The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Flying and falling – on the emotions of motion

Screenshot from "The Journey"

I got two story-based single-player games for my birthday, The Journey  and Catherine. The games make an interesting comparison, so I will write about them both at the same time, although I am far from finishing Catherine.

The Journey is the rare example of an arts game that becomes an immediate bestseller. It is abstracted to the extreme: just as Shadow of the Colossus, The Journey takes a few interaction elements from the singleplayer genre, slims them down and refines them to the extreme, and integrates them into a hauntingly beautiful graphical and audial setting. There is very little you can do in The Journey. There are very few enemies and the ones that exist you cannot fight, only free from. The puzzles are few and simple. There are no dialogue trees to choose within as there is no dialogue at all, even though there is a cryptic backstory that gets revealed through graphical cutscenes throughout the game.

Action-related emotions in The Journey, the full game.

Instead, the gameplay experience in The Journey is completely based on how it feels to move in the game. You are travelling through a barren desert landscape, initially just walking. Almost immediately, you find out that it is easier to walk in some directions where you can slide with the sand; in other directions the sand and wind will instead work against you. Soon, you also learn to jump and to fly, creating an enormous feeling of empowerment and freedom. But when the problems start to mount, you lose your abilities and must struggle forward against wind, sand, and snow.

The ability to jump and to fly is very often used in games to make players feel powerful; just think about the double-jump from the platformers. The feeling is particularly liberating when it comes after being earth-bound. I remember Black and White in which you were cast as a god over the villagers on a small island. But for being a god, you were rather crippled: your avatar was a huge hand, and you moved through the landscape as a clumsy five-fingered crab. If you got enough worshippers, they could give you the ability to fly, at least momentarily. After hours of earthbound struggling, the feeling was exhilarating.

The Journey casts the player as a hero throughout the game. Although it is a bit unclear what you are expected to accomplish, it is clear that you are not guilty for the problems depicted in the back story, but that you can help. From this perspective, it is interesting to note that The Journey can be played together with other players. If you play online, you get paired with another player to complete the game together. You cannot talk to each other, but you can help each other and you can play simple music together. This wordless interaction creates the strongest sense of togetherness that I have ever experienced in a game. It reminds me slightly of the very rare occasions in World of Warcraft when I collaborated with a player of the opposite faction, and the communication was almost as restricted. In line with the rest of the game, the collaboration is slimmed down and refined to its purest essence in The Journey, creating a much stronger emotion than in WoW.

Activity-related emotions in Catherine, the initial part.

Catherine can be seen as the very opposite of The Journey. The best way to describe its genre is as a survival horror platformer. The player is cast in the role of Vincent, who is having strange nightmares and a strong fear of women, and finds himself cheating on his long-term girlfriend. (I have mixed feelings about the misogynic theme of the game, but it is still a great game.) From the very start of the game, the story generates a feeling of guilt, as Vincent feels a bit guilty for his reluctance to commit himself to his long-term girlfriend. The feeling of guilt is reinforced throughout the first part of the game, as Vincent gets more and more entangled in a web of lies and threats.

Catherine consitst of a mix of quite extensive cut-scenes, some scenes in which you can walk around and interact with characters in the game, and a puzzle-solving platform game mechanic. The latter occur primarily in dream scenes, and consist of a timed puzzle in which you must find a way to climb upwards on a wall, where the lowest part keeps falling off and you sometimes are hunted by a monster.  Catherine is not about flying but about falling, or rather, the fear of falling. If you fall you die, even if it is in a dream. Just as in The Journey, Catherine offers no enemies that you can fight – all you can do is to flee from them to survive. But there is no game element that creates a sense of power and freedom in Catherine – at least not as far as I have played.

A nice touch in Catherine is that your character doesn’t level. You never get any lasting powers, although you can find or buy temporary power-ups. Even so, you do get a feeling that you are getting slightly more empowered, if only through the fact that you are learning how to solve the puzzle.

Finally, just as The Journey, Catherine offers an online element. In line with its horror theme, it is one that breaks the fourth wall, directing itself directly towards the player. Throughout the game, the player gets to answer questions related to his or her ethics, and the results are compared to what other players have answered. (At the point where I am now, these questions seem to have nothing to do with the game at all, but this might change later in the game.) Ultimately, Catherine is a game about ethics and morals, and interpret this element as an attempt to create a bleed effect.

