Designing Games with Emotion For Education (In A Nutshell)

If you are familiar with his work, it will come as no surprise that this section draws heavily from David Freeman’s Creating Emotion in Games. Sheri Graner Ray’sGender Inclusive Game Design was another influential source. This section took longer to pull together, though, because many of my other sources were scattered throughout my outliner – sources as diverse as Dewey, Vygotsky, and Bruner… and Senge, Evans, and Fullan… not to mention Gee and Squire. I look forward to completing the longer version, complete with quotes and references, and posting that here, too. In the meantime, what do you make of this first effort?

Designing games that stimulate a broader spectrum of human emotions will be an important part of creating video games for educational purposes. Sadly, profound emotional experiences are rare in most video games. However, emotion is one of the things that players want from a game. Emotion can be a powerful motivator (and may be considered the only motivator). For instance, any personal or societal change will be motivated by emotions such as dissatisfaction, hope, or inspiration. A broader range of emotions in games will allow expanded demographics to enjoy the game. Most importantly, a greater variety of emotional stimuli may help video games appeal to more female players.

Early constructivists recognized the fundamental worth of expressing emotions, and noted that traditional educational practices fail to adequately stimulate student emotions. Others found play to be critical to emotional development and suggested that game play can serve a cathartic purpose. More recently, constructivist theorists have considered emotions part of the whole individual and a key element of integration into a cultural system. Modern constructivists and video game scholars understand that emotion is central to learning and is also a critical part of rational decision making. In short, an emotional context is an important part of a constructivist learning environment.

Even organizational change theorists acknowledge the importance of emotional development and believe that a good leader has a strong emotional intelligence, helps develop it in others, and seeks to build emotional bonds. Emotion is a source of energy in individuals and in learning organizations.

Video games, of course, can be both deeply personal and rich in social interaction. They can provide a context of authentic and emotionally compelling problems, and they can offer a degree of emotional support – or opportunities for emotional development or emotional adjustment. Ideally, they can help build emotional intelligence. Games can even be designed to help form the emotional disposition of students. As in life, emotional experiences in a game will vary over time as players learn to cope with the various challenges.

Including elements of story in a game can be emotionally engaging and stimulating. Story can facilitate powerful teaching and learning, and it can provide cohesiveness to a learning experience. Often, benefits can be gained by simply adding back story even if a game lacks narrative elements in the game play. However, it is always best if the story (or back story) influences – or is an integral part of – game play. In any case, story is not the only way to create emotion in games. Scenarios of competition, cooperation, or problems of social significance can also be emotionally engaging.

Game designers pioneering new techniques for creating emotion in games have focused on making many elements of a game deeper and more interesting. Non-player characters, for instance, can be made to be much more complex and more like characters in a good novel or movie. As in other media, complex characters can be revealed through their dialog and through their actions. Emotional relationships between characters are also important, especially for many female players. Creating an identity for groups of characters and a means for bonding between characters can help as well. Most importantly, though, the plot should allow important characters to follow a character arc – ideally one traced through several emotionally complex moments.

Though it is a more challenging design task, this is most powerful if the player, too, can experience a character arc. This is why inducting the player into the game world and into their role in the world is an important element of any game, and particularly with role-playing games. The potential payoff can be great, as immersed players are more likely to experience emotional and social discoveries, particularly if the creation of the story is at least partially in their hands. Such an emotionally compelling – and yet still interactive – game is a goal of many designers. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) may be the closest to that goal of any existing game genre. As a social medium, MMORPGs include some inherent educational value. Players can socialize, build relationships, and experience emotional involvement with other players in the game. If this social medium is harnessed to explicitly support the sort of emotional development mentioned above, MMORPGs might be very powerful learning environments.

In designing any video game for education and attempting to include a broad spectrum of human emotions in the game, designers will have to remain wary of emotional oversimplification. Like other elements of good education and good instructional design, this too will be a time consuming challenge.