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Mitgutsch | Huber | Wagner | Wimmer | Rosenstingl (Eds.)

Exploring and Reframing Games in Context
Proceedings of the 7 th Vienna Games Conference
FROG 2013
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2013 by new academic press og

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Covergestaltung: Alex Schepelmann

Covermotiv: matchstick / sxc
Satz: Peter Sachartschenko
Druck: CPI buch
Konstantin Mitgutsch, Simon Huber, Jeffrey Wimmer,
Michael G. Wagner and Herbert Rosenstingl (Ed.) (2013):

Context Matters!

Proceedings of the Vienna

Games Conference 2013:

Exploring and Reframing Games

and Play in Context

Table of Content

Konstantin Mitgutsch, Simon Huber, Jeffrey Wimmer, Michael Wagner

and Herbert Rosenstingl
Context matters! Exploring and reframing games
and play in context an introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9


Jonas Linderoth
Superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars: Ecological
empowerment as a ludo-narratological construct . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Diane Carr
Bodies, augmentation and disability in Dead Space and
Deus Ex: Human Revolutions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .31
Danny Langhoff Nielsen, Henrik Schoenau-Fog
In the mood for horror. A game design approach on investigating absorbing
player experiences in horror games . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
Marta Fernndez, Simon Niedenthal, Manuel Armenteros
The sense of lighting inside game worlds.
Myth and meaning in gameplay and game mechanics. . . . . . . . . . . . .57


Simon Huber
Huizingas circles. How to put modern game culture
into historical context? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .70
Mathias Fuchs
Foul play in context . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .76
Tobias Scholz
Does context matter? Conceptualizing relational contextualization . . . . 89
Jonathan Church
Constructing a neoliberal archive: Spreadable media, video games, and a
culture of history . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .99


David Myers
Authorial intent and video games . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110
Pilar Lacasa, Mara Ruth Garca-Perna, Sara Corts Gmez
From gamers to game designers: Looking for
new adolescent literacies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121

Hctor Puente Bienvenido, Marta Fernndez Ruiz

User generated content: A situated production of video
walkthroughts on Youtube . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
Gerhild Bauer, Daniel Martinek, Simone Kriglstein,
Gnter Wallner, Rebecca Wlfle
Digital game-based learning with Internet Hero
A game about the internet for children aged 912 years . . . . . . . . . . 148


Jeremiah Diephuis, Michael Lankes, Wolfgang Hochleitner

Another brick in the (fifth) wall: Reflections on creating a co-located
multiplayer game for a large display . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 162
Lizzy Bleumers
Capturing context: Mobile and pervasive game-play
in participatory sensing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 168
Martin Knll, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy, Stefan Gbel
Active design how the built environment matters
to mobile games for health . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 181
Eszter Tth, Alenka Poplin
Cooperative learning games a successful tool for
promoting childrens participation in urban planning? . . . . . . . . . . . 194
Nina Grnberger, Clemens Fessler
Play between cable car and couch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 209
Reflections on the importance of the environments of
gameplay through Bohmes atmosphere concept . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 209


Maresa Bertolo, Ilaria Mariani

Meaningful play: learning, best practices and reflections
through games . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 222
Maike Groen
Exclusion and inclusion of women in e-sport and
the example of StarCraft: Wings of liberty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 235
Sbastien Hock-Koon, Iris Rukshin
Princesses and princes in video games: A preliminary survey on
audience reception . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 241
Table of Content 7


Judith Ackermann
Appropriating game rules . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 247
Sbastien Hock-Koon
Learning with video games: Identifying sources
of uncertainty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 259
Katharina Mittlbck
Mentalization and the reflective functioning of playing.
The psychological concept of mentalization and its potentialities for personality
development in the possibility space of drpgs or, what can we gain from babies
playful interactions for our understanding of the act of playing? . . . . . . . . 270

Enrico Gandolfi
The playing diorama . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 276


Fares Kayali, Naemi Luckner, Ruth Mateus-Berr, Peter Purgathofer

Game design and artistic expression . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 288
Veli-Matti Karhulahti
Videogame as avant-garde: Secluded rhematic expression . . . . . . . . 301
Jens M. Stober, Steffen P. Walz, Jussi Holopainen
Hacking as a playful strategy for designing artistic games . . . . . . . . . 308
Ilaria De Lorenzo
Milan, Italy
The game of dancing a fairy tale . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 322

Abstracts of the Conference

Vienna games conference poster presentation:

Abstracts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 328
Vienna games conference game presentation:
Abstracts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 337

Author Information

Biographies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 344

Konstantin Mitgutsch, Vienna, Austria

Simon Huber, Vienna, Austria
Jeffrey Wimmer, Ilmenau, Germany
Michael Wagner, Philadelphia, USA
Herbert Rosenstingl, Vienna, Austria

Context matters! Exploring and reframing games

and play in context an introduction

The activity of play is situated within different contextual constraints. Games

contextualize the way we play and, vice versa, our play recontextualizes the rules
and goals of games, our culture, society and history. The context of play matters
and influences the impact games have on players and player communities. The
study of context, that frames play, raises the following questions: How can we
understand the contextual characteristic of play? What forms of contexts and
frames matter and why? What are constructive or problematic contexts of play?
How can we study context and what methods appear appropriate to examine it?
What context does game design and development establish? What is the contex-
tual impact of technology on games and play? What media forms contextualize
our play and how are they converging?
These were the question international scholars, designers and were tracing at
the 7th Vienna Games Conference, Future and Reality of Gaming 2013
(FROG13) in September 2013 in Vienna. Viennas annual Games Conference
FROG13, offers an open international platform for leading game studies research-
ers and scholars, game designers, researchers and scholars from various other
fields, education professionals, and gamers from around the world. The main ob-
jective of FROG13 was to explore how Context Matters in regard to questions
of player communities, challenging or problematic play settings, game theory
and development, impact of games, and cultural facets of play. The proceedings
collects 28 contributions from FROG presenters and abstracts of poster and
game presentations.

