Going To A Better Place

The most common cause of my own gaming death. Lord, I hates me a Sniper.

What’s the source of your joy when playing an action game? Shooting the bad guys? Beating the game? Apparently not. It’s getting killed that most gets our rocks off, according to a new study.

The facial expressions and physiological activity of 36 gamers was measured whilst they played an FPS. “Wounding and killing the opponent elicited an increase in SCL and a decrease in zygomatic and orbicularis oculi EMG activity,” says the report. Er. This means heightened anxiety, apparently. Conversely, “the wounding and death of the player’s own character elicited an increase in SCL and zygomatic and orbicularis oculi EMG activity and a decrease in corrugator activity.” Which signals positive emotions, apparently. Short answer: killing is sad, dying is happy. Hmm.

The churl in me wants to say it all makes sense upon discovering that the in question was 007: Nightfire. Of course you’d glad to be dead, because you get to stop playing the damnable thing. But I may be projecting the awful PC version (though I’m tempted to revisit it just for the unbelievable “20 men facing a wall with a line of explosive barrels behind them” room) onto the better-received console version there. Leaving aside whether or not the study has much merit – it’s small-scale and a bit heavy on the ifs and maybes – it’s fun to guess at why this might be the case.

Initial reaction – an FPS is generally a stressful affair. Trying to shoot a man, whether player- or AI controlled, pushes you into a higher-alert state. Dying pulls you out of the game, and out of that stressful mindset. Though sometimes it also has me screaming and hammering at the keyboard, so presumably this trial involved gentlemen of greater composure than I. Oh, apart from the ones deemed “higher Psychotism scorers”, who apparently demonstrated less anxiety when killing a pretend man. That’s a whole other can of theoretical worms.

What does occur to me is how often it’s the case that I don’t get any definable joy from killing Baddie #5312 in Any-FPS VII. I tend to see many of these guys – even in something like Half-Life 2 – as merely an obstacle in the way of my progress, rather than an enjoyable challenge in and of themselves. The forward motion, the desire for discovery and resolution, gives me much more thrill than Act of Gun. It’s always worried me a little, as clearly man-shooting is the bedrock of such things. (Though it’s not the case in a multiplayer FPS, where each kill carries a heightened sense of personal victory, plus bragging rights). Is it just me? Oh, probably.

[Via Gamecritics]


  1. Stick says:

    Spurious indeed. Are they entirely sure they didn’t reverse the polarity on the measurement thingy?

    … then again, my top three TF2 classes are Medic, Spy and Pyro, i.e. the guys most likely to Take One (Or Twelve) For The Team. Maybe I do enjoy dying, as long as it’s Heroically?

    It’s true about AI opponents. The only game I can think of, where the opponents became a challenge in and of themselves, was Halo: Combat Evolved. (Recharging shield mechanic, I suspect. Fights became less about impersonal clearing rooms while sustaining minimal damage and more about… emptying a plasma rifle at the bastard Elite, then catching a few seconds of cover before the scaredy-Grunts regrouped and the Jackals snuck up.)

  2. Chris Evans says:

    Are they entirely sure they didn’t reverse the polarity on the measurement thingy?

    Yeah that is what I was thinking…but in a way I can see where they are coming from. Doesn’t apply to me though!

  3. Cigol says:

    I take satisfaction in being beaten in some games actually – but not the kind that’s being suggested here. More being out-thought, bettered or trumped by the enemy AI. It’s rare, but it can happen.

    In the original Half-Life the encounters with the Marines and ‘ninja assassins’ were tense affairs – and I can remember treating them with more respect than they really deserved simply because they prove to be so challenging and eerily ‘self-aware’.

    I was disappointed to learn that they’d nerfed the AI in the sequels, replacing them with faceless, perfunctory stormtroopers. Satisfaction was then lost, in fact I don’t really enjoy any of shooting in Half-Life 2 which is shocking now that I think about it as I rate EP2 as one of my favourite games of all time!

  4. Ed says:

    I agree, I can’t really say I enjoy the shooting aspects of FPS. I don’t really play much else though! I enjoy the strategy of playing rather than the action of shooting at someone.

    In a single player game like Half-Life 2, I play it mostly for the story and the ‘view’ – at least I think I do. My sister on the other hand can’t cope with the story and just wants to skip it and shoot people, so clearly everyone is different!

    I’m the kind of person who played the C&C games and most looked forward to watching the FMVs ;) That’s why Generals really disappointed me there – the in-game cut-scenes looked terrible and didn’t offer the ‘reward’ that the FMVs did in C&C3 and RA2.