(I need to finish off this sequence of blog posts on single-player games soon, to get to more juicy stuff on role-play. But there is at least one more post to go.)

Mass Effect 3 and the Quest for Multiple Endings

(This text contains minor spoilers about Mass Effect 3, and the texts I link to contain major spoilers. If you hate spoilers, come back when you’ve finished the game.) Read more…

Action-related emotions in single-player stories

Action-related emotions in storybased games (primarily singleplayer games)

The difference between games and traditional narrative media is that players act in games. In storybased games, this typically means that  player actions have an impact on the state of a fictional universe. A typical single-player storybased game casts the player as a protagonist: there is a problem that needs to be solved, and the player is cast in the role of the single person who, for some more or less obscure reasons, can solve it. The job of the fiction is to make the player care about the problem and feel responsible for what happens.

These games tend to play on a very specific set of emotions, related to how players feel about their actions. Firstly, players can feel more or less empowered to act. Secondly, when players feel responsible for what happens in the fictional universe, these emotions can range from guilt to pride. (Although this emotional palette occurs in multiplayer games too, the situation tends to be a bit more complex for them.)

I use this two-axis diagram to depict the action-related emotional palette. If the player feels both empowered and proud, we get the purely positive feeling of being a hero – it’s depicted in the upper right corner of the diagram. To the upper left, we find the feeling of playing a villain – the person who has all the power but uses it for personal gain or pure evil. Many RPGs offer players a choice between playing ‘good’ or ‘evil’ (Knights of the old republic is a good example), and this means that they play on emotions in the upper half of the palette. Frustration, on the other hand, is typically connected to the feeling of knowing what you must accomplish but being unable to make it happen. I place it on the positive side on the accomplishment scale (as you would feel proud if you succeeded), but it ends up in the lower righthand corner as you feel powerless. Feelings of powerless guilt (the lower lefthand corner) are more unusual in games, but can be very effective. A good example is the opening scene of Farenheit, where the player character murders a complete stranger. When you gain control over the character, the crime has already been committed and you can’t do anything about it – and the first thing you need to do is to escape the police!

Most games create some kind of trajectory towards a greater sense of empowerment and achievement. For example, horror games tend to stay on the lower half of the graph. The sense of being powerless is a huge factor in fear, and it is not uncommon for horror games to also make players feel guilty (as in Manhunt, that I discussed in a previous post). Action-adventure games on the other hand typically start somewhere close to the middle of the diagram, and move towards the ‘Hero’ corner of the graph with very few detours into any other quadrant.

The emotional trajectory in "Zelda: Skyward sword"

We can take legend of Zelda – Skyward sword as an archetypical example. When the game starts, the hero-to-be is a nobody and a dreamer, immediately incapacitated by losing his bird (you fly a lot on birds in this game). This opening scene is designed to make the player feel a bit incapacitated and pretty much without any sense of accomplishment (although not much guilt either). But once you get the bird back, the accomplishments start to pour in. And one of the things you get to know is that although you are not the legendary hero yet, you are destined to be. This way, the game pushes you towards the ‘hero’ corner quite quickly and without much variation.

It seems like many players have come to expect this curve – which might be part of the explanation behind such phenomena as the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. Personally, I prefer games that play in several of the sectors at once – in particular, when a singular act makes you feel at the same time proud and guilty. (Mass effect excels in this – but this is for another post.)

Dys4ia: Computer games as a media for autobiographical storytelling

This blog post is devoted to dys4ia, a gem of a game that I found through Ian Bogost’s blog. It is created by Anna Anthropy and is an autobiographical story of her hormone replacement medication.

Dys4ia is a storytelling game. It presents almost no game challenge at all. The minor game challenge I found was in the form of an interaction puzzle: in each scene you must figure out what to do to progress in the story. But this, you figure out almost instantly, by clicking around a bit and using the arrow keys on the keyboard. Neither is it very strong at interactive fiction in the classical ‘360 illusion’ sense – it does create a ‘story world’. The world created is implicit, through crude sketches representing abstract scenes that depict key events in her life.

So, Dys4ia tells a linear story (no branching, no options) with some opportunity for interaction. But the point is that these interactions  are vital. As player, you are tasked with acting out the  humiliating, scary, and stigmatizing events the game designer went through. There is a wonderful mix of symbolical events (e.g. one representing the feeling of being an awkwardly shaped puzzle piece) and concrete acts such as repeatedly ensuring ‘yes, I am a woman’ and swallowing the pills that may or may not be good for you. The game offers an opportunity for players to get involved and by that — feel responsible for what happens.

