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Setting an Appropriate Tone for Your Game

Peer Reviewed by Servant of the Lord, CRFaithMusic, Dragonsoulj

atmosphere storytelling writing tone embodied cognition psychology philosophy
A technique on how to use 'embodied cognition' to set your game's atmosphere.

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Today, we have a very interesting topic regarding embodied cognition which will be extremely useful in setting an appropriate atmosphere and character perception in your game. The term embodied cognition is a philosophical term which has also been studied in psychology and it basically means that our rational thoughts are interconnected with our sensory experiences. Let's start of by having a look at these two experiments in psychology and hopefully you'll start seeing what I mean and how this applies to games:

Experiment One: Holding a cup of coffee


This study was conducted in order to determine whether temperature affects our judgement of things. What the researchers did was they had the participants hold either a cup of warm coffee, a cup of room temperature or a cup of iced coffee. Later on, the participants had to make a judgement on a particular person based on a set of information given to them. Overall, those people holding a warm cup of coffee rated that person higher in terms of traits that are related to warmth, for example, kindness. Meanwhile, those holding the ice cup rated these traits lower than the those with the standard room temperature cups. This suggests that temperature plays an important role in influencing our emotions and rational judgements of things.

So it's extremely important to consider things such as weather and season in your game. Whatever season you set your game in: Summer, Winter, Spring or Autumn will reflect the predominant atmosphere of your game - Spring and Summer (sunny, clear sky, blooming plants) will reflect a more positive atmosphere whilst Winter and Autumn (rain, clouds, snow, dead trees) reflect a more depressing atmosphere. Along with the overall weather, small things such as having the stove turned on in the background will affect our overall response. This stuff ties in neatly with a concept called the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect states that when we have just one characteristic of somebody (e.g. warmth), we tend to favor all of that person's other attributes including things such as attractiveness and over-estimating their height.

Experiment Two: Physical Stability


This was more of the same as experiment one, the only difference was instead of testing temperature the researchers decided to test physical properties. Participants sat on either stable or unstable furniture and then they had to rate a set of social relationships, given a certain description about that relationship. Those who sat on stable furniture rated these social relationships as more stable overall compared to those who sat on unstable furniture. Not only did they rate these relationships higher in terms of stability, but they also had a higher preference towards stability than those who sat on unstable furniture.

Furthermore, several other experiments were conducted to indicate things such as color, physical distance between people, making a frown face vs. a smiley face and flexing your arm vs. extending your arm can affect our cognitive judgements. Whilst we can't control things such as making the audience flex their arms or putting on their smiley face, most things else you can control, including stability. You might not be able to control the stability of the chair that your audience is sitting on, but as long as the characters in the game are on something stable or unstable, the audience will put themselves in the character's shoes and experience that feeling.

Tiny things like these matter a LOT. It doesn't just affect our perceptions of others, but it also affects ourselves and our decision making. When we feel warmer, we are more likely to do generous things and feel more trustworthy towards others. It's a beautiful phenomenon that translates extremely well into games and storytelling. Have fun!

This was reposted from my website: http://gamingpoint.org/2014/04/embodied-cognition-atmosphere-setting/

About the Author(s)

Winston is a psychology student with a passion for screenwriting and game design.


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)


Apr 25 2014 12:25 PM

The tone of this article was appropriately defined. However, some of the grammar is a little underdeveloped. Overall, I like this article. I like this theory, find it very interesting, and I will definitely be reading more about embodied cognition. 

Apr 29 2014 11:28 AM

"The term embodied cognition is a philosophical term which has also been studied in psychology and it basically means that our rational thoughts are interconnected with our sensory experiences."


As someone well familiar with the work of one of the major figures in the field, the neurologist Damasio, I'd like to point out that the definition you give is misleading as it only looks at one half of what the body provides to cognition--sensory input. At least as important to the concept of embodied cognition, however, is that the body provides feedback to the mind on itself, not just the rest of the world through the senses. It does this in terms of feedback to the brain about the state of its internal millieu, proprioception (position of joings/muscles and body parts in general), and so on. This feedback is very tightly integrated with emotions and affects both conscious and unconscious cognitive processes. It provides a sort of anchor for the mental self. This is evolutionarily useful, as the mind's ultimate responsibility is maintaining optimal homeostasis in the body, and the benefit of a complex mind over a simple one is that it has the potential to take into consideration future changes in factors that would impact homeostasis, as opposed to being merely reactionary.


I think the most important result from research in embodied cognition that us computer science types ought to note is that it makes human-like AI a far more difficult problem than one of simulating intellect--an artificial mind cannot be human-like if you don't provide it all the input that a body normally provides, complete with the complex and rich feedback every physiological state change in the body causes, and full emulation of the numerous complex feedback loops between the mind and body.


I remember Kurzeweil talking about simulating whole brains at the neuron level back from the late 90s in his books, and now I laugh at his wildly optimistic projections o being able to do so by circa 2020. Yet, Google hired the guy (it boggles the mind). Embodied cognition puts one nail in that coffin: you'd have to simulate the body as well as the brain. And another factor which he ought to have known at the time puts the other nail in the coffin: he was referring to numbers of neurons and comparing to trends of numbers of transistors in supercomputers (a fallacy I see some people do to this day--!), but it's the number of synapses that matter. There are 150 trillion synapses in the human brain, and a synapse's electrical activity is far more complex than a transistor's. This still makes up for the brain's slow eletrochemical signal propagation by a few orders of magnitude.


To end my now-offtopic rant: I'm not saying AI is useless, just that human-like AI is something that is in the far future. We'll have intelligent machines in the coming decades, but they won't be able to understand us at a deep level, because their minds will be alien to ours, and the converse. I leave the question of whether that will have a practical impact on their utility (and/or danger) to us open to the reader.

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