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new academic press

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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Covergestaltung: Alex Schepelmann

Covermotiv: matchstick / sxc
Satz: Peter Sachartschenko
Druck: CPI buch bü
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 Fernández, 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, María Ruth García-Pernía, Sara Cortés Gómez
From gamers to game designers: Looking for
new adolescent literacies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121

Héctor Puente Bienvenido, Marta Fernández Ruiz

User generated content: A situated production of video
walkthroughts on Youtube . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
Gerhild Bauer, Daniel Martinek, Simone Kriglstein,
Günter Wallner, Rebecca Wölfle
Digital game-based learning with “Internet Hero”
A game about the internet for children aged 9–12 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 Knöll, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy, Stefan Göbel
Active design – how the built environment matters
to mobile games for health . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 181
Eszter Tóth, Alenka Poplin
Cooperative learning games – a successful tool for
promoting children’s participation in urban planning? . . . . . . . . . . . 194
Nina Grünberger, Clemens Fessler
Play between cable car and couch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 209
Reflections on the importance of the environments of
gameplay through Böhme’s 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
Sébastien 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
Sébastien Hock-Koon
Learning with video games: Identifying sources
of uncertainty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 259
Katharina Mittlböck
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. Vienna’s 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 Mäyrä (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 designer’s 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 Fernández, Simon Niedenthal,
Manuel Armenteros spotlight “The Sense of Lighting” itself inside game worlds as
a matter of visual culture’s 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, María Ruth García-Per-
nía and Sara Cortés Gómez 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 Héctor Puente Bienvenido together with Marta Fernán-
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, Günter Wallner and Rebec-
ca Wölfle 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
Knöll, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy and Stefan Göbel 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 Tóth and Alenka Poplin introduce in the field of
urban design. Their chapter “Cooperative Learning Games – a Successful Tool
for Promoting Children’s 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 Grünberger 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 Böhme‘s 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 Sébastien 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 Sébastien Hock-Koon’s 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 Mittlböck’s 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
Fernández-Vara (The Trope Tank, Massachusetts Institute of Technology); Hen-
rik Schønau Fog (Aalborg University Copenhagen); Fares Kayali (University of
Applied Arts Vienna); Christoph Klimmt (Hanover University of Music, Drama,
and Media); Nikolaus König; 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 Švelch (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. 148–165). London: Sage.
Hand, M., & Moore, K. (2006) Community, identity and digital games. In J. Bryce & J. Rutter
(Eds.), Understanding digital games (pp. 241–266). London: Sage.
Hepp, A. (2008) Translocal media cultures: Networks of the media and globalisation. In A. Hepp,
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temporary communications (pp. 33–58). 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.
Mäyrä, 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. 524–540). 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 ride’s 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 (Säljö, 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 Aarseth’s (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” (Björk & 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. Björk & 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 character’s 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 player’s
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 Björk 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 Gibson’s 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 player’s 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 game’s challenges (cf. Linderoth, 2012).
Examples of this design are games with a so-called vision mode, a function that
alters the game’s 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 player’s
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 track’s 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 Odin’s shape-shifting ability and Achilles as well as Baldur’s 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 Thor’s hammer, Posei-
don’s trident and Odin’s 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:
Odin’s 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 Bond’s 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 Ludlum’s 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 Lantern’s ring
Superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars 25

(ibid.) or the Iron Man’s suit (Dougall, 2009). The mounts of mythological gods
are in the superhero version replaced with vehicles, for example, the Batmobile
(Snider, 2011), Wonder Woman’s (ibid.) invisible plane and the Silver Surfer’s
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, Spiderman’s intuition (Dougall, 2009), i.e., the Spider’s sense
and the Superman’s 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 Lara’s 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 player’s 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 Marvel’s 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”, Brody’s 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 Brody’s 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 “hero’s 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 London’s 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 Nietzsche’s
Übermensch, 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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Diane Carr
London, United Kingdom

Bodies, augmentation and disability in Dead Space and

Deus Ex: Human Revolutions


The author introduces ongoing research into the representation of ability and
disability in digital games. Relevant literature from game studies, screen studies
and disability studies is outlined. Two brief examples of textual analysis are pro-
vided. The first focuses on materiality, monstrousness and masculinity in the sur-
vival horror game Dead Space. The second analysis addresses the conflicting ac-
counts of augmentation present in the science fiction themed Deus Ex: HR. The
issues raised through analysis include the methodological and theoretical diffi-
culties associated with critiquing bodies onscreen during play, and questions of
culturally situated interpretation. The need to identify the particular offers of
specific theories is considered, and a framework to enable this identification is
proposed. This framework is applied to theories of player embodiment, and the
most appropriate theory for this particular inquiry is identified. The implications
for questions of games, representation, interpretation and ideology, are dis-


In this paper ongoing research into representations of ability and disability in

digital games is described. Generic horror and science fiction have long explored
issues of difference, identity and technology. Many games incorporate these
themes, alongside fantasies of bodily alteration, damage and augmentation (tech-
nological, viral, medical or magical). Games invent measures of ability, while de-
picting impaired bodies and disabling acts. Within gaming contexts more gener-
ally, ability is often associated with status, while game hardware positions players
in particular ways, and assumes particular kinds of bodies and capacities. Like-
wise, digital games research constructs players and conceptualizes their attri-
butes in particular ways.
The existing research on digital games and disability generally incorporates a
32 Diane Carr

medical or educational approach to disability. By contrast, here disability is con-

ceptualised according to humanities-based disability studies literature that ad-
dresses the discourses, representations and practices that construct normal,
standardized or able bodies and that marginalize or penalize those who deviate
from this standard (Davis 2006; Linton 1998; Siebers 2008). The analysis de-
scribed here relates to this book’s theme of context in various ways. Digital games
are regarded as texts that reflect the cultures from which they emerge, and which
potentially contribute to the circulation and naturalization of discourse. The re-
lationship between context and interpretation is discussed.
This paper begins with an outline of relevant literature. Two abridged exam-
ples of analysis from the ongoing project are shared. The first focuses on the sur-
vival horror game Dead Space (Electronic Arts, 2008). The second game analyzed
is Deus Ex: Human Revolutions (Square Enix, 2011, in the following chapter Deus
Ex: HR). The issues raised through analysis include the relationship between the
body onscreen, affect (feeling, sensation), and contextualized interpretation.
These issues are then considered in relation to theories of player embodiment. A
framework for establishing the most pertinent theory of player embodiment is
described, and questions about games and ideology are raised.

Background and literature review

The impaired and augmented bodies featured in games have received very lit-
tle critical attention. Meanwhile, when ability in games is discussed, it is gener-
ally approached in terms of learning or in-game pedagogy (for a review of the lit-
erature see Kirriemuir and McFarlane 2004). Yet damaged and augmented bod-
ies are common in certain game genres, and the need to demonstrate ability dur-
ing play is frequently paralleled by references to skill and competence at the level
of narrative and characterization.
There is a strong tradition of analysing representation within screen studies,
yet disability has never received the same attention as other aspects of identity.
Notable exceptions include Smith’s work on eugenics discourse in classic Holly-
wood horror (2011) and various contributions to Chivers and Markotic’s The
Problem Body: Projecting Disability on Film (2010). The existing literature on dis-
ability, representation and media does not refer to digital games. There is little or
no game studies literature that addresses the representation of disability in
games. The research on digital games and disability that is available focuses on
the production of therapeutic games, or the creation of tools to facilitate access
to commercially available games. Accessibility is framed as a technical issue (Bi-
erre, Chetwynd, Ellis, Hinn, Ludi and Westin 2005; Eriksson and Gardenfors
2004; Yuan, Folmer and Harris 2011). Work on accessibility is exceedingly im-
Bodies, Augmentation and Disability in Dead Space and Deus Ex: HR 33

portant. A problem is that much of the work in this area relies on clinical or med-
ical approaches to disability, while there are theorists that view the medical mod-
el of disability “as a major stumbling block to the reinterpretation of disability as
a political category and to the social changes that could follow such a shift” (Lin-
ton 1998, p 11).
Game theorists have considered the relationships between games and play,
and debated the extent to which a game’s rules might shape its meaning (Kenne-
dy and Dovey 2006; Carr 2007). Theorists have analysed representations of gen-
der and ethnicity in games (eg. Carr 2006a; Grimes 2003; Curlew 2005), and re-
lated areas such as narrative in games (reviewed in Frasca 2003). The limitations
of textual analysis have been discussed, although in this critique structural analy-
sis has often been conflated with textual analysis, or textual analysis (as practiced
within humanities-oriented fields such as film studies) has been confused with
content analysis conducted by social scientists. Evidently there is a need for spec-
ificity when devising theory and debating methodology. Thanks to the complex-
ity of digital games (as research objects that combine hardware, software, loca-
tions, image, sound, genre, play, and social contexts) determining the appropri-
ate theory for a particular inquiry is not straightforward.

