Fake Feels and Free Passes

The Capilano suspension bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia is kind of a big deal in certain psychology circles, and I think it can illustrate why people have ignored the flaws in games like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead during the last few Game of the Year debates. The bridge, which is only a few feet wide, soars among the treetops of the surrounding Capilano Park, and these are TALL trees. If you were to glance over the side of the bridge as you crept along, you’d see a stomach flipping drop of about 230 feet to a river that’s only deep enough to make you wet in addition to very dead if you were to fall. On top of all that, the bridge sways and creaks alarmingly with every little breeze and footstep. Crossing it is so unnerving that many people who try experience increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and short breaths.

In other words, they get scared.

The Capilano suspension bridge. FEAR!

The Capilano suspension bridge. FEAR!

So imagine that you’re crossing that bridge. Good, now, to make the scene a little more interesting, imagine that there’s a woman standing at the middle of the bridge. Even better, she smiles at you as you approach. (Also, if need be, imagine that you’re a hetero dude.)

Researchers Art Aron and Donald Dutton set up an experiment along these lines at this very bridge back in 1974.1 The woman, who was working for the researchers, asked male bridge crossers to complete a short survey that involved telling a story in response to an ambiguous picture. After completing the task, the woman gave the men a phone number, telling them that should they have any questions they should totally call her. The researchers then repeated the scenario miles away with the same woman, but on a stout, low to the ground, and thoroughly unintimidating bridge.

Half the men who got the number of the girl on the scary bridge tried to call her up. Only about 12 percent of the ones on the blase bridge in the control group made use of those same digits. Also, remember those stories the subjects were asked to make up about the ambiguous picture? Those who did so while swaying slightly back and forth over the Capilano River were much more likely to come up with narratives involving sex. 2

The suspension bridge story is my favorite illustration of how misattributions of emotional arousal can trip us up. And despite the “boy meets bridge meets girl” nature of the tale, I don’t mean “arousal” in just the sexual sense. Psychologists use that term to describe anyone experiencing any number of intense emotions and the accompanying physiological responses. In the case of the bridge crossers, fear was presumably in play, yet the subjects got it confused with some variation of sexual or romantic arousal. Later, Aaron and Dutton did another study where they paired a male subject with a female confederate, scared the bajeezus out of him by making him think that he might receive painful electric shocks, then asked him how cute he thought the girl was. Those who were nervous about the impending shocks tended to rate her closer to the “smokin’ hot” end of the scale.

Why? Because the fast moving parts of our brains are marvelously adept at drawing the shortest line possible from cause to effect. My heart is racing and my skin is flushed. This woman is talking to me. She must be cute! This won’t happen if she’s clearly hideous or covered in spiders, but it may be enough of a nudge otherwise. Especially if the relatively slow moving, rational part of your brain that usually stops and says “No, dumbass, it’s probably the scary bridge” is preoccupied or tired. In that case, then we’re much more likely to automatically misattribute our arousal to whatever explanation is the most salient and requires the least mental effort.

I think this explains why certain games get overrated.

Or at least certain aspects of games. Take the first season of The Walking Dead for example. That game did a great job of making you care about its characters, and every chapter featured predicaments and decisions that really got people worked up. Anxiety, fear, regret, and melancholy were frequent visitors during my time with that game. And the game did a fantastic job of strategically spacing emotional story beats right before and after action and exploration sequences. As a result, I’d often be emotionally aroused while searching through cupboards or fumbling through QTE sequences. And like those bridge crossers meeting the woman at the most nerve-wracking point of their trek, I was predisposed to attribute my intense emotions to “having fun navigating dialog trees” or “Looking through every drawer in this dilapidated kitchen.” Even though those sequences sometimes sucked.


You may wonder what kind of idiot can’t parse the sources of this arousal and separate them. But you’d be surprised. Physiological and psychological states of arousal can persist for several minutes during which you think you’ve calmed down, and misattribution of arousal can still happen. For example, in one study 3 researchers had subjects run on a treadmill. Then, after they stopped and felt they had calmed back down to normal, the experimenter showed them a clip from an erotic film.4 Even though the subjects felt that their pulse and general agitation had returned to normal, there was still enough undetected residual arousal to make them report being more hot and bothered by the film relative to a control group.

