Learning from Games: A Language for Designing Emotion

What gaming tell us.

Emotion is one of the most powerful elements of an experience, and also the most difficult to design.  Yet games regularly inspire intense emotions, drawing players into the experience they offer, and making these experiences enjoyable and memorable.

With the best games, these feelings endure long after we finish playing.  Plainly, interaction designers who want to better understand how to inspire emotions could learn a lot from games. Nicole Lazzaro, a leading games researcher and design consultant, has studied games and game players extensively; her work on games and emotion offers useful insights for interaction designers seeking ways to inspire emotional impact.

In Lazzaro’s view, feelings are the motivation and reward (the source of ‘value’, in business terms) for playing a game. Lazzaro believes people play games specifically to experience the different feelings games can create; “the opportunity for challenge and mastery, the sense of accomplishment, the feeling of total immersion, a ticket to relaxation, or simply the opportunity to spend time with friends.” [5] This emotional reward distinguishes people who play games from the multitudes of gold farmers who earn a living performing game tasks for pay.

Of course, game designers cannot ‘directly’ create the emotions people feel while playing (at least, not until mind control technology is effectively ‘productized’ by some well-meaning corporation or government).  Instead, game creators “design the mechanics that offer players choices. It is in the making of these choices that players feel the emotions coming from game play. It is this new way of creating emotion that separates games from other media.”

The Architecture of Fun

Emotions emerge from the choices that game players make, within the space of possibilities defined by game designers. Thus design decisions about which kinds of choices to allow players to make strongly shape the eventual experience of playing the game.  I call this designing the Achitecture of Fun; Figure 1 illustrates the progression in level of impact linking game mechanics to player experience.

figure 1. the architecture of fun

figure 1. The Architecture of Fun

For example, placing the collaboration mechanic in a game by design allows players to choose whether or not to cooperate with one another. Their choices yield feelings of generosity or gratitude (or perhaps schadenfreude at what happens when others suffer for choosing not to cooperate!), contributing to a game experience of enhanced (or not!) relationships with friends and other players. Figure 2 shows how the architecture of fun relies on choices and emotions to build relationships based on social fun.

Lazzaro describes game design as “the language of choice that creates not just a game for the player, but a player experience” [3]. What is the vocabulary of the language of game design? And how can experience designers learn to speak and use this language?

figure 2. Social Mechanics and Relationship Fun

figure 2. Social Mechanics and Relationship Fun

Lazzaro uses a diverse set of tools and methods including emotion profiles, play styles, and game genres to describe and design game experiences. [3]

One tool especially useful to interaction designers is a simple model in Figure 3 which identifies the emotional rewards different kinds of games provide. Lazzaro identifies up to 30 distinct emotions associated with games, based on direct observation. The model groups these different feelings players experience into four broad areas – ‘Hard fun’, ‘Easy fun’, ‘People fun’, and ‘Serious fun’ – and identifies the game mechanics that encourage each emotion.

As illustrated, the landscape of possible game experiences designers can choose to create ranges from goal directed to open-ended, and from game-like to life-oriented.

Four Kinds of Fun

In figure 3 you see game experiences providing ‘hard fun’ center on feelings of player accomplishment. As Lazzaro describes it, “Hard Fun is the perfect balance of player skill with game difficulty. If the game is too easy the player quits because they are bored. If the game is too hard players quit because they are too frustrated.” [1] Fiero – not the GM faux sports car of the 90’s but, as Lazzaro defines it, ‘the Italian word for “Personal triumph over adversity.” – is the emotion that accompanies the experience of mastery.  Game mechanics that encourage feelings of fiero and the experience of mastery include; wins, goals, challenges, obstacles, leveling-up, enhancing powers, etc.

figure 3. Four Kinds of Fun

figure 3. Four Kinds of Fun

According to Lazzaro, ‘Easy Fun’ rewards players differently, creating curiosity by sparking players’ imaginations, relying on mechanics such as detailed environments that encourage exploration. ‘People Fun’ provides amusement based on relationships and social bonds. ‘Serious Fun’ yields relaxation, addressing players’ personal values with mechanics such as practice and rhythm. (For more extensive descriptions of the other three types of fun and the related game mechanics, see sources listed in the References section)

Emotions Aren’t Linear

Of course, designers cannot simply paint by numbers, because players do not feel emotions in a linear and tightly compartmented way. Rather, “emotions are fluid and braided over time, one emotion blending into the next.” [1] Accordingly, games that succeed usually offer players experiences that blend three or all four types of fun, emphasizing them differently throughout the game experience. [3]

