The academic homestead of Annika Waern

Archive for the month “December, 2013”

My family is playing GTA V

... and then, there is the sexism. Hard to ignore, but not what this post is about.

… and then, there is the sexism. Hard to ignore, but not what this post is about.

I spend quite a lot of my evenings not playing GTA V at the moment. (There is something with the controls for Rockstar games that I have never quite overcome – I get sufficiently frustrated to give up on their games.) Since the rest of the family play I get to watch a lot of the game, though.

GTA V seems to be a really good game. The gameplay is both strategic and tactic and possible to adapt to your skill level. The world design is exquisite with a lot of detail. The storyline is what I like the best as a spectator: It is ironic and often rather funny, and the main characters are strangely likeable despite their machismo. There is some British humour at play in the TV ads and the imaginary companies (if Facebook was called Lifeinvader for real, I would apply for a job there). There is rampant sexism throughout the game that is difficult to forgive, but that is not what I want to rant about.

My problem is the description of GTA V as a sandbox game. Granted, there is a large mapped area to explore, with a lot of exquisite detail. There are random event quests (57 total according to the GTA V Wiki) outside the main event storyline and if you play the game long enough there are some neat tricks to uncover. But there basically no permanent effects you can create in the world. You travel around to explore the landscape in all its exquisite detail; knock over lamp posts that will be back next time you run by them and kill people who will be there again the next time you pass. And while the map is large, it is patchy: most houses are back drops, impossible to enter. A sandbox is a box full of building material. It is an opportunity for creation and destruction. Gary’s mod and Minecraft are sandbox games, GTA V is very far from one.  Wikipedia describes the GTA series as ‘open world’ games, which is more accurate.

I have a hunch that sandbox games support storymaking better than games that are just open-world. While it is easy to find plenty of imaginative  stories diaries about Minecraft and the Sims, the stories you experience in GTA are primarily the one programmed into the game through the quests. And given that I don’t particularly like the gameplay and the stories are linear with few alternatives, I might just as well continue to just watch.

Body games: Elena Márquez Segura’s licentiate thesis

elenaMy Ph.D. student Elena defended her licentiate thesis on Friday December 6th, with Floyd Mueller from the Exertion games lab in Melbourne as her “opponent”, a sort of external examiner used in the Swedish ph.d. procedure. It’s not common to have foreign opponents for a licentiate, so we were happy to be able to invite Floyd.

Elena’s thesis is named “Body games: Designing for co-located play activity’. The core theoretical contribution is based on our joint CHI article from earlier this year, but goes a bit deeper into the social and spatial design options. But whereas the CHI article was based on a game design project,  Elena adds a case study where she designs for play in a non-game setting, psychotherapeutic training for the elderly. It is hard to think of a less playful domain! Still, Elena manages to show how a playful setup and a shift in responsibilities for the physiotherapist creates something akin to a festive context, encouraging a playful attitude to the training session. I really like this part, in that it hints at an alternative to the standard gamification approach to reward accomplishments.

With the physiotherapist example, Elena moves out from focussing on gaming behaviour towards more general playfulness. This, Elena needs to elaborate further when going for the Ph.D., as her theory is very much taken from game design and lacks a bit of grounding in theories of play. Throughout the thesis it is clear that Elena has started, but not quite finished, articulating her approach to playful design and she might need another case study to get ther. But what is primarily lacking is publications – the thesis presents a fair amount of empirical investigations that she should publish. It’ll be great fun to accompany her on this path!

I’ll edit in a link to Elena’s thesis if she makes it available!

“Designing Activity and Creating Experience”: Jon Back’s licentiate thesis


Jon presenting, surrounded by a magic circle. Photo by Sofia Stenler.

Two weeks ago, my Ph.D. student Jon Back defended his licentiate thesis. (The ‘lic’ is a non-compulsory intermediate exam on the way to your Ph.D.) The thesis is named ‘Designing activity and creating experience‘, and is based on Jon’s experiences in designing, staging and studying two locative experiences. The first one was an art experience in locative storytelling based both on physical artefacts and  a GPS-based commenting system. The second is our joint ongoing project Codename Heroes.

The licentiate is as mentioned a ‘half-way’ exam, and this is very clear in Jon’s contribution. Jon is struggling with a central problem in game design, in that it is ‘second order’ design. You do not create peoples’ experiences: they create them for themselves, by acting out within the context of a game design. In Jon’s thesis this design issue meets with the perspective on experiences that is prevalent in interaction design research: McCarthy and Wright’s appropriation of Dewey’s concept of experience. The way the words ‘an experience’ are used in interaction design they denote the subjective experience of a lived-through sequence of actions and events with a clear beginning and end.

Through the lens of ‘experience’, Benford and Giannachi have for example formulated experiential trajectories as a tool for designing and analysing an experience.Although trajectories can apply to a range of designed experiences, it works best with fairly railroaded ones. They provide less explanatory power when it comes to analysing games and their ‘second order design’ qualities. My understanding of Jon’s licentiate is that he is trying to build a similar analysis tool for game design. More specifically he addresses play in public space as this form of play presents particular difficulties in attracting participants, offering modes of participation, and providing exit and entry points. To get there, he emphasises that experiences do not exist until they are over – until the arc of experience has come to its end. Although this is in line with what Dewey writes it is seldom examined in interaction design research, and it gives a specific angle to Jon’s work that I am not sure he is aware of himself yet.

Jon continues to study play in public space for another year. I look forward to continue working with him!


John McCarthy and Peter Wright (2004) Technology as experience. MIT Press 2007 (reprint)

John Dewey (1934) Art as experience. Pedigree trade 2005 (reprint)

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