Virtual Characters and Real Emotions
Jesse Schell is one of the most articulate, insightful people developing games and talking about their future. At a recent keynote at a Unity3D conference, he talked about virtual characters as a crucial part of the future of games and other online experiences. As usual he makes a lot of excellent points about virtual characters remembering you and conversing with you, but on one — how we interact emotionally with virtual characters — I have to disagree with him:
“Emotions are easily recognized by humans, but computers must be part of that, said Schell. “Once we can do that we can sense your emotions,” said Schell, developers can create “a game where you actually have to act, or feel emotions. A game where someone tells you where there dog just died and if you can’t manage to cry then no, you’re not getting to the next level!”” (as covered by Gamasutra)
First, I appreciate Jesse stepping up with concrete predictions and other musings — as he says, this is a great way to predict (and create) the future. That said, this one is exactly backwards: the emotional connection with virtual characters doesn’t come because we emote effectively, but because the characters themselves have and display emotions that we then relate to. Their emotions make them more real to us, and allow us to feel something similar.
Think of it this way: we don’t miss on the climax of a movie if we aren’t actually crying. We want the actors to emote as their characters — they have to lead us, so we can follow. This is as much about mirror neurons as feeling like it’s okay and appropriate to feel an emotional release in a particular situation. When the characters and situations in fiction and art (including games) provide an authentic emotional context, we also experience it. Doing so deepens our engagement and our relationship with those characters. Requiring that we first feel and display an emotion puts the onus in the wrong place.
So what we need here is characters that can feel and show emotions appropriate to a situation and relationship, so that we can feel free to feel them too. This requires that virtual characters not just understand our emotions, but that they provide authentic, subtle, layered, conflicting emotional responses just as humans do. Only then will virtual characters be real enough to us to warrant our interest and our relationship, which makes a lot of other things possible.
For example, Jesse mentions possibilities like talking to your avatar in a game — in effect, taking on more the role of the director working with an autonomous actor than being the character yourself. I can see this happening (in fact I have a whole design predicated on the idea of influencing rather than driving characters in a game.)
Other examples include a virtual character being an assistant, concierge, tutor, or continuous virtual presence across games, purchases, email, and other experiences. All make a great deal of sense. However, as these experiences expand from the merely utilitarian (a shopkeeper with whom you interact in only a narrow domain) to the more relational (coach, concierge, assistant), an emotional connection becomes more vital.
While virtual characters need to be able to read human emotional responses (via voice stress, facial expression, etc.), it is at least as important that they be able to maintain and display authentic emotions themselves. Otherwise their responses to us will always seem oddly flat in a way that subverts any connection between a person and a virtual character.
On the other hand, I believe that as virtual characters begin to display authentic emotions — not limited to a small palette of canned emotional states — we will see greater connections between us and virtual characters. This relationship connection will, I believe, be the doorway to seeing virtual characters becoming much more prevalent in our lives in many different contexts.