Emotions in Games, part 2: Sorrow

Sorrow is a profoundly deep and negative emotion, and is not casually experienced.  Sorrow is our natural reaction to the experience of loss; our recognition that something we cared about will not be part of our future.  Sorrow is also brought about in many cases by our own suffering and that of others, particularly when we feel that suffering will continue – that is, when we lose hope and start to feel despair.

Like Fear, we’re dealing here with an emotion that’s experienced by the percipient – the reader/viewer/player of whatever medium is being experienced – and not by the characters in that medium.  How, then, can percipients be made to feel sorrow?  I’ll approach the subject by dealing separately with suffering and loss, and then I’ll briefly address how sorrow can be part of PvP experiences.


Suffering is difficult to address, when we talk about media percipients in general.  Books, movies, and games are, after all, activities in which we participate in order to have fun, and suffering generally isn’t much fun, for most of us anyhow.  One can meaningfully argue that a lot of what people do, day to day, is intended to avoid suffering, and so it seems like a losing proposition to introduce it into our recreation.  Nonetheless, it’s deliberately used by game designers from time to time.

A good example is death penalties, which affect the player as much as the character.  Death penalties are intended, of course, as a means to punish failure… and it’s inarguable that they also can often lead to suffering on the part of the player.  Sometimes that suffering is considered acceptable, because the risk of failure and loss can make games more exciting.  Death penalties though can easily lead to frustration and a lessened desire to play a game, especially when death feels unavoidable.  Online games are quite susceptible to this, since lag or computer problems can and do lead to character death sometimes – that’s already frustrating, but to then be punished for something outside one’s control can be extremely aggravating.

Designers sometimes make the mistake of thinking that tedium increases player involvement by causing them to yearn for release.  Tedium is also sometimes used to simulate training, because that’s part of how we learn in real life.  If a designer is e.g. making a Shaolin Temple game, he might be tempted to put in some sections of the game where the character simulates the classic training sequences from “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”, including such acts as carrying heavy buckets of water and performing extensive strength and flexibility training.  The problem here is simple: tedium really isn’t desirable in any form of entertainment.  If a book or movie is tedious, we’ll walk away from them.  If a game is tedious, we’ll stop playing.  There might be an awesome part coming up right after the tedium, but we’ll never know, because we stop before then.  In real life we put up with tedium sometimes because it leads to good results later on – ask any athlete.  In our entertainment though, people generally won’t tolerate tedium.  If you need to refer in a game to something tedious that happens for plot purposes, put it in a cutscene and keep it short.

When people suffer a great deal, they can often develop the belief that such suffering is unavoidable; this belief can lead to despair, which is a prolonged way of experiencing sorrow.  Despair is a very powerful emotion, and not one to be used lightly.  While readers or viewers might tolerate or even enjoy feeling despair on behalf of the characters in the book or film, they do so only if they’re heavily immersed in the story.  If a player feels despair due to prolonged suffering in a game, there’s a high probability that the player will simply stop playing.  There’s also a thorny ethical issue here: if a player is already prone to depression, causing him or her to feel despair can be dangerous.

In general, suffering isn’t desirable in entertainment.  Readers, viewers, and players just won’t put up with much suffering by and large. While in real life suffering over time can lead to despair, it can also lead to frustration and a desire to quit.  With entertainment this is a serious problem and should be avoided.


Kierkegaard once wrote, “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly one you can never have.”  This is an excellent description of the principle of loss.

Loss is predicated on involvement; if you lose something you don’t care about, you won’t experience sorrow over it.  Clearly a high level of immersion is useful for any entertainment medium to cause percipients to feel a sense of loss.  In keeping with Kierkegaard’s quote, if a percipient cares enough about the character undergoing the loss and the thing being lost to project outwards what the character’s future will be like without the thing being lost… there’s potential for sorrow.

Books and films excel at this, as media.  Readers and viewers often identify strongly with characters in books and films, and so when those characters undergo loss we weep along with them.  When Old Yeller gets rabies and has to be put down, it’s a powerful moment.  “Titanic” would not have been as popular a film had Jack not developed hypothermia and died, leaving Rose alone.  “Bridge to Terabithia” is memorable in large part because of Leslie’s death, and “Of Mice and Men” resonates so strongly because of Lenny’s tragic but necessary end.  All of Shakespeare’s tragedies evoke sorrow by loss through death.

Games, though, tend to be very bad at generating the feeling of loss in players.  I can only think of one game that made me feel like I, the player, had lost something… in Planetfall, the delightful robot companion Floyd sacrifices himself to help the player.  It’s been years now since I played Planetfall but I still remember how devastated I was when that happened.  I was immersed in the story to the point where I cared about the characters, and when Floyd died, I could clearly see how much bleaker the gameworld would be without him – thus I experienced “remembering a future I could not have”, which led to sorrow.

