Emotional Intelligence in Games

A deep analysis of Little Misfortune

By Elsa Samuelsson

Attention: This article contains spoilers from Little Misfortune game.

1 Introduction

Digital games attract a wide audience covering varying genders, ages and interests. As more and more people become enticed by the digital world and the experiences it has to offer, one may ask what games can provide for its public seen from a broader perspective.

As I have been working with game design for over a year now, I have come to learn that it is a complex process. One of the most essential elements include empathy: being able to project yourself into the player. “You must actively try to become them, trying to see what they see, hear what they hear, and think what they think” (Schell, 2015, p. 117). As the game design process aligns to the player’s emotional needs and preferences, it allows for a deeper and more dynamic gaming experience. The connection between game design and emotions appears intriguing to me and allures me to learn more about it.

As the game design process aligns to the player’s emotional needs and preferences, it allows for a deeper and more dynamic gaming experience.

What could be found interesting in the examination of this connection is the effect digital games have on the player’s emotional life – and more specifically, the player’s emotional intelligence. How does the incorporation of emotional intelligence in the game design process affect the game – and could this compel the player to become more emotionally intelligent?

1.1 Background

Emotional intelligence involves the ability to perceive accurately, appraise, and express emotion; the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge; and the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth (Mayer & Salovey, 1997, p.10).

While looking into some research on the subject, I found that correlations have been made between playing videogames and emotional intelligence.

One study suggests that videogames can be useful to promote emotional intelligence in adolescents, if it’s integrated with a guided and assisted framework. From one viewpoint, videogames allow the player to experience positive emotions, which broaden people’s thought-action repertoire and reduce negative emotions. On another hand, negative emotions – such as frustration, anxiety, sadness and fear – can be brought out due to videogames. This can however train the player to recognize and manage difficult emotions in a safe environment. Cooperative videogames have been shown to promote in-group cohesion, feelings of empathy, mutual support, and cooperative behaviours (Carissoli & Villani, 2019).

1.2 Thesis outline

The purpose of this analysis is to examine how empathy is encouraged in one chosen narrative game. My aspiration is that it will broaden the perspective of the relationship between emotional intelligence and digital games, and of how the potential connection can be of advantage to both game designers and players. My main question is:

  • What aspects of the game “Little Misfortune” may encourage feelings of empathy?

1.3 Method

In this section the method that was used during the course of the examination is presented and reviewed. It also includes a report of how the sources of information were evaluated and considered relevant for this paper.

Below follows also a definition of the term emotional intelligence, as well as an account of one of its key elements, empathy, which have been chosen as the central element of this paper.

Literature studies

The research in this paper takes the form of literature studies.

In a literary analysis you analyse a work of literature on the basis of an aim or intent, which determines the foundation for the result. Focus is directed towards the aspects of the work which can be found relevant to the thesis. Depending on the thesis, there may be an emphasis on either content or the structure and language of the work (Gustafsson & Wivast, 2020).

In this essay the analysis was primarily focused on the work’s content.

Critical questions

To facilitate the analysis process, I broke down the research question into two more specific questions which I had in mind during the course of the analysis. The questions served both as means to help identify the parts of the game which were found relevant to the research question, but also to categorize the results. The questions were formulated based off Goleman’s definition of empathy (Goleman, 1998, p. 26-27).

  • How does the game encourage the player to become emotionally attentive and listen to the story?
  • How does the game encourage the player to understand and take an active concern in the character’s feelings and perspectives?

Evaluation of sources

The literary work chosen for the analysis in this paper was the game “Little Misfortune”. The intent of the analysis was to connect the game with Daniel Goleman’s definition of empathy, described in the book Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998).

“Little Misfortune” – an interactive story exploring characters and emotions

To get an insight into how emotional intelligence can be encouraged in digital games, a narrative game focusing on the story and the characters seemed appropriate to examine. A game that has been openly proclaimed to have been created with a focus on emotional intelligence, along with the intent of inducing the player to become more aware of their emotions, is the gameLittle Misfortune”by Killmonday Games. The official description of the game reads:

Little Misfortune is an interactive story, focused on exploration and characters, both sweet and dark, where your choices have consequences.

Starring Misfortune Ramirez Hernandez, an imaginative 8-year-old, who seeks the prize of Eternal Happiness, as a gift to her Mommy. Led by her new friend, Mr. Voice, they venture into the woods, where mysteries are unraveled and a little bit of bad luck unfolds. (Killmonday Games, 2019).