Why context matters

Games and gaming constitute an incredibly complex phenomenon of mediat-

ed communication that is based on a global, multilayer, and mostly only virtual
game culture. An observation of the contexts of game and play, especially in
terms of their different characteristics and dimensions, will allow us to better un-

derstand these complex processes, although we still know very little about the
highly diverse gaming genres and cultures.
In order to grasp the different contexts of game and play, we recommend con-
sidering the ideas of Myr (2008). He claims that game studies should focus on
the interaction between game and gamer and on the context resulting from this
(similar to Juul 2005; Taylor 2006). According to Crawford and Rutter (2006,
149f.), we can almost speak of a contextualist turn in game studies: Digital
games are seen here as cultural artifacts which are given value, meaning and po-
sition through their production and use. The insight that digital games always re-
late to different forms of context is emphasized by King and Krzywinska (2006,
38): Gameplay does not exist in a vacuum, any more then games do as a whole.
It is situated instead, within a matrix of potential meaning-creating frameworks.
These can operate both at a local level, in the specific associations generated by a
particular episode of gameplay and in the context of broader social, cultural and
ideological resonances.
Supporting this insight of the complex connections between game reality and
societal reality, Hand and Moore (2006, 180) point out that game experience and
game context are inextricably linked: Digital gaming may be seen as both em-
bedded within existing sociocultural frameworks (as cultural artifacts), and as
enabling novel articulations of community and identity to emerge (as forms of
culture). Digital gaming represents a distinct cultural form which at once prob-
lematizes current understandings of community and identity, and allows us
to explore emerging patterns of community and identity formation.
To understand the different dimensions of context it helps to imagine them as
mostly mediated processes of articulation of a specific media culture, which is
historically, temporally and spatially rooted and contextualised (see in general
Hepp 2008). Based on this Wimmer (2012) distinguishes five specifics contexts of
game and play, which are of course strong interrelated:
The context of (Re)Production of and within digital games which describes the
structures, methods, and processes of creating games and play, especially
amongst others and not confined to the gaming industry and consequently the
field of game development and design.
The context of Representation refers to the illustration of different topics in
media products. In digital games, this process usually depicts, for example,
violence or gender roles in games, their attributed meaning by gamers, and
also the portrayal of games and game cultures in public discourse and mass
The context of Regulation covers the influence of non-producing institutions
and formations (e.g., politics) on a media culture. In the case of digital games,
this involves the e.g. legal regulation of game content or the determination of
age limits for the protection of minors.
The context of Appropriation describes the process of actively embracing me-
Introduction 11

dia in everyday life. A good example is the development of game-specific

norms and rules within certain gaming communities, such as clans.
The context of Identification refers to the (continuous) process of constituting
identity based on communicated patterns and discourses. The level is observ-
able, for example, when a gamer wears certain garments or use a special lingo
in order to show a specific scene membership or wants to distinguish him-/
herself from non-gamers.

Structure of the book

The following chapters of this volume cover a wide array of topics relating to
the questions of context described above. The contributing authors depict a di-
verse, well documented, but still under-researched image of how context mat-
ters. The book is organized along seven themes tackling the relations between
games, players and context:

Narrative context and immersion

First of all, we tackle those issues that appear to be related to the content of
games: stories, genres, symbols and other narrative elements that enrich play-ex-
periences but are also turned to matters of context by arguing that game designers
are actually accessing cultural archives and meta-texts to create immersive, fic-
tionalized experiences. Jonas Linderoth presents the concept of Ecological Em-
powerment as a Ludo-narratological Construct, that displays preferably the sto-
ries of superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars while empowering the gamer in
the game worlds and in the game mechanics. Diane Carr is focussing not only on
empowerment but on Augmentation and Disability mediated through Bodies in
Dead Space and Deus Ex: Human Revolutions. She responds to the need of devel-
oping an understanding of player embodiment beyond standardized physicality,
and therefore discusses links between interpretation, lived experiences, corpore-
ality and representations with reference to disability literature. A designers per-
spective is taken up by Danny Langhoff Nielsen and Henrik Schoenau-Fog, who
are In the Mood for Horror. Their investigation of absorbing player experiences
is genre specific and primarily based on focus group interviews and question-
naires. It establishes a framework to explain three main causes of continuation de-
sire: Narrative, freedom and victimizing. Marta Fernndez, Simon Niedenthal,
Manuel Armenteros spotlight The Sense of Lighting itself inside game worlds as
a matter of visual cultures history. They specifically assess the points of conver-
gence and divergence between lighting in games and other media. Myth and
meaning are not an extra, but rather contribute to gameplay and game mechanics.

Contextualising playful contexts

Context can also be analyzed in regards to its own history and his own spacial-
ity that are naturally wildly entangled and intersected. Especially while playing we
are creating frames, in which meanings are shifting. Computers changed the way,
these contexts are set up; they changed the way, we think about it and changed
our ways of playing, cheating, acting at all by virtualized all these experiences.
Therefore it is necessary to contextualize these playful contexts. Simon Huber
wants to know, how to put modern game culture into historical context? There-
fore he looks at Huizingas Circles, which are themselves situated in a historical
context and are still influential until nowadays, although some misunderstandings
have to be dealt with to grasp the uniqueness of digital gaming. Mathias Fuchs sets
Foul Play in Context. Thus he explores practices, which are at first glance not
playful at all. But they may be still conceived as a way of creating a particular form
of the ludic experience. Spoilsports and cardsharps are switching constantly the
systems of reference in a playful manner. This seems to increase complexity and
variety, so Tobias Scholz questions the assumption, whether context matters at
all. With Conceptualizing Relational Contextualization he proposes an adjust-
ment based on the auteur theory. In combination with the complexity theory,
he claims the possibility to derive a relational context that focus on the connec-
tions between the various context-factors rather than the context-factor itself.
Jonathan Church watches spreadable media and video games at work while Con-
structing a Neoliberal Archive that forms a certain culture of history. Games gain
a greater paratextual sense of temporal persistence by being turned into cultural
artefacts as a focus of user interest, reference, critique, and memory.

