A Scientific Look at the Design of Aesthetically and Emotionally Engaging Interactive Entertainment Experiences

A Scientific Look at the Design of Aesthetically and Emotionally Engaging Interactive Entertainment Experiences

Magy Seif El-Nasr (Simon Fraser University, Canada), Jacquelyn Ford Morie (University of Southern California, USA) and Anders Drachen (Dragon Consulting, Copenhagen, Denmark)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-892-6.ch013
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The interactive entertainment industry has become a multi-billion dollar industry with revenues overcoming those of the movie industry (ESA, 2009). Beyond the demand for high fidelity graphics or stylized imagery, participants in these environments have come to expect certain aesthetic and artistic qualities that engage them at a very deep emotional level. These qualities pertain to the visual aesthetic, dramatic structure, pacing, and sensory systems embedded within the experience. All these qualities are carefully crafted by the creator of the interactive experience to evoke affect. In this book chapter, the authors will attempt to discuss the design techniques developed by artists to craft such emotionally engaging experiences. In addition, they take a scientific approach whereby we discuss case studies of the use of these design techniques and experiments that attempt to validate their use in stimulating emotions.
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Virtual 3D environments can be developed to evoke emotions similar to what people feel within their everyday lives. For example, in the 1960s Eleanor Gibson conducted a perceptual study known as the visual cliff experiment (E. J. Gibson & Walk, 1960). She developed an environment with surfaces of two different heights: a raised surface next to one positioned a few feet below it. A black and white checkered cloth was then draped over the two surfaces. Then, a large sheet of heavy clear plastic was placed atop the entire setup ensuring the top surface was physically level and continuous, yet, the surfaces below the plastic created the perception that the floor dropped sharply. Babies who learned to crawl (typically from six months on) were placed on one side of this setup and were called by their mothers who were on the opposite side. The babies showed no hesitation as they set out across the shallow side, but when they reached the ‘drop,’ they showed emotional stress even though they could feel with their hands that the plastic surface was continuous. The act of crawling presumably gave them enough visual knowledge of how physical space works that they would not crawl over the illusive drop.

Fred Brooks and colleagues at the University of North Carolina (Meehan, Insko, Whitton, & Brooks, 2002) replicated a similar setup within a virtual environment. With 3D modeling tools they constructed a sunken room surrounded by a ledge that was experienced with a stereo head mounted display. The stereo view reinforced the illusion that the sunken room was located about ten feet below the participant’s position. The visitor was instructed to drop a ball onto a target within the pit room and to do this he or she had to walk to and lean over the edge of the ledge. There was a small section of molding on the floor that the feet touched, which served to provide physical corroboration that there was a real ledge in the virtual space. Even seasoned VR veterans had difficulty over-coming the feeling that the pit was real. One of our co-authors experienced this space. She described a visceral gut reaction to being on the edge and looking down. Physiological signals collected from the participants during the experiment showed that the virtual cliff provoked the same physiological responses as the traditional visual cliff or a corresponding real space.

In addition to stimulating emotions such as fear of heights, virtual environments can also be developed and designed to evoke a myriad of emotions and affect. In order to discuss these, we first introduce the concept of emotional affordances. In the late 1970s, perceptual scientist J. J. Gibson (J. J. Gibson, 1979) outlined a concept wherein elements in an environment are considered in the possibilities for actions they provide. He termed such possibilities affordances. Gibson’s work led him to develop a theory of ecological psychology, in which behavior is mediated by the affordances present. While Gibson’s work focuses on concrete perceptual possibilities for action, we use an expanded definition, called emotional affordances, that includes a wide range of affective elements that could provide opportunities for emotional reaction (Morie et al. 2005). The addition of affective elements requires a broader definition of perception. Perception is usually thought of as conscious reactions to stimuli. The affordances we use can, and often does, fall below the levels of conscious perception. Such subconscious stimuli still afford mental and physical reactions, as intense, sometimes even more so, than reactions from stimuli of which we are aware (as with the visual cliff (E. J. Gibson & Walk, 1960)) (Bornstein, 1992). Gibson’s affordances are extrinsic; they allow for external behavior (physical actions or reactions). Emotional affordances are intrinsic; they allow for internal actions or reactions. If a perceptual affordance is a perceptual cue to the function of an object that causes an action, then an emotional affordance is a sensory cue to the function of a stimulus that causes an emotional reaction.

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