The Secret Life Of Pronouns is a rather fantastic book I came across after hearing the author give a radio interview on my commute into work one day. In it, James Pennebaker displays how the words we view as filler in a sentence, such as pronouns, articles and prepositions, actually work as mirrors of our true intentions. Think of them as the micro-expressions of language. Throughout the book, he examines everything from blogs and tweets to politician’s speeches and famous literature, and breaks down what function words used actually mean about the person using them. I initially got excited about the book for the wealth of animation knowledge that could be gleaned, in regards to more accurately pairing what a character is saying with what they are actually thinking, but then I also got to thinking about if it could relate to game design.
One thing that jumps out almost instantly was what it meant about a person when they use either “I”, “you” or “we” frequently. Just how much a person uses “I” can give insight about their social standing, if they are depressed, how educated they are or even if they are telling the truth. Take this test to see who you think uses “I” the most.
Did you do it?
How did you do?
Out of the 10 questions, the average person only correctly identifies about 5. How insane is that? We hear the word “I” everyday, more than any other, yet we have a hard time recognizing when it is used and by who. Even more than that, we are flat wrong on some of our assumptions on who uses “I” the most, such as with the notion that high status people use it more often.
So I began to wonder if this is something our brains pick up on subconsciously in language, does the perspective of the player’s camera in game also match to these findings?
Now, while the book is filled with all sorts of studies and software that is dedicated to proving out what is stated in the book, what I’m getting at is complete conjecture. But knowing that what the author says is proven, it at least gives us some insights we can use to build towards some fun discussions.
Using the points made at the end of the test, let’s see how they translate to a player’s camera perspective.
Focus of Attention
“People’s use of pronouns tells us where they are paying attention. If they are thinking and talking about friends, they will use words like he, she, and they. If they are thinking and talking about the group or relationship they are in, they might use words like we and us. And if their attention is drawn to themselves, they use I, me, and my.
People pay attention to themselves if they are in pain, self-conscious, or self-aware. However, if they are completely immersed in what they are doing or are psychologically distancing themselves from the topic of discussion, they are not paying attention to themselves and will not use 1st person singular.”
Could the fact that 1st person pronouns are so psychologically linked to pain and fear explain why the vast majority of 1st person games are linked to intense first person shooters? Or could it be that the reason they are such a dominant genre, in an industry that is built around intense action, be due in large part because it connects to the deepest part of those feelings? Does that also explain why teamwork isn’t something inherently built into the play styles of many FPS players? If the 1st person camera is essentially putting the player into the constant self-aware “I” state, is it any wonder that any sense of “we” can be hard to find or even opposed to what the player wants to be doing?
In turn, do 3rd person pronouns explain why we connect with or allow stylized art styles in a 3rd person camera more often than 1st? Is it also a reason as to why we expect or appreciate more of an authorial narrative dictated by the developer, since using he or she is always associated with storytelling?
Obviously, players are able to switch in and out of 1st and 3rd person depending on the situation. One minute they can be identifying themselves directly as the player character being attacked and the next shift outside of the character when it doesn’t do something they wanted. This is especially true in 3rd person camera games when you have a character that you can assign blame to. “Dammit Mario, I told you to jump!” But in the case of 1st person games, when I stop extending my identity to the character, I often blame the game or developer, not the character whose arms are holding the weapon. That certainly leads me to believe the camera’s perspective is causing me to fall in line with the same mental associations of pronoun usage on some level.
Ownership of the Topic
“If individuals feel extremely close to an object, event, or other person, they tend to link their sense of self to it. “Did I tell you about my trip to the beach?” has a very different feel from the more distant”You heard about that trip to the beach?” When people tell the truth, for example, they use much higher rates of “I” than when people lie. Immediately after witnessing a distressing event, people psychologically distance themselves and drop in their use of “I” words. However, people who are clinically depressed or suicidal tend to use “I” words at very high rates — almost as though they are embracing their unhappiness.”
I love that 1st person pronoun use can identify truth from fiction. Could it be that a reason “Would you kindly?” was such a powerful moment in Bioshock is because it plays into this so well? As a 1st person game, the player is in an emotional mindset of truth, even though we have had a lie subtly fed into our ear, using a phrase that is devoid of 1st person pronouns. Using a phrase that adheres to the way liars use pronouns, compounded with a camera perspective that implies truth certainly seems to have been a winning combination in this case.
“A common mistake is that people think that high status people use 1st person singular more than low status people. In fact, the high status people tend to be more comfortable with themselves and are less self-conscious than the more insecure low status people.”
If camera perspective does affect mood to replicate the thought processes that lead to specific pronoun usage, I can’t help but imagine putting players into a constantly insecure, self-conscious state feeds into all number of griefing issues. Competitive games inherently build a hierarchy into the experience, with leaderboards, loadouts and perks. Having a 1st person perspective which psychologically intertwines self-worth more so than a 3rd person camera could possibly tie into some of the terrible online social practices of many players.
This could also explain why rts games feel so much better when seen from a far 3rd person perspective, because they are the definition of “we” experiences. Beyond just being able to see the entire layout of troops and resources better than a closer, 3rd person camera, psychologically it matches how we associate the pronouns that identify the experience.
It is also interesting to think about “you” as a 2nd person perspective. Could this be a reason some games are more fun to watch than others? You is more of a commanding word, often associated with anger, and very much concerned with the present, so it is definitely limited in emotion as much as function. It could certainly explain why it isn’t as commonly used as 3rd or 1st person even in narratives, but it definitely has strong connotations that could be tapped into for certain social experiences.
The Power of Pronouns
“Does changing your I-word use make you more dominant, less depressed, or richer? Sadly, no. The ways people use pronouns reflects their psychological state more than changing it. Once you snap out of your depression, your I-word use will drop. But changing your I-words probably won’t affect your depression.”
So let’s talk about why I might be full of crap. As the quote above states, pronouns don’t affect emotions. Emotions affect pronoun usage. That also fits into the Ed Hooks tip “Acting isn’t words, acting is doing.” It is also stated many times in the book that humans are terrible at identifying how we use function words, and only with the use of computer software with a large number of samples do these trends appear. So there is definitely some points to be made that simply dictating camera perspective isn’t enough directly affect emotion or for either developers or players to inherently know how to use it. BUT, camera as a psychological component of mood that matches the gameplay and narrative is certainly something we all use, and this could be another method towards refining how and why we use it.
I can’t begin to described how geeked out I have been about this book, as I begin my second read through. Beyond its applications when writing or creating characters with more honest voices, its findings of function word use in shared traumas, mirror neurons, and casual vs non-casual thinking got my game dev brain all fired up. A lot of what it covers, especially in the case of 1st and 3rd person, intersect with many of the ideas we use of player identification of their avatar. Take Scott McCloud‘s Understanding Comics, in which he states the less detail used on a character, the more opportunity we have to project ourselves onto that character. Likewise, the more detail a character or world has, the more foreign they are. This can certainly match with the psychology of “I” being more simple, honest and personal, while “he/she” is more specific and distant.
Statistical use of pronouns to match an artistic theory. How cool is that?!