Designing Games for Affect

A Two-Year Post-Mortem

Kaelan Doyle Myerscough is a trans/nonbinary critical creator, game designer, and academic interested in the theory and praxis of worldbuilding. They make games and organize game jams about speculation, complex collaboration, and rethinking the relationship between play and locality. As of 2021, they are currently co-authoring a textbook on critical worldbuilding, teaching introductory game design at OCAD University, and remotely pursuing a PhD in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.Follow the author on TwitterMore about the author

In June 2018, I graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a Master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies and absolutely no idea what to do with it. For my thesis, I chose to write on how to closely analyze video games using affect theory: very interesting if you’re in a specific corner of academia, but rather difficult to parse or explain anywhere else. So, in addition to figuring out the next step of my life—and the first step outside of school, for me, ever—I had a scholarly record that few people understood. I needed a concrete situation to apply the way I related affect theory to games—not only to help others understand my work but to help myself understand my work outside of academia.

So I decided to organize a game jam.

Game Jams: A Summary 

It might be useful first to think about how most game jams are organized. It goes something like this:

  1. Jammers enter the jam with one “role,” often a role they are already good at (e.g., programmer or musician) and focus only on that work for the duration of the jam.
  2. Jammers are given a freeform prompt, usually a single word or phrase, to inspire their game concept. They are rarely instructed or restricted as to how this word should relate to their game. For example, the 2018 theme for the Global Game Jam was “transmission.” Some games used this theme to inspire their game’s story or aesthetics, such as making a game about disease prevention; others took inspiration for their mechanics (i.e., limiting players’ ability to communicate with the game system or with each other).
  3. Jammers form teams around pitches, which tend to emphasize one element of the game’s design. For instance, a team might form around a pitch for a fighting game you control with your head; artists would then be free to make up the game’s aesthetics as they saw fit.
  4. Jammers congregate in spaces designed for congregation: conference halls, university classrooms, co-working spaces, or cafes. The jam’s location is rarely relevant to its theme.
  5. Jammers are encouraged to submit a final, finished game at the conclusion of the jam, which is sometimes judged in a competition. As a result—maybe because crunch culture is so ingrained into game development—many jammers sleep at the venue or sleep far less than normal at home. It’s not uncommon for jammers to work every waking hour during a jam, only pausing to eat, drink water or go to the bathroom.

As I began to organize the jam, I thought a lot about this format and what I wanted to do differently. In my mind, the system described above caused a number of problems:

  1. Lack of cohesion: Giving jammers so much freedom and so little time to interpret the prompt means that one aspect of the design process is often prioritized—and pitches, which tend to spotlight one aspect of the game’s design (like a quirky mechanic or an under-appreciated aesthetic), only make this worse. As a result, game jam games often feel patchy: rather than coming together in service of one experience, the art, mechanics, and sound feel like they could be from three different games. Instructing jammers to specialize in their own role contributes to this as well by disincentivizing collaboration and encouraging jammers to “stay in their lanes.”
  2. Overwork: The emphasis that many jams place on completion and competition encourages jammers to work long hours to finish their game, sometimes to the detriment of their physical and mental wellbeing. Additionally, jammers often will not socialize or talk about things other than their game unless they are given specific opportunities to do so, and since they are encouraged to focus on their own “role,” they miss out on opportunities to learn new skills or mentor others.
  3. Isolation: Even jams that focus on collaboration can unwittingly encourage overwork by virtue of their location alone: I have attended jams on university campuses and at conference centers where jammers work in windowless rooms with limited access to food, fresh air, or a nice place to walk. As a result, game jams often feel profoundly isolating, even as they bring dozens or hundreds of people together. This sense of isolation also comes from prompts that often have little to do with the specificities of local spaces or current events.

I wanted my jam to emphasize collaboration, create a cohesive game, and encourage healthy labour practices. I wanted my jammers to feel connected, engaged, curious, and invigorated, not just at the beginning of the jam, but by its end. And to my surprise, I found that nothing came in handy more than my tiny, niche corner of academia: affect theory.

Affect for Game Designers 

Affect theory is a framework that humanities scholars use to talk about the ways that emotions circulate—between people, within social interactions, and through media objects. Have you ever been in a room where you could cut the tension with a knife? Laughed not because you thought something was funny, but because of someone else’s infectious laughter? Shivered at the sound of beautiful music? All of these moments describe affects: emotional intensities felt deeply in our bodies.

Scholars who use these theories analyze the nuances of specific affects: how they feel, where they come from, and the roles they play in our culture. These analyses let us think about everything from how media play with our heartstrings, to how advertisements convince us to consume, to how mass surveillance changes the way we act.

For games, affect theory lets us look at a game’s mechanics, visuals, soundscape, systems of interaction, and forms of movement as contributing to a specific affect. In my Master’s thesis, I focused on the affect of intimacy, which I understood as a vulnerable, precarious closeness, the feeling you might get sharing a passing look with a stranger on a train or opening up to a friend about an insecurity. I looked at Overwatch, The Last Guardian, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to see how they created different kinds of intimate affects. I found that each game, in its own way, created a sense of intimacy through its systems of interaction, visuals, sound, and temporality.

