How Games Move Us

25:51 minutes

What do you picture when you hear “video-gaming”? If it’s someone sitting alone at a console, shooting things on a TV screen, it might be time to take a second look at what today’s games have to offer. In her new book, How Games Move Us, game researcher Katherine Isbister makes the case that games can push us into new emotional territory. Take, for instance, a game like Cart Life, which encourages empathy by putting players in the shoes of food cart vendors. Or Little Big Planet, a feel-good game that encourages players to work together to solve a problem. Isbister joins Ira to talk about how game designers harness character design, game mechanics, and movement to craft rich emotional experiences for players.

Plus, game designers Ryan Green and Amy Green join Ira and Katherine to discuss a first in video-game design: a game that lets players experience what it’s like to care for someone with terminal cancer. The Greens’ game, That Dragon, Cancer, is based on their experience caring for their toddler son Joel, who lost his battle with cancer in 2014. They talk about why they turned to games to tell Joel’s story, and how players have reacted.

A new documentary, Thank You for Playing, documents the Greens’ creation of the game, That Dragon, Cancer.

When has a game made you feel something – made you empathize, or feel sad or happy? Let us know in the comments!

Segment Guests

Katherine Isbister

Katherine Isbister is a professor of Computational Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is also the author of How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design (MIT Press, 2016).

Amy Green

Amy Green is a writer and speaker based in Fort Collins, Colorado. She’s co-creator of That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games, 2016).

Ryan Green

Ryan Green is a programmer and game developer based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He’s co-creator of That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games, 2016).

Heard on the Air

Read an excerpt from How Games Move Us.

Producer Annie Minoff tried her hand at a few games that pack an emotional punch. Read her account.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I played a couple of video games yesterday, and they made me very emotional, sad and depressed. Not because I lost the games. In fact, these games are not about losing or winning, or how many bad guys you get to shoot. These games are designed to evoke feelings in you. And while these kinds of games are becoming more widespread, the idea is not new.

Back in the ’80s, the video game company, Electronic Arts, published a recruitment ad for computer game designers. And the ad asked, quote, “can a computer make you cry?” It was a challenge to all those young game designers out there to start thinking a little differently about what games could do and how a game could make you feel. Can a computer game make you cry?

My next guest says, absolutely. It can also make you laugh, maybe even get you to empathize with somebody, feel their grief or their joy. Katherine Isbister is a professor of computational media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her new book is called How Games Move Us. And in it, she gives us a peek into the game designer’s toolbox. How do you create games that touch our emotions? Katherine Isbister, welcome back to Science Friday.

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: You say we’re in the middle of a gaming renaissance. Explain what you mean by that.

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Well, in the last few years, there’s been the ability to more easily distribute games online and on things like your iPhone. And the tools that people use to make games have gotten cheaper. In fact, a lot of them are even free now, believe it or not. So there’s been a flood of amazing new developers creating all kinds of interesting game experiences that we can just download with the click of a button.

IRA FLATOW: What is the big difference between playing a game from reading a book or watching a movie?

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Well, the fundamental thing about games is you come into it knowing that you’re going to have to be active. You’re going to have to make choices, and that’s the expectation of the player. Whereas when you open a book or tune into a movie, you’re expecting to sit back and be entertained by the experience, to be swept away by the narrative. And that means that games can do different things emotionally for people.

IRA FLATOW: Yes. Let me talk about a couple of these games. A lot of games you write about put you in someone else’s shoes, like a game I played this week called Papers, Please. It puts you in the shoes of a border guard, basically.

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Yes. An unlikely hero, I suppose. How did you enjoy that?

IRA FLATOW: You know, it gets more complex. You’re basically stamping visas whether someone can come into your country. And then it gets harder and harder. You have to start making ethical choices about things.


IRA FLATOW: And you don’t– there are no ethical choices when you’re playing shoot-’em-up games.

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Well, sometimes there are. But not in that– I guess, I would say Papers, Please, it really gets you. The devil’s in the details, so to speak. You don’t often think of emphasizing with somebody who’s in that job. Normally, you’re on the other side of the window being annoyed or a little bit fearful as you travel between countries.

IRA FLATOW: Was there any impetus for this change in the way games are being created now? Is there a– can you point to any one game that’s, ah, this was the father or the mother of all these new games?

