June 24, 2008
Gamers love dying
Death is sweet when it comes to videogames as players seem to get their kicks from being obliterated
Research suggests that a first-person shooter is so stressful that players are happy to get any respite, even if it means being blown to pieces -- PHOTO: UBISOFT ENTERTAINMENT
I CAN'T count the number of times or ways I've died.
Like most gamers, I've been slaughtered by AK-47-wielding terrorists, poisoned by eldritch spiders and blown up with alien frag grenades.
I've also been impaled on mediaeval swords, ripped limb from limb by dinosaurs and impassively stomped by 20-storey-tall, walking war machines that barely noticed my existence.
Yet here's the thing: It's possible that these deaths have been among my most enjoyable game experiences.
This is the fascinating argument of a new paper by Niklas Ravaja, a scientist who has done pioneering research into the emotions of gamers as they play. In 'The Psychophysiology Of James Bond: Phasic Emotional Responses To Violent Video Game Events' - published in the journal Emotion - Niklas reaches an amazingly counter-intuitive conclusion: Gamers don't like shooting their opponents but they're suffused with pleasure when they themselves are shot dead.
The findings were quite a surprise. For his experiment, Niklas took 36 gamers and wired them up with several sensors that minutely recorded their emotional states.
Then he had them play James Bond 007: NightFire, a first-person shooter that was, at the time, a pretty realistic videogame.
The results? When people killed an opponent, their electrodermal activity shot up, while their faces registered distress.
'That is, instead of joy resulting from victory and success, wounding and killing the opponent elicited anxiety, anger or both,' he said. When gamers themselves were killed, in contrast, the sensors detected 'positively valenced high-arousal affect', he said.
Dying was, in some way, fun.
Niklas wasn't entirely sure why gamers feel this way. But his much weirder experimental result, though, was our thrill at dying.
He thinks this might occur because getting killed is 'transient relief from engagement': A first-person shooter is so incredibly stressful that we're happy to get any respite, even if it requires being blown to pieces.
Yet, not all deaths are equal. This sounds strange to say but there are games I enjoy getting killed in more than others, because some designers have a much better sense of how to craft an aesthetically satisfying death.
My hands-down favourite is probably Halo 3 in online multiplayer. The instant you die, the game switches abruptly from the first-person perspective to third-person.
This is, in essence, much like the out-of-body experiences people report during near-death moments. Even better, really, because Halo gives you a very high degree of camera control. While I wait to respawn, I'll poke around like a curious ghost, dispassionately examining my former human shell. It's an oddly graceful moment of Zen and it works in beautiful contrast to the fight-or-flight riot of battle.
Most shooters execute this third-person shift, of course. But Bungie has made it into an experiential tone poem. You could think of it as 'the architecture of death' and game designers ought to pay more attention to it. Because one thing's for sure: We're all going to die.
Over and over again.
By Clive Thompson, NYT
Labels: Gaming, violence