Assessment of the Emotional State by Psycho-
physiological and Implicit Measurements
Michael A. Bedek1
1Knowledge Management Institute
Graz University of Technology
Brückenkopfgasse 1/6, 8020 Graz
2Center for Knowledge & Innovation
Aalto Yliopisto, Helsinki
PO Box 21250, 00075 Aalto
3Department of Social Research
University of Helsinki
PO Box 54, 000 14 University of
The ongoing assessment in a digital educational game is a
prerequisite for providing in-game adaptations aiming to
enhance the learner´s current emotional state. Our assessment
procedure combines the results of two modalities: i) by
interpreting the learner´s interactions with the virtual
environment, and ii) by psychophysiological patterns covered by
facial electromyography and electrodermal activity. The
combination of signals and indicators is described separately for
each modality and completed by details on the interpretation of
the results, based on intrapersonal comparisons. Finally, we
outline how to integrate the results of both modalities into a
single value that indicates the current emotional state. We
conclude with a short description of how we will validate the
overall assessment procedure.
Categories and Subject Descriptors
K.8.0 [PERSONAL COMPUTING]: General – games.
Measurement, Human Factors, Theory.
Psychophysiological Measurements, Implicit Measurements,
The TARGET project aims to develop a new technology
enhanced learning (TEL) platform to support competence
development in the learning domains of project and innovation
management and global sustainable manufacturing
(http://www.reachyourtarget.org). The major component of the
platform is a digital educational game (DEG). This DEG
consists of game scenarios possessing critical incidents from the
learning domains in order to support the knowledge transfer
between the virtual world and the learner`s ordinary working
life. Within this DEG, the learner is represented by an avatar and
interacts with several non-playable characters (NPCs). It is
necessary to communicate with different NPCs and to gather
pieces of information in order to master the scenario. The
learner may use several buttons on the keyboard which have the
effect that the avatar expresses specific emotions by facial
expressions or body movements. Additionally, several tools are
available, for example a chat tool to communicate with the
NPCs, a teleport tool to switch between different locations or a
face cam which shows the avatar`s own face to enhance
awareness of currently expressed emotions.
Even if a given DEG possesses the potential to provide a
learning context which is intrinsically motivating and
emotionally appealing to engage with, a DEG which adapts to
the learner´s current state is expected to increase the probability
that this engagement potential is realised. In TARGET, our aim
is to provide in-game adaptations  tailored to optimize the
learner´s current achievement motivation, cognitive workload,
problem representation and emotional state for an efficient and
sustainable learning process. The prerequisite for appropriate
adaptations is a valid assessment of these constructs.
According to  emotion and related constructs encompass
three aspects: i) a subjective cognitive experience (e.g. assessed
by questionnaires), ii) behavioural expressions (i.e. actions and
behavioural patterns assessed by implicit techniques) and iii)
psychophysiological patterns. Since an explicit assessment by
means of a short questionnaire appearing in regular time
intervals would most likely disturb the learner`s flow experience
, we aim to continuously assess the latter two aspects:
behaviour and psychophysiology.
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Such a multi-modal assessment depends on the two modalities
being able to share a common model of a given construct, or
else translate between different models that purport to describe
the same construct. We apply the circumplex model of emotion
proposed by , which consists of the two independent
dimensions of pleasantness and activation. Pleasantness is a
continuous bipolar dimension between pleasant and unpleasant.
Activation, also called arousal, is a continuous unipolar
dimension with the poles low and high activation (arousal).
This paper focuses on the description of two modalities to assess
the learner‟s emotional state. The first modality is based on
modelling and interpreting the learner´s interactions with the
virtual environment via keyboard and mouse. The second
modality uses psychophysiological signals which have been
empirically linked to emotional states. We will describe the
signals and indicators for both modalities, their theoretical basis
and how they are combined and interpreted. This is a work-in-
progress and as evaluation is on-going the paper will remain at a
schematic level with no results section. However, we conclude
by outlining how we will validate the assessment of both
In the following, we describe the different indicators and signals
separated for both sources, starting with the implicit assessment
2.1 Behavioural Indicators
The implicit behavioral indicators are based on the
interpretation of a learner´s actions and interactions within the
virtual environment . A set of behavioural indicators for the
assessment of emotion as state is provided in table 1. Some of
them are primarily related to activation, such as click rate (#1)
or inactivity (#9). Others are primarily related to pleasantness,
such as using defined keys to express positive or negative
emotions (#7 and #8). In order to continuously compute each
indicator, the game play is divided into consecutive and equally
long time slices, lasting for e.g. 30 seconds. All indicators are
operationalized and described in detail in . The indicators 10
to 14 are directly derived from the theory of information
foraging , which describes the strategies that people apply to
search and gather information.
Table 1. Set of Behavioural Indicators
Length of mouse movements
Relative exploitation of available tools
Frequency of tool-usage (of each available tool)
Frequency of communication tool-usage
Frequency of interactions with NPCs
Frequency of expressing positive emotions via keys
Frequency of expressing negative emotions via keys
Within-patch processing [sec.]