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Oh, that’s a great question. I don’t really have one in mind. There’s just been an explosion of these different games. There is one game that was a real breakaway game in the last couple years for the way that it put multiple players into this kind of situation. And that game was Journey.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. How does that game work?

KATHERINE ISBISTER: So Journey is a game. It’s actually– you play it on the PlayStation, which is one of these living room consoles. And you go into the game. And unlike many sort of superhero-oriented video games, you’re just a little person in robes. You’re tiny in contrast with this huge landscape. And you’re wandering around trying to figure out what to do.

And then at some point in the game, you come across another little figure like yourself. And the funny thing about this game, most games it’s easy to chat or even get on a voice line with other players that you encounter in the game. But with this game, you can’t talk to each other. You have to use these little chirping noises and do little sort of pantomime in game to figure out where you should go and what you should do together.

And I think the creators of that game, that game company, basically distilled down almost a poem of interaction between the two players so that you have to watch very closely and coordinate very closely with that person. And there are certain things that you absolutely can’t do in the game unless you’re working together. And so it creates this incredible feeling of camaraderie with someone that you’re never going to know who they are.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And what about that? Why is it that you never find out who your travel partner is? Does it matter?

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Well, that was an intentional design choice. And I think, like many choices in Journey, the idea is to get you to reflect on the essence of connection and cooperation. And that it doesn’t have to boil down to knowing a ton of details about someone or making judgments about whether they’re like you or not. That you can work together and form an intimate connection without all those things.

IRA FLATOW: In a way, it’s a beautiful game. I was watching the video, the YouTube of it last night. And I said, you know, what happens if I just mirror this to my big screen TV off my laptop? Whoa. It just becomes a whole different experience. And maybe some of these games are being designed because we know all these big screen TVs are out there.

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Absolutely. I think people have gotten much more sophisticated about thinking about where the game is going to be played, who’s going to be playing it with them, who’s looking over their shoulder. I don’t know if you know, but there are many, many game design programs now in universities. And it’s just– it really is a renaissance time for developing games as an art form.

IRA FLATOW: Now, so far we’ve talked about games that are mystical or sort of leave you with a bad emotional feeling. But there are games that make you happy. Make you want to dance.


IRA FLATOW: There’s a game called Just Dance or Rock Band.

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Yes. Yes, there are games that are expressly for having fun with your friends and being goofy. There are games that– there are now games that get you into meditative state. Games that get you to explore a fanciful world and interact with creatures that wouldn’t exist anywhere but in your imagination. It’s pretty impressive, the range.

IRA FLATOW: And how does adding movement change the mood of game?

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Right. So I’d say in the last maybe five years, there’s been all of these motion-based controllers that have come out for video games. And what that means is you can physically move your body as you’re playing. And one of the things about how we learn about how we feel is we notice how we feel partly through how we’re moving.

So if a game gets you to jump up and down as if you’re really excited, that, in essence, tricks your brain into thinking, oh, wow. I guess Ira’s really excited. I wonder what he’s excited about. And can completely cause you to reframe what’s happening right in front of you. So game designers can use this to cause people to feel all kinds of interesting feelings more deeply than they might just sitting in front of the screen.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let me see if I can get a quick call in from Brandon in Waterloo, Iowa. Hi, Brandon.

BRANDON: Hi there.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

BRANDON: I wanted to comment about two games here. One of them is Kerbal Space Program, and the other one is The Last of Us. And those are just two radically different games. Kerbal Space Program was endorsed by NASA with their asteroid redirect missions. And that actually educated me so I can understand orbital mechanics and other aspects of spaceflight that I just never saw until I saw it on a screen with vision.

And then The Last of Us is a radical, emotional roller coaster ride. I actually was just getting a little bit emotional thinking about it. Not to spoil anything, but to feel what it’s like to have a daughter or something like that, for me as a gay man, is very deep and intrinsic, that’s something I may not experience.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a very good– thank you, Brandon, because that’s a very good segue into my next part of this segment. I want to add two more voices to the conversation. Ryan and Amy Green are video game designers. And their game is called That Dragon, Cancer. And it is something completely new to gaming. We asked whether a game could make you cry.

Well, That Dragon, Cancer is a game where you experience what it’s like to care for a very young child with terminal cancer. Ryan and Amy’s son Joel passed away in 2014. And That Dragon, Cancer shares his story. And it will make you emotional. Ryan Green, Amy Green, welcome to Science Friday. And thank you for this game.

