In the 42 year since they first entered our homes video games have become increasingly skilled at triggering our emotions. Strong narrative arcs, complex casts and, at times, meaningful inter-character relationships mean that, like a good book or TV series, a game world can draw a player in and keep her there for hours. At Stanford University, researchers are trying to push engagement even further: they're working to measure a player's physiological responses—temperature, breathing rate, heart rate—with the idea that, one day, the game will respond to the player's emotions.
Already, role-playing games, in which players assume the identify of a character, are particularly emotionally impacting, says Bowen Research:
People get real cranked up. "You see life and death and magical things occur." Players get involved with the characters due to the depth of the story (that "rival novels"), cut scenes, "sweeping" musical scores – and of course the dozens and dozens of hours of play.
The death of Aeries in Final Fantasy VII, where she's thrust through with a sword, appears to be a defining moment for our industry. It was mentioned in the study time and time again. Many cried, and couldn't forget it. People spent months trying to revive her, appealing to Square Enix for a repreive.
Feeding those emotional responses back into the game world is a goal of video game designers, Mick Hocking, a senior director at Sony, which makes the PlayStation consoles, said in 2011. In 2012, an update to Microsoft's Kinect 3D-scanning camera that gave the device the ability to “read and react to your facial expressions” pushed games one step closer to that aim.
But facial expressions are just one part of displaying emotions. Other visible, measurable physiological responses, like the player's heart rate, give a clue as to what's going on in his head. The Stanford researchers have designed a custom video game controller that reads these parameters, giving a rough assessment of the player's emotional state.
Increasingly, video game players are being called on to weigh moral questions and make emotional decisions. A truly immersive experience could see the game system actually read your reaction, and have your character respond accordingly. Coupled with advanced virtual reality systems, of which a few are currently in development, video games decades from now could just as game-changing as early consoles like the Magnavox Odyssey were at the time.