Inside Glasgow Caledonian University’s eMotionLab for game response research

Glasgow Caledonian University's eMotionLab

A Scottish research centre has been helping to shape our understanding of emotional responses for over a decade. Founded in 2002 with the support of Microsoft, Glasgow Caledonian University’s eMotionLab has analysed everything from how hard gamers press buttons to their reactions to multiplayer environments.

Now, centre director Dr Jonathan Sykes is looking to work with more developers in his quest to understand how game design elements affect players on an emotional level. “We’re testing the audience response to design ideas. It’s as simple as that,” says Sykes. “We are exploring the notions of game designer as auteur versus game designer as experience engineer.”

In practice that means hooking up players to sensors and monitoring their reactions. But Sykes, his team and his students try to interfere as little as possible with a player’s experience. They ensure a subject’s environment is ‘ecologically valid’ – in other words, the space looks like a living room. There are no wires attached to electrodes, no eye-tracking kit monitoring what people are looking at when certain responses are triggered. But there is often one notable difference between the test environment and a subject’s own home – the silent presence of someone else in the room.

“Emotion is a form of communication, and as humans we are good at reading other people’s emotions,” Sykes tells us. “We know when people are smiling and frowning,” which means we tend to respond accordingly when we encounter real faces. The experience of playing games is different in that we often face abstractions such as shapes, cartoon-like graphics or stylised imitations of human forms.

“That really does make a difference. If we get someone to play a game on their own, facial expressions will change very little and they just look like they are really concentrating. But if we put someone in the room, just behind them, suddenly the expression appears. When we looked at multiplayer games versus people playing on their own people showed more emotion with someone sitting next to them.”

Sykes, who studied psychology and human-computer interaction, gained a PhD by examining how people form cognitive maps in Unreal. His analysis of facial movements is inspired and informed by the work of US psychologist Paul Ekman, a celebrated expert in connecting emotional states to physical gestures. But that’s just part of the story and one of many techniques used by Sykes’ team.

Dr Jon Sykes

Dr Jon Sykes, director

One of the key measures of arousal – the state of being reactive to stimuli which particularly interests Sykes – is galvanic skin response. This widely studied phenomenon sees the skin become moist when the subject is in a state of excitement. As people sweat, creating more moisture, this has an impact on resistance, which can be measured using a tiny electrical current. That physiological response indicates a subject is emotionally aroused, but cannot on its own describe whether the feelings are positive or negative. Hence the need to correlate physiological data, testimony from subjects and psychologists’ analysis when trying to flesh out a picture of people’s reactions to games.

“We sometimes show them a video of what they were playing and ask them to tell us what they were thinking. But asking people is my least favourite way of getting data as often you are relying on their memory,” adds Sykes.

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