Conceptual framing and methodology

The methodology used here combines structural, textual and inter-textual

analysis (the approach is described in greater detail in Carr 2009). According to
this particular framework, which is adapted primarily from Barthes’ work on
narrative structure (1977) and textuality (1974), structural analysis involves con-
sidering the game-as-designed. Structural analysis looks to units in the game as
system, and the relationships between these units. It encompasses various as-
pects of a game including its rules, economies, and the ludic attributes of game
components. Textual analysis, meanwhile, involves connotation and the game-
as-practiced or actualized during instances of play. Following Barthes, interpre-
tation involves connotation (a property of the text) as well as association (a prop-
erty of the reader, viewer or player). In this framework, the relays between con-
notation and association (or between text and cultural context) are viewed in
terms of reading formations and inter-textuality. For Bennett and Woollacott,
inter-textuality involves the construction of reading formations. Reading forma-
tions encompass texts and users, and involve “the situationally determined
frameworks of cultural and ideological reference which supply the grids of intel-
ligibility through which different groups of readers read and interpret a given
text” (Bennett and Woollacott 1987, p 60).
34 Diane Carr


Game as designed Game as played, Cultural contexts,
connotation association

This framework is only intended to address a small slice of the game as “assem-
blage” (Karppi and Sotamaa 2012, citing T.L Taylor), although it could presum-
ably be extended. The three parts of the framework are not mutually exclusive.
They are overlapping lenses, rather than separate categories. For example, mov-
ing from left to right, Lara Croft’s body could be considered as game component
that has various capacities in a particular space (structure). Yet various versions
of Lara would be experienced during play, and the relationship between her ca-
pacities, actions and her characterization has implications for meaning (textual-
ity). The meanings potentially connoted by her body would be more or less per-
tinent to different players, at different times, in different contexts (inter-textuali-
ty). The framework is also useful for thinking through theoretical applicability.
To give a brief example, agency could be discussed in terms of structure and de-
sign (as an affordance of the game), or as an aspect of play itself, or as something
that is supported or constrained in various cultural contexts. The point is not that
any particular theory is wrong per se, but that different versions of a theory will
best address different aspects of a game, and different inquiries. This issue will be
discussed in relation to theories of player embodiment after a brief account of
Dead Space and Deus Ex: HR.

Analysis 1: Dead Space

This analysis of Dead Space was informed by previous work on survival horror
games including Perron 2009 (ed.); Krzywinska 2002; Kirkland 2007. It also
draws on screens studies literature on horror cinema, including Williams’ essay
‘Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess’ (1984). Williams’ work is relevant be-
cause it focuses on affect, embodiment and excess, and because it has previously
been applied to horror games (Perron 2009a, Carr, Campbell and Ellwood
2006), and because Snyder and Mitchell re-worked Williams’ account of body
genres to investigate the ways that horror films use impaired bodies to generate
genre-appropriate affect (Snyder and Mitchell 2010).
The name of Dead Space’s protagonist is Isaac Clarke. He spends much of the
game attempting to repair a massive, apparently abandoned space craft named
the Ishimura. His role as an engineer frames most of the missions undertaken.
Isaac’s attempts to fix the ship are rendered dangerous by the game antagonists –
the Necromorphs. These undead yet agile monsters are made from twisted and
recycled human flesh. Legs wobble on shoulders. Heads pop out of chests. Ten-
tacles spring from spines. Freud’s uncanny, Kristeva’s abjection and Bakhtin’s
grotesque are all applicable. The game features medical and clinical imagery
Bodies, Augmentation and Disability in Dead Space and Deus Ex: HR 35

(labs, gurneys, clinics, anatomy posters). There is an obsessed, corrupted doctor

to contend with (recalling Smith’s work on horror cinema and the scientific gaze
gone wrong – Smith 2011), as well as exposure to questionable medical practices.
The ship itself is structured as a wounded body, with themed zones and tasks. For
instance, a mission set in one of the lower areas of the ship finds Isaac collecting
clumps of waste and ejecting these through a spherical exit into space.
Part of this analysis focuses on the idea of excess, following Williams’ work on
excess and affect in horror, as well as the notion of the problematic, and excess as
textual symptom (Althussar, as discussed in Storey 2006, p. 57). I looked at
Isaac’s deaths as examples of excess, because Isaac rarely just dies. He gets
stabbed, slashed, and then ejected into space. Or he is dismembered, then be-
headed, then chewed, and then he explodes. His body leaks, splashes and splat-
ters, goes to pieces, struggles and splits. Isaac’s deaths generally involve the punc-
turing or rupturing of his suit. There are several ways in which the game under-
lines the importance of Isaac’s suit. At a structural level, it is a reward (find better
suits, increase inventory, hit points, etc.). The suit has its own cut-scene. When it
is time for Isaac to don a new suit, he saunters into a changing room. When he
exits, he flexes his arms, apparently satisfied, in a rare gesture of physical relief or
pleasure. The suit is obviously armor. It is designed to keep things out (blades,
teeth, claws). It also keeps things in. Without his second skin, Isaac falls apart in
very messy ways. This emphatic augmenting of Isaac’s skin suggests an anxious
interest in the management of the body’s surface, which has been linked previ-
ously to questions of agency, adulthood and self-governance (as discussed by
Snyder and Mitchell, 2010, citing Foucault and I.M. Young). Disability theorists
Snyder and Mitchell have argued that “the fantasy of bodily control [ is ] deeply
seated in the desire for an impossible dominion over our own capacities” (2010,
p. 186). They propose that these fantasies and anxieties persist thanks to “shared
cultural scripts of disability as that which must be warded off at all costs” (2010,
p 186).
Dead Space combines fantasies of threat, bodily integrity and the monstrous,
with an interest in the depiction and performance of skill and ability, and the
construction and testing of measurable ability. The analysis suggests that it would
be productive to further explore digital game depictions of prosthetic skins, im-
perilled masculinity, and the ideology of ability. According to Siebers, “The ide-
ology of ability is at its simplest the preference for able-bodiedness. At its most
radical, it defines the baseline by which humanness is determined” (Siebers,
2008 p. 8).
36 Diane Carr

Analysis 2: Deus Ex: Human Revolutions

Deus Ex: Human Revolutions is a science fiction themed game that shows so-
cial roles and practices shifting in the wake of evolving technologies, and it ex-
plores these changes in relation to bodies and status. The game depicts a social
context where norms and notions of deviancy are in flux and where the previous-
ly advantaged (non-augmented bodies) are at risk of reclassification. In other
words, the game makes it clear that disability and ability are socially constructed.
The game begins with the protagonist Adam Jensen being terribly injured at
work. He is reassembled and extensively augmented on the orders of his employ-
er. The game structures augmentations as a strategic necessity. So, in addition to
being rebuilt by his boss, he is further augmented by the player. Jensen’s consent
was not sought in either case - and yet other characters in the game keep con-
fronting him about his supposed choice.
The game’s narrative (broadly defined) depicts augmentations from a variety
of conflicting perspectives. Augmentations are described as (1) luxury consumer
items, (2) as dehumanising, or (3) as a practical and economic necessity. The de-
piction of augmentation as consumer item is most evident in corporate contexts
and shiny commercial outlets. In these contexts (such as the LIMB clinics and
Sarif headquarters) augmentations are associated with volition, self definition,
advantage and self improvement. Meanwhile, from the perspective of the resis-
tance, augmentations are associated with perverted authority (‘playing god’),
transgression and diminished integrity. The most ambivalent perspective on aug-
mentations within the game could be described as pragmatic or perhaps ‘aug-
mentations as lived’. This perspective is expressed in ambient dialogue (civilians
and bystanders chatting about the pros, cons, risks and pressures associated with
augmentations) and in quests such as ‘Rotten Business’ that includes references
to workers being forcibly augmented.
In Deus Ex: HR augmentations offer social and economic advantage and yet
render the recipient subject to manipulation. There are several climactic instanc-
es where augmented bodies are remotely controlled, or lose self-control, due to
malevolent interference, including a hacker terrorist who is hacked in turn, and
forced to shoot himself. When non-player characters comment on Jensen’s aug-
mentations, most refer to augmentation as a personal choice with ethical impli-
cations and risks attached (see conversations with the William Taggart character,
for example). In other words, Jensen is regularly confronted by assumptions that
nullify or contradict his experience. While playing I felt disconcerted when Jen-
sen apparently complied with the misrepresentation of his experience by other
characters. For this reason (for this particular player analyst) Deus Ex: HR raised
questions about the links between lived experience, affect and interpretation. It
was possible to explore these links using Paterson and Hughes essay on embodi-
ment and discourse.
Bodies, Augmentation and Disability in Dead Space and Deus Ex: HR 37

In Paterson and Hughes paper ‘Disability Studies and Phenomenology: The

carnal politics of everyday life’ (1999, Disability and Society) the authors explore
the relationship between discourse and embodied experience. They use phe-
nomenological theory in combination with autobiographical material in order to
describe the experience of a non-standard body encountering normative social
practices. They analyze these experiences while referencing Leder’s description
of the absent body (Leder 1990). Absent bodies are those that fit so well within
a particular context that they are not consciously experienced. Leder contrasts
the absent body against the ‘dys-appearing body’, that is, a body that is con-
sciously experienced, exposed or rendered a problem in certain contexts. Leder’s
work has been applied to questions of player embodiment in FPS games (Young
(2005). What interests me is the ways in which Jensen’s body dys-appeared as a
result of other characters’ assumptions or hostility. The dys-appearance of Jen-
sen’s body triggered the disconcerting dys-appearance of mine, because it reso-
nated with aspects of my experience. The point is that affect and interpretation
are potentially influenced by prior experience. Experience is embodied, and
bodies vary. While player embodiment has meant different things to different
theorists, the issue of variability has rarely been discussed.