  5. dartt says:

    I wondered if these 36 young adults were gamers. If they didn’t have a clue what they were doing it wouldn’t be suprising if they felt relief when they could stop wrestling with the controls and relax for a few minutes.

  6. Will Tomas says:

    I think the way you see Baddie #5312 in any game is simply the result of knowing that Baddie is a construct and is designed to inhibit your progress and provide (however meagre) a challenge – rather than being a “person.” It’s not even remotely a person, it’s a mix of sprites with AI designed to try and halt your progress. It’s not anything to be bothered by. It’s only worth feeling good about when the killing has involved more skill than anything else. Also I suspect you’ve been playing FPSs for a fair while.

    I tend to play the Spy mostly on TF2, which means lots of dying. It’s only occasionally that it gets frustrating (and when it does I switch class). Dying is a necessary evil and essentially I try and cause as much damage as possible before that happens. I’m not sure I feel “better” when I die though. Maybe it is about being away from the intense concentration. I certainly feel better about managing to take out a bunch of sentries, or a heavy. Anything that helps the team…

  7. cHeal says:

    I presume that this would happen because the longer you survive an intense situation the higher the tension and anxiety becomes and upon death there is some relief to be had. It does kinda make sense, though I’m not so sure I would equate dying to the sensation of happiness but could understand if the body reacted to it in a positive manner. I’d also imagine this applies less to online games.

  8. matte_k says:

    Interesting comments… In TF2 I generally play as a Pyro, and i’m quite happy to be gunned down if i’ve caused as much chaos as possible beforehand. My death is a small price to pay for the satisfaction of having lit up half the opposition and caused them to retreat or panic, thus giving my team the advantage.

    Nightfire probably isn’t the best example to conduct these tests on, maybe something with a bit more depth or involvement in the game, where your continual killing actually has some import on your situation, or where an emotional attachment causes you to think differently to the “kill all obstacles in my path” method of play, for instance Stalker compared to Doom 3, or how the results of tests on Human vs AI differentiates from Human vs Human.

  9. Yhancik says:

    Oh no, it’s not just you, Alec.

    And that’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed STALKER ( ……) more than other FPS, because the characters felt a bit more unique and having a life of their own (especially with unlocked a-life) than the-enemy-waiting-in-the-corridor-for-you-to-come-kill-them.
    And that’s also why I got, at some point, tired of.. the game, because of the repetitive bandits and buildings filled with soldiers.

    And now, let’s remember this wonderful quote from our dear Cliffy B on “shooting stuff” :

    “I think we make games about guns because making games about talking is really hard and not interesting yet. The basis of interaction is, ‘what’s the easiest way I can touch this environment?’ And when you’re using your gun, you’re touching. You’re touching the walls. You’re touching the enemies. You’re touching everything.”

  10. CrashT says:

    So is this why nobody liked Prey?

  11. Elyscape says:

    Here’s a thought. If I’m playing, say, Team Fortress 2 and I’m having a really good round as a heavy, I am focused on making said round even better. I don’t have time to think about the fact that HOLY CRAP I JUST KILLED FIFTEEN GUYS, as there are still more trying to kill me. Once I die, however, I can sit back for a second and shout, “THAT WAS FUCKING AWESOME!” That is to say, dying allows me to vent my excitement in a way that doesn’t screw up my game.

  12. Thiefsie says:

    Fear would be a game where the gunplay outlasts everything else.

  13. Stromko says:

    I wish they’d gone a bit farther with the tests, if they’d just swapped out the DVD with some other titles with different killing and dying mechanics so we had some comparison … As it is, this doesn’t really tell us much of anything.

    It is food for thought, but kind of obvious. Dying in some games is just hilarious. In fact, FAILURE in some games is exciting and fun. In my favorite game, Dwarf Fortress, one of my happiest memories is watching my fortress be annihilated in a wave of blood and fire. Even trying to retake that fortress and crashing a few times because of lag from the whole map burning was fun.

    Sometimes, things not going how we want them to is surprising, spectacular, and fun. Well, duh.

  14. Jahkaivah says:

    Couldn’t agree less with enjoying death, that being said, what I really enjoy in FPS is completing objectives.

    In fact when playing TF2 the only thing i enjoy more than grabbing enemy intelligence is doing so without having to stop to kill something.

  15. Jim Rossignol says:

    I think the ‘high’ of excitement in FPS is always tied to your death, unless you’re dying too much. If you kill loads of people the really crucial moment is more likely to be the moment you go down.

  16. beeber says:

    If you’re any good, then dying will probably occur in the most exciting bits of the game.

