The Emotion Bomb Inside Video Games
Players often develop intense relationships with virtual characters. If those relationships go awry, the results can lead to real-world trauma.
By Jazmin Murphy
In June 2020, Sony Interactive Entertainment released The Last of Us 2. The game, a postapocalyptic adventure created by the California-based video game developer Naughty Dog, became one of the highest-grossing in Sony PlayStation history, selling four million units in its opening weekend and receiving more than 300 awards. It was so successful that The Last of Us is crossing over to TV as a new series in 2023. Yet it also sparked a sharp backlash from players who felt betrayed by the game’s brutal, manipulative story line. Fans and critics clashed online, some of the game’s producers received death threats, and many players still feel wounded by the experience.
The Last of Us 2 incident highlights a large, understudied issue in the gaming world. For years, social scientists and media critics have warned that violent acts within video games might promote real-world aggression, even though the evidence for such a link is equivocal at best. Yet the same pundits have largely ignored what I consider a far more serious problem: intense emotional experiences within the game that can lead to genuine trauma. Game designers do not pay nearly enough attention to psychological safety, particularly regarding the bonds that develop between players and the characters they identify with. As a gamer, I have both seen and experienced it firsthand.
In social media forums and in real life, players often react intensely to upsetting in-game events, especially when they involve harm to a favorite character. “It’s just a game” is the common response, but in the moments when a player feels vulnerable and hurt, is it really just a game? The anguished responses to The Last of Us 2 show that deep emotional attachments within immersive games, when mishandled, have the power to trigger depression and anger that stick with the players, bleeding into outside social dynamics.
“What you experience in life will influence how you experience the game,” says Julia Ayumi Bopp, a gaming user-experience researcher in Finland. “But also, what you experience in the game may influence what you’re going through in real life.”
Video games wield tremendous emotional influence because of the way players identify with controllable characters within the world of the game, experiencing a loss of self-awareness and, to an extent, melding their identities with those of the characters. Philosophers Jon Robson at the University of Nottingham and Aaron Meskin at the University of Leeds write that games “stand in sharp contrast to most other kinds of fiction (even other kinds of interactive fiction)” because they invite players to “generate fictional truths about themselves.” As players become immersed, they subconsciously adopt the game’s world as an extension of their own. Even non-controllable characters, whose behaviors are set by the game itself, can take on the role of trusted companion or protégé and begin to seem real.
When done right, the attachment between player and character can enrich the player’s experience beyond compare. One of my most memorable gaming experiences happened in The Walking Dead, a franchise game based on the comic book series and TV show of the same name. In it, a protagonist named Lee Everett must defend an orphaned girl, Clementine, in a world overwhelmed by zombies. Over time I developed a deep and genuine concern for the child—a type of bond that Bopp and her colleagues call “concern for one’s protégé.” My protective feelings toward Clementine were so acute that there were moments when I was driven to tears as I guided her through the horrors of a zombie outbreak. Understandably, many players consider Clementine one of their most beloved video game characters.
The psychological impact of the player–character bond becomes more complicated when the game doesn’t follow a clear good-versus-bad morality. I and many others experienced conflicting emotions when the original The Last of Us was released in 2013. Its story setting superficially resembles that of The Walking Dead. Joel Miller, the player character, must protect Ellie, a spunky 14-year-old who is immune to a spreading fungal disease that turns its victims into mindless, lethally aggressive beings. Throughout the game, Joel is a morally complex character who does not fit neatly into the “hero” archetype. Still, many of us were shocked at the end of the game, when he decides to kill a group of hospital workers who want to sacrifice Ellie and develop a vaccine from her brain tissue.
We understood and even empathized with Joel’s multifaceted motivations, however. He was traumatized from witnessing his daughter’s murder earlier in the game. He was fiercely devoted to Ellie, even if it meant valuing her life above many others. We shared in his pain and determination. This amalgamation of emotions solidified our relationship with Joel and Ellie through The Last of Us. As long as the designers respected that relationship, our emotions seemed validated and comprehensible.
Bopp and her collaborators surveyed hundreds of gamers and analyzed their accounts to understand the emotional qualities of their attachments. Players reported developing a broad range of emotional connections to game characters, from a sense of companionship to romantic feelings, and reacted strongly if any of those characters suffered or died. “Character loss was one of the most frequently mentioned causes of the emotional experience,” Bopp says. “These people often wrote that it had a lasting impression on them. They felt sad for several hours, several days, sometimes several weeks after experiencing it. At least one person wrote that they were actually mourning.”
As in many passionate relationships, with intense attachment comes the potential for psychological harm. Developers strive for an immersive experience through believable characters and strong player–character relationships; many of us gamers value and seek out such intensity without considering that it could leave us vulnerable to emotional manipulation and trauma. In The Last of Us, we grew to love Joel and Ellie, becoming emotionally invested in their relationship and their survival. Hence our shock when the rich moral pluralism defining these connections was abruptly rejected in its sequel, The Last of Us 2, in ways that felt manipulative and cruel.