Discussing the issues raised by the above analysis of Dead Space and Deus Ex:
H.R entails making reference to theories of player embodiment. This is compli-
cated. A thorough review of the literature on player embodiment is beyond the
scope of this short paper, but for the sake of this discussion suffice it to say that
the literature conceptualizes embodiment in different and not necessarily com-
patible ways. It covers an array of phenomena including the player’s projection
into a game-world, issues of presence, affect, investment, identification (each de-
fined in various ways), and the player’s relationship to game space, objects, tasks
and role. These various accounts are informed by film theory and psychoanalysis,
phenomenology, psychology, different versions of cognitive theory, and perfor-
mance studies (See, for example, Gee 2008; Norgard 2011; Linderoth and Ben-
nerstedt 2007; Wilhelmsson 2006; Crick 2011; Young 2005; Karppi and Sotamaa
2012; Farrow and Iacovides 2012; Carr 2006). Gregersen and Grodal’s work on
player embodiment, affect and cognition (2009) has informed the analysis of
horror games and affect (Perron 2009a) and yet it has limited relevance to this
inquiry. Firstly, because it is not clear how corporeal variability fits within a cog-
nitive account of embodiment. Secondly, it would not be compatible with this
study’s conceptual framework, because one of the significant contributions of
disability theory is that it offers an alternative to clinical perspectives and episte-
mologies. My point is not that various theories of embodiment are more or less
38 Diane Carr

correct in some absolute sense. The point is that I need an approach to embodi-
ment that is coherent in terms of the conceptual framing of this study, and that
will help to address the issues that the analysis has raised.
The analysis of Dead Space and Deus Ex: HR has raised questions about (i) in-
terpretation and the variability of embodied experience, and (ii) affect and the
body as represented onscreen. To refer back to the framework that was discussed
earlier in this paper, these are issues that arise at the overlap between connota-
tion and association. For this reason, a pertinent theory of embodiment would
need to sit on the ‘associations and contexts’ side of the table. For the sake of con-
ceptual coherence, it would need to combine comfortably with the particular
model of inter-textuality that I have employed, with its emphasis on culturally
contextualized interpretation.
For these reasons the version of embodiment that looks most appropriate to
this inquiry is the one developed by Haraway (1994) and previously applied to
games by Dovey and Kennedy (2006). Haraway discusses embodiment in terms
of situated knowledge. Knowledge does not emerge in a vacuum. It is generated
from particular perspectives, places, contexts and bodies. In the context of this
enquiry, then, the issue is not my identification with either avatar, or my imagina-
tive, cognitive, or psychoanalytic investment in their respective worlds. The is-
sue would be that interpretation itself is embodied. For example, due to its depic-
tions of augmentation and its themes of consent, medical intervention and em-
ployment, as well as the resemblance between stealth (as a game mechanic) and
the notion of ‘passing’, I want to claim Deus Ex: HR as a game ‘about disability’.
That is an embodied interpretation, informed by my lived experience.


Game as designed Game as played, Cultural contexts,
connotation association

Siebers references Haraway when discussing embodiment, situated knowl-

edge and ideology in order to argue that “people in marginal social positions en-
joy an epistemological privilege that allows them to theorize society differently”
(Siebers, 2008 p 22) – although any such insight does not guarantee the advan-
tages that the term ‘privilege’ might suggest. While some theorists would argue
that ideology is by definition all encompassing and impenetrable, Siebers sug-
gests that “oppressed social locations create identities and perspectives, embodi-
ments and feelings, histories and experiences that stand outside of and offer valu-
able knowledge about the powerful ideologies that seem to enclose us” (Siebers,
2008 p 8; see also bell hooks’ work on talking back and speaking from the mar-
The spatial aspects of Sieber's description of ideology in general (as an enve-
lope, with an outside) are suggestive in light of the final scenes in both Dead Spa-
ce and Deus Ex: HR. In each game, the protagonist begins with a place in the
Bodies, Augmentation and Disability in Dead Space and Deus Ex: HR 39

world (he is employed, he has a partner, or at least an ex-partner), and yet each
ends the game outside of his world’s particular reality. It is as if, thanks to their
extraordinary experiences, both Isaac Clarke and Adam Jensen end up as virtual
astronauts adrift on the outside of Sieber’s envelope. Isaac makes it to the conclu-
sion of Dead Space physically intact but psychologically damaged to the extent
that he ends the game in a cut-scene where he becomes the game-equivalent of
an unreliable narrator (and the extent of his alien instigated dementia is explored
in Dead Space 2). Deus Ex: HR, meanwhile, offers four different possible end-
ings, and players who watch all four versions are awarded with an achievement
trophy. Having taken on the subject position of a disabled protagonist, Adam is
ejected from the game’s fictional world in order to narrate privileged (i.e. exter-
nal) insight into four possible futures, none of which look very hospitable.


This study has involved analysing cyborgs, undead monsters and unfortunate
protagonists in order to explore representations of ability and disability in digital
games. The analysis undertaken thus far has raised a set of problems that will be
investigated during the remainder of the project. These problems include the is-
sue of situated knowledge and the implications for the methodological figure of
the player-analyst. The issues raised by the analysis of Dead Space and Deus Ex:
HR indicate that it would be productive to further explore the ‘ideology of abili-
ty’ (as described by Siebers, 2008), which in turn suggests the need to investigate
theories of ideology in games more generally – the manner in which games re-
flect the cultural contexts from which they emerge, and potentially impact on
culture and social life.
There is also scope for further exploration of the relationship between repre-
sentations of ability, agency, and gender in games - as suggested by the anxious
fantasies of cohesion and loss that run through Dead Space. The existing analysis
also suggests that there is work to be done on the issue of games as science fic-
tions. Science fiction is not a game genre in the usual sense, and yet both Dead
Space and Deus Ex: HR engage with themes long associated with science fiction,
including the relationships between identity, the body, emerging technologies,
and social contexts.


This research is undertaken with the support of the Arts and Humanities Re-
search Council (UK), as part of a project titled ‘Digital Games: Representations
of Disability’ (April 2013 – February 2014). Essay length versions of the analysis
40 Diane Carr

of Deus Ex: HR and Dead Space are currently being completed. The project is
documented at

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Dead Space, released 2008, Dev. EA Redwood Shores, Publ. Electronic Arts.
Dead Space 2, released 2011 Dev Visceral Games, Publ Electronic Arts.
Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, released 2011, Dev. Eidos Montreal, Publ. Square Enix


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Danny Langhoff Nielsen, Henrik Schoenau-Fog

Copenhagen, Denmark

In the mood for horror.

A game design approach on investigating absorbing
player experiences in horror games


Existing theories of player experience (e.g. engagement, involvement, and im-

mersion) generally lack genre specific focus causing them to become universal
and difficult to apply in game design. Many theories thus tend to focus on games
in general, thereby neglecting the differences in gameplay, mechanics, aesthet-
ics, and player types. This study focuses on engagement while playing horror
games by refining the concept of continuation desire within this genre. Data col-
lections primarily based on focus groups and questionnaires where analysed
through the use of grounded theory, and by verifying the findings through the re-
view of existing literature, this study establishes a design framework focusing on
the three most important causes of continuation desire in horror games. The ma-
jor findings indicate that horror games can be designed based on three basic prin-
ciples: Narrative, Freedom, and Victimizing. Furthermore, the study suggests
that each principle can be related directly to a specific part of continuation de-


The context of games has multiple dimensions; one of these could be how we
experience games – what motivates us to play and what makes us want to contin-
ue playing games. Theories concerning this context of games are often investigat-
ing the absorbing qualities of games. However, often these theories or concepts,
such as engagement, involvement, and immersion tend to ignore differences in
game genres, and seek to address player experiences in general (Boyle, Connolly,
Hainey, & Boyle 2012). This study therefore attempts to further explore absorb-
ing player experiences by focusing on the investigation of the specific desire to
continue playing contemporary horror games, as opposed to playing games in
general. By determining the continuation desire of a genre, rather than games in
general, we enable game designers to benefit more from said theories when de-
signing games.
In the Mood for Horror 43

The original concept of continuation desire views player engagement as a pro-

cess consisting of four components: Objectives, Activities, Affect, and Accom-
plishment and describes the general categories of causes and triggers in games,
which makes players want to keep playing (Schoenau-Fog 2011a). By using a
grounded theory methodology the investigation in this study will be used to sup-
plement the generic concept with a specific continuation desire model focused
on absorption in horror games and show that there are differences in what makes
players want to continue playing in games in general and in horror games. Fur-
thermore, a set of horror game design principles will be introduced to illustrate
how the continuation desire model for horror games can be applied in design of
such games.

Continuation desire

The original theory of continuation desire is focusing on the desire to contin-

ue playing as a component of engaging player experiences (Schoenau-Fog 2011a).
A simple way to explain the theory is through the illustration of the OA3 model
(Objectives, Activities, Affect, and Accomplishment), which explains the pro-
cess of player-engagement through the desire to continue playing games, See
Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Process Model of Continuation Desire (Schoenau-Fog 2011a)

As an example, a player may start out with an objective. This could be com-
pleting the current level (which is an extrinsic objective - defined by the game) or
44 Danny Langhoff Nielsen, Henrik Schoenau-Fog

exploring the whole game world (which is an intrinsic objective – defined by the
player). To fulfil the objective the player may perform some activities, such as de-
stroying enemies. These activities may be performed until the objective is ac-
complished. The accomplishment achieved can then be categorized as either
progression, achievement, or completion. An accomplishment may then lead to
some affect, be that positive, negative, or absorption. Furthermore, performing
activities may also lead to affect, as for example when a player may feel immersed
in a game world when exploring, or when he or she is experiencing frustration
when the interaction and interfacing does not accomplish what the player want,
although the player still want to continue playing.
The essence within the theory of continuation desire – and what continuously
hooks players – is that either the game sets up new objectives, or the player in-
vents new objectives instantly after the prior objective has been accomplished.
This theory attempts to offer a comprehensive explanation for player engage-
ment. However, as most theories of absorbing player experience it suffers from
addressing games as a general concept. When we try to apply the model to hor-
ror games it does no longer seem to be directly applicable. It is true that you
could state that even in horror games, players tend to seek out new objectives;
however, the main purpose of a horror game is to negatively affect player by in-
ducing fear and anxiety. This made us focus on the affect component in the con-
tinuation desire model in relation to horror games, and look more deeply into the
absorption category of the model.


To investigate the uniqueness in the desire to continue in contemporary hor-

ror games compared to games in general and to establish a framework for con-
tinuation desire in horror games, a grounded theory methodology was used as
inspiration (Glaser & Strauss 1967; Strauss & Corbin 1994). The method included
various data collection methods: focus group interviews, electronic question-
naires, as well as horror game and uncanny modality analysis, emotion & moods
analysis, and comparative literature reviews.
The focus group interviews were inspired by Poels and colleagues’ (Poels, de
Kort, and Ijsselsteijn 2007) interview structure. The electronic survey was com-
posed of both quantitative and qualitative questions and distributed online. The
horror game and uncanny modality analysis was based on analysing existing hor-
ror games as well as related research on the uncanny. The emotion and moods
analysis consisted of an analysis of emotions such as fear and anxiety and stress
hormones. Finally, a comparative literature review was conducted focusing on
research about engagement, flow, involvement, and immersion.
In the following, we will describe the genre of horror games, and then investi-
In the Mood for Horror 45

gate in detail the absorbing qualities of games in general, before we introduce the
extended model of continuation desire in horror games.