User-generated context

The third subsection presents articles that show how the line blurs between
producers and consumers in digital contexts. Users are not only producing in
preset ways, but they are as well establishing infrastructures and communities
and appropriating tools and platforms to exchange knowledge and content. Da-
vid Myers is questioning the possibilities of transmitting certain messages
through interactive media in general. His paper Authorial Intent and Video
Games is looking for ways of conceding author and designer contexts to discuss
how authorial intent might affect video game meanings, with focused reference
to the interactive qualities of digital media. Pilar Lacasa, Mara Ruth Garca-Per-
na and Sara Corts Gmez are looking for new adolescent literacies and declare
it to be an educational program to switch From Gamers to Game Designers.
Their main goal is to analyze the experiences of adolescents when designing vid-
eo games in an innovative learning environment based on the concept of partici-
Introduction 13

patory culture. User generated content is not easily classified, neither as informa-
tion, nor as expression as Hctor Puente Bienvenido together with Marta Fernn-
dez Ruiz can show in their analysis Situated Production of Video Walkthroughs
on YouTube. It addresses how these instrumental videos are becoming more
and more expressive media and subsequently cultural manifestations where dif-
ferent texts and media converge. But with chances come risks: Last but not least
Gerhild Bauer, Daniel Martinek, Simone Kriglstein, Gnter Wallner and Rebec-
ca Wlfle try to convey these new requirements that come with digital contexts
to minors. They designed Internet Hero. A game about the Internet for children
aged 9-12 years, that aims at increasing the digital literacy of children and pre-
paring them to safely navigate the internet. It teaches in a child-friendly way to be
consciously aware of the potential dangers of hyperlinks, online forms and phish-
ing-mails to protect them from exploitation.

Playful environments in context

The fourth section assembles research that explores design-related, location-

based and environmental challenges of playing and creating games. Thereby
questions related to co-located, multiplayer, mobile and urban gaming are tack-
led. The first paper in the section Playful Environments in Context focuses on
the game Limelight that was developed for co-located play in an exhibition space
with a very large display. Under the title Another Brick in the (Fifth) Wall: Re-
flections on Creating a Co-located Multiplayer Game for a Large Display the au-
thors Jeremiah Diephuis, Michael Lankes and Wolfgang Hochleitner utilize the
concept of the fifth wall to designate the game design dependencies that separate
the experience of individual players. In the following chapter Lizzy Bleumers ex-
plores the phenomena of participatory sensing, in which people participate in
data gathering and analysis of their surroundings through the use of mobile de-
vices and web services. In her analysis Capturing Context: Mobile and Pervasive
Game-Play in Participatory Sensing she examines 10 games and considers their
mutual alignment and their relationship with participatory sensing. Martin
Knll, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy and Stefan Gbel follow the question How the
built environment matters to mobile games for health in their chapter Active
Design. Their article points to the limited research that focuses on the complex
relationship between mobile games, a players health and wellbeing, and the (ur-
ban) environment in which many of these games are being played. In the fourth
paper of this subsection Eszter Tth and Alenka Poplin introduce in the field of
urban design. Their chapter Cooperative Learning Games a Successful Tool
for Promoting Childrens Participation in Urban Planning? highlights a case
study and explores the questions whether cooperative games are appropriate
tools to raise the interest and motivation of children and youth in participating in

urban planning. Nina Grnberger and Clemens Fessler close the section with
their chapter Play Between Cable Car and Couch. Reflections on the Impor-
tance of the Environments of Gameplay Through Bohmes Atmosphere Con-
cept. The authors examine on a theoretical level how the atmosphere surround-
ing the game impacts the gameplay experience.

Meaningful context

The subsection Meaningful Context connects chapters that explore mean-

ingful play, gender and emancipation of players and designers. The first paper by
Maresa Bertolo and Ilaria Mariani focuses on question related to Meaningful
Play and how Learning, Best Practices and Reflections Through Games can be
facilitated in game design projects. Thereby five design projects dealing with so-
cial innovation, socio-cultural and cross-cultural issues are outlined. How crucial
an open discourse about gender stereotypes and new forms of meaningful play
can be, is highlighted by Maike Groen. In her paper she explores the phenomena
of Exclusion and Inclusion of Women in E-Sport and the Example of StarCraft:
Wings of Liberty. A similar gender-related aspect, but from a different perspec-
tive is outlined by Sbastien Hock-Koon and Iris Rukshin in their chapter on
Princesses and Princes in Video Games. The authors provide insight into a
preliminary survey on audience reception of the princes presentation in video

Applied play in context

The sixth subsection Applied Play in Context focuses on how different theo-
retical concepts can be applied to play and how vice versa play and game theory
can be applied to educational, cultural and theoretical models. In the first chapter
Judith Ackermann investigates different spheres, in which Appropriating Game
Rules take place and how rules are being negotiated and performed depending
on the individual appropriation state. A different question in regards to Learn-
ing with Video Games is the topic of Sbastien Hock-Koons chapter. He identi-
fies Sources of Uncertainty in the theoretical understanding of learning with
games and highlights the video games properties that are creating uncertainty.
The phenomena of Mentalization and the Reflective Functioning of Playing are
explored in Katharina Mittlbcks contribution. Her aim is to outline why and in
which way Digital Role-Playing Games provide an advantageous possibility
space for Mentalization and in which way high level Mentalization abilities con-
tribute to personality development. In the final paper of this section Enrico Gan-
dolfi proposes his concept of The playing diorama. In his process-oriented
Introduction 15

framework he intends to connect the micro and the macro context of the ludic
experience on a theoretical, philosophical and empirical level.