Between-patch Processing [sec.]
Extent of NPC-interactions weighted by amount of
Rate of information gain
In the theory of information foraging, human search behaviour
is regarded as adaptive to the environment to gain information
from external sources as effectively and efficiently as possible.
External sources are called patches (e.g. online documents). An
ideal information forager maximizes the rate of gaining valuable
information by seeking for a balanced ratio between explorative
and exploitative search behaviour. Available time needs to be
divided into the search for new sources bearing valuable
information (Between-Patch processing) as well as into
elaborated processing of these patches to extract relevant
information (Within-Patch processing). By concentrating solely
on one single patch (e.g. a single paper) valuable information
from external resources does not become available.
Contrariwise, solely explorative search will lead to ignorance of
Even if the theory of information foraging has been initially
developed in the context of navigation on the web, we apply the
principles and adapt some of the indicators to the area of games
because of two reasons: i) the learner has to search for and to
communicate with several NPCs in order to collect all
information necessary to master the game scenarios and ii) it is
assumed that a successful information forager experiences a
positive emotional state more often than an unsuccessful one.
2.2 Psychophysiological Signals
For a thorough review of psychophysiological methods for
game-based experiments see . Such methods are useful for
objectively examining game experiences, because the
physiological processes measured are mostly unwilled. Thus
these measures have several advantages over traditional self-
report: (i) measurements can be performed continuously with
high temporal resolution; (ii) processes of interest can be
covertly assessed; and (iii) these measures provide information
on emotional and motivational processes that are not available
to conscious awareness .
Facial electromyography (EMG) provides a direct measure of
the electrical activity associated with facial muscle contractions
that are an important form of emotional expression . A
number of studies have shown that the processing of unpleasant
emotions is associated with greater activity over the corrugator
supercilii (brow) muscle region and that processing pleasant
emotions prompts greater activity over the zygomaticus major
(cheek) muscle region . In addition, increased
activity at the orbicularis oculi (periocular) muscle area is
involved in the expression of enjoyment smile and genuine
pleasure . Several studies have shown that orbicularis oculi
activity is particularly high during pleasurable high-arousal
Electrodermal activity (EDA), commonly known as skin
conductance, is an important physiological index of arousal and
is innervated entirely by the sympathetic nervous system .
Several studies using the picture-viewing paradigm have shown
that EDA is highly correlated with self-reported emotional
arousal . That is, arousing pictures of either valence result in
increased EDA as compared to low-arousal pictures.
In the laboratory and in deployment, these signals are measured
by the Varioport-ARM mobile psychophysiological data
acquisition system (Becker Meditec, Karlsruhe, Germany). This
device is lightweight and battery operated, and thus, ideal for
deployment on-site with clients.
3. INTEGRATION & INTERPRETATION
In the following, we describe how to combine the different
signals and indicators for each modality, how to interpret the
results in terms of high and low values and finally, how to
combine the results of both modalities.
3.1 Integrating Measurements per Modality
The reason for integrating the measurements for both modalities
separately in a first step is that not every learner may have
access to the Varioport device. In consequence, the validity of
each assessment technique has to be evaluated independently.
For the implicit assessment technique we will apply a multiple
regression model as suggested by . A linear model would be
the simplest case; however, we will evaluate whether it delivers
better results (i.e. if it explains more variance) than other models
(such as a Generalized Linear Model which can incorporate
non-linear covariates in the coefficients). For each time slice and
both dimensions of the emotional model, i.e. activation and
pleasantness, a regression equation in the following form has to
xi = di + w1i * BI1i + ... + wji * BIji + ... + w14i * BI14i (1),
with xi as the initial value for the dimension i in the given time
slice, di as the constant intercept, BIji as the “raw-values” for the
14 predictors (i.e. the behavioural indicators) and finally, wji as
the predictors‟ weights. The intercepts and weights for both
regression equations are to be conducted by means of a
validation study which is briefly outlined in section 4.
The integration of psychophysiological signals involves finding
suitable functions to characterise all signals on the same scale so
that they are comparable. Both EDA and EMG transforms begin
by pre-processing. A low pass Butterworth filter is applied
where computational power allows (i.e. when the requisite
frequency domain transform can be performed by a hardware
routine – this is available on the Varioport device, but may not
be on others).
The interpretation of the current emotional state as indicated by
the initial values xi in terms of an optimal or suboptimal state
depends on their comparison with a baseline. The baseline can
be conducted either by the learner´s values in previous time-
slices of the same game scenario (intrapersonal comparison) or
by the values of other learners. The latter approach is feasible
when an extensive database for interpersonal comparison is
available. However, we prefer an intrapersonal comparison
which takes the learner´s gaming history into account since
individual learner`s baselines may differ to a great extent.