And inspiring a particular emotion such as fiero requires designers to carefully balance all elements of the game experience. “To get Fiero, the player must succeed just when they are on the verge of quitting. When they achieve at that point they experience a huge phase shift in the body from feeling very bad to feeling very good. This enhances the feelings of elation.”[1]

New Design Method

Lazzaro believes that by understanding and designing for the emotions associated with each kind of play, “designers have a new method for creating broader and deeper experiences”. [3] I believe this language of choice and emotion is relevant not just for game creators, but for experience designers broadly. Why? Everything people do is touched by and dependent on the emotional aspects of being human; from our tasks at work, to our relationships with friends and family, to our plans for the future. Cognitive and neurological research shows we cannot make the simplest decision about what to have for lunch without emotions.[6] If we can design emotional elements of experiences even to a limited extent, the reach and impact of interaction design is dramatically enhanced.

Lazzaro’s approach offers immediate applications at the tactical and strategic levels of experience design. The language of choice can help with everything from choosing the content, controls and other tangible elements of user experiences, to defining the essential concepts and mental models that structure those experiences. The language of choice can also serve as an assessment method for existing products and services, a concepts and options generator, a prioritization tool, and one source of input in the creation of roadmaps for products and services.

What’s Next

Looking ahead, as convergence and technological change relentlessly blenderize familiar devices, media, genres, industries, and even our basic concepts of product and services, it’s natural to ask “What’s next?” in experiences. In Lazzaro’s model, ‘People fun’, based on mechanics like cooperation, communication and competition, is one of the most important emotional sources of experience value.  Based on this view, Lazzaro believes the combination of social emotions with traditional skill-based game emotions offers tremendous potential for game makers and creators of social experiences, and predicted the emergence of hybrid experiences that combine these two sources of emotion several years ago.

We can see hybrids as they arise thanks to the ‘social shift’, the transformation of digital experiences of all kinds through the addition of social mechanisms such as conversation, sharing, identity, relationships, etc. The social shift is especially visible in the enterprise space, where collaboration capabilities seek to transform the structure and functioning of even the largest organizations, and the precipitous growth of socially-focused experiences in the on-line world. Likewise, in the games universe, the success of individual game titles and game consoles is now dramatically affected by the size and value of the player communities they connect, as well as the graphic quality, hardware, or other experience element.

Lazzaro describes the creation of games by analogy, observing, “Shakespeare designed the emotional space between characters. Game developers design the emotional space between player and game.” [3] In the same way, the language of choice she presents provides interaction designers with the tools and perspective necessary for designing the emotional space between people and digital experiences.

References & Resources

[1] Lazzaro, Nicole. “Why We Play Games.” Games for Health Grantee Dinner. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Baltimore, Maryland May 6. 2008.

[2] Lazzaro, Nicole. “Halo Vs. Facebook: Emotion and the Fun of Games.” Etech Conference. March 4. 2008. [http://en.oreilly.com/et2008/public/schedule/detail/1589]

[3] Lazzaro, Nicole. “The 4 most Important Emotions of Game Design.”
Game Developer’s Cconference. March 8. 2007. [http://www.2007.loginconference.com/session.php?id=46]

[4] Based on an original diagram created by Nicole Lazzaro / XEO Design Inc. All content and ideas copyright XEO Design Inc. 2008.

[5] XEO Design, Inc., “Philosophy” http://www.xeodesign.com/philosophy.html (Accessed May 8, 2009).

[6] Dan Vergano, “Study: Emotion rules the brain’s decisions” USA TODAY, August 6, 2006. [http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/discoveries/2006-08-06-brain-study_x.htm]

Photos by: Sean Dreilinger

Joe Lamantia

19 comments on this article

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  7. doyarzun on

    it’s interesting to think about how a really good game keeps the users attention through the entire experience of playing.
    it must be challenging to design for the constantly changing emotions of the human being. just think about all the elements of a game that can cause the gamer to feel these different emotions.
    i’ll remember this when i found myself designing to keep the public entertained.

  8. @doyarzun Lazzaro believes that really good games sustain players’ attention by creating emotions that connect to three (or all four) of the essential kinds of ‘fun’.

    she also notes that each emotion has it’s own sort of ‘cycle’ for games trying to create fiero, design is a way of tuning the balance between boredom (too easy) and frustration (too hard).

    when / where / what do you design to keep the public entertained?

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  10. Great reading!

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  14. r4 carta on

    Hi all…
    I am playing games on pc and i like to know more about gaming…
    I like this article because it’s provide lot’s of fun and knowledge…

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  18. R4 DS on

    Children can play some nintendo games.

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