Play in artistic context

The final subsection assembles four chapters that connect the context of art,
design, technology and play. The chapter Game Design and Artistic Expression
by Fares Kayali, Naemi Luckner, Ruth Mateus-Berr and Peter Purgathofer opens
the section Play in Artistic Conext. The authors follow the question what the
role of constraints and freedom in designing art games might be. In the following
chapter Veli-Matti Karhulahti Videogame as Avant-garde proposes that single
player videogames are in conflict with the institution of art. He argues that by the
players Secluded Rhematic Expression the players expressive activity cannot
avoid becoming art itself. In the third chapter Jens M Stober, Steffen P Walz and
Jussi Holopainen introduce Hacking as a Playful Strategy for Designing Artistic
Games. The authors trace the history of hacking as a design strategy for artistic
games and look for creative strategies contained within the act of hacking itself.
The final chapter by Ilaria De Lorenzo explores the artistic and playful language
of dance. In her paper The Game of Dancing a Fairy Tale the author examines
how the context of playing, with its language, rules and meanings, approaches
the context of dance.


The exploration of the context of gaming would not have been possible with-
out the help of many passionate colleagues and friends that helped organizing the
Vienna Games Conference in FROG13. We want to thank the other members of
the FROG Program Comittee: Jason Begy (Concordia University); Jennifer
Berger (University of Vienna); Mia Consalvo (Concordia University); Clara
Fernndez-Vara (The Trope Tank, Massachusetts Institute of Technology); Hen-
rik Schnau Fog (Aalborg University Copenhagen); Fares Kayali (University of
Applied Arts Vienna); Christoph Klimmt (Hanover University of Music, Drama,
and Media); Nikolaus Knig; Jonas Linderoth (University of Gothenburg); Kon-
stantin Mitgutsch (MIT Game Lab; Massachusetts Institute of Technology);
Scot Osterweil (Education Arcade); Alexander Pfeiffer (Danube University
Krems); Alenka Poplin (HafenCity University Hamburg); Doris Rush (DePaul
University); Steve Schirra (MIT Game Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technol-
ogy); Abe Stein (MIT Game Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Ja-
roslav velch (University in Prague). Furthermore we express thanks to Organ-
isational Team of the FROG13 for their kind support. Finally, we want to thank all

our authors, the FROG presenters, the MIT Game Lab, the City of Vienna, Paul
Pitzer from wienXtra and Dr. Harald Knill from new academic press for exploring
the context of gaming with us. Our special thanks go to the Federal Ministry of
Economy, Family and Youth for the financial and professional support, which
made the FROG13 and this published proceedings possible.


Crawford, G., & Rutter, J. (2006) Digital games and cultural studies. In J. Bryce & J. Rutter (Eds.),
Understanding digital games (pp. 148165). London: Sage.
Hand, M., & Moore, K. (2006) Community, identity and digital games. In J. Bryce & J. Rutter
(Eds.), Understanding digital games (pp. 241266). London: Sage.
Hepp, A. (2008) Translocal media cultures: Networks of the media and globalisation. In A. Hepp,
F. Krotz, S. Moores, & C. Winter (Eds.), Connectivity, networks and flows. Conceptualizing con-
temporary communications (pp. 3358). Cresskill: Hampton Press.
Juul, J. (2005) Half-real. Video games between real rules and fictional worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT
King, G., & Krzywinska, T. (2006) Tomb raiders and space invaders. Videogame forms and contexts.
London: Tauris.
Myr, F. (2008) An introduction to game studies. Games in culture. London: Sage.
Taylor, T. L. (2006) Play between worlds. Exploring online game culture. Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press.
Wimmer, J. (2012) Digital game culture(s) as prototype(s) of mediatization and commercialization
of society. In J. Fromme & A. Unger (Eds.), Computer games/players/game cultures: A handbook
on the state and perspectives of digital game studies (pp. 524540). Berlin: Springer.

Jonas Linderoth
Gothenburg, Sweden

Superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars: Ecological

empowerment as a ludo-narratological construct


This chapter presents an analysis of ecological empowerment as a theme in

digital game narratives. Since game mechanics often are designed so that players
gain more powerful ways of interacting with a game environment (improved
abilities) it is argued games are particularly good at telling stories about charac-
ters who can perceive and utilize spectacular affordances. Games do not only tell
the story of ecological empowerment, they do in fact empower the player in the
game world. This analysis thus shows that games can be seen as a specific context
for storytelling and thus explain why some themes and narrative elements seem
to be overrepresented in games.


Digital games were in the late 1990s predicted to bring about new possibilities
for storytelling. Concepts like immersion and interactivity were floating in a dis-
course of what possibilities the future held. The contemporary games of that
time were not recognized as instances of the new storytelling medium; they were
merely signs about what was about to come. Here we are, almost 20-years later,
and no James Joyce of digital games has yet come around and the game industry
embraces pubertal fantasies and considers bullet time, i.e., the ability to kill en-
emies in slow motion, an innovation of the medium. If games in some rare cases
have developed new forms for storytelling, they certainly have not contributed
to developing new and previously unseen narratives. As players become older,
the demand for more profound game stories and player characters is increasing.
Some game journalists are criticizing games for being variants of the same simpli-
fied story and embracing stereotypical character portraits. Even though there are
attempts to create games that tell somewhat more complex and mature stories,
these are seldom perceived as being a part of game culture. As Kirkpatrick (2012)
18 Jonas Linderoth

When game scholars and others speculate about games becoming art or being
an art-form, they express frustration at the way that games discourse falters here,
unable to produce truly autonomous discussion of games that clarifies their value
independent of considerations like their usefulness to educators.

In this paper I suggest that one explanation why games to such a large degree
lean upon specific settings and narrative elements is because specific game me-
chanics provides a context that is suitable for certain stories.

