Emotional Triggers

In his bookDesigning Games, Tynan Sylvester says:

If we look around, we find interactive narrative everywhere. Museums and art galleries are interactive nonlinear narratives where visitors explore a story or an art movement in a semi directed, personal way. Ancient Ruins and urban graffiti tell stories…

These interactive forms – museums, galleries, real spaces, and life  - should be our first touchstones as we search for narrative tools. These older forms address our most fundamental challenge: creating a story that flexes and reshapes itself around the player’s choices, and deepens the meaning of everything the player does.

So here am I, trying to discover what museums and cultural heritage can learn from digital game design, and I find the lens turned back on me and my cohort. Sylvester points game designers towards the heritage industry (and elsewhere) in an attempt to dissuade them from focusing on cinema as the sole source of narrative instruction. My own studies arise from wanting to look beyond linear storyforms (text, film) which exert a strong influence on interpretation designers looking to engage visitors’ emotions. Games do a great job of getting players to care about watching mathematical algorithms choose what colour each pixel on a screen is. So thanks (on behalf of my profession)  for the kudos, Tynan, but I think the learning can be two-way.

So, lets look at what Sylvester calls “the basic emotional triggers.”

Emotion through learning

Not just any old learning though. “If a lesson is obvious,” he says “there’s not much buzz in finally getting it because it was always fairly clear.” Instead, he advocates a moment of insight, where everything that has come before “clicks into place and reveals the shape of the whole.”

Emotion through character arcs

This is what film can do so well, engaging the audience’s empathy with one or more characters, as they face internal conflicts, grow and change.

Emotion through challenge

And this is the emotional trigger that we most readily associate with games,testing the the player’s dexterity and pattern learning before rewarding him or her not just with a sense of accomplishment, but progression within the game. But Sylvester argues that it is not as essential to games as it might appear, and cites Dear Esther as a game that can “create powerful emotions without players struggling.”

Emotion through social interaction

There’s still a perception of gamers as solitary types with no friends, but of course most games, not just team sports, are ways of bringing two or more people together.

Emotion through acquisition

As Sylvester acknowledges, gambling games are all about acquisition, and computer games often simulate the acquisition of wealth (or simply points). Of course gambling works in two ways, and the bitter emotions of loss shouldn’t be disregarded.

Emotion through music

Ah! This is one I’ve already discovered (and it occasions a warm internal glow as I read about it, my own little “emotion through learning”), though I’ll admit its not exactly rocket science. I like how Sylvester talks about it though:

And music is wonderfully subtle – even more than most emotional triggers. Nobody ever gives it the credit it deserves because nobody consciously pays attention to it during play. But even though the conscious mind is oblivious, the unconscious is still processing the music into a continuous flow of feeling. You can tell because music is easily separable from the rest of the experience. Listen to a game soundtrack by itself, and you’ll feel much of what you felt during play. Play the game in silence, and you’ll be surprised at how hollow it feels.

Emotion through spectacle, and,
Emotion through beauty

In my own mind, these two are conflated, beauty being a form of spectacle. But Sylvester separates out the beauty of “a sunset over the ocean” from the spectacle of “a slow-motion dive to dodge an incoming rocket.” He also offers a warning not to over use either.

Emotion through environment

Touching upon people’s preferences for one environment other overs (which he suggests is at least in part, culturally conditioned) Sylvester also talks about the contrast between two environments. In one game, set in the tunnels of a post-apocalyptic Moscow underground, he describes a how play moved to the ruined, frozen, surface and the powerful effect it had on him as a player.

Though most would call Metro 2033 a shooter or RPG, I wouldn’t, because I don’t think its about shooting or roleplaying. I think its about discovering how a place like that makes you feel.

Emotion through newfangled technology

“The first few games with any new graphics, animation, or physics technology get an emotional rise from certain players,” but Sylvester warns new technologies can result in a reduction in the quality of games, as the designers learn how to best use the new capabilities available to them. As an example, he cites the introduction of CD-ROMs as a method of delivery, which in turn produced games with a lot of dreadful full-motion video cut-scenes.

Emotion through sexual signals

Another emotional trigger that comes with a health warning. Though easy to use, its heavy handed, just as spectacle and beauty can be (maybe it more properly belongs in a subset of those). “For the more serious or broadly targeted games, it’s often not worth being tasteless” he concludes.

You’ll notice, that change is a common factor for a lot of the above, and indeed, Sylvester declares that “the bedrock principle behind all emotional triggers is change”.

