In order to create an empathetic connection between players and player characters first I need to know what an emotion is and how to evoke them.


Research into emotions, where they come from and how they are triggered has a lot of similarities to empathy. The various theories and approaches (cognitive, behavioural etc) are as wide as they are conflicting. For instance one theory states that emotion (specifically anger and negative emotions) is concerned with corrections of perceived wrong and upholding accepted standards of conduct. It goes on to say that any emotion is concerned with standards and rules which guide behaviour. On the surface this seems a holistic way of looking at emotion and why people get angry. However it doesn’t explain positive emotions. A person doesn’t experience happiness from an individual breaking social expectation.


One other theory is from Lemerise and Dodge, in which they hypothesis that negative emotions, specifically anger, are present in children  (implying that emotion is innate, not learned). However they only displayed this anger when subject to physical restraint or from outside interference with their activity.


On the subject of anxiety there seems to be some consensus that the most basic aspect of anxiety comes from uncertainty. And as we know uncertainty in games can be a very positive thing, or used to make players anxious.


The reason I have chosen to use a caregiver theme  (parent and child player characters) is because individuals are predisposed from childhood to attach to a caregiver, and vise versa. To clarify, attach emotionally as described in Bowlbys Attachment Theory. This emotional attachment provides security for the participants, if I can use this innate and natural phenomenon to get an immediate form of identification of player character and emotion. The first image a player sees will be that of a pregnant mother and her unborn child. Yes the characters will be circles and ambiguous, but every person who played the previous iteration of the game understood that one of the circles was pregnant and then went on to give birth. This unconscious attachment to children and caregivers seems to be fleshing out the character ambiguity in the form of player assumptions. They assume that because one circle is a mother that the circle will care for and love the smaller circle, even in the face of death. They also become much more affectionate when referring to the circles, especially the smaller one. The moment in the previous iteration where the child leaves the mother behind was also one of the peaked emotional moment in the game.


Maranon seems to be somewhat of an underdog in emotion theory. His research goes unaccredited and his contribution overshadowed by those who built on his work. He devised a 2 part theory of emotion that surmised:

  • Body/physical element: there is an event which evokes the emotion. Some kind of external stimulus that leads to the individual perceiving said stimulus which in turn leads to the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Psychological element: after the physical element. The emotion comes from the perceived arousal is joined with the initial perception from the stimulus.

While not entirely conclusive, when combined with the general theory of emotion from Kreitler and Kreitler (1972) it provides an seemingly rational explanation of emotion in relation to the arts. Their hypothesis is as follows:

Individual experience of art depends on the stimuli from the art itself and responses from the observer. Meaning that a person will only respond strongly to art if there expectation of the art is high or they are expecting to feel something powerful. Their cognitive capacity impacts how strongly their emotions are triggered by arts. They also state that emotional involvement is generated by empathy. They pose two ways that this might work:

  • Representation theory: in attempting to understand something a spectator will dredge up related memories, meaning empathy is reliant on cognition and imagination with the emotional experience being attenuated. Could this be a nice natural link to cognitive empathy and role playing?
  • Feeling into theory: emotions are reflected in a tendency to reflect the movements and emotions of others which leads to the imitators enjoying s similar emotional experience to the imitated person. For example when a person smiles, the other person is moved to smile back.


With a model of how emotion works, now I need to know how to trigger those emotions. Paul Ekman postulates that there are 9 paths for turning on emotions:

  • Operation of the auto appraisers. This is essentially the brain automatically scanning for danger, to trigger the fight and flight response. A common use of this trigger in games is jump scares.
  • Reflective appraisers that then click on auto appraisers.
  • Memory of past emotional experience. Something that causes an individual to remember a past experience will also trigger the emotion related to that experience. It can be as simple as asking th4 individual to remember.
  • Imagination. Imagining an emotional experience or emotion can trigger the emotion.
  • Talking about a past emotional event.
  • Empathy
  • Others instructing us what to be emotional about.
  • Violation of social norms
  • Voluntarily assuming the appearance of emotion. E.g. asking someone to smile will make them feel happy or joyous.