The game and the theme park ride digital games as composite

How can we understand the experience of playing digital games? Should

games be seen as related to books and movies or are they better understood in re-
lation to sports and non-digital games? In this paper I start with the assumption
that the artefacts that we label digital games are composites of many different for-
mats. If we use another kind of designed experience as a metaphor for approach-
ing games, the idea of composites might become clearer.
By asking what kind of experience a thematic ride, such as a ghost train or a
dinosaur roller coaster is, we might uncover structural elements that can tell us
something about digital games. The combination of visual artwork, narrated sto-
ries, sound effects, lighting, props, projected movies and animatronics seems to
suggest that the best concept would be to call it a multimedia experience. Yet the
concept of multimedia would fail to acknowledge that an important part of the
whole experience comes from the fast locomotion of traversing from point to
point during the attraction. A part that can be carefully designed to furnish the
whole experience, like having a mechanical motion activated monster appear di-
rectly after a sharp turn, have steep hills to raise the tension before a scare and in-
creases the speed towards the end of the ride. While it of course would be possi-
ble to study the rides different media or the layout of the track in its own accord,
a full understanding of the theme park ride as a cultural format would have to ac-
knowledge how these elements are designed together and how the deliberate se-
quencing of occurrences, which in nature can be rather different, facilitates the
specific experience of the theme park ride. Such an analysis would also uncover
some properties of thematic rides in amusement parks as a format, i.e., it is likely
that the structure of sitting in a cart that for some minutes moves along a rail has
characteristics that makes it specifically suitable for certain themes and genres.
The academic study of games has emerged into a field of its own that is some-
times referred to as game studies. To some degree this field was formulated out of
what later was to be called the ludology vs. narratology dispute (Eskelinen, 2001;
Frasca, 2003; Murray, 2005; Pearce, 2005). This dispute was a struggle about
which cultural form that was to be given priority when studying digital games. It
Superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars 19

boiled down to the question of whether fiction or rules/game mechanics was the
appropriate starting point and if digital games could be placed in the same family
of cultural objects as books and movies or if they were more related to non-digi-
tal play and game practices such as classic games, tabletop role-playing games,
war games, etc. ( Juul, 2003, 2005). To use the ghost train as a metaphor, one can
say that while some scholars wanted to focus on the artwork of the animatronics,
the visual genre of the props and the narrated story in the speakers (i.e., the
equivalent to fiction in a game), other scholars wanted to focus on the design and
layout of the track (i.e., the game mechanics).
The debate was also entangled in attempts to create appropriate game defini-
tions ( Juul, 2003; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004). These definitions were based on
things-ontologies (Slj, 2009), i.e., they were made to tease out the true char-
acteristics of games. While this dispute had a function in shaping the game stud-
ies field, it also became a blinder that made it hard to see digital games as some-
thing multifaceted. Aarseth (2012) has argued that since digital software can con-
tain many different forms of content, the artefacts we label digital games can be
seen as composites of many cultural forms such as graphic novels, movies, writ-
ten stories and a multitude of different game designs. In the same game title we
are encouraged to engage ourselves in different activities related to rather diverse
cultural practices. We can easily think of one game containing strategic and per-
ceptual challenges similar to board games and puzzles, senso-motorical challeng-
es similar to dexterity games and sports, character design activities resembling
playing with dolls, construction activities resembling playing with building
blocks, reading texts with a story arc, watching movies, listening to narrators,
etc. Aarseth (2012) points out that the study of digital games lacks: a detailed,
robust understanding of the various ways computer software have been used to
combine elements from narratives and games into a number of quite different lu-
do-narratological constructs (p. 129).
In this paper I follow Aarseths (2012) straightforward idea that digital games
can be seen as composites. I thus use a methodology that focuses on how the
track of the game, its game mechanics, structures, experience of the props,
projected images and animatronics: its fiction. I will investigate a specific ludo-
narratological structure where a family of game mechanics called improved
abilities (Bjrk & Holopainen, 2004) fits the narrative theme of superpowers.
Taking departure from the theory of ecological psychology (Gibson, 1986; Gib-
son & Pick, 2000; Reed, 1996), I will claim that this specific structure is success-
ful due to the fact that digital games are capable of representing the fundamental
human dream of becoming empowered at the same time as they present the play-
er with a very concrete case of ecological empowerment. This is a design that of-
fers gamers an enjoyable illusion of learning (Linderoth, 2012). In other words, in
the context of digital games, the game mechanics called improved abilities actu-
ally gives the player superpowers.
20 Jonas Linderoth

Improved abilities a family of game mechanics

By improved abilities I here refer to a family of game mechanics that makes the
actions of the player become more likely to succeed or give the player access to
new ways of interacting with a game environment (cf. Bjrk & Holopainen,
2004, p. 174). Sometimes these mechanics are called character development in
order to stress the fact that it is the character and not the player that develops.
This concept can, however, easily be confused with the character arc and the
change of a characters personality over the course of a story. I find improved
abilities a better concept here, since it makes it easier to see that these game me-
chanics can be present even without the representation of a person. If you gain a
faster car in a racing game or can create stronger battle units like tanks and artil-
lery in a war game, these are instances of improved abilities. A typical case of im-
proved abilities is when a game unit becomes harder to defeat by gaining more
so-called hit-points or when it gains a benefit by increasing how much damage it
can do on other units. Here we find game mechanics such as levelling, upgrading
gear and building up skill trees. Improved abilities are associated with the role-
playing genre where one of the core mechanics is about empowering the players
character. However, this design seems to be so successful that it can be found in
a number of other genres as well. When used in other game genres, players some-
times talk about games with RPG-elements (see, for example, TV Tropes,
2013). There is no doubt that these mechanics are important aspects of many suc-
cessful games. Out of the 10 highest rated PC-games for 2012, eight have one or
more game mechanics that can be classified as improved abilities (see Table 1).