Emotions are an essential key element of creating and playing video games, according to Natalia Martinsson, co-creator of “Little Misfortune”:“The intention of video games for me is that, it’s all about reflecting on your skills and the understanding of ideas or emotions displayed”. She mentions that as a game designer, one of the goals is to connect with the player on an emotional level. Emotions are buried and misunderstood, but through play they can be acknowledged and expressed (Martinsson, 2019).

She mentions that as a game designer, one of the goals is to connect with the player on an emotional level.

When asked about which elements of emotional intelligence that influenced the design of Little Misfortune, Martinsson mentioned self-awareness and empathy as big driving forces in the story. Empathy can for example be connected to the moments of the game where the main character shares parts of her life and how she has dealt with them.

Since one of the elements that the game’s narrative was designed to emphasize was empathy, Little Misfortune has been judged relevant as the object for my analysis.

Selection of data

The restricted time to execute the examination required me to limit the data to analyse, since a study of the whole game would take too long. Three separate scenes from the game were chosen and evaluated. The first is from the introduction, the second from the middle of the game and the third is part of the ending. In this essay the scenes are referred to as “Scene A”, “Scene B” and “Scene C”.

  • Introduction scene / “Scene A”

In Scene A we are introduced to the main character, an eight year old girl called Misfortune. At first sight the player sees her playing with her toys in her bedroom. She gets interrupted by the narrator’s voice, who reveals to the player that today is the day Misfortune will die. Then the narrator introduces both the player and Misfortune to the game’s main mission which is to beat the game and find the prize of eternal happiness. After the dialogue between Misfortune and the narrator, the player is free to move around and explore the room. As the player interacts with different objects like for example a drawing or a diary, Misfortune shares some background information behind that object. Scene A starts out in a bedroom, moving on to a hallway, leading the player into a kitchen and lastly out to the backyard.

This scene was considered relevant as it’s where the player gets introduced to the character and the game’s mission. As the introduction lays the groundwork for the emotional relationship between the player and the characters, it seemed relevant to examine the game’s approaches to empathy in that context.

  • Middle Scene / “Scene B”

In Scene B the player follows Misfortune into a house. The narrator tells her that a man called George lives in the house and that there will be a birthday party there. Nobody opens the door, so she invites herself in. The player observes Misfortune as she walks through the house passing varying objects. At the end of the room she discovers a man hanging dead from the ceiling. The narrator tells Misfortune that he’s dead, and that the party is over. Misfortune leaves the house.

This scene was chosen as it showcases a suicide that could be interpreted as emotionally provocative. Viewed from the perspective of empathy, it seemed intriguing to investigate how the game deals with this theme.

  • Ending Scene / “Scene C”

Scene C takes place back at Misfortune’s home, in the backyard of the house. The player observes Misfortune as she discovers that an accident has happened. Her mother is seen crying talking to a policeman. Alongside the road an ambulance and a police car are parked next to what appears to be Misfortune’s own body covered by a blanket. A flashback reveals that Misfortune was killed by a car as she crossed the road at an earlier point in the game. The conclusion is drawn that all the events unfolding after that point have been experienced by her ghost. Misfortune bursts into tears when she finds out what has happened. She is comforted by her friend Benjamin, and together they leave through a magical portal.

This scene is emotionally loaded as it features a twist in the story. Since the scene is part of the game’s ending, it clears up some of the questions the player has had throughout the game. The ending is also a crucial part as it affects how the player is left feeling when the game is over. That’s why this scene was chosen for evaluation.

The Emotional Competence Framework” by Daniel Goleman

For the literary analysis in this paper I used “The Emotional Competence Framework”, featured in Daniel Goleman’s book Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998), as a guide to define emotional intelligence as well as to identify which aspects of “Little Misfortune” that could be found relevant to my thesis.

Goleman’s framework was considered relevant for this essay as it presents a clear and structured definition of emotional intelligence: breaking it down into five key elements which each consecutively are structured and defined. The clarification of the element empathy facilitated the analysis process, as the aim of it was to connect the characteristic traits of empathy to a digital game.

Definition of terms

The five elements of emotional intelligence

Goleman breaks down emotional intelligence into an emotional competence framework consisting of five key elements. These elements have further been sorted between two categories: personal competences and social competences. Personal competences determine how we manage ourselves and include the elements self-awareness, self-reflection and motivation. Social competences determine how we handle relationships and cover the elements empathy and social skill (Goleman, 1998, p. 26-27).