Overturning the emotional landscape of The Last of Us, the developers at Naughty Dog retroactively framed Joel as a selfish, morally bankrupt person. In The Last of Us 2, he is brutally murdered at the hands of a new character, Abby, who is taking vengeance on Joel for killing her father, the doctor who would have operated on Ellie. Joel, who previously was depicted as a hardened survivor, now behaves in seemingly naive ways that make him easy prey. The murder is depicted in gruesome detail, as Abby beats Joel to death with a golf club; Ellie, feeling alone and friendless, develops PTSD.
From there, The Last of Us 2 offers players no opportunity for emotional recovery. Quite the contrary: The game then forces us to play as Abby’s character for several hours without any resolution to the murder, and without any emotional history for Abby that might explain the motivations and justifications behind her brutal act. The experience left many of us shattered.
Neil Druckmann, the creative director of The Last of Us 2, admitted that he had deliberately set out to provoke extreme emotional responses. He told the prominent gaming site Eurogamer, “The whole thing was constructed in such a way as to say . . . we’re going to make you feel such intense hate that you can’t wait to find these people and make them pay.” Some early testers were upset by the game’s harsh new direction, reacting to many of the same things that later triggered controversy among fans, but Naughty Dog moved forward anyway. Druckmann explained, “I’d rather have people passionately hate it than just be like, ‘Yeah, it was OK.’ ”
My own review of online comments suggests that many of the players’ responses to The Last of Us 2 were motivated by pain, not by hate. But some fans took out their frustrations by harassing and threatening Laura Bailey, the motion-capture actress who played Abby. Trauma begat trauma, as players who felt hurt by the game developers lashed out at a visible embodiment of their hurt.
In response, Naughty Dog issued a statement saying, “We condemn any form of harassment or threats directed toward our team and cast.” Yet the company did nothing to address its role in cultivating intense relationships between The Last of Us 2 players and characters and then providing players no outlet for release when those relationships were brutally torn away.
That casual attitude is common in the gaming world, despite developers’ unique power to curate traumatic psychological experiences for millions of people. In a 2016 paper, Alistair Raymond Bryce Soutter and Michael Hitchens at Macquarie University in Australia note that video games differ from traditional media in that “individuals are not simply a passive audience, instead individuals are active participants.” Game developers are doing more than making entertainment; they are inviting players into potentially life-altering circumstances.
Nevertheless, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) uses letter-based rating categories (T for teen, M for mature, etc.) that treat games as if they were just like movies or TV shows. These categories do not meaningfully address the emotional aspects of gaming. More to the point, ESRB ratings do almost nothing to provide ethical guidance at the development stage of video games, when creators make the key decisions that could affect players’ psychological well-being. The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) likewise fails to address adult players’ emotional and psychological safety in the “Principles” section of its Code of Ethics.
Game companies recognize the creative and commercial value of immersion, as Bopp documents in a set of interviews with developers. One, who worked on Gone Home, a first-person exploration game, expressed a typical desire for deep connections: “The intent was to allow the player to get to know these people like someone that they might know in their own life.” Bopp also finds that video games have been cultivating character attachments for much longer than most people realize. “I asked players to recall an emotionally moving game experience,” she says. “A lot of the emotional experiences that players wrote out referred to games that are quite old.” Immersion has existed across games of all generations, from classic 8-bit to photorealistic 4K.
Developers need to take the responsibility that comes with their power and be more careful in how they use it. In my view, the best way to prevent another Last of Us 2 incident (or worse) is to establish ethics committees within development studios to prevent psychological manipulation and abuse of players. A possible starting point would be to task these committees with asking specific ethical questions—perhaps developed in partnership with the IGDA and ESRB—about in-progress and finished games. The committees could then develop a scoring system for each game’s compliance with set guidelines that account for players’ emotional and psychological safety.
Games could be evaluated according to standard ethical questions like: What types of psychological traumas or social controversies could the game agitate? Is the development studio prepared to handle such consequences? Do gamers receive the proper in-game tools and opportunities to address the emotions being triggered? Gaming companies could also employ experts trained to predict player interpretations of a game’s content and to supplement the results of play-testing conducted during the game’s development. Neglecting to take player feedback seriously is where The Last of Us 2 failed most egregiously.
With such oversight, game developers would finally be guided by clear standards for the prevention of emotional harm. The developers would be forced to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with creating immersive experiences that powerfully affect us players. Maybe they would be inspired to create more creative, humane games. Until then, gamers’ best course of action is to engage in respectful, open discourse with development studios. We need to let them know that emotional trauma is a commercial issue as well as a moral one.
An earlier version of this essay was published on May 16, 2022.
December 22, 2022