Horror games

Unlike other game genres, such as e.g. role-playing, action, sport games, hor-
ror games focus on stimulating the player in a negative way. Horror games use ei-
ther fixed camera angles, like in the Resident Evil series (Capcom, 1997-2012) –
or first person views with rich explorative games such as Clive Barkers: Undying
(EA Games, 2001) to create tension and the sense of claustrophobia (Krzywinska
2002). Furthermore, the use of the uncanny (Mori, 1970) is essential in any hor-
ror game, compared to other game genres (Grimshaw 2009; Grimshaw & Tin-
well 2009; Kirkland 2009). Often we see examples of the use of the uncanny val-
ley in monster designs, such as the Silent Hill series (Konami, 1999-2012) which
are famous for the abominations roaming the game. One example is the obvious
mutilated and deform blind nurses which are encountered across the entire se-
ries. These have strange uncanny movement patterns, visual deformity, mutila-
tion and strange sound design. However, not only monster design is utilizing the
uncanny. Sound designers tweak familiar sounds into unfamiliar territory as dis-
cussed by Grimshaw (Grimshaw, 2009). Kirkland argues that the architecture is
used to enhance the uncanny sensation of the entire game (Kirkland, 2009).
Many horror games use illogical architecture to turn houses, gardens, and streets
into great mazes which would make no sense in the real world.
Horror games like the Penumbra (Paradox Interactive, 2007-2008) and Am-
nesia series (Frictional Games, 2010-2013), tweaks the combat system so it is ei-
ther completely impossible, or at least very unlikely to overcome your enemies.
This correlates with the essentials of the emotion fear (Ekman 1992; Ekman 1999;
Fox 2008; Ravaja, Saari, Salminen, Laarni, Holopainen, & Järvinen 2004; Reevy,
Ozer, & Ito 2010). Fear is a result of the person feeling like the resources available
is insufficient to overcome the current situation. Hence in a horror game when
you have no or little chance of overcoming your enemy you will most likely expe-
rience fear.
In summary, horror games has a strong tendency to use the uncanny in mon-
ster design, sound design, and level design (architecture) in order to induce fear
and anxiety. Furthermore, the less the odds are of overcoming an immediate
threat the greater the emotional response may be.
46 Danny Langhoff Nielsen, Henrik Schoenau-Fog

Extending the absorption element in the

continuation desire model

As stated in the horror game analysis, there are some specific game elements,
such as the uncanny, amount of tension and suspense, and emotional affect which
are prominent in horror games. These game elements may support the continua-
tion desire even further through the affect and absorption (which relates to the
experienced emotions ).

Results from focus group interviews

To establish a point of origin to work from for a specific model concerned with
the absorption element in the affect component of continuation desire in horror
games, we initiated the study with a detailed investigation of the general continu-
ation desire model through a series of focus group interviews. In total three inter-
views were conducted, each with four participants. The participants were all fre-
quent games and included ten male and two female students, with an age range
from 19-28 years old. The gamers varied much in preferred games from sports,
RPG, Action, Adventure, etc.
The focus group interview data collection confirmed much of the original the-
ory of continuation desire as engagement. Such as the motivation to establish
new goals, which was elegantly stated by one of the participants: “I want to do
this, I want to reach this, I want to finish this” (Participant #1, Male, Age 28, group
The above quote was participant’s #1 response on how to describe to concept
of engagement. When we asked more deeply into involvement and immersion,
however the focus from objectives, novelty, fun, challenge, and mechanics,
changed towards story, characters, emotions, and experience. There was a clear
distinction amongst the participants that at times they did not continue to play
due to some extrinsic or intrinsic objective (at least not consciously). As an op-
posite of the above quote on engagement, another participant stated the follow-
ing when describing the concept of immersion: “Basically the fact that I get emo-
tionally involved in the game” (Participant #3, Male, Age 24, group 2)
Players could experience affect and get emotionally attached to the game nar-
rative, and especially the characters. When that happened, the traits of engage-
ment which were focused on objectives became less apparent, and even less ap-
parent the more emotionally involved players became through the experience of
affect. When the participants talked about experiencing total immersion they
stated that they either had an incredibly strong bond with the character, or di-
rectly identified with it.
In the Mood for Horror 47

Comparative literature review

To further validate on the focus group interviews, other studies on absorbing

player experience were reviewed. This literature review was focused on research
about engagement (Boyle, Connolly, Hainey, & Boyle 2012; Busselle & Bilandzic
2009; Chapman 1999; McMahan 2003; Nah, Zhou, Boey, & Li 2012; Schoenau-
Fog 2011a; Schønau-Fog 2011b), flow (Csikszentmihalyi 2002), involvement
(Calleja 2007; Busselle & Bilandzic 2009), and immersion (Slater, Linakis, Usoh,
& Kooper 1996; McMahan, 2003; Brown & Cairns 2004).
Especially interesting for this study are the theories of involvement and im-
mersion, as these are focusing on the absorbing aspects in the original continua-
tion desire model, which will benefit from a more detailed investigation. When
reviewing Calleja’s description of narrative and affective involvement (Calleja
2007) we see similarities with the data received from the focus group interviews.
Essentially Calleja suggests that one can become directly involved in the narra-
tive, or emotionally affected by the game construct. In unison his six forms of in-
volvement defines Incorporation, the term he uses to replace the traditional phe-
nomena of immersion.
“This state of deep involvement results in shortening or disappearance of distance
between player and game environment. When this shortening of distance occurs,
however momentarily, players may interpret the actions of their avatars as being
their own actions in the game world.” (Calleja 2007)
This means the player can directly identify with the game avatar and get the
sense of transportation or projection into the game world, much similar to the
statements of immersion in the focus group interviews. Emotional engagement
(Busselle & Bilandzic, 2009), which has similarities with affective and narra-
tive involvement (Calleja, 2007) also has properties similar to this study’s no-
tions of engagement being the bridge to involvement. Busselle and colleagues
suggest that players can become emotionally engaged in a video game through
the games avatars. Similar research is found in Nah and colleagues (Nah, Zhou,
Boey, & Li 2012) who found the following feelings: relaxing, enjoying, satis-
fied, interesting, task completion, excited, happy, frustrating, and tiring as re-
sults of engagement. They also found what the label as a cognitive aspect of en-
gagement to be immersion, which correlates with the idea that immersion is
achieved through a high level of engagement, and that immersion (thus also in-
volvement) can be labelled as one element of the category of absorption in the
affect component of continuation desire.
Engagement is what hooks the player and keeps them playing (Chapman 1999;
Schoenau-Fog 2011b), from there it is possible to become involved (Calleja
2007), through a high level of involvement and engagement the player can be-
come immersed or engrossed (Brown & Cairns 2004). According to Brown &
48 Danny Langhoff Nielsen, Henrik Schoenau-Fog

Cairns this is a matter of emotional involvement granted by the game construct.

This allows us to extend upon the concept of continuation desire.

Extending the absorption element of the continuation desire model

When considering the above datasets, it becomes apparent that involvement

indeed belongs to the affect component of continuation desire, as it is part of the
absorption category. It also becomes apparent that the feelings of involvement
and immersion can be considered as a higher level of engagement. Figure 2 shows
the elements in the extended affect component of absorption in general games.
The model illustrates the three levels of the experience of absorption as a com-
ponent of affect in the continuation desire concept as well as the relationships
between the levels.
Every desire to play a game may start with some feeling of motivation, which
can then lead to the sentiment of engagement, which can support involvement
and finally result in immersion. The experience of Flow may also support in-
volvement and immersion. In the following we will explain these four absorption
categories in more detail, based on the grounded theory analysis of focus group
interviews and comparative literature reviews.

The experience of feeling motivated:

We define motivation in this study as a relative brief process of evaluation of the
overall first impression of the game.
Basically motivation is separated into two parts; expectations and confirma-
tion of said expectations. The player evaluates the following aspects of the game;
mechanics, narrative, aesthetics, gameplay, challenge, novelty, and social aspects.
If the above terms fulfil, or seems to promise to fulfil the players’ expectations,
they may continue to play the game.

The feeling of being engaged

Can be defined as a state where the player has the feeling of constantly pursuing
new intrinsic and/or extrinsic goals.
If the player keeps feeling motivated to play he or she has a cause to become
engaged. The player will start to disregard the events of the real world and con-
stantly pursue and establish new goals within the game construct.
In the Mood for Horror 49

Figure 2: Model of the absorption element of Continuation Desire

The experience of involvement

May be described as an affective state where the players’ emotions are directly af-
fected by the game experience.
Involvement can be described in two ways. Competitive involvement, where
the player is involved in the game at a competitive level and his or her emotions
are shaped by the outcome of the numeric, strategic and logical results of the
game. Narrative involvement is experienced when the players’ emotions are be-
ing shaped by the cause of the storyline and character development of the game.
50 Danny Langhoff Nielsen, Henrik Schoenau-Fog

The state of immersion

This is an affective state where the player accepts the game world and identifies
and/or emphasizes with the game character(s)”
Immersion is a state of emotional affection, much similar to involvement.
However, the player is so absorbed in the game world and the game construct
that they believe themselves in danger or they act as if the game character is alive
and it is their responsibility to it keep safe.
The above descriptions of the absorption elements of the affect component in
the continuation desire model grants us the opportunity to investigate in detail
how horror games - essentially games that are made to frighten the player – make
players want to continue playing.