    But Alec, I’m like you. Killing is about getting those obstacles out of the way so I can see what happens next. I think that’s why graphics are so important in FPS. I want to see more of the pretty world.

    And yet the stories are still so crap…

  17. Dinger says:

    In the manner of an American using “like” and “you know”, death and killing form essential yet non-signifying parts of the vocabulary of first person shooters. Their ubiquitous but discriminate arrangement helps establish and break the rhythms of the games. Commonly, we don’t fully enjoy a rapid rhythm until it goes away: think of the graveyard in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: fast cuts and Morricone’s soaring soundtrack through the graveyard, then the music stops and we get a long shot of The Grave. Builds again with fast cuts and more extreme close ups until the shooting. The pause gives us the reflection of “Wow that was cool”. (I suppose Mr. Barthes would disagree)

    But it doesn’t always happen that way, especially in multiplayer games. Take spawn camping. Spawn Camping inverts the order. Death becomes a time to reflect on the no-skill pubescent jerk who offed ya; yet I’ll confess to greatly enjoying shooting someone right as they spawn in (the best was a Joint Ops demo a few years back, where you and a buddy could engineer mass slaughter by driving a Jeep/MG through the enemy’s base, or a solo sniper could park in a zodiac just at the limit of visual range, and shoot people trying to board the helo). Spawn camping fills the camper with glee, and the campee with lead. We disapprove of spawn camping because it perverts the game. But if death were in itself enjoyable, spawn camping wouldn’t exist, or people would be begging to be camped.

    So I do think that design can inflect the terms killing and death so that the former brought pleasure, and the latter remorse. It would probably mean lots of John Woo action sequences though.

  18. Lu-Tze says:

    I agree with Elyscape on the “that was awesome!” feeling… although I think I actually had glee coming out of my ears the other day when I had the entire opposing team Dominated at the same time. Pyro 4 lief.

  19. Feet says:


    You had superior numbers and superior players on your team. I wasn’t playing seriously either you know. Totally.

    If I’d got “my game” on I would totally have WTFPWN’d you in the face.


  20. Lu-Tze says:

    Of course they had superior players, I was on that team ^_^

    Regardless, it still felt damn good at the time. It harkened me back to CSS days where you’d get a lucky “whitewash” round all to yourself.

    TF2 lacks personal glory, and a taste of it was a welcome refreshment.

  21. phuzz says:

    I’ve definitely felt relief after dying in a game, especially after a really tense five minutes with no ammo, little health and enemies closing in, just knowing the stress is over makes me feel better, it’s almost painful restarting back in.
    ‘course, the best time is when you’ve got mates watching you, something bad happens and everyone assumes you’ll be dead in 5 seconds, but somehow you keep stringing it together, just reaching health kits in time, before finally taking out your pursuers in a final, suicidal, explosion.
    great fun that :)

  22. Suraj says:

    After killing that sniper or sentry I can always die in peace :)

  23. Windlab says:

    @ Suraj
    I would get the same feeling in Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory as an engineer, knowing full well the bridge needed to be built / or dynamite needs planting, but unless I did it, nobody else would, and the team I was on would lose.

    It’s a nice feeling to know that you have altered the course of the game – possibly caused your team to win: flush with that sense of achievement, it’s no sacrifice to die.

    However, I very much doubt that was the cause of such elation at death with this test group.

  24. Fat Zombie says:

    I tend to enjoy dying in multiplayer games, but that’s probably because in multiplayer games I tend to do a lot of it. It does help to give you time to think “Well, that was brilliant.”

    Of course, could this be a reason why driving jeeps covered in explosives into tanks and such in the Battlefield game is so entertaining? Or is that just me?

    (Frontlines really performed a coup d’etat in that league, where RC jeeps covered in explosives for driving under enemies come as standard)

  25. papergoose says:

    The first time I died in STALKER, I raised my fist into the air, wide-eyed, and yelled “YES!”, because I was so happy to at how hardcore everything went down. It killed me, mercilessly, and easily.

  26. Eric Hendricks says:

    The researchers are simply reading this data wrong. Killing someone in game doesn’t elicit sadness, it is the depression to a normal brain state caused by the resolution of conflict. The so called happiness created by death isn’t happiness at all, it is excitement caused by the creation of a conflict, in that the player is prompted to kill his killer back. Team Fortress 2 reinforces this effect with the kill cam which shows your enemy immediately after they kill you, and with the implementation of the “nemesis” system.

  27. FaceOmeter says:

    Does 36 sound like an incredibly small sample group to anyone else?

    I propose an experiment to disprove this: put a long, agile blade on the table and stand next to me while I play TF2. Watch what happens.