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Do Games Evoke an Emotional Response?

posted on January 23rd, 2007 by matt

Recently, my boss at work gave me a homework assignment. He wanted me to read Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design. It’s a great read for anyone looking to get into game design, and I highly recommend it.

But the reason I bring it up is to talk about the topic of art in games. Koster defines art as “entertainment where the communicative element is either novel or well-done.” I went a little further with the definition and included the fact that art must make you respond emotionally, in some sort of fashion. It doesn’t have to be a deeply emotional response always, but it does need you to respond thoughtfully from it. To even begin to communicate, you need something to say, something that you want the viewer to know and understand.

Paintings and poems are meticulously planned out with every brush or pen stroke to generate a response from the viewer. Their sole purpose of being is to convey an idea. If it doesn’t really mean anything or evoke some sort of response by the viewer, it isn’t art, essentially. There are other guidelines within the definition of art, but that’s the main point.

So, can video games evoke an emotional, philosophical response from the viewer? When looking at the majority of the games releases, no, they don’t. Most games are just trying to entertain you.

Video games merely give you a problem to overcome. You only think about how to achieve that goal with what the game has given you, in terms of its “rules”.

Basically, it’s in the interactivity of the medium that presents the problem. In the act of doing, it is very hard to make the player think more than what he can do. How do you make a player respond to something deeply when he’s in control and completing a goal, while at the same time entertaining him? Sadly, not many developers have figured it out.

But, there is one example that I can give that gets pretty damn close: Shadow of the Colossus. Wanderer’s goal is to destroy the Colossi. But if you’ve ever noticed, most Colossi don’t even fight the player. You then start to wonder why you even need to destroy them. In the act of doing, Wanderer gives no consideration to his actions. He has one goal set in his mind and will do whatever it takes to get it done.

This has a few interpretations, but the one that I came to is that man has a power within him to achieve anything, but everything will be lost when you use that power for greed and selfishness. Wanderer didn’t care what would happen when he destroyed the Colossi, and the evil deity even warned him of that. In the end, Wanderer lost himself to that greed.

There may be different interpretations, but that is up to the viewer. Most of the time, art doesn’t have one main interpretation (unless divulged by the artist). Simply put, SotC is a great example to use when you hear someone say video games are not art because it can be interpreted in many different ways.

Art does exist in the video game medium, but it takes a dedicated team with a strong vision to create it. And that’s why it’s so rare.


  1. jay said on January 23, 2007:

    This is the definition of art I used to use until I realized how problematic it is. First off, it means that things can be art to me and not you. Subjective interpretation matters using this definition, not objective qualities of the work in question. Secondly, it would mean something like a Bosch that is creepy but not much else is not art (his work is full of meaning but we do not know what most of the iconography he used actually means). Magritte’s "This is not a pipe," may be odd but I’m not sure it triggers an emotional response, and Duchamp’s Fountain (which was a toilet) was more of a statement about art than anything. Finally, I listen to a lot of music that doesn’t make me feel anything but happy or content. I don’t think general feelings of pleasure are what Koster is talking about when he says art triggers an emotional response, but I also think what I listen to is art.


    I used a strange definition in my first Games as Art article – something is more art as there is more room for the creator to exercise his creativity. The function of a pencil is very precisely defined and thus there is not much creative room when designing pencils. The function of a book is much less defined and so it gives the creator a lot of space to play around in.


    Now that this comment is way too long anyway, have you read other game design books you could compare this one to? I know a handful of them and am wondering where it stacks up. 

  2. pat said on January 23, 2007:

    Duchamp’s Fountain is a urinal.  I’ll award you half credit.   art is notoriously difficult to define, and for good reason.  i generally go with something like "art is some human created artifact that is capable of causing a shift in perspective or emotional response in a viewer" and then hope that no one challenges me on it, since i probably could not go any deeper than that.  i do believe that there is room for subjectivity in the definition, although i’m not sure i can justify that, either.

  3. jay said on January 23, 2007:

    Why should there be subjectivity in a definition? I’m reminded of a Scientific American article on the new objective definition of a planet. Art may not be science, but it seems a definition that is entirely dependent on the observer is not particularly useful. Unless art is no longer a noun and is now an adjective.

  4. pat said on January 23, 2007:

    i told you not my words couldnt hold up to scrutiny.  i honestly think that there is no perfect definition of art, just a few vague ones that are more or less useful.

  5. Raph said on January 24, 2007:

    I actually don’t define art in terms of emotional response. I believe the phrase I used in the book is that "art is entertainment where the communicative element is either novel or well-done." This fits into a broader conception of all art as being about communication, of course.An essay I have on my site on the subject: http://www.raphkoster.com/gaming/caseforart.shtml 

  6. Matt said on January 24, 2007:

    Well, I do apologize for my misinterpretation of the meaning of art in your book, Raph, and I thank you for replying to my blog. But isn’t the idea of communication based on the fact that an artist is trying to convey a message to the masses? You can’t communicate without saying something. I guess it doesn’t have to evoke an emotional response, but it has to make the person respond in some way. It just seems to me that the higher forms of art make you respond with general types of emotion, like the pity and sorrow you got from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Maybe I read a little too much into it. But, if anyone proves me wrong, I’m glad it was you. Also, the link to your article shows no content.

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