Last Friday, DCRC Research Fellow, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, who recently joined the Studio, gave a talk about love and affection in games. A genuine lover of games herself, Esther spoke passionately about the games she adores and the importance of empathy in gameplay. Here is a summary of some of the key areas discussed:

Esther began by talking not about love within the game world, but about actually loving games themselves. She said that talking about loving something is sometimes seen as antithetical to academia. When we hear about people adoring games, it is often in the light of an account of extreme unhealthy obsession, like people dying of dehydration in Internet cafes, or having obsessive affairs on Second Life. Love is often taken to mean something sexual, and Esther did touch on this towards the end of her talk, but really she wanted to talk about the affection people have for games themselves and the relationships formed in game narratives.

One trait that plays a huge part in making games and gameplay likeable, is humour. One of the most beloved characters in gaming history is Guybrush Threepwood from the adventure game series Monkey Island. The witty, self-effacing dialogue written for him is what gave this game it its cult status. Perhaps the same can be said for Yogscast, a group of Bristol based YouTube broadcasters, whose playthroughs, which contain useful instruction, playful banter and a touch of failure, have been watched by millions of people. Game players love to see others truly engage in games, and sometimes get it wrong. There is something about finding flaws in something that can make it likeable. The Japanese word Kusoge, literally translated as ‘shitty game’ refers to a class of games that are so terribly made, that they are almost unplayable. There are a group of dedicated fans that absolutely love to hate these games, and see the bugs and glitches as extra obstacles in the gameplay, making the game more challenging and fun.

Humour and light-heartedness definitely make a game more enjoyable to play, but when games are tackling serious narratives, the game developers have to find other ways of creating empathy. Two very different games, which cleverly play on people’s emotions to make them truly think about how they play the game, are The Last of Us and Papers Please. The Last of Us is a hyper-realistic zombie survival game, which features an intense surrogate father/daughter relationship between two survivors, Joel and Ellie. Having escorted and protected young Ellie throughout the majority of the game, when you eventually take control of her and have to guide her through so many dangerous situations, you yourself feel protective of her, and the intensity of the gameplay increases. Likewise, in Papers Please, a dystopian indie puzzle game, in which you are an immigration inspector at a border checkpoint, the agency you have, and its effect on other characters is designed to evoke feelings of empathy. Players of Papers Please are continuously torn between doing their job correctly, and so feeding their family, and helping asylum seekers and trafficked prostitutes. Forcing the player to make so many grave decisions does something that not many games seek to do; it gives the player a distinct feeling of guilt.

There are not many games that truly attempt to tackle the subtleties of an erotic relationship between two people. Esther told us that whilst playing Dragon Age, her character was engaging in some quiet role play with a knight called Alisdair, which turned so abruptly from subtle flirting to propositions of sex that it left her in shock. Some game mechanisms don’t correlate at all with the reality of a developing relationship. A standard way in which a game simulates ‘courting’ is gift giving; the more gifts you give a character, the more they like you. Some games have tried to make this more complicated, for example the ‘perfect lover trophy’ in Beyond Two Souls, where, if you put clean pants on and don’t put to much chilli in the meal you cook, you can become a perfect girlfriend. Games developers are starting to look into writing code for realistic relationships. Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, developer of RedShirt, a sci-fi social networking simulator, said that whilst she was developing an algorithm for love, she realised that the only way to write it realistically was to make it utterly unpredictable.

Esther’s talk made us contemplate how difficult it must be to write realistic character relationships into games, and it is good to know that increasing numbers of games developers are rising to the challenge. Her enthusiasm for the some of the games she mentioned left us in the mood to play them, and we’re looking forward to seeing a lot more of Esther’s research into modern game culture.