Slouching toward relevant video games

People respond differently to stress, says Brie Code. Design for it

I wrote a thing a while ago about how I love video games but my friends find video games boring. I made the case that the multitudes of white masculine gamers who dominate the games industry have made experiences that are relevant to them but not to most people.

I made the case that life is really difficult, that our world has changed fast, and that what my friends are looking for in art is a relief from the constant overwhelming shock of capitalism (and now the looming reality of fascism). I made the case that video games that are about care and characters would be more culturally relevant to more people.

But I think it's not only for cultural reasons that my friends prefer care to shock. I think there's also an underlying physiological reason why this is so. I think it has something to do with stress reactions. And I think this holds the key to the future of the industry.

I feel love

When you're playing a video game, and there are a lot of things flashing on the screen, and there's danger and it's shocking and it's fun, that's a fight-or-flight response.

"My friends and I don't like adrenaline, but there's something similar that is probably going on with us. It's called tend-and-befriend"

With fight-or-flight, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and releases adrenaline followed by dopamine. If you like games like this, it's probably because adrenaline and dopamine are very enjoyable. Your pupils dilate. Your heart beats faster. Your airways open up. And you feel exhilarated. You feel alive. You feel powerful.

But not everyone likes these kinds of games. I don't. My friends don't. And I think my friends find games like this boring not only because they aren't interested in more stories about callous white men, and not only because they don't know how the controls work or don't get the references to geek culture, but also because they don't get an adrenaline high. They have a different response to stress.

My friends and I don't like adrenaline, but there's something similar that is probably going on with us. It's called tend-and-befriend. Like fight-or-flight, tend-and-befriend is an automatic, physiological reaction to threatening situations.

If you experience tend-and-befriend, it's because your body releases oxytocin or vasopressin when you're stressed, followed by opioids. This calms your sympathetic nervous system so you don't get the flood of adrenaline. Instead of wanting to fight or to flee, you stay relatively calm, but aware. Your pupils dilate, you become fearless, and you are less sensitive to pain. You instinctively want to protect your loved ones, to seek out your allies, and to form new alliances. Oxytocin intensifies social feelings, and opioids feel extremely warm and lovely.

I don't like adrenaline but I really, really like this. This feels delicious. Luscious. Powerful.

And the oxytocin/opioid thing isn't limited to threatening interactions. It's also there when you touch or even think about someone you love. It's very much there during sex. It's there when you play fetch with your dog or chill out with your cat. It's there when you look at a cute baby. It's even there when you exclude someone you don't like.

A revelation

When I first read about tend-and-befriend, I suddenly understood myself so much better. Oh my goodness, I thought, this is how I usually react to stress. Most of my friends do too.

"Like much other research, most stress research had been done with men and male animals. Prior to 1995, only 17% of stress research had been done with women"

Most women and many men have this reaction. It's possible it could be our dominant stress response in general. But had you heard of it before? Maybe not. It's barely been studied. It's barely been discussed. It's barely just been identified.

In 1998, a prominent stress researcher was giving a talk in which he said, "we shocked the animals and, of course, they all attacked each other." This statement struck some researchers at the UCLA Social Neuroscience Lab as not descriptive of humans, and by 2000 Dr. Shelley E. Taylor and her colleagues had identified the tend-and-befriend response.

Why so late? Blinkered researchers and their bad samples.

Like much other research, most stress research had been done with men and male animals. Prior to 1995, only 17% of stress research had been done with women. Throughout many fields, when female bodies don't fit the data, the researchers blame menstruation, throw the female data out of the sample, and keep going. I'm not even kidding. Oops. Way to go guys.

What's more, when it comes to studying humans rather than animals, many researchers only access what is known as the WEIRD sample: White, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. This is also not a comprehensive sample.

I grew up being taught that fight-or-flight was my stress response. But it's not. What else do I not understand about myself?

Maybe everything we know about ourselves is wrong. We see these kinds of mistakes in the design of cities. Until 2011 we saw it in the design of air bags. Until 2009 we saw it in the understanding of the shape of the clitoris. We see it in the "typical" symptoms for heart attacks.

This is so freaking boring. It exposes a lack of imagination. And a lack of care.

I understand how it happens. A casual dismissal of other perspectives comes easily when someone has had his own perspectives validated throughout his life. When bodies like his have been studied by science. When his confidence has been repeatedly interpreted as competence. But this dynamic doesn't lead to good ideas and it's not good for the long term health of any industry.

"A prominent games researcher once told me that he too doesn't try to study women because 'you can't predict women'"

A prominent games researcher once told me that he too doesn't try to study women because "you can't predict women". I was horrified.

I see multiple teams searching for new kinds of gun-free gameplay, but not thinking outside of re-creating the same natural and quite rightly beloved adrenaline high. They're missing some data. They're missing some perspectives.

A boss of mine once declared in the face of focus groups and research proving otherwise that my target market craves only Vogue magazine and not also deep character systems. Finally, I laughed my way right out of that job and into my own studio.

A woman I very much respect told me that you can't change the world, but you can make your little corner of it better. This is my little corner. I'm bored of patriarchy and its lasting effects on my life, but I'm very interested in looking at the gaps in research and in design and fixing them. Are you?