Let’s say we are designing an intimate game. First, we would specify what we mean by intimacy: the kinds of sensations and experiences that we’re talking about when we use that word. In my research, I focused on a few specific intimate sensations:

  • A focus on the present moment—not on the past, as with nostalgia or regret, and not on the future, as with excitement or anxiety
  • Vulnerability or nakedness—in the sense of revealing something about oneself that most people can’t see
  • Precarity—the intimate moment could end at any time, and it is uncertain what will happen when it ends
  • The threat of embarrassment, humiliation, or disappointment—this is never explicitly stated but felt: that if you let yourself be vulnerable, someone could take advantage of it to hurt you

Now, we might ask ourselves: what kinds of interactions create these sensations? What kinds of sounds, visuals, story, or game mechanics?

  • To force players to focus on the present moment, we might use time-sensitive interactions, a story that takes place within a short period of time, and an art style that emphasizes the importance of small-scale interactions.
  • To encourage a sense of vulnerability, we might make the player-character struggle to affect or change the world around them, or tell a story about someone who is marginalized or struggling, and use a color palette in which the player-character contrasts with everything around them.
  • To encourage a sense of precarity, we might design difficult levels with brief and uncertain sanctuaries, a story in which many details are left uncertain or ambiguous, and level backgrounds that emphasize the player’s smallness and fragility.

By focusing first and foremost on the affect we want to create, game designers can make games that feel meaningful, powerful, and cohesive.

Affective Thinking in Practice 

And so we return to me in 2018, planning the first annual Wasaga Beach Game Jam. I wanted to make a cohesive game, to avoid overwork, and to encourage my jammers to connect with each other and with the world around them. With my thesis in mind, I knew that I wanted to structure my jam around designing a game for a specific affective experience. So how did I do that?

  •  Making a cohesive game:
    1. Jammers wrote down their affects and emotions during the first night of the jam, when we arrived at Wasaga Beach, cooked dinner together, and walked along the beach at sunset. These affects became prompts from which we selected one; we chose “Disorganization.”
    2. I instructed jammers to make a game that evokes an affect of disorganization; every element of the game should contribute to that. I specifically discouraged jammers from making a “fun” game, as that would interfere with making a “disorganization” game. When we pitched ideas, all pitches were judged primarily on this basis.
    3. I encouraged structured playtests throughout the weekend so that we could assess whether we were straying from our affective goal.
    4. I discouraged jammers from identifying with a single role, and encouraged discussion, mentorship, networking, and skill-sharing; this meant that everyone had a sense of what the others were doing at any given time.
  • Avoiding Overwork:
    1. At the beginning of the jam, I asked jammers to define what role they wanted to perform, what they were experienced with, and what they wanted out of the jam (a completed game? a portfolio piece? networking?). This encouraged them to think about the jam as an opportunity for teaching and learning as well as making.
    2. I created ample opportunities for both large-group and small-group socialization. I organized field trips to the beach, a local farmers market, and an ice-cream parlor, plus smaller walks and drives through the hills. This gave jammers a rest from their work and helped them feel more engaged with the locality of Wasaga Beach and the nearby Clearview township.
    3. I assigned jammers meals to cook in pairs. By making eating more of an event, I encouraged longer breaks from work.
    • I set up gaming consoles for jammers to play when they needed a rest but also didn’t want to go outside for a walk.
  • Helping Jammers Feel Connected: 
    • Hosting the jam at a cottage near several scenic locations encouraged jammers to think about how the jam related to the space, history, and culture of Wasaga Beach.
    1. By asking jammers to take inspiration from Wasaga Beach for their prompts, I directly tied the game design process with the affect of the location.
    2. Field trips and group activities gave jammers ample opportunities to develop a sense of community within the group and to network and develop bonds with each other as individuals.
    3. I sourced food from local farms, restaurants, and small businesses, further giving jammers a sense of the specificity of the space.

Designing through affect didn’t only help us design a more cohesive game; it also helped us think about the relationship our game had with the local community in Wasaga Beach.

In the end, we developed the prototype for a one-shot city-building game, City Planning Department. In City Planning Department, players take on the roles of city planners, each of whom has secret (and sometimes inhuman) motivations. CPD reflected many aspects of the culture and local specificity of Wasaga Beach: its disorganized development process as it transitions from a cottage town to a year-round community; the humorous, almost surreal nature of small-town politics; the complex relationship between the natural environment and urban development. It felt cohesive not only as a game but as a contribution to an ongoing conversation about what Wasaga Beach is and could become.

I hope that by developing games with affect in mind and by designing game jams that are connected and attuned to the locales in which they take place, we can make many more games that are meaningful, unique, and important.

Exercise: Games and Affect

If you’re interested in using affect in your game design process, this exercise might help you start to think about the kinds of affects you like and want your games to produce.

  1. Think of a game that is memorable to you. How did it emotionally impact you?
  2. Describe an affect this game generates. Be as specific as possible. For example, if the game made you feel sad, think about what kind of sadness it generated. Grief? Hopelessness? Apathy? Despair? Anxiety? Regret? Nostalgia?
  3. Describe the ways each of the following components contributes to generating your chosen affect:
    1. The story or writing;
    2. The game mechanics (ie. the rules, systems of interaction, or algorithms);
    3. The art style, visuals, or sounds.
  1. If any of the above components fail to contribute to your chosen affect, describe how and why.