exercise that we need to look into ourselves or the society around and question what we are doing as collective subjects”, he explains.

But is it possible to deduce how impactful a game can be for a player?


Lisa Guerra [foto], and her friend Julia Eltz, talk about psychology in games, movies and series on YouTube (Image: Personal Archive)

[Atenção] To go deeper into the topic, it is possible that some spoilers are mentioned from this point on.

“It is impossible to define exactly the emotion created”

This statement is by Lucas Aguiar Goulart, master and doctor in social and institutional psychology at UFRGS. On the question of a game inducing a player to “feel” the story, the psychologist believes that “although emotions are important within the immersive identification relationship, studies already show that the feeling-identification-immersion relationship is not as linear as thought, ”he comments.

“Even if there is a restricted emotional field [feito para ‘conduzir’ o jogador pela história], it is impossible to define exactly what would be the emotion created there – since our emotions are composed within networks of meaning, with memories of our own subjective experiences ”, points out Goulart who is also a researcher on affective game design.

What the psychologist meant is that the gaming industry tends to act in two ways, when it seeks to instigate emotional reactions. According to him, the first is already assuming that the player understands the complexity of the created narrative and will compose meanings proper to that experience. The other is an extreme, and often simplistic, proposal that inserts the player into stereotyped affective networks: “especially when the player is a member of some vulnerable population (…), something that has been called by many authors ’empathy pornography’” , according to Goulart.


Lucas Aguiar Goulart is a master and doctor in social and institutional psychology at UFRGS (Image: Personal Archive)

Psychological profiles of characters in games

In a complementary approach to the use of emotions in the game narrative, another point that needs to be mentioned is how the studios sometimes build the psychological profiles of some characters (usually the central ones) to try to provoke the most diverse reactions in the player, be it of aversion, affection, pity or anguish.

Perhaps, in an attempt to escape the classic and stereotyped “good guy and bad guy” clichés, the developers have bet on diving into the minds of leading figures in the plot, whether working psychological disorders or creating triggers in the story of this individual to be a motivator of redemption , revenge, victory or defeat.

For example, games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and The Last of Us – Part 2 clearly work on their protagonists (Senua and Ellie, respectively) psychological disorders. In this case, post-traumatic stress (loss of great love and loss of father figure).

The interesting thing to note, specifically in these two cases (even in order to delimit this subject, which is quite wide), is how the studios use extra resources to approach these themes. Senua and Ellie need not explicitly say that they are suffering. The player notices this in body expressions, in how they react to other people and / or the world around them. The ambience effects themselves (sound, lights and shadows) help us, the players, to interpret what is happening.


Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Image: Disclosure / Ninja Theory)

“Ellie[in[em[in[emThe Last of Us – Part 2]goes through a very difficult moment with the abrupt loss of his father figure, which triggered a Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (behavior pattern that can be triggered after the subject experiences, directly or indirectly, a traumatic event) from which the writers made a point of spreading several symptoms throughout the game ”, comments Lisa Guerra.

The student continues: “We observed that they do use several digital resources, changing both the physical and dejected aspect of the character and even editing resources, such as dry cuts representing unwanted flashbacks of the trauma in Ellie’s mind.”

Lisa, however, believes that this is not always intentional: “as games are often mirrored in our reality, factors related to psychology end up appearing indirectly, as it is something intrinsic in us human beings.”

Lucas Goulart explains that although it is interesting for studios to bring these narratives to games, there is rarely a very significant difference from the mechanics point of view. “The model like these games[[[[Hellblade and TLoU2]they act is much closer to the cinema model (not coincidentally, both are very linear, which is the type of game that best dialogs with the cinema experience), and also because, being mainstream, there must always be violence and the struggle as central mechanical activities. ”


The Last of Us – Part 2 (Image: Disclosure / Naughty Dog)

The psychologist also adds that titles that tend to be more discussed in relation to psychological disorders are indie games, where the smallest scope brings a greater possibility of structure variation, and the game can really insert players into affective networks that indicate the experiences of people with trauma, as they do not always have to be connected to the repetitive mechanics of AAA games.

“Games like That Dragon, Cancer – for example – that talks about the loss of a child with cancer and uses its gameplay to create feelings of relief, failure, sadness, frustration and effort, demonstrate how these mechanics are producing emotion ”, says Goulart.

The real experience of war that inspired a game

We opened this article by talking a little about the story covered in This War of Mine, independent survival game developed by 11 bit studios, based in Warsaw, capital of Poland.

This War of Mine it is strongly driven by a narrative that puts the player in difficult situations all the time, with moral choices that can have consequences in the short or long term. Tomasz Kisilewicz, Lead Artist during the production of the game (today Game Director in another project), tells the Tecnoblog that the concept came from Grzegorz Miechowski, who was CEO at the time of the game’s production and is now COO of 11 bit studios.