There are two possible ways to classify Dys4ia. One is that computer games is a media, and that it is a media that can be used to develop interactive stories that are not games. The other is that the interactivity of the game offers a very, very simple opportunity for role-play. By the few actions offered, the game succeeds to invite you as a player to walk in somebody else’s shoes. I think the strength of the game lies precisely in this invitation.

Storytelling in games

Game studies was more or less formed out of the ‘ludology – narratology’ debate, well documented in First Person. Basically, ludologists argued that games do not need to tell stories to be good, and they may not even be a good media for storytelling. The debate was a bit loop-sided as nobody really represented the opposite view (that games are about storytelling), but Hamlet on the holodeck is perhaps the book that comes the closest. In this book, Janet Murray presents a vision for a full 360 illusion narrative environment, giving players the power to shape stories in which they take active part. It is not a completely unrealistic vision: Murray was deeply influenced by table-top roleplaying, and although she was unaware of it, the Nordic larp community had already been experimenting with 360 illusion live role-playing for some years when the book came out. Later, research prototypes such as Façade have aimed to realise this vision in computer technology. (Façade exists in a holodeck version – AR/Façade.)

However, there is a huge difference between creating a 360 illusion and storytelling. In The art of videogames, Grant Tavinor argues that videogames are great vehicles for creating fiction (due to their simulation capabilities), but that storytelling requires a level of narrative control that is not entirely compatible with giving the player agency. And player agency is, after all, what games ultimately are about.

Since this debate, we have seen many, many storytelling games being produced; as larps, table-top games, and computer games. But these are seldom aspiring for a 360 illusion, and some of them don’t aspire to be games either. I find this development interesting, so I will blog about some such games over the coming weeks.

GDC in a nutshell

Since I didn’t get to go to GDC (influenza) I wish to share the best summary I’ve found so far: AnnaKaisa Kultima’s GDC sum-up at Akoo’s Game Lab. Apart from giving tips on how to best appreciate GDC as an academic, she points out three themes from the conference: That mobile games are maturing (even though the presentations stay in the mobile games summit and don’t move into the main conference just yet), that developers rant about Free-To-Play (and no wonder), and that this might have been the year that women started to take over GDC. At least if judging by the waiting lines for  toilets. This last observation, you won’t find in any other GDC summary – read this one!

Trouble sleeping? You might have been playing a horror game

Half a week ago, a popular science article about violent computer games topped the news of the Stockholm University homepage. As the article is in Swedish, I’ll summarise it for you: it is about two studies performed at the stress research institute in Stockholm where they compared the heart rate for boys (age range 12-15) playing a ‘violent’ and a ‘non-violent’ computer game. The studies showed that the heart rates of the kids were affected by playing the violent game both during play, and during the night after. The kids also reported trouble sleeping. Furthermore, a second study compared the effect for boys who play games a lot (more than three hours a day), with those who play only a little (less than one hour a day). This second study showed that the heart rate and sleeping problem affected only the boys who play less. Malena Ivarsson (who is interviewed in the article) interpret this as a sign of general desensitization towards violence. I have been able to track down a publication on the first study, but not the second.

I would first like to point out a strength of this study, and that is that it was actually measuring psychophysiological effects, and moreover, that it was able to do so under ordinary play conditions. The kids wore the heart rate sensors while playing at home, in their normal play environment. I would love to see more studies done with this kind of methodology, rather than the host of contrived ‘measurements of agression’ (such as the ‘hot sauce‘ test) that psychologists have come up with over the decades. Secondly, I would like to point out that the study doesn’t even try to prove that boys become violent from playing violent video games – it is not set up to study transfer effects at all.

However, there is a huge problem with the games used in the comparison. It seems like both studies compared the same two games: Manhunt versus Animaniacs. Wikipedia classifies Manhunt as an ‘action horror’ game, and Animaniacs as an ‘action adventure – comedy’. The latter has rating E 10+ whereas Manhunt has been rated Adults, 18+ and it is also unusual in that it has been banned in a number of countries. Notice that little word ‘horror’? Notice that it is missing in the genre description for Animaniacs? Manhunt is a game designed to scare adults shitless – no wonder 13 year old boys have trouble sleeping after playing it! (I wonder how on earth they could get this experiment approved by an ethics board…)

So, the study compared a violent and scary game with a non-violent and non-scary game. But there are more differences. Animaniacs is a rather derivative game, using a well-established gameplay model (GameSpot reviews it as a ‘good old-fashinoned platformer’). There is almost no other interpretation of Animaniacs than through its ludified meaning: the game is about counting coins and vanquising the occasional enemy to advance to the next scene.