The absorbing elements in horror games

The previously discussed findings on horror games were supported by the fo-
cus group interviews which stated the importance of the narrative in horror
games, and the involvement through the attachment it can lead to with the game
character. The participants reported that becoming afraid and fear both func-
tioned as motivators and as challenges to overcome; also they stated that the se-
cretion of stress hormones such as adrenalin was a great motivator. This can be
further speculated upon once one understands the basics of stress hormones
(Natasha Selberg 2012; Stress Hormones 2011) When stress hormones such as
adrenalin and cortisol are secreted the player’s heart-rate, blood pressure, and
the level of oxygen in the bloodstream will increase. Glucoses will be more easily
broken down, fat will breakdown, sweat will be secreted, and the digestive sys-
tem will shut down. (Natasha Selberg 2012). This state leads to what many players
refer as an adrenalin rush.
In the online survey, 64 of the 71 participants answered that the story was
what made them continue playing a horror game, and 40 answered that the sen-
sation of fear also made them want to continue to play. Furthermore, the partici-
pants were asked “what do you enjoy the most in horror games?” 57 answered sto-
ry, and 50 answered the sensation of fear. These responses support the findings in
both the literature and the focus group interview.
Figure 3 illustrates a specification of the absorption element in the affect com-
ponent of continuation desire in horror games.
In general the construct of the continuation desire model is the same as seen
in Figure 2, however, significant differences in the model are found. The overall
definitions for motivation, the feeling of being engaged, Involvement, and immersi-
on remains, however, the objectives and feelings the player strife for differ.
In the Mood for Horror 51

Figure 3: The absorption element of Continuation Desire in Horror Games

The experience of feeling motivated:

The player expects to be horrified and to get a very different experience than
they can get in their daily life, or from other games, such as being a victim in a
hopeless situation. Novelty almost loses its value compared to games in general.
Players do not focus on technological advancement in mechanics or graphics, in-
stead the player focuses his or her motivation towards possibilities of explora-
52 Danny Langhoff Nielsen, Henrik Schoenau-Fog

tion, sensation of fear and anxiety, attachment to the narrative and game charac-
ter, interaction, and the overall experience the game may provide.

The feeling of being engaged:

Engagement in horror games is an odd size compared to general games. Most
players will almost skip this step completely and almost instantly become in-
volved, as their anticipation to be horrified is so dominant they outshine the tra-
ditional objective hunting. That does not mean the player does not pursue intrin-
sic and extrinsic objectives, simply that it is less apparent in their continuation

There is no evidence so far that there exists a competitive involvement ele-
ment as seen in Figure 2. The drive concerned with involvement in a horror game
belongs primarily in the narrative domain. Furthermore, the more the player
feels like a victim the greater the chance of them experiencing fear and the re-
lease of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenalin. This means that some of
the leading factors in narrative involvement in horror games are victimizing, re-
lief, stress hormones, and fear. When triggering emotional responses, such as
fear, the player often creates attachment to the game and its characters. Stress re-
sponses in horror games can be divided into two categories; anxiety often comes
for the embedded narrative: and fear, which occurs in direct confrontation with

Having players accept the gameworld, and directly identify or completely em-
phasize with the game character will only enhance the experience that the player
was seeking in their motivation. This can be done by a deep and well-constructed
narrative. The secretion of stress hormones will also help in the immersion,
therefore immersion in horror games can be heavily supported by the use of fear
and anxiety related game elements and events.

Design principles

From this study it has been possible to identify three elements specific for hor-
ror game design, which can be tied directly to different categories of the absorb-
ing qualities of continuation desire.

A deep narrative that allows the player to invest emotions into the character
and the storyline can deepen the horror portrayed by the game. The player
In the Mood for Horror 53

should be able to connect to the character due to the nature of the persona or the
events that surrounds the character. The use of doubt in the sanity of the charac-
ter and uncertainty of the oncoming events relates directly to anxiety and can in-
duce such emotions in the player. Furthermore, direct confrontations with ene-
mies or direct threats can induce fear, however, the main focus of any horror
game – to avoid the game being too scary – should be the anxiety through em-
bedded narratives and uncanny architecture in the level design. The story itself
should be uncanny in nature however plausible, in order to allow the player to
reflect on if the game presents a reliable story that might actually happen in the
real world. This way it becomes easier to involve and immerse the player, as iden-
tification with the game character might come more natural than in an unaccept-
able storyline.

The player needs a deep sense of freedom as the absence of action needs to be
filled out with other meaningful content; else the game would most likely feel
empty and vague. The player needs the freedom to explore the game world and
the narrative. The game world should not necessarily be an open spaced sand-
box, but the player should have the possibility to choose which area they want to
explore. This can be done by separating levels into smaller subareas, each subarea
holding game elements such as keys or notes that allow the player to progress.
Furthermore, the narrative should be subject to exploration. Narrative devices
should be integrated seamlessly into the game, like Clive Barker’s: Undying (EA
Games, 2001) where the gift of a second sight grants the protagonist hidden story
elements in the architecture. By allowing the player to choose whether or not to
investigate the narrative we achieve two things; first we target more player types.
Not all players have the desire to read long text paragraphs and would rather
spend their time progressing in the game. Secondly we achieve an increased play
time for immersionist players, who spend a lot of time reading and investigating
narrative devices.

In order to achieve the greatest sense of fear and anxiety the player should feel
like a victim rather than a contender. This can be done by removing or greatly
limiting the combat ability from the player, and/or unbalancing the change of de-
feating an enemy in direct confrontation. If the player has the feeling that they do
not have a fair chance of winning there is a great change that fear will be trig-
gered, and if the player has this knowledge a constant sense of anxiety might be
the result.
54 Danny Langhoff Nielsen, Henrik Schoenau-Fog


Figure 3 shows the continuation desire absorption model for horror games. As
previously stated the bridge to go from engagement to involvement lies in the
emotional affect experienced when relating to the narrative, and as this study
shows this is mainly caused by the narrative construct. This is much similar to
Brown and Cairns theory of engagement, engrossment, and total immersion
(Brown & Cairns 2004). However, the theory developed in our current study re-
lies more on the narrative involvement and exclude the term of total immersion or
other presence studies. Also comparing to Calleja’s incorporation (Calleja 2007)
we do not consider a collection of different types of involvement, but again re-
strains this study to narrative involvement. However, in horror games, the ab-
sorption as emotional affect also seems to come from the sense of being a victim,
actually we see that several questionnaire participants enjoys feeling like a vic-
tim. For immersion the player needs to be attached the game character(s), this is
done through identification or empathy, thus creating an emotional immersive
state tied directly to the game character.


In conclusion this study presents a genre specific model for continuation de-
sire with a focus on absorption in horror games. This model is more detailed in
the description of the element of absorption, as it heavily relies on involvement
and immersion instead of “just” being engaging through objectives and accom-
plishments. The study also shows that the three most important factors which
can be applied in horror game design are the narrative, which should be focused
on an inner conflict, freedom to explore the environment and the narrative, and
finally, victimizing the player to favour the sensation of fear and anxiety.
Through this study we believe that the genre of a game is related to the contex-
tual dimension of the game experience. A specific game genre thus dictates the
context of the game, and researchers should strive to focus on specific genre re-
lated contextual dimensions, rather than general overviews in order to develop
tools which can aid in the analysis, design and evaluation of games.


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Silent Hill (Series). Konami (1999-2012).
Penumbra (Series). Paradox Interactive (2007-2008).
Amnesia (Series). Frictional Games (2010-2013).

Marta Fernández, Madrid, Spain

Simon Niedenthal, Malmö, Sweden
Manuel Armenteros, Madrid, Spain

The sense of lighting inside game worlds.

Myth and meaning in gameplay and game mechanics.


Throughout visual culture’s history the symbolic and compositional power of

lighting has been used to enrich storytelling and to evoke moods. Different
myths have linked lighting with knowledge and goodness, while shadows have
commonly been the place for evil. Lighting has also been used to guarantee per-
ception and to draw the viewer’s eyes towards the areas of interest in media and
artistic manifestations. After the birth of game studies some researchers started
exploring the potential of lighting for telling stories, triggering emotions and
giving rise to meaningful game experiences. This paper tries to make a further
contribution on the understanding of the symbolic and compositional features
of lighting inside game worlds. We specifically assess the points of convergence
and divergence between lighting in games and other media, as well as the way
lighting configures gameplay by means of the creation of meaningful and sym-
bolic spaces.


Technological advancements are allowing graphic cards to represent complex

lighting situations in real time, such as shadows, atmospherical elements or re-
flections. These improvements have allowed designers to create more realistic
spaces, as well as to use lighting as a navigation and interaction element in itself.
Lighting decisions such as making some areas of the environment be brighter
than others may give the players cues about where they must go, or what should
they do in order to progress through the game. In this role of lighting, different
cultural assumptions about light can be found inside game environments.
Although games and other digital media have been accused of abandoning
meaning and symbolism for the purposes of delivering direct visual pleasures to
spectators and players through spectacular and eye-candy images (Darley 2000),
58 Marta Fernández, Simon Niedenthal, Manuel Armenteros

we believe that games do offer meaningful and symbolic content to the player,
not only from a storytelling point of view, but also from a new perspective: game-
play and game mechanics.
There are a number of current video games where both artistic traditions and
light and shadow myths are integrated into gameplay and game mechanics. As far
as artistic conventions are concerned, lighting has traditionally been used to sup-
port perception, to add depth, and to draw the viewer’s eyes towards the areas of
interest in spatial compositions, paintings, photographs and cinema (Arnheim
2004). These practices are implemented in games not only for storytelling pur-
poses, but also with the aim of inviting the user to interaction by highlighting the
main affordances of the environment. But not only lighting is used to direct the
players glance toward the areas of interest, since it is an element whose presence
or absence affords the player the achievement of different tasks within the game-
play sequences. There are a number of games that create symbolic spaces in
which game state and winning conditions are influenced by the mythological
­features of light and shadow. One example is Thief: The Dark Project (Looking
Glass Studios 1998), a stealth game where shadows, as a symbol of concealment
and lie, allow avatars to remain unseen by their enemies. In this sense, some
game environments recall ancient myths which are still present in our collective
Several studies have described and analyzed the evocative power of lighting
inside game worlds (Seif El-Nasr et al. 2007) and the way it resorts to conven-
tions from other media such as literature, cinema or architecture (Niedenthal
2005, 2009). In this regard, our research tries to make a further contribution to
understand the way a technical and functional element such as lighting can inher-
it the artistic conventions of previous media and revive myths in order to guide
the players interaction and gameplay within game worlds.

