Nintendo's Wii game console may owe some of its extraordinary success to emotions that are triggered by specific movements: It might essentially be using your body to hack into your brain.
A better understanding of which motions trigger which emotions might not only lead to better games, but could one day help improve the iPhone, iPad and other gesture-based and multitouch interfaces as well.
"There's no reason why dealing with a spreadsheet or sorting e-mail couldn't be as wonderful as tai chi," said computer and social scientist Katherine Isbister at NYU's Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn. "Games are the perfect ecosystems for evolving fun, and hopefully we might be able take those lessons elsewhere."
The Nintendo Wii introduced physical movements to gaming consoles and in just four years became the fastest-selling console of all time. Now Isbister and her colleagues are investigating how Wii games can make us feel by mapping the responses certain movements and gestures evoke.
For example, in "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed," a player can fling an object or a person to the ground, using a hurling motion with the nunchuk part of the Wii controller, creating a feeling of aggression.
"You can make people feel all kinds of ways with movements, which could be the science of what makes the Wii so engaging," Isbister said. "A lot of these games have stumbled upon doing this already without realizing the social science underlying it."
Numerous studies have shown that movements or postures generate cues the mind can use to figure out how it feels, a phenomenon dubbed the physical-feedback effect. Wii games might also create emotions between people through "emotional contagion," where the brain can make us feel what we see, hear, read or think others experience.
‘Designing interaction as if we did not have any body or emotion is detrimental to what it means to be human.'
The scientists are categorizing motions seen in Wii games using a system developed by famous early 20th-century dance researcher Rudolf Laban, who codified movements based on factors such as whether they were fast or slow, light or heavy.
In addition to experimenting with games that are bestsellers or have the best reviews, as well as the ones recommended by developers, they are also using minigames they devised themselves to test players with specific movements. One such game, which they call Wriggle, examines head wobbling and body tilting. The researchers take video of people while they play, capture their movement data and interview them before and after playing to see if and how their moods change.
Preliminary findings reveal that not only is the type of motion important, but the quality of it can be, too. For instance, while both Boogie Superstar and Wii Cheer involved copying dance moves, participants in tests enjoyed the latter far more than the former, saying they felt constrained and mechanical in Boogie Superstar and flowing and buoyant with Wii Cheer.
There are many directions the researchers could explore with the Wii, Isbister noted. For instance, they are developing mini-games to analyze movement's social effects, such as Torch, where partners collaborate to pass a flame from one pillar to another. "Physically being in sync can lead to feelings of liking or trust. You can make people feel more connected." Isbister said. "On the whole, cooperative game mechanics seem underdeveloped on the Wii so far, and so could be an open area of opportunity."
Future work could also integrate motions more deeply into a game's story, Isbister suggested. "One really wonderful thing you can do with games is identify with protagonists, to go on the hero's journey, and imagine how much one could feel what they feel if players learned to stand and move the same way - to go, say, from a hesitant posture to a confident one," she explained.
In addition to such work potentially influencing interactions with current multitouch and gesture-based interfaces, the researchers also are looking forward to studying new systems such as Microsoft's Kinect, which tracks player motions with a camera rather than a remote. That system may more-easily incorporate whole-body motions into games, which could be more engaging than just moving parts of the body. Also, the Kinect could recognize moods such as frustration, by looking at body posture and adjust games to be easier, suggested researcher Ulf Schwekendiek at NYU-Poly.
Isbister's research will naturally help in the design of movement-based games, "an area that has been and will continue to grow over the years to come," human-computer interaction researcher Kristina Höök at Stockholm University in Sweden wrote in an e-mail. "But given the development in mobile and ubiquitous technology, we will see more and more full-body interaction and gestures used also in other kinds of applications - social and emotional communication between users, interaction with services built into our environment, playful applications outside the games realm, interactive art, and creative tools for end-user TV-production using only mobiles."
"We already swipe our prepaid subway card over the RFID reader - that movement should be made pleasurable and not only functional," Höök said. "We tilt our mobile to change the direction of the screen. We place sensors in our sports shoes. All these kinds of interactions needs design knowledge of how movement feels - otherwise, interaction will feel awkward, misplaced and tedious to perform in the long run."
"Designing interaction as if we did not have any body or emotion is detrimental to what it means to be human," Höök said. "Isbister's work is at the heart of what it means to be human."
Isbister and her colleagues will detail their findings in a chapter in the book Whole Body Interaction late this year or early next, and will also present their work at the CHI conference in May 2011 and at the Foundations of Digital Games conference in June and July of 2011.
Image credit: Flickr/Ted Van Huisen