The limited time and resources for this essay allowed me to focus on only one of the five elements. Self-awareness, self-reflection and motivation are all concerned with the player’s relationship with themselves throughout the game, and to get an insight into the player’s mind and emotions, interviews would be the more suitable method rather than an analysis, which has been used in this essay. Social skill is not relevant as the game chosen for the analysis doesn’t involve social interaction. The element that was chosen as the central point for this analysis was empathy, since the term is concerned with relationships. In the context of digital games, the term deals with the player’s relationship with the game’s characters and events, and the different approaches the game uses to induce the player to feel empathy for these.

Definition of empathy

Empathy is defined as awareness of others’ feelings, needs and concerns, and can be broken down into five competences.

The first is the competence to understand others; that is sensing others’ feelings and perspectives and taking active interest in these. The second competence is about developing others, meaning being able to sense other’s needs and encourage them to develop and strengthen their qualities. Within the definition of empathy belongs also the trait of service orientation – implying “anticipating, recognizing and meeting customers’ needs”. Levering diversity, being able to cultivate opportunities through different kinds of people, is another competence that can be applied to the term. The ability to read a group’s emotional currents and power relationships – also known as political awareness – constitutes the last competence defining empathy (Goleman, 1998, p. 27).

As the time and resources for this paper were limited, only one of the mentioned competences was evaluated in the analysis. The competences regarding developing others and service orientation weren’t considered relevant because they don’t play an active role in the game being analysed; neither do levering diversity nor political awareness. Thereupon, the competence left to focus on was the first, concerning the understanding of others. According to Goleman this implies sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns. It also includes being attentive to emotional cues and listening well (1998, p. 138).

2. Thesis

In this section the result of the analysis is identified and reviewed. The critical questions which provided the basis for the analysis process, here also functions as subcategories which the data has been grouped under.

To clarify which part of the game the text concerns, the references “Scene A”, “Scene B” or “Scene C” are used.

2.1. How does the game encourage the player to become emotionally attentive and listen to the story?

Below follows a review of the result concerning how the game attempts to catch the player’s attention. The result was grouped into three subcategories.

Through contrasting shifts in mood

In Scene A, in the bedroom, the player is introduced to the main character Misfortune in an innocent setting: surrounded by her toys and personal things, playing in bright sunlight pouring in through the window. The narrator describes Misfortune as a wonderful child, right before he reveals to the player that today is the day she will die. This is one of the first moments where the game attempts to catch the player’s attention and stir an emotional reaction through a contrasting shift in mood. Another moment of the game where this occurs is in Scene B, when Misfortune enters a house expecting there will be a party, but instead she encounters a hanged man. The player anticipates a happy atmosphere but is instead faced with a provoking scene, which evokes an unsettling emotion.

The narrator describes Misfortune as a wonderful child, right before he reveals to the player that today is the day she will die.

Through sharing of experiences

Another factor of the game that induces the player to listen and become emotionally attentive is when the main character shares background information of the varying objects that the player is able to interact with. The information given to the player reveals clues about Misfortune’s past experiences and the emotions she associates with that object. One example is in Scene A, in the bedroom, where you can go into her “secret hiding spot”. In there she shares that it functions as a place where she can dream and travel far away whenever her parents fight, which she says she doesn’t like.

Through visual clues

The player is also compelled to listen to the story through visual clues presented throughout the game. In Scene A, in the kitchen, the player is introduced to Misfortune’s mother standing turned away from the player, not showing her face. The only action she’s seen doing is drinking from a glass of wine. Around the room lie old cigarettes and dirty dishes. Through this visual context the player becomes attentive of the dysfunctional atmosphere.

Visual clues also include Misfortune’s body language and facial expressions, which help to encourage the player to become attentive of the atmosphere and mood of the scene. In Scene C, when Misfortune realizes she’s dead, she starts crying, walking hunched and with heavy steps. As she sits next to her dead body, the player’s attention is directed towards the main character expressing her sadness.

2.2. How does the game encourage the player to understand and take an active concern in the character’s feelings and perspectives?

Below follows a review of the result concerning how the game attempts to induce the player to become emotionally involved in the character’s feelings and perspectives. The result was grouped into three subcategories.

Through sharing of perspectives

One way through which the player is introduced to Misfortune’s perspectives is through her diary which can be read in her bedroom in Scene A. In the diary one can, among other things, read her thoughts on feelings. She wonders where they come from and wishes to learn how to feel. Drawings made by Misfortune surround the text and show strong facial expressions, displaying a visual representation of how Misfortune interprets the world around her. On one of the pages there is a drawing of her dad hitting her mom. Her dad has an angry look on his face while her mom appears indifferent, portrayed with cross eyes and a slightly open mouth. Misfortune herself stands aside, looking upon them with an uneasy expression. Below a text reads:

My Daddy hit Mommy. Is that supposed to be normal? Should I hit people I love? It doesn’t feel right. (Scene A, The Bedroom.)