It’s possible to generate the feeling of loss not only through immersion but also through investment of time and effort.  If e.g. you worked for many hours to get the Sword of Allslaying, and felt happy and proud to wield it, you might be pretty sad when it breaks or is stolen later on.  This same involvement through effort can also extend to characters – e.g. if you’ve worked hard in game to develop a relationship with an NPC, that time and effort makes you vulnerable to a sense of loss.

So what’s necessary for a player to be immersed?  Obviously that’s one of the core issues facing designers and game writers – if players care about what happens to the characters, then there’s potential for emotional response. Immersion through effort is in a sense simpler to generate; the more time and effort needed to obtain the items or relationships, the more likely a player will feel invested in the status quo, and thus be open to feelings of loss.

The rules change a bit though when a player is interacting with other players instead of only with fictional constructs.


In short, PvP is any sort of competition between players.  This is most often taken to mean simple direct conflict through violence, but it can also include social, political, or economic conflicts, as well as any zero-sum game.  Chess, checkers, backgammon, Monopoly, go, and Chutes and Ladders are all forms of PvP.

PvP in online games is often predicated on the idea that losing leads to suffering of some sort.  This isn’t of course always the case, but the idea is strongly reinforced by the way many players act when they defeat opponents.  From taunting to teabagging, the winner in a violent PvP conflict online often tries to increase the suffering of their defeated opponent.  Part of the fun of such activities, for these people, is the schadenfreude they feel – the enjoyment at the suffering of others.  Trust the German language to have a great word to describe this!

Does this kind of suffering lead to sorrow though?  Generally not, unless one suffers enough to feel despair, at which point most players will stop playing the game.


Overall, the best option to lead players to feel sorrow is through loss.  This can be accomplished by removing a game element that the player has come to care about, either through immersion or through investment of time and effort.  The deeper the attachment the player feels, the greater the loss will be.  A significant loss can lead the player to feel genuine sorrow.

Sorrow isn’t something most people want to experience very often though, and so it’s best used sparingly.  Repeated experiences of sorrow lead to diminishing returns, where a player refuses to commit as much emotion in order to avoid the pain of sorrow.  If I care deeply about several characters who die, the first loss will likely be sadder than the second one, and by the third I’m likely to withdraw emotionally and refuse to care – unless of course I’m extremely immersed in the game.  If I worked hard to get something in game and lose it, I might feel sorrow… but if it happens too often I’m likely to just become annoyed and stop playing.


4 comments so far

  1. Ysharros on

    Interesting article. I’m not sure I’d approach the creation of emotion in the same ways you did, though I suspect your approach is more realistic than mine would be, certainly as far as MMOs and MMO players go.

    I do question the validity of trying to examine feelings evoked by games in the same light as feelings evoked by “real life” events. Is it just a matter of degree? Or it is not quite the same emotion? As an example, when my grandfather died I felt (and still do) a huge sense of loss — this has never been (and will likely never be) even remotely approached by anything a game can do, even for something like the loss of a character.

    Then again, maybe for some people the emotions ARE very similar. Maybe that’s worth looking into as well.

  2. foolsage on

    I do think there’s both a qualitative and a quantitative difference between the sorrow caused by media and sorrow caused by suffering or loss in our lives… but I think there’s enough in common between the experiences that we can meaningfully discuss them having similar roots.

    Immersion in a game is almost never remotely close to immersion in real life, obviously. But imagine for a minute that something happened to your EQ2 achievement-monkey (I know she isn’t, just teasing). You’ve invested a lot of time and effort into her and probably feel a strong attachment. If through a narrative device in the game she ended up permadead, might you not feel genuine and piercing sorrow over the loss? Of course that’s not going to compare to losing a real life loved one… but the more one is immersed in caring about one’s virtual life, the more “real” it becomes, and the more real the emotions one feels in that regard are likely to be.

    I wouldn’t want to play a game that made me feel the same as I have when losing loved ones in real life. That’s a pretty horrible concept really. I wouldn’t want books or movies to evoke that feeling either.

    Is it however valid to say that sorrow over virtual people and goods can be compared to sorrow over suffering and loss in real life? I think it’s a matter of attachment really. I don’t ever plan to care as much about things in games as I do about the people in my life… but I’m quite confident that some people DO feel that way.

  3. Bronte on

    Very nice post man. I have been meaning to read it for a while, just couldn’t find the time.

    I remember Floyd 😦

    Have you played Dragon Age yet? I will share my moment of loss in it in a post I will put up today that will link this post. I will hide it in white text because it is a spoiler, which is why I am not putting it here. So be forewarned.

  4. […] Planetfall but I still remember how devastated I was when that happened.” Fool’s Age, Emotions in Games, part 2: Sorrow, Fool’s Age. [Bronte: I can think of one recent example: SPOILER WARNING –> in Dragon Age, […]

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