The same thing may be happening to inflate your appreciation of a boring game sequence that follows from an intense, arousing one –even if you think you’ve calmed down and gotten over it. Or the inverse may happen in either The Walking Dead or The Last of Us: you may misconstrue the emotional high from an intense action sequence as feelings of parental affection for Clementine or Ellie, respectively.

JOEL! The stealth mechanics in this game are not as robust as you think. JOEL!

" JOEL! The stealth mechanics in this game are not as robust as you think. JOEL! "

This isn’t to say that playing a game to experience emotional reactions to it isn’t a valid reason to love a game or give it a coveted spot on a “best of” list. In fact, The Last of Us is one of my very favorite games from 2013 pretty much only for its emotional resonance. My point is that you should take a step back and be honest about it. You’re not gripping your controller and staring at the screen in slack-jawed amazement because the combat system is so great –or the animation or the voice acting or the script, or whatever other easy explanation is in front of your lazy brain. When you’re feeling strong emotions your mind looks for an explanation, but the quickest one to present itself and the easiest one to accept isn’t always the correct one.

That said, here’s the real lesson you should take from all this: the next time you get to choose where to go on a date, take him or her on a roller coaster. It’ll make you seem way hotter.


1. Dutton, D. and Aron, A. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30. 510–517.
2. Aron and Dutton also did another iteration of the experiment where a male confederate stopped other males on the bridges with the same spiel, and the effect of being on a scary bridge disappeared.
3. Cantor, J., Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1975). Enhancement Of Experienced Sexual Arousal In Response To Erotic Stimuli Through Misattribution Of Unrelated Residual Excitation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(1), 69-75.
4. If you’re starting to think that this line of research is just an excuse for the experimenters to watch porn, you’re not alone.

13 thoughts on “Fake Feels and Free Passes

  1. Very interesting. I knew about the suspension bridge experiment but I had never thought that this could apply to videogames, great article!
    I would also argue that perhaps the ‘peak-end’ rule from Kahneman might also add some confusion to the objective evaluation of these experiences. Those two games (Walking Dead and Last of Us) have very strong emotional peaks in the cutscenes, which could outweigh some other less engaging portions of each chapter.

  2. I’m not so sure about this. The core of the argument is this: “you may misconstrue the emotional high from an intense action sequence as feelings of parental affection for Clementine or Ellie, respectively.” But I don’t understand how this is a MISconstrual rather than just a construal.

    If someone’s going to shock me so I rate the attractiveness of someone higher, does this mean I don’t ACTUALLY find them that attractive? Or does this just mean that, when I’m afraid of being shocked, I find people more attractive?

    It’s true that I might be misattributing the SOURCE of my feelings of attraction – I think they’re caused just by the person’s looks, but they’re in fact also caused by the anxiety attached to the shocks. But just because I misidentify the SOURCE of a feeling doesn’t mean that the feeling is fake. Ultimately the source of ALL of our feelings is a bunch of mysterious chemical stuff going on inside our brains, but this doesn’t invalidate the feelings. What we care about is how the FEEL to us, not what generates them.

    So, if The Last of Us or The Walking Dead make us FEEL parental affection for Ellie or Clementine, who cares HOW they do it? If they use action sequences to heighten our feelings for these characters, is this somehow invalid?

    I think the idea you’re trying to get at is that people are attributing emotional nuance to these games that isn’t present because the feelings are ACTUALLY caused by action sequences rather than… something else (whatever you think OUGHT to generate emotion, I suppose). I disagree because I think the action sequences only cause certain emotions when paired with other very important things the games do, but let’s put that to the side and just grant your argument entirely: let’s say it’s TRUE that The Last of Us and The Walking Dead get all of their emotional kicks from making you fight zombies.

    Does it follow that they are overrated on GOTY lists? That if people were thinking “rationally” or “sensibly” or “objectively” they’d rate these games lower? Is this really about “fake feels” and “free passes?” If we take the free passes and the fake feels away from these games, would we like them less than other, more deserving games? I just don’t really see how any of that follows.