From Little Misfortune’s Diary

The player is compelled to think about the questions Misfortune asks. As she wonders whether she should hit people she loves, the player gains a perspective of how someone’s situation can cause a person to get a certain belief or idea. In Scene B a similar parallel can be drawn as Misfortune encounters a man who has hung himself. As the legs sway from the roof the player gets an understanding of what has happened from a visual context. Misfortune, experiencing the situation from a child’s perspective, doesn’t understand that the man is dead and refers the hanged man to a pinata, which represents something fun and playful rather than depressing. She asks the narrator whether she should hit him like a pinata. The question may bring the player to become aware of how different someone’s understanding of a situation can be due to past experiences.

Through giving the player an active role in the story

Throughout the game the player is confronted with questions along with two different choices that decide how the following events unfold. In that aspect the role of the player shifts from being a passive observer to an active participant.

One example of the player actively choosing to be concerned with the character’s feelings and perspectives is when the player is faced with the question whether they would like to read Misfortune’s diary or not. Through the diary one gets to take part of her memories, experiences and perspectives. It doesn’t affect the outcome of the game but gives the player an opportunity to develop a deeper emotional connection to the main character (Scene A, The Bedroom).

Through observing the character’s emotional reactions

As the player observes Misfortune encountering different situations and reacting to them, the player gets to experience the events through her perspective as well as taking part of her emotions. When Misfortune opens the fridge in the kitchen and sees a pile of dead rabbits, she reacts by crossing her arms upset, bursting out: “When will Daddy learn I like them alive?” (Scene A, The Kitchen). This allows the player to get an understanding of her emotions towards the situation. In Scene C, the player observes Misfortune as she realizes she’s dead. The player gets to take part in her feelings as the attention is directed towards Misfortune crying, hunched over her dead body.

3 Conclusion

The purpose of this essay was to examine the relationship between empathy and one narrative game. The definition of empathy was based on Goleman’s “Emotional Competence Framework” (1998, p. 26-27). The competences associated with the term formed into two critical questions which helped identify the aspects of the game relevant to my research question, as well as categorizing the result.

The first question/category concerned the game’s approaches to makingthe player become emotionally attentive and listen to the story. As I analysed the aspects of the game which I found relevant to the question, I figured that the result could be divided into three categories. One approach that I perceive the game using to encourage the player become attentive of the story, is through applying contrasting shifts in mood. Another way I find being used in the game to encourage the player to listen, is through sharing of experiences. This occurs when the main character comments on the environment around her and shares her emotional response associated with it. The third conclusion I drew from the analysis, was that visual clues are a means to induce the player to become attentive of the environment and the emotional atmosphere of it. Visual clues also include body language which reveals the feelings a character goes through.

The second question/category was related to how the game encourages the player to understand and take an active concern in the character’s feelings and perspectives. I experienced that the result could be grouped into three subcategories. The first category that was formed includes that the game introduces different perspectives to the player, for example through a diary, to encourage the player to take interest in the main character’s interpretations and understandings of what surrounds her. The second factor encouraging the player to take an active concern in the character’s feelings and perspectives is the questions that the player is confronted with throughout the game. As different choices imply different consequences, the player becomes an active participant in the character’s lives. The third pattern I noticed through the analysis was that the character’s emotional reactions towards different events are expressed openly throughout the game. As the player observes the character’s emotions, the player gets to experience varying situations through their perspective.

4 Discussion

Here the result of the analysis is discussed related to my own viewpoints. As my aspiration of the examination was to broaden the perspective of the relationship between emotions and digital games, and find out how a potential connection could be of advantage to game designers and players, the discussion aims to comment on what the findings could imply in the context of designing a game as well as playing a game.

Empathy’s role in game design

One of the conclusions I drew from analysing the game was that a mood of a scene could quickly shift into a contrasting atmosphere. Whenever a sweet or happy mood is suddenly disturbed by a contrasting emotion such as sadness or fright, the shift appears emphasised and the player becomes more attentive to the tone of the scene as well as his or her own feelings. For game designers I envision that the understanding of this is beneficial for creating an emotional effect.

Another aspect I identified as an important element to encourage the player to listen, is when the main character shares parts of her life through telling short stories and memories, as well as sharing how she has dealt with them and how she feels about them. I found that this captures and maintains the player’s attention in a compelling way, since not too much information is presented in a straightforward manner, but rather small and subtle hints are spread out here and there. Sharing someone’s experiences in an indirect way like this keeps the player interested, as well as encourages them to listen and be attentive, in order to connect the clues and get a representative picture of the story and characters.

