Fake Feels and Free Passes
Misattribution of emotion in video games
Posted Jan 02, 2014
The Capilano suspension bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia is kind of a big deal in certain psychology circles, and I think it can illustrate why people have ignored the flaws in games like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead during the last few Game of the Year debates. The bridge, which is only a few feet wide, soars among the treetops of the surrounding Capilano Park, and these are TALL trees. If you were to glance over the side of the bridge as you crept along, you'd see a stomach flipping drop of about 230 feet to a river that's only deep enough to make you wet in addition to very dead if you were to fall. On top of all that, the bridge sways and creaks alarmingly with every little breeze and footstep. Crossing it is so unnerving that many people who try experience increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and short breaths.
In other words, they get scared.
So imagine that you're crossing that bridge. Good, now, to make the scene a little more interesting, imagine that there's a woman standing at the middle of the bridge. Even better, she smiles at you as you approach. (Also, if need be, imagine that you're a hetero dude.)
Researchers Art Aron and Donald Dutton set up an experiment along these lines at this very bridge back in 1974. The woman, who was working for the researchers, asked male bridge crossers to complete a short survey that involved telling a story in response to an ambiguous picture. After completing the task, the woman gave the men a phone number, telling them that should they have any questions they should totally call her. The researchers then repeated the scenario miles away with the same woman, but on a stout, low to the ground, and thoroughly unintimidating bridge.
Half the men who got the number of the girl on the scary bridge tried to call her up. Only about 12 percent of the ones on the blase bridge in the control group made use of those same digits. Also, remember those stories the subjects were asked to make up about the ambiguous picture? Those who did so while swaying slightly back and forth over the Capilano River were much more likely to come up with narratives involving sex. Aron and Dutton also did another iteration of the experiment where a male confederate stopped other males on the bridges with the same spiel, and the effect of being on a scary bridge disappeared.
The suspension bridge story is my favorite illustration of how misattributions of emotional arousal can trip us up. And despite the "boy meets bridge meets girl" nature of the tale, I don't mean "arousal" in just the sexual sense. Psychologists use that term to describe anyone experiencing any number of intense emotions and the accompanying physiological responses. In the case of the bridge crossers, fear was presumably in play, yet the subjects got it confused with some variation of sexual or romantic arousal. Later, Aaron and Dutton did another study where they paired a male subject with a female confederate, scared the bajeezus out of him by making him think that he might receive painful electric shocks, then asked him how cute he thought the girl was. Those who were nervous about the impending shocks tended to rate her closer to the "smokin' hot" end of the scale.
Why? Because the fast moving parts of our brains are marvelously adept at drawing the shortest line possible from cause to effect. My heart is racing and my skin is flushed. This woman is talking to me. She must be cute! This won't happen if she's clearly hideous or covered in spiders, but it may be enough of a nudge otherwise. Especially if the relatively slow moving, rational part of your brain that usually stops and says "No, dummy, it's probably the scary bridge" is preoccupied or tired. In that case, then we're much more likely to automatically misattribute our arousal to whatever explanation is the most salient and requires the least mental effort.
I think this explains why certain games get overrated.
Or at least certain aspects of games. Take the first season of The Walking Dead for example. That game did a great job of making you care about its characters, and every chapter featured predicaments and decisions that really got people worked up. Anxiety, fear, regret, and melancholy were frequent visitors during my time with that game. And the game did a fantastic job of strategically spacing emotional story beats right before and after action and exploration sequences. As a result, I'd often be emotionally aroused while searching through cupboards or fumbling through QTE sequences. And like those bridge crossers meeting the woman at the most nerve-wracking point of their trek, I was predisposed to attribute my intense emotions to "having fun navigating dialog trees" or "Looking through every drawer in this dilapidated kitchen." Even though those sequences sometimes sucked.
You may wonder what kind of idiot can't parse the sources of this arousal and separate them. But you'd be surprised. Physiological and psychological states of arousal can persist for several minutes during which you think you've calmed down, and misattribution of arousal can still happen. For example, in one study researchers had subjects run on a treadmill. Then, after they stopped and felt they had calmed back down to normal, the experimenter showed them a clip from an erotic film. Even though the subjects felt that their pulse and general agitation had returned to normal, there was still enough undetected residual arousal to make them report being more hot and bothered by the film relative to a control group.
The same thing may be happening to inflate your appreciation of a boring game sequence that follows from an intense, arousing one—even if you think you've calmed down and gotten over it. Or the inverse may happen in either The Walking Dead or The Last of Us: you may misconstrue the emotional high from an intense action sequence as feelings of parental affection for Clementine or Ellie, respectively.
This isn't to say that playing a game to experience emotional reactions to it isn't a valid reason to love a game or give it a coveted spot on a "best of" list. In fact, The Last of Us is one of my very favorite games from 2013 pretty much only for its emotional resonance. My point is that you should take a step back and be honest about it. You're not gripping your controller and staring at the screen in slack-jawed amazement because the combat system is so great—or the animation or the voice acting or the script, or whatever other easy explanation is in front of your lazy brain. When you're feeling strong emotions your mind looks for an explanation, but the quickest one to present itself and the easiest one to accept isn't always the correct one.
That said, here's the real lesson you should take from all this: the next time you get to choose where to go on a date, take him or her on a roller coaster. It'll make you seem way hotter.
Cantor, J., Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1975). Enhancement Of Experienced Sexual Arousal In Response To Erotic Stimuli Through Misattribution Of Unrelated Residual Excitation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(1), 69-75.
Dutton, D. and Aron, A. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30. 510–517.