Placing on Game title Contains IA Metacritic Also on top Also on top

metacritic mechanics score 10 PS3 10 Xbox
1 Dishonored Yes 91 9th -
2 Mark of the Ninja Yes 91 - 5th
3 NBA 2K13 Yes 90 7th -
4 Guild Wars 2 Yes 90 - -
5 The walking dead* No 89 1st 2nd
6 Borderlands 2 Yes 89 4th 8th
7 XCOM Yes 89 8th 6th
8 Mass Effect 3 Yes 89 2nd 1st
9 Super Hexagon No 88 - -
10 Far Cry 3 Yes 88 5th 3rd

Table 1: Presence of improved abilities mechanics in the 10 highest rated PC-games on metacritic
* The walking dead was sold both as episodes and as a full game; the full game was placed 5th and
an episode was placed 6th. In this table, I only account for the full game.
Superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars 21

In the case of multiplayer games, improved abilities can create what is called
positional asymmetry (Elias, Garfield & Gutschera, 2012, p. 92) that is different
conditions for different players. One player can thus gain an edge over other play-
ers by having a more empowered avatar. When a game is designed so that the
player has to constantly increase her/his abilities in order to keep up with other
players, the game has a characteristic that Bjrk and Holopainen (2005) call the
red queen dilemma, i.e., just like the red queen in Alice in Wonderland (Carroll,
2008), the player must run in order to stand still (cf. Linderoth, 2009).
In the case of single-player games, these mechanics initiate another game
characteristic, a reversed learning curve where games are harder in the begin-
ning, before the system of improved abilities has started to progress (cf. Alistair,
2013, April 21). Improved abilities are thus about making a task become easier by
other means than increasing the skill of the player. The structure is not by any
means unique to digital games. Any sport where the equipment is essential will
display a similar characteristic (for instance sports like Formula 1 where the prop-
erties of the car are essential to the performance of the driver, cf. Linderoth,
2013). In relation to the theory of ecological psychology, any game mechanics
that allow the player to perform better can be conceptualized as a tool that be-
comes an extension of our bodies and provides us with new action possibilities,
i.e., new affordances. As a set of game mechanics, improved abilities can thus be
argued to be an instance of a very basic condition of life, the use of tools in order
to overcome the challenges of our environment.

Ecological empowerment and improved abilities

Ecological psychology is mainly a theory of visual perception, but its way of

understanding how vision functions is so radical that it entails a full ontology.
The theory thus challenges the rationalistic view on learning, interaction and in-
formation. It rejects the ideas about mental schemata and an information-pro-
cessing mind from cognitive psychology. Learning and perception are seen as
processes of differentiating and making distinctions and not like in traditional
cognitive psychology a process of enriching. Perception is not a process where
stimuli are added to a mental representation; it is about becoming attuned to our
environment (our surroundings) by making distinctions about what possibilities
and limitations we have for action, in this theory called affordances (Gibson &
Pick, 2000).
The concept of affordance was coined in James and Eleanor Gibsons work
(Gibson, 1986; Gibson & Pick, 2000). The original meaning of the concept was
that an environment offers an animal (humans are considered one animal in this
theory) different ways of acting. These possibilities for actions are called affor-
dances, and they are relative to the bodily constitution of the animal, i.e., it is rel-
22 Jonas Linderoth

ative to the actor and thus not an objective property but neither a subjective pro-
jection of meaning.
Learning, according to this theory, is to become attuned to perceive what the
environment affords and develops skills to efficiently utilize these affordances.
Learning to perceive specific affordances is called perceptual learning and is fun-
damental for our existence. While some affordances are easily acted upon if we
just are able to perceive them, others demand a great deal of training. As Gibson
and Pick (2000) point out:

Humans, at least, must learn to use affordances. Some affordances may be eas-
ily learned: others may require much exploration, practice, and time. [] Further
development of expertise may involve learning to realize affordances unavailable to
non-experts. A three-inch-wide beam affords performing back flips for a gymnast,
but the affordance is not realizable by others; rock climbers learn to use certain
terrains for support that do not appear to others to provide a surface of support.
(pp. 16-17)

However, training is just one way to gain new possible ways of acting with our
surroundings. We can shortcut training by using tools. Tools are extensions of
our bodies that empower us to do things we could not do without them (Gibson,
1986). A snorkel opens up the affordance of breathing under water. Using a ladder
enables us to traverse horizontally and move to elevated spots without being
trained rock climbers.

Improved abilities = ecological empowerment

Any digital game (that is played on a screen) has a function that enables the
player to interact with it. This function is often an extension of the players agency
and creates an embodied link into the game realm, typically a controller that is
linked to an avatar in the game (cf. Wilhelmsson, 2001, 2006). From the perspec-
tive of ecological psychology, avatars are the tools that give us agency to interact
with a digital game. Thus our performance will partly be dependent upon the
quality of the tool. To use a rather crude metaphor, the difference in performance
between two World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) players that have avatars of dif-
ferent levels can be like the difference in performance between two people cut-
ting down a tree: one with an axe, the other one with a chainsaw. Many games
systematically provide the players with better tools over the course of the game.
There are numerous different ways of designing how the player gains new tools,
as a reward for skill, as compensation for being unskilled, by just waiting in real
time or even paying for it (cf. Linderoth, 2009). One typical design in the genre
of role-playing games is that the player can upgrade the abilities on the avatar as
Superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars 23

a reward for rather simple, chore-like tasks in the game that in itself seldom de-
mands any skill of the gamer (like finding and collecting 10 herbs or killing 15
boars), a game characteristic sometimes referred to as grinding.
One specific kind of improved abilities is that which aids the player in discov-
ering the affordances of the game environment. In order to make the differentia-
tion of information easier, some digital games highlight the things that are impor-
tant to perceive in order to overcome the games challenges (cf. Linderoth, 2012).
Examples of this design are games with a so-called vision mode, a function that
alters the games interface so that the important affordances for game progres-
sion is highlighted. This design thus shortcuts the differentiation process of visu-
al perception. Instead of learning to make rather specific fine-tuned distinctions
from rich and complex information sources, the game flattens out the available
information so that the player only has to distinguish between the bright glowing
objects they can interact with from the background.
Games are thus capable of empowering the player in two ways. They can pro-
vide the player with superior tools for a task and thereby increase the players
performances. They can also alter the interface so that the player easily can per-
ceive the information that is important in order to perform well. The success of
these designs is likely to come from the sensation of effortless progression. These
games let us gain the sensation of having developed skills and knowledge without
having to invest time and effort to actually learn anything.
The haunted house ride metaphor can now be used to pose a question. In
some theme park rides, the tracks layout facilitates a sensation of excitement.
This structure lends itself very well to some visual and narrative elements that en-
hance the feeling of excitement. It is hard to imagine a fast and action filled ride
based on Pride and Prejudice (Austen, 1966), other than as a deliberate attempt
to create a contrast effect. Themes such as space aliens, classical horror, dino-
saurs, sunken underwater cities, and ancient tombs, on other hand, are suitable
themes if the goal of the design is to create the thrill that comes from an illusion
of danger and horror. The question then is what kind of themes, narrative ele-
ments, character portraits and settings lend themselves to the game mechanics
called improved abilities? Which stories enhance the sensation of ecological em-