RYAN AND AMY: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Did you– well, I’m going to ask you the question everybody wants to ask. Why did you make this game?

RYAN GREEN: Oh, sometimes I just think, what else would I have done? I think, for Amy and I, we’re creative people. And expressing what we were going through always seemed like a natural thing to us. I think even Joel’s illness kind of thrust us into living out this battle with cancer in public.

And so through a blog, and through sharing art on the blog, and sharing our thoughts on the blog, that kind of set the stage for us looking for other ways that we can share that. And I’m a video game designer and Amy’s a writer, and so it seems like a natural expression.

AMY GREEN: We realized there was something really intriguing about, as the parents of a child with terminal cancer, all you want is to have a choice you could make that would fix the situation. And you don’t have that. And it’s really frustrating. And we realized that video games are a medium where the player expects to have choices and expects to be able to make the right choice. And so that was something that was really interesting to explore.

IRA FLATOW: This is more like storytelling than actually playing a game, isn’t it?


IRA FLATOW: We’re watching you go through the life of you and your child.

RYAN GREEN: Yeah, it’s kind of an invitation to bear witness to our life. And invitation to sit with us in those intimate moments of whether it be being alone in the hospital room with Joel and taking care of him, or sitting with us in and playing with Joel, taking care of him while we receive some really hard news from the doctors. And so in that way, we’ve given you permission into these intimate moments.

IRA FLATOW: What does a game let you do that a film or a book wouldn’t? Why did you decide to tells Joel’s story in a game rather than write something about it?

AMY GREEN: Well, I think one amazing thing that video games do is they let the player be a part of the story. Their presence matters to the story. And that was something we wanted to give people. Certainly people have written a lot about what it’s like to lose someone you love, and we’ve seen that on film. But a video game felt like a way to invite someone to actually be in that space with us.

RYAN GREEN: One of the first experiences we made in this game was a re-creation of a night I spent in the hospital where I felt very desperate because Joel was sick and he was crying and he was dehydrated. And I couldn’t comfort him. And so no matter what I would do, I couldn’t get him to stop crying. And in that moment of desperation, being at the end of myself, crying and praying and just asking for peace, that’s when Joe found peace. And that was a moment of grace that I experienced.

And so I think video games are a really beautiful expression of grace, because you can only do what the game designer allows you to do. And so in that way, if the player is brought through an experience where, no matter what they do, they can’t solve the problem, that is a direct reflection of that frustration that I felt. And I think in that space, they can also experience the grace that I felt in that moment.

IRA FLATOW: Katherine, I know you’ve played That Dragon, Cancer. What about the experience, what about it struck you most?

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Well, I think this is an excellent example of walking that line between control for the player and control for the designer. And I think that the game really does use that tension to get the player to experience that frustration. And it’s a double-layer of frustration, right? It’s a frustration of, oh, I wish I could do more as a player. And then it’s like, oh, that’s exactly how these parents were feeling. And you get to experience that feeling in the now that was experienced in the past. And that’s a very different way of emphasizing with people than we would have with, say, a film.

IRA FLATOW: We’re talking about the game playing this hour on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking with Amy Green and Ryan Green, who have put a game together called That Dragon, Cancer, which if you don’t get a little misty playing this game, there’s something wrong with you. It really is very, very powerful.

And I want to play a little bit of a new documentary called Thank You For Playing, which follows you, Amy and Ryan, as you create That Dragon, Cancer. And just to set the scene for everybody, Amy, you’re sharing an idea for a scene with Ryan.


-I know that you don’t want too many elements of like real game play in the game, but I would love if, in this scene, the player like gets to where they’re actually having fun in this. And they have a moment of, like, I was having fun in the middle of this cancer game. People going through grief have to do that anyway.


IRA FLATOW: Amy, tell us about that. Why was that important for you?

AMY GREEN: You know, it was important because I think people think of raising a child with cancer as just this one note experience, that it’s all terrible, and it’s all sad, and it’s all horrible. And there are certainly days when we got terrible news with Joel that were some of the worst days of my life. But there were also these beautiful, fun, exciting days with Joel. There was this aspect of loving him so much more because I realized how precious his life was.