Empathy itself is defined as “our ability to identify what someone else is thinking and feeling and respond with the appropriate emotion”. This implies that there are two stages of empathy, the first stage in which a person will identify how another is feeling. The second stage is when the person has identified an individual’s feelings and then goes on to respond by mirroring that emotion.


Paul Ekmans timeline of emotions unfolds as follows:

The trigger: occurs in a context of current circumstances and feelings, an event, our world view that comes from previous events and innate cautions.

The experience: the emotional experience that is triggered includes subjective feelings and physical sensations.

The response: this is how an individual responds to the emotions. [Ekman, p: nd].


This informs me that first an emotion is triggered by external stimuli, then the individuals subjective feelings and physical sensations adds to that stimuli to colour it with emotion, finally the individual responds to the emotion with action or inaction.


So there seems to be a lot of overlap between these theories, they both identify empathy and emotion as a two stage process: identification and response. Using this and everything else, I believe if I do the following in game I will not only get players to empathise with the player character but also use that empathy to evoke emotions.


In the GDC talk “creating strong video game characters” the speaker discusses the three vital methods of creating a player player character bond – unity of purpose, unity of action and unity of trait.

He talks about a definition of character and story: a characters someone who wants something badly(character/player objective), and is having a hard time getting it(obstacle, conflict).  

He goes on to discuss elements of character, what does the character want? This is their active goal throughout the story. And what does the character do to get what they want. Then finally He then discusses character characterisation, which is about how the character outwardly seems to the player.

How to establish unity between player and player character:

  • Unity of trait. This is the process of using characterisation of the character to  create identification with a character. I actually disagree with his sentiment here. He describes unity of trait as the characterisation of a character, all of their external traits and motivations. I would argue that in order to unify the player and character to the characters traits there must already be empathy, and therefor the player must already have created identification with the character.
  • Unity of action: To be sure that the player believes the character would act that way.  This is a common issue with horror games, where an unprepared protagonist is thrust into a situation and can fight/shoot to overcome enemies while being given the characterisation of being a journalist.  It breaks immersion because the actions are inconsistent with the character, or are abruptly different from what they have been previously.
  • Unity of purpose: share the characters want in the game world. This provides identification allowing players to then want to act on the characters behalf. They have identified the characters want in the game. Then we need to promote the empathy so they share feelings, and share the same want. This is the starting point for creating player-player character bonds, then layered on top should be unity of action, then unity of trait as the last layer of design.


During the talk the speaker goes on to analyse the opening 1.30 minutes of the game Uncharted 2. The game starts by promoting shared thoughts with the character, and shared perspective. In uncharted 2 we discover at the same time as Nathan(the player character) that he is suspended in a train about to fall to his death, which is the shared perspective. Nathan’s first words are “where am I?”, which is probably what the player was thinking. This “sharing is caring” design encourages players to identify with the player character, and begins to form the bond by creating a emotional connection using the following:

Share a mystery or secret.

Share emotion.

Share choices.

Shared experiences.

Nathan is also an underdog because he’s injured, which makes him likeable and his humorous reaction to events makes players laugh.

There is then a moment of shared emotion of surprise as he falls , and shared sympathetic pain as he hits the rail at the end of the train that is hanging over the edge of a cliff. 


For my game using a caretaker theme seems a good starting point for creating identification between player and character. If one character is caring for another, and the player is also caring for both character, this will provide players will the ability to immediately put characters in a mental schema. They will know immediately that the player character will be pregnant, and as the game progresses they will learn that the character will give birth. This will not only call on the innate attachment and feeling of security between parent and child. And because the player will be controlling both simultaneously it will be left to their imagination to decide which character they are playing as. This theme of a caretaker should also be reflected in the games mechanics. After all the player will be performing actions repetitively throughout play, so if I can find a way to use the mechanics to reinforce the players ability to identify a characters emotion in order to the experience it vicariously.