Stories of ecological empowerment

If we follow the theory of ecological psychology, becoming able to perceive

and use more and richer affordances is a fundamental living condition for all ani-
mals. Thus it is not so strange that characters with extraordinary powers seem to
be an almost universal and timeless theme in stories.
One of the main characteristics of mythology is that the characters are super-
24 Jonas Linderoth

natural beings with extensive powers to interact with the world. Many mytholog-
ical characters have embodied powers, for example, the super strength of Hercu-
les, Zeus and Odins shape-shifting ability and Achilles as well as Baldurs invul-
nerability to physical damage (Cotterell, 2003).
Mythological stories are also filled with examples of powers that come from
items, typically enchanted weapons. Examples would be Thors hammer, Posei-
dons trident and Odins spear. The Greek hero Perseus who was able to defeat
the Gorgon Medusa, thanks to Hades helmet of invisibility and Hermes winged
sandals are clear examples of stories where empowerment is gained with arti-
facts. There are also examples of how companions to the heroes empower them:
Odins eight-legged horse Sleipnir and Pegasus, the winged stallion ridden by the
hero Bellerophon (Cotterell, 2003).
These are all themes that in different variants occur in numerous stories. One
example from the fantasy genre that manifests all these versions of ecological em-
powerment would be Gandalf (Tolkien, 1974). Gandalf has modest embodied
powers like creating light and telepathically talking to animals; he wields the
magical sword Glamdring and rides both the excellent mount Shadowfax and the
giant eagle Gwaihir the Windlord. In other genres such as agent stories and sci-
ence fiction, technology can also be a source of ecological empowerment. The
powers that in mythology and fantasy come from the supernatural and magical
sources can just as well come from science and technology. James Bonds gadgets
as well as vehicles are variants of the theme of ecological empowerment that
come from technology (see for example Fox Home Entertainment, 2013). Supe-
rior weapons are also important ingredients in the modern techno-thriller: for
example, novels by authors such as Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton.
It should be noted that stories about embodied powers do not necessarily en-
compass supernatural themes. The martial artist and the survival specialist are
examples of protagonists who are empowered due to extreme training. In some
cases embodied powers can come from science and the manipulation of the
body: for example, the performance enhancing drugs in Robert Ludlums books
and movies about Jason Bourne (see for example Universal Studios Home Enter-
tainment, 2012).
All these variants of the theme of ecological empowerment have their most
obvious contemporary manifestation in the superhero genre. The character gal-
leries of superhero universes are very close to the various pantheons found in dif-
ferent mythologies. In fact, both the DC-comic and the Marvel Universe have in-
corporated classical mythological gods as superheroes. Superheroes display a
wide range of powerful abilities: telepathic powers, shape-shifting, flying, ex-
treme strength and agility, etc. We have embodied superpowers coming both
from supernatural sources as in the case of Superman, as well as from the ex-
tremely well-trained martial artist and acrobat in Batman (Snider, 2011). There
are also numerous superpowers tied to artifacts such as the Green Lanterns ring
Superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars 25

(ibid.) or the Iron Mans suit (Dougall, 2009). The mounts of mythological gods
are in the superhero version replaced with vehicles, for example, the Batmobile
(Snider, 2011), Wonder Womans (ibid.) invisible plane and the Silver Surfers
surfboard (Dougall, 2009). In terms of ecological psychology these abilities are
all variations of a single theme, that of having affordances that supersede human
limitations and our interaction possibilities. Other animals and the affordances
they can utilize is here a rich source for inventing variations of the ecologically
empowered character, Spiderman being the perhaps most obvious example
From the perspective of ecological psychology, one can identify a special kind
of empowerment that has to do with the perception of affordances. Some fiction-
al characters have the power of an extremely fine-tuned perceptual system for
picking up information. In the superhero genre some examples would be: Dare-
devil, the blind superhero with so accurate other senses that he navigates perfect-
ly even in the dark, Spidermans intuition (Dougall, 2009), i.e., the Spiders sense
and the Supermans X-ray vision (Snider, 2011). Here we also have the great de-
tectives in fiction: Mrs Marple (2013), Hercule Poirot (2013) and of course Sher-
lock Holmes (2013), all of whom have extremely accurate senses for picking up

Ecological empowerment and improved abilities (EEIA)

as a ludo-narratological construct

While the theme of ecological empowerment can be found in many forms of

fiction, it is a theme that fits the format of digital games well. Digital games do not
only represent ecological empowerment through the story-arc of the protago-
nist, they also present the player with a very concrete case of ecological empow-
erment. This means that there is a game mechanical structure that fits the story
of the empowered protagonist.
The typical example of this ludo-narratological structure can be found in role-
playing games such as The elder scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011), where the
protagonist gains experience and has a character arc of ecological empowerment
through learning, often in combination with empowerment through artefacts,
typically gear. At the same time the game engine will increase the statistical prob-
ability of the player succeeding in overcoming the challenges in the game. The el-
der scrolls V: Skyrim starts off with a player-created character that is sentenced
to death. In the main plot of the game, the protagonist learns that s/he is a chosen
so-called Dragonborn, destined to defeat an ancient dragon. Over the course of
the game, the player character becomes more powerful and is recognized as a
Another, somewhat surprising genre that has this structure is sport games
26 Jonas Linderoth