Whenever a sweet or happy mood is suddenly disturbed by a contrasting emotion such as sadness or fright, the shift appears emphasised and the player becomes more attentive to the tone of the scene as well as his or her own feelings.

The same reasoning can be applied to the visual clues displayed through the art and animation of the game. Behind each object of the environment a story can be interpreted by the observer. The sight of an empty glass bottle lying in the sink, or the animation of a smoking cigarette next to the stove, (Scene A, The Kitchen), may remind the player of a certain idea or emotion that they associate with those objects. To express the emotional tone of a dysfunctional home environment, no words are needed in this context. The use of nonverbal communication to convey a message can be related to our early development of emotional awareness which occurs when we are infants. The first language of the infant for communicating needs comprises nonverbal facial expressions and other behavorial displays of emotion (Bagby & Taylor, 2000, p.55) In my view, this could contribute to why the visual language may be a more effectful way of conveying a message than using words.

To express the emotional tone of a dysfunctional home environment, no words are needed.

Goleman implies that empathy is essential as an emotional guidance system(1998, p. 139). I believe that as a game designer, such a system can promote better decisions in the game design process. Understanding how your player’s mind works is the key to creating an immersive gaming experience.

Empathy’s role in playing games

From a player’s perspective, I believe that staying emotionally attentive and an active listener can enhance the gaming experience and make it feel more fulfilling. As long as the player stays aware, we can learn a lot by participating in someone else’s story and observing them as they go through varying situations and emotions. We may relate the emotional patterns we see in someone else to our own experience of those feelings.

In my view the different approaches the game uses to encourage the player to become emotionally attentive, could be connected to an increase of the player’s emotional awareness. Throughout the game clues of the character’s background story as well as the emotional atmosphere of the environment, are presented through dialogue and visuals. The player learns to search for these clues and connect them to each other, hence increasing their awareness.

Another aspect I found interesting in my examination is that emotions, and the expression of emotions, seem to be given a central role in the story. This can be correlated to Mayer’s and Salovey’s definition of emotional intelligenceinvolving the ability to perceive accurately, appraise, and express emotion (1997, p.10).In the context of digital games, the game expresses the emotion whereas the player perceives it. Looking from that point of view one may draw the conclusion that a game can promote emotional growth.

As long as the player stays aware, we can learn a lot by participating in someone else’s story and observing them as they go through varying situations and emotions.

In Scene C, the attention is directed towards Misfortune crying as she sits hunched over her dead body. The music playing in the background appears melancholic and the tempo of the scene seems slowed down. From my perspective, this creates an awareness of the feeling of sadness, as space is allowed for the emotion to exist and be articulated. Awareness of one’s emotional state is an essential element of emotional intelligence (Saarni, 2000, p. 77). As the game emphasizes the need we have for expressing ourselves and allowing ourselves to do it, a link between playing digital games and increasing one’s emotional intelligence is hence developed.

5 Works Cited

Bagby, R.M. & J. Taylor, G. (2000) ‘An Overview of the Alexithymia Conctruct’. In The Handbook of Emotional Intelligence. ed. by Bar-On, R. & D.A. Parker, J. San Francisco: Joessey-Bass.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence. London:Bloomsbury

Gustafsson, L & Wivast, U. (2020). Viewpoints 3. Lund: Gleerups Utbildning AB.

Carissoli, C. & Villani, D. (2019). ‘Can Videogames Be Used to Promote Emotional Intelligence in Teenagers? Results from EmotivaMente, a School Program’.

Games for Health Journal. 8(6): 407-413. http://doi.org/10.1089/g4h.2018.0148 [29 May 2020]

Killmonday Games [online]. Available from https://www.killmondaygames.com/games/ [29 May 2020]

Martinsson, N. (2019). ‘The intention of video games’. Killmonday Games [online]. Available from https://www.killmondaygames.com/2019/07/25/the-intension-of-video-games/ [29 May 2020]

Mayer, J. D. & Salovey, P. (1997) ‘What is emotional intelligence?’. In Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Educational implications ed. by Salovey, P. & J. Sluyter, D. New York: Basic Books.

Saarni, C. (2000) ‘Emotional Competence: A Developmental Perspective’. In The Handbook of Emotional Intelligence. ed. by Bar-On, R. & D.A. Parker, J. San Francisco: Joessey-Bass.

Schell, J. (2015). The Art of Game Design. Oxford: Taylor & Francis Group LLC.

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