I decided to include a cover mechanic that renders the player invisible or temporarily impervious to harm as long as they continue to hide. The presence of cover mechanics mean the player will need to be hiding from something antagonistic. Ideally this force would be presented in as unjust a way as possible, for example by making it more challenging for players to avoid the searching spotlights attached to the antagonists, and giving those antagonist a one shot kill if they spot the player. This coupled with the fact the antagonist is anonymous makes it somehow more offensive and unfair.


I settled on guard towers with an triangular antagonist inside. The guard will search with a spotlight and if the player is caught in its beam they will be shot dead.

There will also be barbed wire unavoidable obstacles that will make the player characters “bleed” and reduce their movement speed. My hope is that players will feel the change in speed and difficulty which will ramp up tension as well as viscerally and emotionally trigger concern and sympathy. The concern will come from the sight of the character bleeding, as well as the image of the barbed wire itself. These obstacles will be unavoidable to make the player feel the character is being treated unjustly and urge them on.

Using the three levels of processing I can makes informed decisions about how to use internal mental systems to manipulate the kind to emotions I want from players. The three levels consist of:


  • Visceral: the automatic prewired layer that makes rapid judgements of what is good or bad. Safe or dangerous. It then sends signals to the muscles and alerts the rest of the brain.
  • Behavioural: the part of the brain that control everyday behaviour. It’s actions can be enhanced or inhibited by the reflective layer.
  • Reflective level: the contemplative part of the brain.it has no direct access to sensory input, instead it’s watches, reflects upon and tries to bias the behaviour level.

The visceral level is sensitive to a wide range of stimuli and conditions, these genetically programmed pattern matching abilities are designed to make people seek out food, shelter or protection. All of these things give rise to positive affect. Some conditions include:

  • Warmth, comfortably lit places.
  • Temperate climate.
  • Sweet tastes and smells
  • Bright highly saturated Hughes
  • Soothing sounds and simple melodies and rhythms
  • Harmonious music and sounds.
  • Caresses
  • Smiling faces
  • Rhythmic beats
  • Symmetrical objects
  • Rounded smooth objects.

Some conditions provide an automatic negative effect, such as:

  • Heights
  • Sudden sounds or bright lights
  • Objects that appear to be about to hit the observer
  • Extreme hot or cold
  • Darkness
  • Empty flat terrain
  • Dense terrain
  • Crowds of people
  • Rotting food
  • Bitter tastes
  • Sharp objects
  • Harsh abrupt sounds
  • Misshapen human bodies
  • Snakes and spiders


Changes of sound to change individuals from a positive mental state to a negative one. Light background music for positive and buzzing ringing alarms for negative and anxiety producing mental states. [Norman, d: 2004]. The game will also feature rain to exploit the ingrained visceral reaction to rain, i.e. sadness and moody atmosphere.


To create an initially visceral reaction the pregnant player character will run and hide from a searchlight, if spotted it will be instant death and game over. This will hopefully create the perception that the player character is not only a caretaker  (a parent) but that they are escaping from somewhere and in mortal peril. Eventually the player character will get to a river with a forest on the other side. This stark difference in terrain will imply safety and somewhere the player can hide. At this point the child will be born, and as they cross the bridge together the spotlight will find them and shoot the mother dead for a strong surprise that is emphasised with a sudden gun shot sound, all sound will stop at this point to add to the perception that the child is alone and to highlight the emotional change from “we’re going to make it to safety”, to one of shock and sadness.




Bernstein, J. (2014). Characterization, Purpose and Action: Creating Strong Video Game Characters. [online] Available at: https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1020440/Characterization-Purpose-and-Action-Creating [Accessed 5 Apr. 2018].


Ekman, p. (2003) emotions revealed. Weidenfeld and nicolson. England.  London.


Ekman,p (n.d.) The Ekmans atlas of emotions. (Online) viewed on: 29/03/18. Available at: http://atlasofemotions.org


Norman, D (2004) Emotional Design. First edition. Basic Books. USA. New York.


Strongman, k.t. (1996) the psychology of emotion. Fourth edition. John Wiley and sons Ltd. England. Chichester.

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