where the player goes through a career and gains experience. For example, in
NBA 2K13 (Visual Concepts, 2012) points are allocated that increase how easy it
is to block, run or shoot with the basket-player. In F1 2011 (Codemasters, 2011),
the player-created character will be offered to drive for different stables. Starting
with one of the smaller stables, it is almost impossible to beat the drivers from
McLaren or Ferrari. After one or two seasons, one gets an opportunity to drive
for these stables and thus is able to drive a superior vehicle in the game. In action
games, increased abilities are typically tied to a structure of finding or unlocking
new and more powerful weapons and armour.
Action games have come to borrow a great deal from role-playing games.
These games used to only have improved abilities tied to the gear that the player
unlocked. However, the genre has started to use mechanics such as experience
point and skill trees. In the 2013 Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics, 2013), the pro-
tagonist Lara Croft goes from being a research assistant on an archaeological ex-
pedition that stumbles into an adventure to a full-fledged tomb raider that on her
own accord seeks out danger. The game uses a skill-point system for gaining new
abilities and a salvage-point system through which Laras gear can be upgraded.
Another example of an action game with the EEIA structure is the superhero
game inFamous (Sony Computer Entertainment, 2009). In this game the protag-
onist Cole MacGrath goes from being a bike messenger to an electricity-wielding
superhero or super villain depending on the players choice. The game has an un-
locking system where main quests and side quests open up new abilities. These
abilities can be upgraded through an experience-point system.
Special cases of improved abilities are those that give the player better infor-
mation, i.e., aids the player in perceiving the affordances for game progression.
As stated above, this is a special case of ecological empowerment typified by
Sherlock Holmes extreme ability to perceive details. One example of a digital
game with this kind of upgrade is Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Square Enix,
2011). The story is set in a cyberpunk world and evolves around moral questions
tied to augmentation technology and upgrades implemented in the human body.
In the game the protagonist uses these upgrades in order to become more power-
ful. While many upgrades follow classical conventions in digital games, making
the avatar stronger and faster, etc., it is also possible to upgrade the games radar
to show a larger area and display the enemy's cones of vision. Information that is
extremely helpful for the player utilizes stealth as a strategy in the game. Another
example of this kind of improved information abilities can be found in the game
Crysis 2 (Crytec, 2011).
It should be pointed out that the EEIA ludo-narratological structure seems to
come in stronger and weaker variants regarding how closely game mechanics
and story are intertwined. Some of the games based on Marvels superhero char-
acters such as The Incredible Hulk (Edge of Reality, 2008), The Amazing Spider-
man (Beenox, 2012) and Ultimate Alliance (Vicarious Visions, 2009) are all on
Superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars 27

the theme of ecologically empowered characters and utilize improved abilities.

Yet there is no diegetic explanation to why new abilities are unlocked; there is no
story of progression. In other games the main story is evolving around the eco-
logical empowerment. The aforementioned Deus Ex: Human Revolution is such
an example. Another game with a strong EEIA structure is the open sandbox first
person shooter Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft, 2012). In this game the player gains new pow-
ers through experience points and unlocking more powerful weapons. The story
of the game is set on a fictional island somewhere in Southeast Asia where pirates
have kidnaped a handful of young American tourists. The protagonist, Jason Bro-
dy, has a character arc where he goes from a young irresponsible backpacker to a
fearsome warrior, capable of taking out full squads of enemies by himself. After
escaping from the pirates, he gains help of the Rakyat, the native people on the
island. Embracing the trope of the magical negro, Brodys development is part-
ly explained due to powerful tribal tattoos that the Rakyat gives him. Each new
tattoo is also a new ability that unlocks in the game. These new abilities make
gameplay easier, and it could be argued that the game has a reversed learning
curve. Increased hit points are an improved ability that especially aids the player
in progressing through the game. In the beginning Brody is driven to become
more powerful in order to save his friends and get off the island, but as he devel-
ops he also becomes more detached from his feelings. In the end, the player can
choose if Brodys development was a means to an end or a goal in itself. Basically
this is a moral choice that affects the ending of the story, but the central theme of
ecological empowerment remains as the core of the story.


Why are some specific story elements so common in games? In this paper I
have done an analysis of a specific ludo-narratological combination where the
game mechanics called improved abilities are combined with stories about eco-
logical empowerment. One reason why so many game narratives emphasize
themes such as the heros quest and utilize fantasy, sci-fi or similar genres that
allow magical, supernatural, metaphysical or technological powers is that be-
cause they fit the specific game mechanics in the category of improved abilities.
These game mechanics are carefully designed to actually empower the player and
give them a sensation of becoming more adapt to handle the tasks the game envi-
ronments put in front of the player. I have argued elsewhere that this design ob-
scures some of the fundamental conditions of ecological reality and thus short-
circuits the pleasurable experience of becoming better at something. It gives the
player an illusion of learning (see Linderoth, 2009, 2012). If this is correct, we
might here have a starting point for understanding why improved abilities is such
a popular feature in contemporary game design. This is the layout of the track, its
28 Jonas Linderoth

curves, speed and hills, and it sets some boundaries for what themes will smooth-
ly enhance the ride.
Maybe this is one reason why it is so difficult to even think of hypothetical
games about disempowerment. As an example, imagine a game version based on
Jack Londons White Fang (1963), a game where you control a powerful half-wolf
at the start that is capable of surviving in the wild. Over the course of time, the
wolf loses its abilities and becomes domesticated. Or imagine a sport game based
on the movie The Wrestler (Fox Home Entertainment, 2009), which tells the sto-
ry of a faded professional athlete who has seen his best days. Or an expansion to
the strategy game Civilization (see for example Firaxis Games, 2010) called the
Fall of Rome where you start with a flourishing empire that as the game progress-
es falls into despair. If these games ever would be made, they would have to uti-
lize other tracks that supported the experience they wanted to facilitate. As a
family of game mechanics, improved abilities are limited in what they can ex-
press, just as there are only so many variations to a basic twelve-bar blues chord.
One thing that improved abilities in games is that they are exceptionally good at
telling the stories of ecological empowerment and individuals with superior
powers. Many digital games thus give us variations on the theme of Nietzsches
bermensch, sometimes, like in inFamous or Far Cry 3, putting the player in a
position beyond good and evil to carve out her or his own moral code.


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