And there also long periods of time where just not much was happening, and you could almost forget that he had cancer, and that you weren’t just a family like everyone else. And I wanted the player to be able to get caught up in a moment where they’re just having a good time and having fun, and then maybe wondering if that’s OK. Because there were certainly moments when Joel was sick, and even after Joel died, where our life felt pretty normal. And then you had to kind of evaluate, is that acceptable?

RYAN GREEN: Yeah. I think one of things in the hospitals that I felt like, oh, there’s a video game console. Should I, as a father, play that video game? Or should I be taking care of Joel at all times? And I think that sometimes we maybe have to give ourselves permission to laugh. We have to give ourselves permission to care for ourselves and to have fun with each other, because play was the way that I interacted with Joel. Play is the way that I could show love to Joel, and that we could have connection.

IRA FLATOW: Some our tweet friends are coming in where Ryan Thompson says a game, To the Moon, really got to me. It’s an examination of mental illness and disability. Hit close to home. Not the typical emotional experience, says Bash, but Shadow of the Colossus made me feel the sting of betrayal. Those who finish it know it.

I want to play another little cut we have from Thank You for Playing here. And I’ll set this one up. Here’s Ryan, here’s you talking with one of your designers about how to create an avatar for Joel.


-Like if we could create a little avatar that is cute, you know.

-Like we’ve talked about before. So often, facial expressions are just hard to convey in a game.

-Dead eyes and waxy faces. I mean, we could also try like no now, no mouth, no eyes, and just have eyebrows or something.

-I wonder if people would see that character, like with the audio and stuff, if their brain would fill it in. And they would be like they’re imagining the face.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Ryan, what does Joel’s avatar look like in the game? He really doesn’t have a face, does he?

RYAN GREEN: Yeah. For much of Joel’s life, he lost his hair. And so in that way, we have a small character that is the shape of Joel, and the head shape of Joel, and has ears. But there is no face. And what we found is that that actually allowed people to connect more with our characters, because even though we don’t have faces on our characters, they’re still recognizable as us. And they’re still hearing our voices. And so I think in the same way that radio allows you to paint a picture for your listeners through audio, our video game was able to have the same effect and kind of play to the strengths of audio and radio, but also the expressionism and impressionism of a video game.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break, and when we come back, we’re going to continue our conversation with Katherine Isbister and Ryan and Amy Green about the emotional side of gaming. Our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about gaming, and how playing a game can make us feel, make us emotional. My guests our Ryan and Amy Green, creators of the powerful new video game That Dragon, Cancer. The game tells the story of their toddler son Joel’s battle with cancer.

Katherine Isbister, author of the new book, How Games Move Us. She’s a professor of computational media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Our number 844-724-8255. More tweets coming in. Allie Hunter says Brothers, A Tale of Two Sons is such a moving game, I almost regret playing it. I was sad for days afterwards. That is–


IRA FLATOW: That is certainly something. Let’s go to John in Tucson. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

JOHN: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just want to make a comment to add to what we’ve been talking about so far. So I just want to mention the soundtracks and music to games has evolved so much. You mentioned the game Journey, and also in other games like BioShock and also The Legend of Zelda. The music is no longer just beeps and clicks on Atari consoles, but they’re full orchestral arrangements that are played now just by themselves. And I’ll take my comment off the air. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: OK, thank you. Katherine?

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I mean, that was a close collaboration for that game company. I believe it was Austin Wintory who did that composition for the game. And I think it made a big difference.

IRA FLATOW: Ryan and Amy, how did you get your game done? I mean, you didn’t go to Electronic Arts or Activision or any of the really big players, did you?

RYAN GREEN: Well, actually, early on, we did. We took a demo of our game to the Game Developers Conference, and that’s where– it’s like a conference of our peers. And looking for anybody that might be interested in helping us get this made.

And we did meet with some very large publishers. In the end, a smaller publisher called Ouya, which is another one of those television consoles, picked us up and helped provide the initial set of funding for us. Eventually, we also went to Kickstarter, which is a crowdfunding platform where other people can support us. And we were able to raise the money we needed to finish the game.

IRA FLATOW: So how do people find your game? Are they experienced gamers or just searching?

RYAN GREEN: Yeah. Right now, the first platform we released is on the computer. So PC and Mac through a storefront called Steam. And that is kind of a place where thousands of PC games can be purchased. And so, we’re working on bringing it to other platforms, and we hope to be able to do that.

IRA FLATOW: Katherine, do you find that most of the small games, these games are slowly gaining traction, and maybe someday they’ll be picked up by the big game makers?