Literature review

Game aesthetics and interaction

Game studios’ efforts to deliver more realistic and spectacular images are pal-
pable, but at the same time part of their work is directed toward the use of audio-
visual resources with functional purposes. Such is the case of the camera move-
ments and points of view in game sequences, working to make players’ interac-
tive access easier (Nitsche 2008), or the use of the color palette for creating dis-
courses and evocating moods (Canossa 2006). Far from being limited to graphic
styles (with the negative associations of “eye candy”), game esthetics has become
a perspective that allows designers and researchers both to configure and exam-
The sense of lighting inside game worlds. 59

ine the main principles and qualities of the gameplay experience. There is exper-
imental and empirical evidence, for example, of players’ response to visual fea-
tures of games and the impact of those features on their behavior. Seif el Nasr and
Yan’s study (2006) of visual perception in games concludes that players interact
with or go toward the areas of the environment where visual attractors are placed.
The perceptual bottom-up process (consisting of directing the visual attention to
visually prominent elements in an environment) takes place in game spaces.
According to the theory of the affordances (Gibson 1986) every environment
has a series of properties (nature, objects, humans, animals, etc.) which allows
the individual to carry out different actions. These proposals for acting are called
affordances. Taking the theory of ecological psychology, Linderoth (2013) de-
scribes engaging in gameplay as a process of perceiving, acting on, and trans-
forming the affordances that are related to a game system. Additionally, the au-
thor distinguishes between exploratory gameplay actions and performatory
ones. Exploratory gameplay actions are those actions whose goal is to discover
affordances (enemies, power-ups, paths to take). Performatory actions take
place when the player acts upon affordances in order to achieve something in re-
lation to the challenge that the game presents.
Appart from this distinction, Linderoth highlights the way many of the game-
play actions have a transformative aspect, in that they can give rise to further op-
portunities for new actions. For example, switching a light on may afford the
player to weaken the enemies and escape from them.
Taking these ideas and concepts into account, it can be proposed that, as a fea-
ture of game esthetics, lighting can be assessed as a visual resource deliberately
used by designers to highlight the elements that the player should perceive, act
on and transform.

Lighting in games and previous media

Although video games directly emerge from new technology, it would be an

error to attribute their nature exclusively to technological advances. Video games
also owe a lot to previous and current cultural forms. Most discussions of game
esthetics and lighting have focused on similarities with cinema. Since the early
days of cinema, a common goal has been to make the image clear and adequately
defined, a concern that has driven the development and practice of film lighting.
Lighting renders the film image clearer and introduces other concerns as well.
Bordwell and Thompson (1995) identify the first goal of lighting as directing the
spectator’s eye. They state that the light and dark parts of an image contribute to
create the composition of each plane and direct our eye to determined objects
and actions. While Bordwell and Thompson’s observations refer to cinema, we
can see that lighting has acted in similar ways in previous media such as painting
60 Marta Fernández, Simon Niedenthal, Manuel Armenteros

(Figure 1).

Figure 1: Lighting as a resource to highlight the Figure 2: Shadows as a way to suggest what
important areas of an image. Source: Saint Jo- can be found in the non-visible space.
seph Charpentier (George de la Tour 1642). Source: Interior, Conversation. Cairo. (Fred-
erick Lewis 1873).

Moreover, lighting has been said to define textures, give shape to objects and
give cues about the structure of the space by means of creating reflections and
shadows that show offscreen elements (Figure 2).
Niedenthal (2005) proposes that a cinematographic approach towards game
lighting is not the most appropriate. While it is a useful way to analyze the cut
scenes and to detect lighting styles applied to show the mood, the season or the
hour of the day in which the interactions take place, games as interactive experi-
ences differ from films in significant ways.
Firstly, a film scene has a fixed duration, and it has to communicate the infor-
mation in a limited amount of time (in relative terms, since designers usually es-
tablish limits to players’ exploration). Games, in contrast, allow free exploration
in an unlimited time frame. Additionally, the scenes of a film are illuminated for
recording by a camera with a pre-determined movement. Although some games
have pre-determined points of view that are activated when the avatar reaches
certain points of the environment, others give the player the control of the cam-
era. In these cases the game allows free navigation, which complicates the de-
signer’s guessing of the player’s position inside the virtual space. In this respect,
Niedenthal suggests that game illumination is more related to lighting in archi-
According to Revault (2003), in classic cinema the characters’ facial expres-
sions are more significant than the surroundings; thus, lighting usually privileges
The sense of lighting inside game worlds. 61

the characters over the environment. The priority in games is to make the player
aware of the relationship the avatar has with the space he has to interact with, so
lighting in games privileges spaces over characters.
Research conducted on lighting in game studies has also directed attention to-
wards its evocative power. Some empirical and experimental studies (Knez and
Niedenthal 2008; Seif el Nasr et al. 2007) show how light colors and other light-
ing patterns can emotionally influence players. Given the evidence that players
interact with and approach elements in the environment that are visually promi-
nent (Seif el Nasr and Yan 2006), and taking into account the classifications of fo-
cal accents that Michel (1996) proposes for designing walkers’ movement along
a real architectural environment (movement, people, brightness, vivid colors,
contrasts), we can explore how game designers have used these focal accents in

Symbolism of light and shadow

In the remote past, the night was a dark period during which danger and fears
often appeared. Night was considered a thrilling threat, since shapes and colors
faded. Darkness could hide attackers and specters might appear in human imagi-
nation. Night was the moment of enemies, lies, death and evil. Conversely, the
rise of the sun every morning was considered a moment where life came back.
This way the sun started being a symbol of life, and many religions easily associ-
ated light with good gods and darkness with evil and monstrous beings (García
Font 1997).
In “Republic” (380 B.C. Plato) Plato’s cavern metaphor provides us with one
of the founding metaphors of our culture. According to Plato’s cavern metaphor,
light is the place for knowledge and truth, while shadows are the place for the il-
lusory, the lie.
This duality between light and shadows can also be found in non-Western re-
ligions. Mazdaism, a religion founded in Persia by Zoroaster around VI B.C., es-
tablished a monotheism based on two opposing forces: the god Ahura Mazda (Il-
luminating Wisdom) and Arhiman or Angra Mainyu (Destructive Spirit), which
were constantly in conflict. According to García Font, Maniqueism, a religion
that was founded by the Persian Mani (c. 215-276) was also a dualist one: Ma-
niqueists believed in an eternal fight between the two opposite principles of
Good and Evil, which were associated with light (Zurvan) and Darkness (Arhi-
man), each of them representing different features. The region of light was envel-
oped in a luminous halo and consisted of the five members of God: Intelligence,
Reason, Thinking, Reflection and Will. On the other hand, the Darkness region
has five abysms: Smoke, Fire, Water, and Obscurity.
The idea of light as a source of knowledge and sanity, as well as its conception
62 Marta Fernández, Simon Niedenthal, Manuel Armenteros

as a manifestation of truth, was an influential postulation in Christianity. A num-

ber of visual representations show Jesus carrying light sources and illuminated
with luminous halos (Figure 3). Conversely we can see how shadows have been
considered the symbol of insanity in Christian texts. Although some of these
ideas have lost vigor in our day, a cultural or mythical identification of light as
spiritual illumination persists (Campbell 1978).

Figure 3: Lighting as a symbol of goodness, truth and sanity. Source: Light of the World (Holman
Hunt 1853).

Parreño (2008) gathers a collection of literature pieces which relate shadows

to the ideas of evil and death, the double person, non-real things and conceal-
ment. An example of the relation between shadows and death in literature can be
provided by Poe’s tale Shadow.
Apart from the existing duality between light and shadow, we can find some
other associations of light. According to Campbell (2012), in Hinduism the idea of
reincarnation is of two orders: on the one hand, the reincarnation principle of a
body’s soul moving into another body; on the other hand, the principle of sheer
light that never dies, the light that is incarnate and imminent in all. According to
the mythologist, in Hinduism the ultimate goal of the soul is to reach the point
where it does not need a body anymore. It is released to become one with the light.
The sense of lighting inside game worlds. 63

Goals and methodology

Based on these ideas, our first goal is to study lighting as a visual resource to
show which elements in an environment will allow the players to achieve some-
thing in relation to the challenge that the game presents during their exploratory
actions. We also aim to assess the way in which lighting becomes an element the
player can act upon, namely, an item by which the player can carry out performa-
tory actions.
In order to carry out this study we made a review of the existing literature in
three main theoretical streams. We consulted previous research in the perceptu-
al, semiotic and narrative features of lighting in previous media and artistic man-
ifestations. Additionally, we made an approach towards game studies and, spe-
cifically, interaction and level design. Finally, we studied some literature regard-
ing ancient light and shadow myths.
Based on this theoretical frame, we assessed a sample of current commercial
games (Table 1) by means of a qualitative content analysis. The sampling was in-
tentional in order to ensure that the most significant games were part of the sam-
ple and to attain structural/qualitative representativity (Ortiz 2004). Firstly, we
assessed several lighting properties (brightness, shadows and color) and the way
they are integrated into different game spaces. This was combined with the use of
some graphic tools to measure specific lighting parameters. One of these tools is
the Adobe Photoshop Histogram, which displays along a grayscale (from black to
white hues) the level of contrast within an image (Figure 4), and the second tool
is the Threshold Representation, available in the same software, which shows
what parts of an image are the brightest and the darkest (Figure 5).

