Feeling Games

Curator's Note

We’ve probably all experienced a variety of emotions when playing video games: euphoria, frustration, determination. With their immersive capacity and interactive play, video games are shifting our understandings of identification and spectatorship. They also seem poised to explore new registers of emotion, even pushing toward empathy. Except they rarely do. While they might make us feel a variety of ways, few video games actually take up the emotions as their very terrain, mining affect as gameplay. At least until Ruben & Lullaby.


A new iPhone game available through the App Store, Ruben & Lullaby activates the much-loved tactile elements of Apple’s popular device in order to explore a series of nuanced emotions and human interrelation. (If you’ve ever watched an iPhone owner, you’ll notice that it’s all about the touching. If you own an iPhone, you no doubt know this already.) Created by new media artist Erik Loyer, the piece asks the player to orchestrate the moods of a young couple having their first argument. Stroking the phone soothes the characters, while shaking it sets off anger and rage. The gem-like narrative is elegant and compelling in its seeming simplicity, feeling incredibly natural to the touch. The striking visuals (drawn graphic novel-style by Ezra Clayton Daniel) create the scaffold upon which the player can unfold a variety of implicit narratives, richly accompanied by a jazzy improv sound track.


The wildly-successful Wii and the iPhone hint at the more embodied engagements with digital platforms that may await us in the future, revealing the sensual and haptic dimensions of new media. In its short few minutes, Ruben & Lullaby moves us much further down that path, intertwining touch and affect. It also reveals the limits of our theoretical framings of the digital as somehow immaterial or as virtual. While I still love a good game of Wii bowling as much as the next girl, I sense in Ruben & Lullaby the first signs of a video game that will move me like a good novel (even as I’m moving). I’ve been feeling the need for that for a long time now.


Click the video for a demo of Ruben & Lullaby.


While watching Ruben & Lullaby I started projecting present and past relationships onto the couple. The interactive piece definitely taps into emotional terrain that seems to elicit our psychic participation. I can see how emotions will take games to a new immersive phase, and together with touch, establish empathy. The emotions of fear are so prevalent in games already—the Alien-derived Dead Space (EA, 2008) comes to mind. Emotional immersion based on identification and participation in horror also raises the stakes for game play, increasing the cathartic effects.

Focusing on emotions in videogames also reminds me of a Ted presentation I watched recently “David Perry: Will videogames become better than life?”


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