Tragedy, Video Games and Me: Why Do I Want to Feel Bad?

If you’re at all aware of the world of video gaming, you may have heard of a game called Heavy Rain. In case you haven’t, Heavy Rain is a noir-esque thriller that revolves around the main characters’ attempt to find and stop the Origami Killer, a serial killer who targets young boys.

Released back in February, the game immediately garnered high praise for its storytelling; Omar Gallaga of NPR’s All Tech Considered called it “one of the most mature, emotionally resonant pieces of interactive entertainment yet,” while Gabe of Penny Arcade said it was “one of the most important games ever made.” By all accounts, Heavy Rain is a harrowing, gut-wrenching experience for the player, which leads me to wonder: why do I want to play it so badly?

Ever since my son was born, stories about bad things happening to children affect me far more than they used to. My reaction to this trailer for the game (three minutes long, with some swearing toward the end) was physical and unpleasant. My jaw tensed up, and I started getting a panicky feeling in my chest.

And that’s just from watching it; I can only imagine how it would feel playing it, with the heightened intimacy and involvement that comes from the agency invested by controlling the game. Knowing that Heavy Rain would produce that kind of emotional response in me sealed it — I had to play it.

But why should I be so eager to seek out unpleasantness? Why do I want to play this game, knowing that it will make me feel bad?

It makes even less sense that I would seek out tragedy in art — whether it be in a video game, a book, or a movie — when you consider that I actively try to avoid it in real life. One of my wife’s co-workers, for example, has a son who is dying of a degenerative genetic disease.

This mom has had to watch as her son grew progressively more handicapped, both physically and mentally, knowing that most children with this disease don’t live past the age of five. He’s four now. I have no idea how this woman manages to get out of bed every day; her strength in just being able to continue living amazes me.

Every time my wife tells me a new story about this co-worker and her son, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. I imagine what this woman must be going through and my chest starts to hurt. I usually force myself to stop thinking about it so I don’t start bawling. (And then I feel guilty for not thinking about it, but that’s another story.) The two reactions, to the game and to this family’s ordeal, are very similar, yet I seek out the former while avoiding the latter. Why?

Maybe the appeal of the game is that, ultimately, I know it’s not real. It’s safe and contained, something that I can walk away from once it’s over and not have to think about beyond its effects on me. I can experience real emotions — pain, sorrow, catharsis — but in a context that doesn’t have lasting consequences.

Aristotle said something similar about tragic theater over two thousand years ago: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude . . . with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions.”

Is that where the appeal comes from? Maybe. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand the appeal of tragedy as a complete phenomenon. But as for this particular game, if nothing else, it’s the first game I know of that might be discussed in the same breath as Aristotle’s Poetics, and that makes it something special.

For me, experiencing it in its own time would be a way of involving myself in what may be a turning point in the history of artistic expression. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty exciting to me.

Photo Credits

“Heavy Rain” developed by Quantic Dream exclusively for the PlayStation 3.

“Sir Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, Two Cities Films

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  1. avatarBG39 says

    I’m sure that you’re right about the tragedy, but if the narrative nature of the game is true, that alone is compelling. A great interactive story is a real treat!

  2. avatar says

    Really interesting thoughts, Mike. There’s a huge chunk of the population that seeks out things that will scare them practically to death, which seems to be parallel to those who seek out a bit of ‘tragedy’ as you say. Do we seek those feelings out because they go along with such violent physical responses? Maybe…


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