Title Year Publisher Developter

Alan Wake 2010 Microsoft Game Studios Remedy Entertainment

Amnesia: The Dark Descent 2010 Frictional Games Frictional Games

Bioshock 2 2010 2K Games 2K Games

Crysis 2 2011 Electronic Arts Crytek

Darksiders 2010 THQ Vigil Games

Dead Space 2 2011 Electronic Arts Visceral Games

Journey 2012 Sony Computer Entertain- Thatgamecompany

Shadows of the Damned 2011 Electronic Arts Grasshopper Manufacture

Uncharted 3 2011 Sony Computer Entertain- Naughty Dog


Table 1: Sample of analyzed games.

64 Marta Fernández, Simon Niedenthal, Manuel Armenteros

Figure 4: In this picture the histogram concentrates most of the pixels in the brightest and darkest
hues. Source:

Figure 5: This picture presents threshold representation, where the white pixels are the brightest
areas of an image and the black pixels the darkest ones. Source:

Results. Lighting and shadows in gameplay and game mechanics.

Lighting as a visual resource to promote interaction and navigation.

Navigation and interaction cues are delivered with the aim of moving play for-
ward and of avoiding making the player feel disoriented. Additionally, the use of
lighting as a way to guide players’ movement has a greater scope in the game ex-
perience. A lit window above a shadowy door may make the player perceive the
window rather than the door, and identify that window as the correct exit to es-
cape from an enemy’s pursuit in the second chapter of Uncharted 3 (Sony Com-
The sense of lighting inside game worlds. 65

puter Entertainment 2011). It may be, thus, the key to accomplish a task in the
right way and a useful design decision to avoid players’ failure.
Similarly, a lit room in the middle of a dark corridor can invite the player to ex-
plore this lit place where an event occurs (such as the encounter with a hostile
character). Thus, lighting can be a key expressive resource for designing players’
navigation and tasks related to it. Apart from being delivered to guide the player
spatially, navigation aids are also provided in order to optimize the player’s move-
ment according to pre-designed gameplay tasks (Figure 6), as can be seen in the
apartment of the second chapter of Dead Space 2 (Electronic Arts, 2011).

Figure 6: Brightness as a resource to attract players toward an event during gameplay.

Lighting color can also be applied to support meaningful navigation and inter-
action. An example can be found in the level Broken Stairs of Darksiders (THQ
2011), where the player must find a key to open a portal. A yellow-lit room may
attract the player’s visual attention through its contrast against the other, blue-lit,
rooms. This yellow-lit room is the one where the key is (Figure 7). This lighting
contrast is also apparent when showing items or affordances, as can be seen in
different levels of Bioshock 2 (2K Games 2010).

Figure 7: Color contrast as a tool to highlight an element to progress through the game during

In this respect, lighting cannot only show us where the affordances are, but
also suggest game strategies and give cues for some game mechanics. In the sec-
66 Marta Fernández, Simon Niedenthal, Manuel Armenteros

ond chapter of Dead Space 2 some monsters approach the avatar with a luminous
bag. This way of highlighting the bag is suggesting the players to shoot at these
bags, so that they explode next to the enemy.
Apart from brightness and color, we can see a meaningful use of cast shadows
to suggest the presence of enemies to the player. In Crysis 2 (Electronic Arts
2011), we can see where the enemies are coming from due to the shadows they
cast on the walls. This use of shadows is usually used in survival horror or thrill-
ing environments such as Dead Space 2 or Bioshock 2’s Rapture, which can be re-
lated to German expressionist films.
Although this use of shadows has a function (suggesting to the player the pres-
ence of other characters inside the scene), it is used for different purposes. Cast
shadows emitted by several Bioshock 2’s non-player characters can make players
think something bad is waiting inside the next room or on the other side of the
corner, even though nobody is really there. Lighting in this case guides players’
interaction by means of a disorienting and dramatic point of view. In this regard
lighting provides aids to navigation and interaction, but sometimes it doesn’t
show the game’s content in the most accessible manner and reveals the elements
in a suggestive and engaging way instead. This illustrates one of the specific qual-
ities of games: distortions, surprises and disorientation restrict usability and ac-
cessibility, but can enhance immersion and drama in a game (Nitsche 2008). Al-
though they are used instrumentally to suggest the presence of characters or ob-
jects outside the visual field of the player, Bioshock 2 plays with the deceiving
features of shadows.

Light and shadow myths in game mechanics

During the development of this analysis, we saw that not only lighting was
used to guide navigation and interaction by directing the player’s glance towards
the environment’s affordances, but, in many cases, lighting sources where ele-
ments that prompted the player to carry out transformative actions. In all these
cases we found a strong symbolic use of lighting.
“Follow the light” is the most basic instruction in Alan Wake (Microsoft Game
Studios 2010). Remedy’s title is a game about a thriller novelist’s attempts to save
his wife from an evil supernatural dark power. When Wake’s wife disappears, the
player carries out a journey to rescue her. Inside dark, empty forests Alan bumps
into The Taken (possessed folks who inhabit the shadows and can only be ban-
ished by light). The primary game mechanic encompasses the interaction with
light sources to make enemies (coming from the Dark Presence) weaker, making
it easier to defeat them or escape from them. As Sam Lake, Remedy’s creative di-
rector, says in Edge Magazine, “a light switch felt like the perfect symbol. In Alan
Wake’s world, the monsters that your imagination conjures up in the dark come
The sense of lighting inside game worlds. 67

true, but they are still destroyed when the lights are turned on. Darkness equals
madness and terror, nightmares and death; light equals sanity and safety” (Edge
Magazine2012). In this respect, the idea of lighting is strongly linked to the an-
cient myths where lighting was considered a symbol of protection and sanity.
Alan Wake is not the only game that has represented light as a symbol of san-
ity or lucidity. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games 2010) creates sug-
gestive gameplay. The primary game mechanic encompasses the reaching of
equilibrium between staying hidden from the enemies in the darkest areas on the
one hand and recovering the avatar’s lucidity by turning on some lights on the
other. Designers in this game use this idea of lighting and lucidity intelligently, as
lighting attracts monsters. Players are constantly fighting against the tension
caused by the need to stay sane and the need to avoid monsters. While the game
belongs to the genre of survival horror, it borrows some conventions of stealth
games, where shadows are a place for fooling enemies and remaining unseen.
Different affordances are also created in Shadows of the Damned (Electronic
Arts 2011) by means of lighting sources. The game follows Garcia Hotspur, who is
constantly guided by a friendly demon sidekick named Johnson that serves as
Garcia’s torch. We can see that from a narrative point of view lighting represents
guidance and knowledge, since this torch-devil is constantly explaining to Garcia
who the monsters are, giving him advice, and informing us, the players, about
more aspects of the game’s fictional world.
Additionally, the main game mechanic prompts the player to fight against
monsters which come from dark areas. The best way to fight them is to stay in lit
areas and illuminate the dark ones by interacting with light sources. This is not
easy, since many enemies constantly try to reach the light sources to turn them
off. There’s also a game mechanic consisting of avoiding them. A kind of fantastic
animal acts as a movable light source that accompanies and protects Garcia from
the danger of some environment areas.
Shadows of the Damned provides us with a useful example of how creating
symbolic spaces through lighting can make game states change. At the end of Act
2 we can see how lit areas are useful for fighting the horse that the monster is rid-
ing (a weak area of the horse’s body becomes activated), but how conditions for
defeating the monster are better inside the dark areas (his weak point becomes
available for the player only in this part).
But not every game in this analysis presented a duality between light and dark-
ness. Journey (Sony Computer Entertainment 2012) is an example of how other
ideas about light are represented in game mechanics. In Thatgamecompany‘s title
the avatar also needs to go toward the directions the lighting suggests. Although it
functions as a goal, it brings neither power nor protection to the avatar. Addition-
ally, the game never displays shadows. Journey is a minimalist version of the idea
of the monomyth (Campbell 1949), where the hero of a story passes through a se-
ries of phases that lead him/her to a great revelation or discovery. One of the last
68 Marta Fernández, Simon Niedenthal, Manuel Armenteros

phases is resurrection, where the hero gets a challenge over and purifies himself/
herself. In this sense, the lit mountain and the death of the character keeps a strong
connection to the aforementioned idea of reincarnation.


This research is based on the assumption that lighting in games works not only
as a means of achieving descriptive, narrative and evocative aims, as in previous
media, but also appellative goals, namely, as a means to invite players’ interac-
tion. In this respect, we have identified that some properties, such as brightness,
color contrast and shadows are capable of attracting players’ attention. This at-
tractive power may be used to configure players’ routes and interactions inside
game spaces in a manner that is similar to real world lighting.
Apart from these features of lighting, we have seen how symbolism helps de-
signers to model the player’s behavior. Through the mythical and metaphorical
power of light and shadow, a number of games create symbolic spaces where
game state and winning conditions are influenced by light. Lighting can bring
protection to the avatar, condition the range of actions the player can perform,
and make enemies feel weaker. Conversely, shadows are the place for increasing
the game’s difficulty and tension. Shadows are the place where enemies are pow-
erful, and they can trigger the insanity or even the death of the avatar. Shadowy
areas allow players to hide their avatars in stealth games, cheating their enemies
and avoiding them.


This research has allowed us to see a specific function of lighting in video

games, that of guiding the gameplay actions. This feature has led us to identify
some divergences when game lighting is compared to previous media such as
painting or cinema. Rather than highlighting the psychology of characters, game
lighting usually privileges the relation the avatar has with the environment that
surrounds it. The priority of game lighting is spaces, which relates it to architec-
tural lighting.
Far from being a superficial element that merely demonstrates the technical
capacities of current game engines, lighting is a strong compositional and sym-
bolic element capable of modeling players’ interactions, both by attracting their
visual attention and by using myths and cultural assumptions which are present
in the social collective knowledge. In this sense, context becomes a powerful in-
spiration source for designing players interactions inside game environments.
The sense of lighting inside game worlds. 69


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Games cited

Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment, 2010)

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010)
Bioshock 2 (2K Games, 2010)
Crysis 2 (Electronic Arts, 2011)
Darksiders (Vigil Games, 2010)
Dead Space 2 (Visceral Games, 2011)
Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012)
Shadows of the Damned (Grasshopper Manufacture, 2011)
Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass Studios, 1998)
Uncharted 3 (Naughty Dog, 2011)

Simon Huber
Vienna, Austria

Huizingas circles. How to put modern game culture

into historical context?