    • Huh. That’s a really interesting point. But yeah, my point was more that people are mistaking the source of their attraction/affection/emotion. But also the point that in some games we may get aroused by something (combat, a sexy character, the thrill of competition) and mistakenly attribute it to something else (stealth sequences, dialog, etc.). What gets misattributed to what is going to vary from person to person and from game to game, but I think the potential is there.

      The downside of this is that an error in judgment may lead us to make mistakes in the future. If we are wrong about what we like about a game (i.e., what it is that did or did not get us excited), then applying that lesson to future purchases (or game design, or game criticism) might harm the quality of your decision.

      Good comment, though! And as I said in the specific case of The Last of Us (and The Walking Dead for that matter) I don’t think it’s overrated. The emotional punches of those games is reason enough to laud them. I just think that it’s not as perfect as some people claim.

      • “The downside of this is that an error in judgment may lead us to make mistakes in the future. If we are wrong about what we like about a game (i.e., what it is that did or did not get us excited), then applying that lesson to future purchases (or game design, or game criticism) might harm the quality of your decision.”

        This is interesting. Do you think people who felt emotional connections to The Last of Us and The Walking Dead, and who think these emotional connections were inspired by… something (I’m still not clear what this thing is supposed to be) will then go and buy other games full of this… thing, when in reality they should be buying other zombie games because games the zombie fighting was the thing that caused this emotion?

        I think this is implausible for two reasons. First, the way people will go looking for games to buy is by listening to what people say about the games: in GOTY lists, for instance! If a GOTY list puts something like Gone Home at the top because it caused a real emotional experience for the listmaker, then the person who liked The Last of Us and The Walking Dead will say to themselves “ooh, another emotional game!” and buy Gone Home. And you know what? They’ll get an emotional experience! That’s because zombies aren’t the ONLY way to cause emotions. Even if we grant that you’re correct about the zombies being the cause of emotions in these two games, there are other games (like Gone Home) that manage to do it without zombies, and I doubt anyone is going to make a mistake and buy a game that they thought would move them, emotionally, only to get a stinker because it doesn’t have the necessary emotional ingredient: zombies.

        The second reason I think this is implausible is because although I’ve been granting the premise that we owe the emotional core of The Last of Us and The Walking Dead in a large part to the zombies, I think that’s just straight up false. You’re taking an implausibly reductive view of emotional experiences when you attribute them to the confluence of arousal from various sources. In psychology papers this is legitimate because they are trying to isolate a single variable: the presence or absence of arousal of one kind (namely fear or anxiety). In real life, though, it’s never as simple as this. The Walking Dead and The Last of Us are not the only games with anxiety-based arousal but they are among the few games cited for their emotional impact. Why? Because there’s so much MORE going on in these two games. It’s this “so much more” that makes them GOTY picks for a lot of people, and I think pinning this on misconstrued arousal is completely off-base. It’s not like those games could’ve been made in a more “honest” WITHOUT the anxiety arousal, so that they had to stand on their own emotional feet, as you might put it. In reality, the fact that zombies are attacking you in these two games is KEY to the setting and the story that they tell, and if that’s part of the cocktail it takes to make you feel attached to Ellie or Clementine, then that’s just how these narratives work!

        • I think you might be getting the attribution backwards. As I read it the quality of the storytelling/cinematics in Last of Us is of sufficiently high quality that it creates emotional arousal which then cast otherwise mediocre stealth/combat mechanics in a favourable light.

    • Well put! I agree with the OP that talking about how enjoyment of these games works in the brain is interesting, but there is no *objectively correct* way to experience enjoyment. If one person gets their kicks from mundane tasks coupled with arousing scenarios, then that is a good outcome for them. If a person (like Jamie Madigan) doesn’t, then they will want to look elsewhere.

      BTW, I love this website!

    • Of games that were released in 2013, The Last of Us is definitely on the short list. And probably Tomb Raider. Bioshock Infinite. Saints Row 4. That’s a pretty good list.

  3. Awesome article, Jamie! Is there perhaps a quantifiable correlation between the intensity of a particular scene and the arousal period of the player? It would be very interesting to see if a value could be derived to assist with proper narrative pacing – i.e. how long can a “content padding” sequence last before boring the player given its proximity to a high point?

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