Psychic Position(ing) Revisited and Misery Tourism

This is a followup to the first post in this thread of ideas.

To recap for the tl;dr crowd: alongside fictional, social and mechanical (!) position(ing), I proposed that players have an internal emotional play-state I’m calling psychic positioning.

(Ground rules: THIS IS NOT AN INVITATION TO START A DEFINITION WAR. Nor is it an invitation to “helpfully” reframe the entire conversation into your preferred model. Neither of those things will advance this conversation. Don’t be That Person.)

One thing that’s been rolling around in my head is that, particularly in games I’ve played that are designed to fiddle with your psychic position, the position I experience inevitably is negative: sadness, despair, frustration, anger. I can’t imagine I’m alone in thinking, when I read a phrase like “hit them in the feels,” feels is code for this position. I have to think this is related to the (gross and mischaracterizing) phrase “misery tourism,” yeah?

I have nothing, like, at all, against giving voice and freedom to these emotions through play. A good table can be a safe place to let that happen. Rather than, say, a random triggery event as you’re going through your day and are suddenly reminded of the death of a relative, or a difficult breakup, or an ugly disagreement, or some childhood trauma.

But it’s also got me thinking: what would it take, procedurally or mechanically, that is, within the design of the experience itself, to psychically position players toward positive emotions? Glee, happiness, love, satisfaction.

I do think that these psychic positions get achieved, but interestingly they’re not in the modes of play I prefer. Pattern completion can invoke a sense of satisfaction, for example. We get a little dopamine hit from intermittent rewards, which is the entire basis of the gambling industry. We also see these things in the traddiest of trad games: leveling up lets you pursue an optimal character build, and that shit is satisfying. I think that satisfaction can be frustrated by nu-wave Story Now type designs that trade in optimization for interesting new fictional opportunities. Like, a new move in Apocalypse World doesn’t necessarily make you badder-assed.

I feel like in some ways, it’s almost scary to allow a positive psychic position to take hold. Because then it’s something that can be taken away. Easy “feels.” Is it a cop-out? “Good drama?” I dunno. It’s probably a thing that happens throughout creative media, but somehow it feels more dangerous (to me) in our creative media, because in certain modes of play we’re invited to assume the identity who will experience those feels.

My Golden Cobra submission this year, May-December-May, was built mostly around a gamified version of “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This“, mostly as a thought experiment along these lines. It’s a much, much harder target to achieve than it may seem! And I take it Here Is My Power Button aims for that as well…but apparently leverages the positive bond the players build into the deep sads at the end. I’ve only read recounts of this (via Joe Beason’s ridiculously great writeup of his experience, might have been a private share) so I may be getting that wrong.

Anyway, just thinking about this. Wondering if it’s a cop-out that we can, fairly trivially, achieve the sads and mostly work toward achieving the happies just to have them cut out from under us.

0 thoughts on “Psychic Position(ing) Revisited and Misery Tourism”

  1. It’s interesting how much easier it is to instill negative emotions than positive ones. Things like fear and anger are more immediately “trusted” than things like love and respect.

  2. (My write-up is to my gaming circle. I seldom ever post public, ever since a prospective employee told me during an interview that he’d read some of my social media posts.)

    Some of my good-feels experiences:

    – Kagematsu. I play that game hard. I am going to be motherfucking charming, and manipulative, and pull every string I have on you, and you are going to save us, Mr. Samurai. There was great joy in getting Kagematsu to commit. I do not want to think about how it would have felt to fail.

    – MLwM. My minion was the one to snap and go after the Master. It’s such a dark game. but the little glowing embers of Love along the way, followed by the intense catharsis of striking back, was quite heady. But the mix as a whole was more sad-feels.

    – Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon. Nice, warm feeling. But a bit on the twee side?

    – Bacchanal/ia. Nice, hot feelings. The glee of transgressive, the joy of sex and celebration. But a dark thread. May end badly.

    I’m sure there’s games I’m forgetting, but these were the ones oriented to creating some sort of good-feel. But often amid the sad-feels. And with a bit of tweeness at times. More superficial.

  3. Tension does a great job of transferring the bad-feel horror of Dread to good-feel-ish romanto-sexual tension. But even within that game, odds are good that you’ll not walk away happy. It’s a fraught game with many fraught outcomes.

  4. Doesn’t anyone ever win in your games, Paul? 😉

    I feel like I’ve had my share of fictional “leveling up” moments: triumphing over adversity, achieving goals, and even personal moments of satisfaction. The father-son dynamics my PC had in the old HERO campaign had a few uncannily accurate (it was long before I was a dad) Courtship-of-Eddie’s-Father type scenes.

    I also can’t help but think of games like Golden Sky Stories, or maybe even Chuubo’s…, which are inherently about being charming and sentimental.

  5. Chuubo’s does indeed have a lot of charm. I found it super relaxing, while at the same time it engaged my player-brain. “How do I play towards these heart-warming moments I need to advance.”

    This topic is dovetailing in my brain with Jason Morningstar’s post about violence yesterday.