Manhunt is a revolting, scary, and from an ethical perspective very interesting game. It raised a critical controversy and was apparently also controversial within the development company. In his 2009 DIGRA article, José Zagal discusses it as a game that create ethical dilemmas for players. In Manhunt, the player is tasked with murdering his way through a host of victims, but the player is given a choice in method: the murders can be done more or less violently. The interesting thing is that there is almost no gameplay reward at all for choosing the more gruesome models; it just intensifies the narrative. This way, Manhunt resists the ludic trivialization that Linderoth writes about. Just as most action games, Manhunt is about killing, but Manhunt is also about making players feel bad about killing.

This is why their second study is more interesting than their first. Remember that the second study showed that the boys who played little games reacted stronger to Manhunt than those who played a lot of games. Ivarsson interprets this as a desensitization towards violence (in general), but there are at least two other possible explanations. One is that the boys who played a lot of games understood the horror genre better, thereby getting less scared. But the other explanation, and the one I think is the right one, is that they were better at understanding the game as a game. Their tendency would be to ignore the fiction as much as possible, seeing it as ‘adornment’ on top of a gameplay reward system that they focus on mastering. This is trivialization through resignification, and need not have anything to do with desensitization towards violence in general or even the horror genre in particular. Their ‘desentitization’ is tightly tied to the context of playing a game, as the ludified meaning is created by the game rules and goals and cannot exist outside of the game.

I am not sure what the study tried to achieve, but there are a couple of comparisons that I think would have made it more interesting. I would have liked to see a comparison between the reactions to a horror game and a horror movie, or, between somebody who plays the game and one who just watches it being played. I have yet to see a study that focusses on the effects of players acting in a game as opposed to just seeing the same things play out. Secondly, I think it would have been interesting to compare an action horror game with a survival horror game (like Amnesia) to single out the effect of performing violence, rather than just running from it. Finally, I wish that all of these comparative studies would pay more attention to how players talk about the games, to identify whether they refer to a fictional or a ludified reading of the game.


Malena Ivarsson, Martin Anderson, Torbjörn Åkersted, and Frank Lindblad. Playing a violent television game affects heart rate variability. Acta Pædiatrica 98(1):166-72, 2009.

Zagal, José P. Ethically notable videogames: Moral dilemmas and gameplay. Proc. DIGRA’09 Breaking new ground: Innovation in games, play, practice and theory, Brunel, U.K. 2009.

PC gamer on location-based gaming

Following up on Markus Montola’s GDC presentation on Shadow Cities, David Caw writes a column at PC gamer with the title ‘Where are the great location based games‘. The article is basically a rant about how hard it is to make locations actually matter in games, and that it is only a few games that have succeeded in doing so. David mentions Foursquare of course, but I find the example of Nintendo’s ‘Street Pass‘ more interesting. Street Pass is a social community service, that synchs between 3DS players as they pass each other on the street. They swap a tiny player profile, and may also swap game tokens (such as trading cards or puzzle pieces). The function is almost exactly the same as in ‘Hocman‘ that my colleague Oskar Juhlin and his group developed for bikers in 2002. Except Nintendo seems to have missed out on the one function that the bikers found most rewarding – the little ‘beep in the helmet’ that they got every time they passed another Hocman-equipped biker.

The reason why Street Pass (and Hocman) is an important example is that it is not GPS-based. It is a mistake to believe that location-based games must require precise positioning. The key to creating great location-based games is not using the GPS, it is understanding what is fun in locations. And we know quite a lot about that already. Shadow Cities shows that sharing map data of real places can be as interesting as actually being located on the spot (hence the preference for couch play), and Street Pass shows that just knowing that another player is in the vicinity is a great game asset. To these, I would add that it is fun do document  – all tourists know that photographing or filming yourself on location is meaningful, and just as we used it as the core function of the Traveur community service it could be made into a key component in a locative game. The check-in function of Foursquare is the simplest form of documentation (‘I was there’), and nowadays Foursquare supports uploading a photo with checkins. Finally, the physical world affords physical activity: running, climbing, dancing… and right now it seems like the biggest surge in GPS-based apps are apps about exercising. Putting physical activity into locative games may take a bit more advanced technology, but it can be done as Movinto Fun’s Oriboo roll-out shows.