Our hour come around at last

What is game design missing? I ask this question not just in terms of cultural elements. Not just in terms of diverse protagonists. Not just in terms of references beyond fantasy and science fiction and modern day warfare.

I ask this question in terms of game mechanics and game systems. I ask in terms of adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, opioids, and other reward systems. I ask in terms of gameplay that helps a wider range of people understand themselves and their responses to stress and to the world.

"Agitating young men's fear makes money. Slot machines make money. But it's the coward's choice and it's a boring choice"

What do we take for granted about play styles and about player motivation and other frameworks that we use to think about games? Could some of this be wrong or incomplete?

What does it take to induce a flow state in the player? Does it always require frustration?

Who designed all these rules? What players are we studying?

Who should we be talking with?

I know who I'm talking with.

Slouching toward relevant video games

As the wealthy ascend further and the weather turns unfamiliar and our jobs flounder and we gaze with horrified fascination into our phones, we are all overwhelmed with shock.

Capitalizing on this fear by continuing to make games that drive this fear is a short term strategy. Agitating young men's fear makes money. Slot machines make money. But it's the coward's choice and it's a boring choice.

I want to be very clear that care is not weak, simple, or cute. It doesn't only belong in simple or cute games. Caring for your chosen loved ones and the formation of new alliances are sophisticated actions and can be acts of warfare. It requires bravery to speak up, to reach out, and to build towards something new. Care is stronger than brutality or fear.

Care and characters will make games that are both culturally relevant and physiologically stimulating to more people. These are games that will help us understand ourselves and our lives. These are games that will carry us into a more respectful, more respected, and strengthened future. This is where video games can shine not just as bright as but brighter than other media. This is an industry I would want to work in.

Question your assumptions about yourself, other people, and games. Get the real data. And if you are under-represented in this industry, look into your own heart: maybe everything we know is wrong, but you are right. Let's find each other and let's work together. Maybe we're here to take away the boys' games after all.

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Latest comments (5)

Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios5 years ago
Really thought-provoking piece Brie, thank you!
I can feel a bit smug that it validates our studio's choice to debut a non-combat project, although I'll admit we certainly hadn't thought about it in such depth...just felt there was a niche in the market that would support us.
But also, this is where the most interesting stuff in game design is happening. Much as I respect the subtle weapon/skill balance of something like Overwatch, all combat-driven games boil down to curating position/damage/armour combinations. Games about care, about character psychology, are an entirely different problem space that is much harder to define and explore. That's where I want to be working.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 5 years ago
Alright, we really need to ditch this psychic link - I was thinking about the Tend-and-Befriend response just on Tuesday. My Oxytocin-production genes are GG, the highest production level, so it's particularly relevant for me - stick a pair of googly eyes on a sock and I'll bond with it.

One of the main things I've found affects my response to a game is the level of individuality in the NPCs - if there are touches that humanise them, make them unique, I find it easier to feel a bond with them, and it's only when I've bonded that the T&B response seems to make itself felt. Things like the Lystrosaur's response to being petted in Ark; it's just instant "BUT I LOVE IT!" reaction.

If I'm particularly engrossed in a game, I also find myself looking for psychological responses from NPCs that simply aren't there, yet seem to me to be such obvious openings for gameplay that I can't quite believe they're not there. Frequently I find myself taking actions that have no gameplay effect simply because they're so ingrained in my nature that I can't NOT do them, If I accidentally hit a pet during combat, I find myself trying to make it up to it, especially if the character is designed to evoke feelings - a cute pet with an appealing animation and so forth.

It's also worth noting that Tend-and-Befriend is not just a female response; men can also hit quite high levels of oxy production and seem to be affected in the same way as women when it comes to the way Tend-and-Befriend responses propagate through a group (often one person experiencing a tend-and-befriend response seems to trigger further T&B reactions in those around them.

While I only have a small sample size and anecdotal evidence to support my next statement, it does seem to make a lasting impression and improvement to mood when guys play in an environment more influenced by T&B than by FoF (fight-or-flight) - my current theory is that it's a relief and provides access to the feeling of being cared about without feeling weak or "effeminate" (obviously this statement is a generalism, but in generally, many men suffer stress because they feel they will be judged poorly if they ever express feeling less than fine or are affected by negative events - hence the high number of "out of the blue" suicides and the use of "infallible" suicide methods).


So to sum up, I think it would be wonderful to have more characters with emotional responses to things that can be influenced and respond in the ways that feel natural, and find wooden personas very frustrating. I find my gameplay experience to be more enjoyable when I can bond with and care about characters, and would feel more rewarded if the actions I cannot help but take because I care in some way effected the game.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 5 years ago
Musing on this, I just realised something.

Many years ago, when I was young and spry, there was a movement in Asia to create horror films that would appeal to teenage girls and thus get the film industry a line on their pocket money.

The most famous film to come out of this movement was Ringu, aka The Ring, an adaptation of a popular novel that has been adapted many times in Japan - this particular version, like all the best horror novel adaptations, was very changed from the book, and shunned gore and breasts and jump scares to focus on an investigation plotline and create a sense of fear that come from attachment to the characters and sympathy for the "villain" of the piece, Sadako, whose sad story is gradually revealed.