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Well, I think that’s the eternal challenge, right? So we have these wonderful platforms now like Steam, and also the app stores. And you can get your game out there. But the thing is to get it to the right audience. And so I think it’s great that you’re doing a segment on this, because I think that there are a lot of really interesting, complex, mature experiences out there looking for that audience. And people should go find these games.

IRA FLATOW: And they become addictive. I mean, TV is dying, for I think people can play these wonderful games on their big screen. Katherine, where do these games need to go from here in your opinion?

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Well, I think we’re going to see a co-evolution between the games and the audiences. I think any medium that challenges coming up with interesting genres that intersect with audiences who are ready and willing to experience those things. And I think that’s the dance we’re seeing now.

Traditionally, games had to be sold in a box in an electronics store. And that was a certain kind of customer. And only so many could be on the shelf. And we’re in a really different world now. So I think we’re going to see a continued expansion of the types of games that are out there.

And the other thing that’s just around the corner is all these virtual reality headsets, of course. And everybody’s working in the design side to figure out what the most engaging and interesting experiences are in that medium. So I think that’ll be quite interesting as well.

IRA FLATOW: That’s going to be a game changer, so to speak. Let’s go to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

MALE SPEAKER: Yeah, I just wanted to make comments about this game I had just played recently called Life is Strange. It’s a five part series where you play this young female character who just recently discovered she can turn time back. And you have to follow her and make decisions on just about everything. And it really immerses you into the character and makes you feel like you’re playing and making decisions on your own. And I feel like I’m a pretty masculine guy, and this game made me break down and bawl.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, you cried.



KATHERINE ISBISTER: And that’s one of the amazing things about games is that you really can step into another person, another race, another gender, another age, another species, and quite viscerally experience some of the things that they may be feeling.

IRA FLATOW: What is it about the avatars that make us feel that way? What is the secret to making us feel that way, Ryan or Katherine? Amy, you can jump in too.

RYAN GREEN: Hmm. I think– so versus experiencing other media, I think video games are one of the few where you say, I did this. And so when you go on these adventures and you’re making these decisions, it’s you as the player that’s doing it. And you may be role playing or you may be yourself. And so in that regard, in these settings, there’s a profound sense of presence, of a sense of place, of being in there. And I think that it’s easy to get lost in that.

IRA FLATOW: I was trying to compare it to like a three hanky movie, you know, when you’re sitting and watching the movies. But it’s a different emotion, you know? In a movie, you’re just a passive, watching it. And you’re feeling bad for the character. But you feel you are the character.

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Yes. In a movie, you get a pass because it’s not your fault. But in a game, because the premise is that you get to take action, you get to make consequent decisions about what’s happening, things that do happen, they do feel like you’ve played a role in them for good or ill.

RYAN GREEN: I mean, we’ve had an experience where a player actually– we brought it to a show, and they stood up in the middle of the scene because there was a prompt to pray. And it’s my character praying, because I’m telling my story. And they got up and they said, I’m sorry, I can’t keep playing because I don’t pray. And I thought that was really profound, because how often in video games does our personal religious belief factor into the decisions that we’re making in these video games? And to me, I found that to be very profound.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, I don’t think I can get any further after that. I want to thank both of you, all three of you, for taking time to be with us today. Katherine Isbister is a professor of computational media, UC, Santa Cruz, and author of the new book How Games Move Us. And it’s a great book. There are a lot of great suggestions, Katherine, in that book for–

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Oh, glad you found it helpful.

IRA FLATOW: I couldn’t go fast enough through them. Amy and Ryan Green are two of the creators of the game That Dragon, Cancer. It’s a documentary about the making of That Dragon, Cancer. It’s available streaming now, and the film is called, the documentary, Thank You for Playing.

And I want to thank all of you for being with us today.

AMY GREEN: Thank you very much for having us.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

KATHERINE ISBISTER: Yeah, it was great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it was great to talk to you. If anybody wants to try any of the games we’ve talked about, we’ve got a Beginner’s Guide to Gaming up on our website, plus we have an excerpt of Katherine Isbister’s book How Games Move Us, and you can get your game on at ScienceFriday.com/games.

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Meet the Producer

About Annie Minoff

Annie Minoff is a producer for The Journal from Gimlet Media and the Wall Street Journal, and a former co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She also plays the banjo.

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