For the implicit assessment technique we standardize both initial
values by a z-transformation:
zi = ( xi – Mi ) / SDi (2),
with zi and xi as standardized and initial values of the dimension
i, respectively. The average values of the dimension i
represented by Mi is computed by averaging the initial values xi
of all previous time-slices. Thus, Mi does not incorporate the
current time-slice. The standard deviation of initial values of all
previous time slices is indicated by SDi. Since the reliability of
the standard deviation depends on the amount of incorporated
data, the deviation of the current time-slice from the averaged
previous time-slices in terms of standard deviations is not taken
into account until the fourth time-slice has passed. Hence, the
computation of the standardized values begins 120 seconds after
the learner starts to play the scenario.
Finally, in order to gather manifestations of a continuous
variable, whose values range from 0 and 1, the standardized
value zi is inserted into the following logistic function:
p(zi) = 1 / ( 1 + e-zi ) (3),
with p(zi) indicating the probabilistic value of the dimension i.
The logistic function is positively accelerated and differentiates
primarily in a range between -3 and +3.
With regards to the psychophysiological modality, after
applying the low pass Butterworth filter, EDA continues by
splitting the signal into tonic and phasic components. Tonic
values are obtained at each time t by estimating the mean of the
signal over the previous 8 seconds (8 is a standard value
reflecting the speed of EDA reactivity). Phasic values are then
obtained by subtracting the tonic from the overall at time t. The
EMG transformation proceeds by rectification.
Thereafter, for each signal, our relative approach is based on
comparing a current value at time t to the average from a time-
slice of n previous values. The size of a change which
constitutes an interesting variation (as opposed to minor
fluctuations in the signal), and thus reflects actual change in the
player‟s underlying psychological state, is Δ. The method of
indexing psychophysiological signals involves determining a
general value for n and for Δ, for each signal. Currently, the
learning part of our approach is offline so that a learned model
will be fixed for every use of the system. Offline learning
involves statistically estimating the overall fit of each
combination of n and Δ values using General Estimating
Equations on a dataset of live recordings from presentations of
emotionally evocative stimuli to subjects.
With continuous psychophysiological data for both emotional
dimensions (i.e., pleasantness and arousal), it is possible to
combine these data to „locate‟ the subject more specifically in
emotional state space. That is, a stressed emotional state is
characterized by a combination of displeasure (e.g., high
corrugator EMG activity) and high arousal (e.g., high EDA); a
positively excited state is characterized by a combination of
pleasure (e.g., high zygomatic EMG activity) and high arousal
(e.g., high EDA); depression/boredom is characterized by
combined displeasure (e.g., high corrugator EMG activity) and
low arousal (e.g., low EDA); and positive relaxation is a
combination of pleasure (e.g., high zygomatic EMG activity)
and low arousal (e.g., low EDA).
This is to be interpreted as a probable tendency toward the
stated emotion, rather than an exact emotional state per se.
Probability can be measured by the distance of the combined
signals from their theoretical maximum.
3.3 Integrating Results of both Modalities
The procedure to integrate the results of both modalities is
similar to the multiple regression equation (1) above. The
difference is that there would not be a constant intercept and
only two pairs of predictors and appropriate weights (one pair
for each modality). The weights will be fixed by the amount of
variance of an external criterion the predictor explains relative to
the amount of shared variance R2 of both predictors and the
external criterion. Put simply, the higher the predictive validity
of a modality (predictor), the higher its weight and contribution
to the final assessment result.
4. OUTLOOK: EVALUATION
For the evaluation of the indicators‟ validity we adopt
approaches suggested by  and  in order to have a non-
invasive measurement procedure and to elicit (as a dependent
measure) the third remaining part of the emotional trinity, i.e.
the subjective cognitive experience. This aspect of an emotional
state can be measured by self-report and will be used as an
external criterion to be compared with values of the
physiological and behavioral indicators.
The self-report will be mediated by a pop-up screen
intermittently occurring during game-play and displaying small
sets of (at most four) items about the current emotional state,
which can be taken for example from the PANAS Scale .
The learner can respond through slider scales: by moving the
position of a slider between two poles of a graphical intensity-
dimension, the learner indicates the extent to which she or he
respectively agrees or disagrees on a particular item. The
different questions or items will cover different aspects of the
two emotional dimensions and will be selected randomly for
Finally, a regression analysis will be conducted to determine the
nature and significance of the relationship between the
indicators and the self-report. Standardized Beta-Coefficients
will support the identification of valid indicators as well as their
weights for equation (1). Additionally, the correlation of each
modality with the external criteria delivers the basis for equation
(2) which accounts for a substantial amount of emotional
variance. The regression equation can be cross-validated by
comparing the predicted with the empirical results derived from
an additional sample.
This paper is part of the EC-Project TARGET funded by the
Seventh Framework Programme of the European Commission
(ICT-231717). The authors are solely responsible for the content
of this paper.
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