The National Trust’s beautiful Ightham Mote which triggers a strong emotional impact in visitors. © Olly Hitchen

So, how does that list look to us in the the cultural heritage industry? Emotion through spectacle/beauty is something that my own organisation recognises. The full corporate name of the National Trust  does after all continue with “for places of [...] natural beauty.” Respondents to the Trust’s most beautiful places, like Ightham Mote do record a higher emotional impact than elsewhere.  But does the National Trust as an organisation rely on beauty too much, as Sylvester accuses some games designers of doing? Good museums know how to use spectacle too, by creating “wow” moments often at the threshold of galleries. These can involve impressive exhibits, multimedia “shows”, interpretive “set design” or even the design of the spaces itself, such as the Great Court at the British Museum.

The impressive Great Court “wow moment”, at the British Museum (linked from British Museum website)

The Great Court being a free to enter space, is often used as a place to meet friends, and cultural heritage attractions are fully aware of their role as places for social interaction. Just like games, a heritage visit can be some you do alone, but the majority visit with others, partly to use the place as a backdrop, or springboard, for their own interactions.

Interpretation professionals are all about learning too. But are we too keen to reveal the whole story? Do we sometimes make it so easy to learn that our audience miss the thrill of discovering something for themselves?

Not every site has the sort of character that can take a narrative arc, but of course there are loads of sites that are associated with famous personalities, or where the lives of the less famous can be uncovered. Fictional, or archaeologically inferred characters, can be created with very clear character arcs. Real people’s lives are often messier, but internal conflict and change are often part of of what makes people famous, so emotionally engaging narratives can be woven from the threads of their lives. When the Imperial War Museum’s Cabinet War Rooms became the Churchill War Rooms, the emotional pull of one character was recognised. However, his life was full, and the part of the exhibition focussing on Winston Churchill describes so many character arcs that the emotional power of the story is diluted.

These triggers then: spectacle; beauty; social interaction; learning and character arcs, cultural heritage sites should be reasonably confident in delivering. There are also though some from Sylvester’s  list which cultural heritage interpretation uses less confidently.

Challenge and acquisition are interpretive tools mostly confined to “children’s” or “family” trails and activities. At their most basic, such a trail will present a young visitor with a number of items to spot and check off against a list, a very simple game mechanic in which the child acquires sights (and possibly a small reward such as a badge, if they managed to fill every checkbox). More sophisticated activities, including  interactives which are often short computer games, may present more challenges and of course at some sites there can be playful physical challenges.

A popular navigation challenge aboard Cutty Sark

A popular navigation challenge aboard Cutty Sark

Many cultural heritage sites are, by their very nature interesting environments. But, again because of their nature, it can be difficult to manipulate the environment to trigger emotional responses. Historic sites can’t be altered easily, and many sites are composed of just one environment type so its difficult to play with the contrast of two or more environments. Where the opportunity does exist though, the impact of transition between two environments can be increased with careful routing.

Visitor attractions prefer tried and tested technology to cutting edge newfangled technology. Technology needs to be robust and reliable to suffer the attentions of hundreds, or thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of visitors with varying degrees of manual dexterity. Technology in museums also tends to have a longer shelf-life than faddish games, so interpreters don’t want invest heavily in something that will turn out to be “sooo last year”.

Generally too, cultural heritage strives to appeal to as wide a cross section of the public as possible, so using sexual signals to manipulate emotion isn’t common. That said after an appropriate warning at the start, the sexual content of the British Museum’s Life and Death at Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit had me grinning.

And, as I’ve discussed before, music is not well used at most cultural heritage sites.

Sylvester points out the challenge of working with emotions, because its so difficult to understand how emotional triggers work. He cites a number of experiments which demonstrate that, when asked to describe an emotional response, or the reasons for that response, people find it hard to say why they feels something. One famous example, by Dutton and Aron in 1974, seemed to show that young men thought they were attracted to a female researcher when in fact their pounding heart was due to being on a scary rope bridge.

Of course, as Sylvester goes on to say, this emotional misattribution makes music a great tool with which to manipulate how people feel. He describes what he calls “the Leonard Cohen Gravitas Moment” in TV drama:

It comes at the start of the third act of the show, when things are bad and it looks like all hope is lost. The dialogue stops, and a soulful or catchy song—often something Leonard Cohen-like—swells as the camera slides through a montage and a voiceover discusses the theme of the show. Viewers feel refreshed and contemplative. But they misattribute these feelings to the story when they actually come from the song.