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Published January 16, 2020

When we talk about designing ethically challenging games, the question obviously arises of why such games exist at all. We can talk about the “serious” learning value of practicing moral decision making in a simulation, but it would be hard to believe that titles like The Walking Dead, Frostpunk or Undertale and popular for the learning opportunities they present. The reality is that in some way we enjoy the processes of ethical choice for its own sake, even though they can involve difficult, uncomfortable or even painful emotions. In fact, it is these negative emotions that give the choices impact. Solving a hypothetical trolley problem with anonymous victims may be an enjoyable intellectual challenge, but it does not move us. Addressing the same problem in the context of a game, where the victims are known to us and we will have to live out the consequences of the choice, is a much more emotionally challenging experience.

This paper investigates this idea of emotional challenge, distinguishing it from “conventional” physical and intellectual modes of challenge which are often discussed in videogames. We are familiar with the ideas of challenge as “hard fun”, balancing difficulty against skill, finding flow, and the emotional cycle of frustration and triumph. These are well established tools of game design. However emotional challenge doesn’t seem to fit this model. The “skill” involved in emotional challenge is less clear, as is the path to mastery. The experience of facing and resolving an emotionally difficult situation does not see to match the “frustration / triumph” model. More often emotionally challenging experiences leave us sad or angry or afraid. Despite all this, we deliberately pursue them.

Using a mixed-methods survey, the paper had players reflect on a gameplay experience that was either conventionally (physically, cognitively) challenge or emotionally challenging and describe the experience. This was followed by a number of player experience measures using familiar Likert-scale ratings. The results showed that conventionally challenging experiences were regarded as more challenging, immersive, and cognitively involving. However emotionally challenging experienced were appreciated more, in the sense of being more moving, meaningful and thought-provoking.

The descriptions of emotionally challenging experiences were characterised by: 1) difficult themes, such as dementia, the death of a loved one, torture. racism, 2) wicked decisions, between alternatives with no good outcomes, or between pursuing gameplay goals and personal values, 3) dealing with negative emotions, such as fear, dread, disgust, guilt, and stress. In all three of these cases, ethical issues are an important contributor to the experience. Difficult ethical situations, choices and outcomes can drive meaningful emotional experiences.

The role of emotions vs cognition in ethical decision-making is hotly debated but philosophers and psychologists, but from the players’ point of view, it is clear that the emotional element is an important part of the challenge. Developing a better understanding of this apparently contradictory desire to “enjoy” difficult emotions will help us design more involving and thought-provoking ethical experiences.


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