Bernard Suits’ “The Grasshopper”

"The Grasshopper" was re-published in 2005 by Broadview Press and is available from all on-line bookstores.

Getting a blog read is, I hear, about being first with news. Well then, this blog post won’t quite cut it.

I re-read Suits’ book “The Grasshopper: Games, life and utopia” while ill. Originally published in 1978, it must be the best philosophy book ever written on what constitutes a game. It is funny, witty, readable, well-written, and presents a very convincing argument. To be more precise, Suits defines what it means to play a game, and the back cover presents the non-technical version of his definition as ‘the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’. I always quote Suits on my introductory lecture in game analysis.

I tend to get carried away by the rhetoric of good philosophy, believing every word of the text. So after re-reading Suits I took two steps back to try to hunt down his critics. Most of the debate spurred by ‘The grasshopper’ was published in the Journal of the philosophy of sport (there were not a lot of venues for game academics in the eighties), and came to deal with the tricky issue of distinguishing between game-play, play, and sport.

What I find missing in Suits’ book is its purpose. Why does Suit want to define game-play at all? You could choose to read it as a game in itself, that Suits is playing a game at defining game-play. I also think that he has set up a particular goal for this exercise: Suits wants to prove Wittgenstein wrong in arguing that games can’t be defined (Wittgenstein uses ‘game’ as his chief example of words that only have family resemblances). Suits wants to prove that game-play is definable. Hence, there is an implicit rule in Suits book: he must create a definition of game-play that the reader accepts as true, independent of its definitional context or the intended use of the definition. Suits never discusses why game-play takes the form he describes: it just is. Neither does he discuss the consequences it has for culture or society (an embryo of an argument is however present in the discussion of game-play and utopia), or how it can be used to distinguish between good and bad game designs.

I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Suits had written his Grasshopper twenty years later, and the debate had been held in game studies? I believe that the simulative powers of computer games would have given Suits some problems. Suits shoe-horns role-playing games into his concept of games by classifying them as open games, by which he means games that have as their goal to keep going for as long as possible. The role-playing as such, he doesn’t consider important for them being games. But what role-playing games and computer games have in common is that they emphasise fictionality, the creative construction of fictional universes. Much of modern game studies has revolved around this mix of fictional universe and game-play (Juul, Tavinor, Bogost…), and as Larp researchers have begun to point out, the phenomena is not at all limited to computer games.

I think that Suits is mostly right (I’ll catch up on the game-play, game, and sport controversy some other time), but I think he is plain wrong in assuming that the only game-relevant stuff going on in role-play is a goal to keep the game going. This, I must write an article about some time.

Jonas Linderoth on ‘ludified meaning’

By a fluke, my Gothenburg-based colleague Jonas Linderoth started his blog ‘Spelvetenskapliga betraktelser’ the same day as I started my blog. I think he was tired of always get called to the barricades when games are under attack in popular media in Sweden, and wanted to create a place where he could develop his argument a bit less defensively.

His second post deals with the ‘ludified meaning’ that games create. The ‘ludified meaning’ is the reason why e.g. backgammon is the same game played no matter if you use pieces made of ebony or capsules – the meaning of the game is created internally, and related to the rules and goals of the game. The thing with ludified meaning is that not only does it create meaning within the game, it also redefines the meaning of things brought into the game, such as, things that the game simulates. Killing something or someone in a game is usually not perceived as killing by its players, but as a way to score points. Through this resignification, games create a very local meaning that tends to trivialize concepts and themes brought into them. Ludification is more than a hypothes: it’s a pretty well documented phenomenon and Jonas provides a host of references – look them up!

Ludification is a strong counterargument in the game violence debate, and it is a core challenge to the concept of gamification (using game structures to make people have more fun while doing something else, particularly learning). The only problem I have with it is that given my research into (and experience of) role-play, I don’t think ludification is the only thing that goes on in games…

(Jonas blogs in Swedish, as he is very active in the Swedish debate. Try google translate on his text – it’s well worth reading!)

Post Navigation