“When this idea arrived, the team was already making a prototype for a survival game. But there was still no message behind that was strong enough to be considered unique and meaningful, ”says Kisilewicz. “Grzegorz came up with this impactful idea after reading a book that tells the story of a man who survived a war in Yugoslavia.”

This War of Mine

This War of Mine (Image: Disclosure / 11 bit studios)

The artist comments that the story was so impressive that it was clear that it could become a significant theme for a game. “Games have a long history of talking about war, but only from the perspective of soldiers and full of action. We have broken the perspective of what players expect from something with this theme ”, explains Kisilewicz. “As it is said in one of the game’s trailers: ‘in war, not everyone is a soldier’. We found that those who are not, also deserve to have their story told. ”

Regarding the challenges of creating a narrative, which has such a heavy emotional charge, to the point of making the player question real decisions he would make in life, 11 bit studios believes that, to achieve the desired result, it is necessary to have total confidence in the message that you’re trying to convey and then find the right tools to support it and make it as understandable as possible.

“We knew that we wanted to tell a story of ordinary people facing the drama of war. With a clear goal in mind, we could focus on building mechanics to put players in these situations, ”says Kisilewicz. “That way, they can empathize with the characters and write their personal stories – based on their own decisions. Furthermore, we do not judge these decisions at any level and the remorse that players may feel for some of them has proved to be a powerful part of the experience. ”

“It had to look real, raw and believable”

And again touching on the theme of using psychological resources for character profiling, This War of Mine sought very real references to encourage the player to immerse themselves in the narrative. This reality was unfortunately part of the life of many people at the time of the war covered in the game.

“We wanted to tell a story of those who suffered in the war, but the question is: who are these people? The answer is: us. Ordinary men and women, like you and me, ”explains Kisilewicz. “Therefore, the characters had to be portrayed that way. The team used real black and white photos of co-workers, friends and family to create the characters. For 3D models, people were scanned in their normal everyday clothes, because we didn’t want it to be staged. It had to look real, raw and credible. ”

This War of Mine

This War of Mine (Image: Disclosure / 11 bit studios)

The 11 bit studios artist emphasized that it is always good to know psychology, as this helps to design situations that can take players out of their comfort zone. He also says that the team’s writers have read many scientific studies on the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the psychological consequences of war trauma. There was also a lot of research on how people survived wartime or sieges.

“We also had a consultant named Emir Cerimovic, who escaped from Bosnia with his family and witnessed hell with his own eyes,” says Kisilewicz. “Because of this specific research [sobre a guerra da Bósnia], the game’s development was a frightening experience for some team members. And some of them didn’t even want to think about the next war-themed game when we asked what to do next. ”

And finally, about the experience of playing This War of Mine, Kisilewicz says: “the focus here is on experience. The game allows players to write their own stories narrated by their decisions. This is unattainable in books or films, where you are more of a spectator than a director. ”

Does applying psychology to games generate immersion?

I believe that if the psychological resources (including the construction of sound and visual stimuli) are well structured and developed along with the game’s history and, of course, if the purpose of the game is this, that is, to instill emotions in the player, there is a fertile field to be explored.

Lisa Guerra, for example, says she sees psychology quite present in the most diverse game genres, from adventure to terror and cites, as an example, Until Dawn, in which throughout the game the player is in a therapy session, which gets more and more profound and immersive as the story progresses.

“I believe that we still have a long way to go when we talk about psychology and mental health debate, but yes, in games it is a movement that has been gaining strength”, says the student. “I would say that psychology is not only within us, much less limited to the definitions of mental disorders, but that it is also in what we externalize to the world in forms of expression [como nos jogos]. ”

that dragon cancer

That Dragon, Cancer (Image: Press Release / Numinous Games)

Lucas Goulart believes that the use of psychology in games is more a question of the consumer market than anything else. “I believe that this presence comes from the need for games to be relevant in social discussions, which is due to the understanding that players who actually buy new games (…) tend to be older – there is no discussion about anxiety within Fortnite or about depression within League of Legends, for example.”

For the psychologist, these subjects appear as “adult themes”, as well as sexuality, fatherhood, the limit and the impact of violence. “In my view, it is an important issue and proof that there are multiple possibilities and ethical discussions in digital gaming cultures, but it would be cynical on my part not to recognize that this is much more of a market trend.”

“Games can spark discussions, ask ambiguous questions and be thought-provoking while touching on difficult issues,” adds Tomasz Kisilewicz of 11 bit studios. “More importantly – games are able to do this not only through narration, but also through central game mechanics”, he concludes.

Whether it is a market trend or not, it is interesting that the mainstream space of games is also open for such important discussions, such as mental health and social treatment, today. Gamifying and making these experiences interactive can be a way of generating more empathy and awakening in people the importance of paying a little more attention to themselves and others around them.

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