Another J-horror film that achieved critical acclaim through its use of a similar mechanism is Takashi Miike's "Audition", which definitely does not shun gore, but again uses sympathy for the devil to power a sense of wrongness - you are left sobbing (at least in my case) not for the victims, but at the pain the perpetrator is inflicting on herself.

[Please note that these films are especially scary, and Audition especially is not pulling its punches.]

Both these films very effectively exploit the Tend and Befriend stress response, as compared to traditional Western horror films such as slasher flicks: Halloween and Friday XIII being good examples.

Such films use tactics such as jump scares to stimulate adrenaline production and evoke a flight-or-flight reaction. Also, many horror films that use fight-or-flight suppress a tend-and-befriend response by masking the villains - Michael Myers wears his white-painted James T. Kirk mask, Jason his hockey mask, Leatherface his... well, it's right there in the name.

Other bad guys have makeup and prosthetics that reduce the visibility of their eyes or are shot in ways that hide their eyes - the nameless embodiment of death in Dust Devil, for example, has his eyes permanently shadowed by his hat.

I can't find any official research on eye-contact and stress responses right now, but I have the feeling it's at least worth looking into. The two different stress responses definitely promise some storytelling techniques for manipulating a player's state of mind that could be very fruitful.
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Show all comments (5)
Benjamin Solheim Sole Shareholder, ESPN5 years ago
Actually all stress is bad. This is from a psychology background not an opinion. But the problem is most people assume that adrenaline is only from stress. Stress is any stimuli that causes frustration. A runner's high is an adrenaline high, sky diving when you are enjoying it is an adrenaline high. Both are situations where your body is saturated with so much adrenaline that you feel like you can do anything. Then when it wears off you get a dopamine low or apathy. There is no safe way to stay on a adrenaline high without burning out, blowing out organs or having you body crash into a deep sleep cycle. Hell week is designed to find out how long you can remain in a super observant state of awareness and the consequences of doing so. Gamers experience a mix of reactions but the goal is usually the adrenaline high when the person beats what they thought was an impossible goal, everything up to that point is simply foreshadowing.
It is same as sitting a perfectly cut diamond next to a piece of glass that is flat. The glass looks more boring but if you set the glass next to pile of offal, the glass looks more boring than usual and the offal simply is nasty. Meaning set something close to perfect next to something mundane and the mundane looks worse as a result but set the mundane next to something slightly worse and the mundane looks better. Basically the extremes always end up being the extreme while things closer to avg or normal when set next to avg or normal objects seem more far from normal.
But the fight or flight is simply an over simplification. The human brain can only make so many observations and decisions off those perceived concepts. If you are in a state of sleep deprived awareness your brain starts culling the data it compares and you get weird results to your decision making process since there is no way to tell your brain what to cull from the decision making process this is also true when drunk. When you have to make snap descions your brain takes what it considers always true and that is protized so if every time you have been in that situation before a certain set of steps results in a positive effect that is rated as what is more likely to be done, if it always results in a bad outcome and their is no good outcomes in the person's past then they get the deer in the headlights effect and freeze up and their brain tries to figure out a different process. People who when threaten act aggressive and the threat goes away will tend to act aggressive. If acting cold works better then that is how people who have experienced that tend to act. The bro gamers who when they try to spoke their buddy's playing a home tend to get in really bad shape when mugged because their is no way for them to spook the mugger. Well their is but unless you have dealt with people trying to kill you that does not work for most people. It is funny to watch to guys holding a shotgun try to not lose face to the other mugger because they are so scared of someone they tried to mug not flinching or even noticing their scare tacit. But the point is it is not fight or flight but what experiences you have gone through that result in positive and negative outcomes. I have jumped out of planes, I had a lot of fun until I got close to the ground but I walked away from the jumps so it was mostly positive and the feeling of free fall is just something that nothing except sex with my female friends ever comes to. The sex is better but you can not do that all the time. Not that you can jump out of planes all the time either but it is the scale the memories are often better than some normal experiences. It is why gamers who mange to get their initials at the top of an arcade machine for weeks or months get positive reinforcement every time they see the machine and if someone gets ahead of them it is a goal that their brain tells them will reward them better than the last time. The same is true with women and children. They react to seeing a child and their positive or negative experience effect how they act about children and sex. I will continue to refuse to try and figure out women because if think you did and the women think you did ninety nine percent of the time the woman will go out and do something to prove you are wrong. I remember one time I knew my girlfriend was pregnant and she told me I did not know and I laughed and told her that she would know herself better. She made her coffer with no sugar or cream because I told her to drink chai instead. I knew it would upset her stomach but she wanted to prove me wrong she made when down and sat down and thirty seconds later threw her coffee cup in the trash and made herself a cup of chai and sat there enjoying for like fifteen minutes. It was funny but scary, considering if it had been something important would she have jumped off a bridge to prove me wrong?
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Josh Foreman Environment Design Specialist, ArenaNet5 years ago
This is a really good and important piece. Sharing.
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