  6. I think there’s some psychology research that negative emotions tend to pack a bigger punch (about 2X) than positive ones, so there could be a phenomenon that negative emotions are easier for game designers to work with because they have bigger impact, or also that if multiple emotions are in the mix the negative ones just end up seeming more salient. – Negativity bias – Wikipedia

    I think it also tends to be easier to map some of the positive emotions like achievement, etc., to other factors, so it might be harder to disentangle them between the categories (e.g. “levelling up” can impact psychic positioning but also frequently impacts mechanical stuff).

    I’m also not sure how I’d classify this, but the example that springs to mind when I think about games that create interactions between psychic and mechanical positioning is Dogs in the Vineyard conflicts where frequently the biggest barrier to winning in the mechanical sense is how aggressive/violent/etc. you’re willing to have your Dog be in order to achieve the goal. So that’s kind of using avoidance of the negative emotion of guilt rather than something that’s more directly positive, but I think it’s interestingly nuanced.

  7. Dan Maruschak​ yeah, cool, I’m glad you dug something up. I was wondering if it’s just plain easier (and, as you say, more potent). We might just be wired for the sads.

  8. From an authorial standpoint (or even a cinematic one), negative emotions (especially fear) can trigger physical responses that bypass cognitive reasoning; this is a survival instinct; whereas the formation of a positive emotion takes time for values and identification to build. The easiest way past this is tricky for artistic reasons: tropes and well-known symbols can activate the values of previous encodings. But if you overdo it, your work is a hokey pastiche (or deliberately ironic commentary).

  9. The Poles call negative emotion generating games, of which there are legion, umierając w zimnej wodzie, or dying in cold water games. I love that!

    I think there’s space for games that make you feel good. I want to make some!

    Graham W actually challenged me to make a game about love and friendship and I did, and it ended up being about love and friendship as you literally die in cold water. I wrote another game that will surface soon that is specifically designed to generate a feeling of friendship and compassion.

  10. Had a conversation with Adam Dray​ and others about this at Dreamation 2015. Why are so many emotion focused RPGs about taking players to dark places. Why aren’t there joyful larps. Why are there no larps about joyful weddings? He said he’d think about designing one. The trick would be preventing players themselves from taking it to a dark place, creating and exploring family trauma. All of us having the conversation knew that’s what would happen if the game wasn’t specifically designed to avoid it somehow.

  11. Back when A Penny For My Thoughts was new, I played it A LOT. Every game I was in was really dark, with lots of personal trauma and hard choices. I was kinda down on the game, because it was so tuned to produce bummer scenarios.

    A friend of mine played it a few times without me, and reported back all sorts of broad comedy and joyful outcomes.

    Clearly, then, the problem was me. I was taking a potentially neutral emotional experience and making it into a dying in cold water game.

    I’ve had similar experiences with Fiasco. Depending on the table, I’ve seen the same playset go from broad comedy to torture-porn. I find the latter is far more likely with experienced tabletop players than with people who are newer to the hobby, speaking broadly and generally.

    I guess that implies (though it far from proves) that there’s a cultural issue, too, a feedback loop where something triggers us into a grimdark space, and then we make games that explore that space, which socializes us to expect (prefer?) that space.

  12. I’m sure it’s a lovely LARP, but I’m sitting here giggling while thinking, “Yes, of course, Alzheimer’s and family counseling make up the happy game.”

  13. I’m actually still working on my Joyful Wedding LARP. I don’t think it’s devoid of intensity and conflict! You need moments of darkness to make the joy shine through in the end, but it’s difference in balance. I want may Joyful Wedding LARP to hit you in the feels, in an overwhelmingly positive way.

  14. Nothing substantive to add, but I’d like to thank you for giving me the words “Nor is it an invitation to “helpfully” reframe the entire conversation into your preferred model.” I’ve encountered that a lot recently, and found it extremely annoying, but not had a term to hand to call it out with.

  15. Are we talking about positive feelings invoked by the mechanics, like what Paul was saying about satisfying optimization, or positive feelings felt in character? Or both?

    Do you need a problem/sadness/tragedy to overcome to get to those positive feelings? If the game is all good stuff, is it hollow/saccharine?

    This is a fun challenge!

    The best I can come up with is a game of forgiveness. Old friends or lovers who reconnect after 10 years. If the heartbreak is far enough in the past, maybe you won’t have to feel it? (yeah right)

    Maybe world-building style games where we build on each other’s contributions, like kids building legos together?

  16. Positive feelings in character, like, “my elf does x out of sadness at our wicked, fallen world” strikes me as fictional positioning more than psychic. But I’m just making this up as I go along! It’s slippery stuff. Bleed is definitely part of the equation.

  17. I thought of another possible example of psychic positioning with positive emotions: In the “equip the team” section of InSpectres the game wants you to get caught up in the excitement of riffing/brainstorming so that you forget to strategize whose stats are best for what kind of equipment so you end up with some comedic zonk results.

  18. I recall a game pitched to a group once where the person facilitating lauded the number of tears involved for players who participated. “This game is six out of five tears, you guys!” they said. It was a mark of achievement for them.
    (I didn’t play, so I didn’t count tears)

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