Being Controlled: Emotional Association

Cognitive science is a term that covers quite the broad range of disciplines. It ranges from philosophy to linguistics to neuroscience. It also—and perhaps most pertinently—includes artificial intelligence and psychology. AI, obviously, is needed in most video games to make them compelling, otherwise enemies would just stand there or walk in straight lines into walls and down wells. AI is what powers everything in a video game that doesn’t involve predetermined equations (read: physics) or your direct input.

Psychology is an equally interesting and necessary component in games, though. User interfaces and user experience are heavily influenced by studies in psychology. The color of a button on a multiplayer menu may just look like a button to you, but the color, size, shape, and placement are usually influenced by decades of earned knowledge in regards to the human psyche and how it responds to call to action or methods of interaction.

But those are things that we interact with by using our eyes. Looking at menus and buttons is where cognitive science comes in for our visual interfaces, but what about our physical? Haven’t you always wondered if similar studies not just involving ergonomics have been done regarding physical input devices?

As it turns out, those studies do exist. Earlier this year, cognitive scientists Kyle Jasmin of University College London and Daniel Casasanto of The New School for Social Research began to study the associations between a person’s emotions and the key they use to type a word on a QWERTY keyboard. The result is a found, direct link between the way words are typed and their meaning.

In the paper’s abstract, the link is summed up as “words with more right-side letters were rated as more positive in valence, on average, than words with more left-side letters,” something the duo has dubbed as the “QWERTY effect.” The relationship is admittedly correlational at best, but the study also showed the link existed in other languages, suggesting the possible conclusion that the QWERTY layout is influencing how we perceive and apply connotations to words. “Widespread typing introduces a new mechanism by which semantic changes in language can arise.”

The natural question for a gamer then is what about controllers? What about keyboard and mouse PC gamers for that matter? How does WASD influence their subconscious emotional associations when they type words that begin with one of those letters?

DISCLAIMER: what follows is a severely imprecise, improper, and likely inaccurate report of my observations. I am a scientist, engineer, and mathematician, so I know that this barely—if at all—qualifies as a study; these are anecdotes that I find interesting regarding the QWERTY effect as it applies to video games.

While this is all conjecture and based on my impressive sample size of ten (friends are great test subjects), the relationship of mouse usage is pretty clear and represents the usual UI conventions: left click is progressive and positive, right click is secondary and neutral, and the scroll wheel is usually duped by the keyboard (e.g. changing weapons in an FPS can also be done with the number row) and thus also regarded as utilitarian and of the gray. Pretty boring stuff.

Where it gets interesting, though, is investigating the WASD relationship. Words that begin with W seemed to have a more positive association than words that began with S. In fact, the association was about as clear as you could get; 75% of my subjects first thought of the words “walk” and “sad” when prompted. Walking is obviously an ambulatory, forward-moving verb and seems to associate a certain progression to thoughts and sentences when used. Natural considering that it is also the forward-moving, progression-inducing key for FPS games.

Sad is also an obvious correlation in that it is, well, a sad word. You are dejected, emotionally retreating from your happy place (the “walk,” forward place), much as is the case when you have to press S to run away or move away from a threat. Physical or emotional, it represents a lack of progress in both the game and in your mind.

And you would think that A and D would be neutral or have similar emotional relationships, but it turns out that D is more positive than A. The only theory I have for that is that it is confluence of side-scroller controls that usually dwell in the arrow keys and the WASD representation of movement. Moving right in video games has meant success since the origins of the industry. Pong, for instance, requires you to get the ball all the way to right side of the screen to score. Mario (and just about every other side-scoller known to man) has you moving right until you save the princess. Right, in effect, does not simply represent success; it is success.

Game console controllers (in this case, just the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers since not all of my subjects had Wiis) have a similar correlation when using the left stick as an analog for WASD, but the shoulder and face buttons are much more interesting since their uses are less normative compared to movement always being relegated to the stick.

The easiest one is the rightmost face button (B on 360 and O on PS3). It is universally used for cancelling out of selections in video games. If you want to exit a menu, just hammer on that button until you’re back at the beginning. In both cases, the button color is also red, the most antagonistic color there is. It is the color of close buttons in OSX and Windows, it is the natural warning color of nature, and it is the color of stop signs. All of those things already are trained or innate associations with negative emotions.

Next is the bottom face button (A on 360 and X on PS3). Save for when you play games overseas (in fact, I’m fairly sure the right and bottom associations would swap in Japan), this button accepts and selects menu choices. It also is usually used for jumping, an action that in and of itself only used to overcome obstacles, evade enemies, and generally goof around. Going up is associated with gaining the higher ground, the upper hand when it comes to combat. This is also a natural association and almost goes without saying.

With the other two face buttons, however, the relationships seem to split fairly evenly. For some, the leftmost button (X on 360 and [] on PS3) is for attacking and the top button (Y on 360 and ^ on PS3) is for engaging in specific, user-centric actions. For others, the leftmost button is for reloading and the top button is for interacting with others and the environment. It then gets weird when thought associating similar types of in-game controls to those buttons, the associations for emotions are different. For some, attacking is positive and gets you places while others view it as negative since it negatively impacts the world around you. Reloading can be good because you can continue shooting enemies or it can be bad because it represents a moment a weakness and impotence.

Actions and interactions were split as well, but the reasons are seemingly inscrutable. It may be just because a consensus for the top button’s use is so nebulous (and necessarily so, otherwise we’d all be playing the same games over and over again), but the degree and the alignment of the emotions elicited by using it was so inconsistent, drawing a conclusion (especially with this already haphazardly conducted survey) would be somehow even more irresponsible.

The same goes for the shoulder buttons, although those that identified themselves are primarily shooter-type gamers were unanimously positive about the triggers. Right more so than left (zooming compared to shooting), but both were positive nonetheless. Seeing as how the bumpers, however, can range from taking cover to grenades to holding on to something for dear life, it’s easy to see how there’s no clear consensus on the emotions associated with them.

But perhaps that is also more indicative of video games in general than just of this QWERTY effect. Games are meant to be a bit abstract (yes, even the ones that seem straightforward, involving aliens and space marines), amplified by the fact that every very natural action is represented by a distilled and discrete button press. Notice that most of the established emotional correlations lie in menu navigation or color response psychology. The ambiguous controls are the ones that generally represent a wide variety of controller-to-character actions. And even then, almost categorical institutions such as shooter reloading buttons are split because of the personal implications and deeper psychological affectations.

Words are words; they are clearly and discretely defined. There is even a book that contains these definitions because they never—or rarely—change. Finding a relationship between a keyboard layout and the personal connotations of the words we type with that layout is a natural curiosity and one that can be analyzed. However, applying the same thought process to games as a whole is a sticky affair. When these buttons wholly represent actions such as shooting or jumping or even dying, a person’s prejudices for those actions play a larger role than with words. Shooting may just be shooting to some people, but to others it may also be coldblooded murder or the freedom of a galaxy against oppression.

It’s an abstract world, and we just sorta kinda control it.

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