With Homo Ludens Johan Huizinga laid down a theory of play in the 1930ies
with some impact. Namely the term „magic circle“ became an important refer-
ence point in game studies nowadays. The heuristic use of the term to describe
how games are producing meaning apart from the ,normal‘, profane world, was
justly questioned, resulting in modifications or total disregard. Though there is
still a lot of potential in Huizingas theories, as this chapter wants to argue by trac-
ing back how it changed its meaning in different contexts: from the time of its de-
velopment until nowadays. Because he is cited in a very eclectic way, the discus-
sion about the timelines of his theories could be adjusted, so that the actual qual-
ities and the critical potential don‘t get lost. This analysis shall show how his the-
ory would not necessarily help to understand the design of computer games
itself, but moreover their context, that would be therefore recent (computer
game-)culture – and its origin in human play.

A historical commentary to the recent controversy

Johan Huizinga is often quoted, when it comes to talking about games in the
scholarly field. With his Homo Ludens (2009) he laid down some theoretical fun-
damentals in the 1930ies, that have been progressed and worked on, for instance
most prominently by Roger Caillois (2001). As one of the first academic, who
paid attention to this widely overseen aspect of human culture,Huizinga was an
explicit authority and therefore good use to the early digital game scholars in the
90ies as a trustworthy luminary, who had to establish their field inbetween other
emerging disciplines as well as mainstream studies.
So recently Salen and Zimmermann picked up his ideas for applying them on
computer games, namely his concept of the „magic circle“, that became an im-
portant reference point in game studies. „It‘s the idea that a boundary exists be-
tween a game and the world outside the game.“ (Zimmermann 2012) This use of
Huizingas circles. 71

the term to describe how games are producing meaning, was justly questioned,
resulting in modifications or total disregard (cf. Stenros 2012 for an excellent
summary). Though there is still a lot of potential in Huizingas theories, as this
chapter wants to argue also by emphasizing that there are controversial issues in
Homo Ludens, that are left undone. Because he is cited in a very eclectic way, the
actual qualities and the critical potential get lost.
The historical context matters and it changes: At first glance, one can acknowl-
edge a conciousness about the importance of this relatively new phenomena. The
academic discourse about games, new notions to negotiate the methodologies
and theories that should be applied to the research of games; Museums are pop-
ping up, to conserve this new kind of cultural heritage; Schools have to adapt
their way of teaching and other intitutions have to admit that dealing with games
somehow is indispensable. A new context emerges, mainly from the ambiguity,
how to deal with this unassigned problem. The field of human play, could be oc-
cupied by intellectuals, academics, designers, media experts and critics by means
of the computer, and the possibility to script play-actions. To appropriate an in-
fluential play-theory is therefore very important. That‘s why two older contexts
are short-cuircuited: The anthropological discourse about human play and the
social transformation, that emanates from the computer.
The computational technologies changed our way of working, playing and do-
ing, so that this central context in question forms a new kind of gaming culture.
Therefore Huizingas theory needs revision by sketching out the circumstances,
in which it was elaborated, for a better understanding: At his time, Huizinga was
very well known as an historian for his vividly written works on a broad variety
of cultural matters. What can we learn from Huizinga is not game analysis or de-
sign, but how to historicize the circumstances we live and play in. His assump-
tions are helping to put up the right questions: What are the differences com-
pared to earlier kinds of play? Or Sports? How computers set up a new context
we play in? We trace back the way, how games became as important, that they
can claim to be perceived as culture. This is crucial for a realistic assessment, be-
cause the terminology gets often out of hand when it comes to historical scales
and meanings: Some are hysteric about dangers (e.g. Spitzer 2012), some are
enthousiastic about possibilities (e.g. McGonnigal 2011).
Eric Zimmerman himself shows tellingly how eclectically we use Huizingas
work: He declared that we just entered a „ludic century“ (Zimmermann 2007). If
he had read Homo Ludens more closely, he would have found himself confronted
with a totally different insight: Huizinga is arguing that play is retrieving again
from culture and states a general tendency since the 18th century. Generally spo-
ken, that means that things can be conceived as playful by one generation and
turn into cultural practices, that can be acted out prosaicly by the next one.
Sports give a good example, that one can do for a living, which can‘t be playful in
Huizingas terms, as play set itself apart from ordinary life.
72 Simon Huber

Noli turbare circulos meos – taking play seriously

Is our own age a very playful époque? This could not only be assumed because
of the increasingly important computer game market, but also because of the
growing profits through games of chance and the polemics against gambling at
the stock exchange. Still all these developments are mediated by technologies,
with their own inner dynamics, which Huizinga had not in mind, while writing
about human play. In his understanding, the rules that enable playful activity are
established in ritualized contact between people. Therefore, it has to be clarified,
where the frontier runs between anthropology of play and media technology that
merge together in contemporary game culture.
So Huizingas theory can‘t be easily applied. As a scholar it is not possible to
peg him into a drawer or add him to a certain school. Homo Ludens was also an
attempt to clarify his method of historical examination of culture, that have the
same aftertaste of incompleteness. It may be one of the most radical theories of
culture, but it is not so much concerned with the inner structures of games them-
selves. It rather traces the development of cultural forms through playful spirit.
(cf. Strupp 2000) The magic circle gives credit to the importance of the material
aspect of this process. It serves as illustration, how playgrounds distinct them-
selves from ordinairy life in a bewitching manner, so culture emerges.
His thoughts on play are dominated by two assumptions, which can be called
,indigestible‘ according to the Viennese Philosopher Robert Pfaller (Pfaller
2002). They must be taken into account to understand the provocative aspects of
Huizingas argument. He claims that while we‘re playing, games become even
more important than our life; but still, we‘re conscious, that it is just a game, that
has nothing to do with normal life. For instance, the importance of watching a
football game when broadcasted – ordinary life would allow us to record impor-
tant matches, as only the transmitted information matters.
Huizinga argues that play is not liberating like in Schiller‘s conception (Schil-
ler ); it is bewitching, fascinating, even addictive. Actually a very provocative ar-
gument, that even religion and similarly elaborated forms of culture have their
origins in banal human play. So Zimmerman is probably right, when he remarks,
that the magic circle and all the confusions and recent discussions surrounding it,
is a concept of his own copyright, for which Huizinga is not to blame (Zimmer-
man 2011). Still, Huizingas formal definition of play is not sufficient, a fact he him-
self is aware of (preface).
Pfaller points out, that Huizinga is actually not describing play formally, but a
,fluid‘, psychological state of mind (Pfaller 2002, p. 101f.), rooting in the frame-
works, that games provide but can live further without the enthusiasm, they used
to generate: That‘s why play can retrieve from culture it has laid ground for – the
second indigestible assumption. Huizinga entitles this „sacred seriousness“– an
important term that is not so popular as the circle but far more important in
Huizingas circles. 73

Homo Ludens. Like in a ritual, a religious ceremony, play-actions as well have to

be executed correctly, regarding the game‘s own norms and measures. In this sa-
cred ambience, we don‘t want to be bothered with the usual problems of ordi-
nary life.
This casts a strange light on the notion of Serious Games, when every play-
action is conceived as serious as it has nothing to do with the usual problems of
life: It seems to be a tautology, as games must always be taken seriously by means
of sacred actions, while the profane problems they are dealing with are like con-
taminants: they are disturbing the sublime atmosphere of holy contemplation on
riddles, puzzles, toys, simulations that have our full attention and their end in

Ethnographic cultural investigation versus media archaeology

Playing incorporates always a dramatic aspect according to Huizinga: „Play is

struggle for something or a representation of something: These two characteris-
tics can merge together, so that play represents the struggle for something or it is
a contest, about representing something the best way.“ (Huizinga 2009, p. 22)
For Huizinga, who never saw a video game in his lifetime, a „Computerspieler“
(in german is no difference between game and play, so a Spieler can be a golf-
player, as well as a golf-sports video gamer) would be somebody, who acts, as if
he where a computer. His own similar example is a child that pretends to be a
train. The allready-mentioned Soccer-Fan in front of the TV-Set with fingers
crossed makes a good example too: He tries to help out his team, by doing some-
thing totally irrelevant. Watching TV is not only about information, it also cre-
ates the illusion of participation and self-efficacy.
This ruins an application of exactly the same quote in an earlier project, where
I tried to describe visualizations that are displaying history in computer games
(Huber 2011). If, for example a strategy game represents the middle ages, it has
not necessarily to do with the image, that the player is actually acting out, by
pushing buttons, stirring joysticks, lifting levers (Pfaller 2007).
It is not advisable to follow Huizinga blindly in cases, he could not know any-
thing about. More interesting it is to ask, how his reasoning about play leads to
his assessments about his own time and culture and its relation to games and play.
How are his prospects and evaluations fitting to the circumstances we come
across nowadays?
Huizinga has a blind spot on media because of his ethnographic perspective
on culture. For him only counts, what can be seen with bare eye, but isn‘t it just
the point in media, that their ways of functioning are hidden from human inter-
ference? So that they can work smoothly without distortion? Exactly like a blind
spot is not seen, if the eye works without problems.
74 Simon Huber

Nowadays we perceive games often as mass media, hence a commercial prod-

uct, we can consume. But in the media archaeological perspective, that Claus
Pias offers, computer games are primarily technologies and their commercializa-
tion as video games means mainly „hiding hard- and software in colorful con-
soles, that are shaping the code as black boxes, so that they provide fun, by sug-
gesting contingency, whereas a program rules.“ (Pias 2010, p. 12) This step from
communication technology to products for past time we usually take for granted,
even though is a well-known fact, that computer games started as hacks, as a
playful appropriation of military inventory.
Especially computers can hold up rules, in a way, we can‘t ignore or betray
them. So we are able to stick to the rules and act out moves, without being be-
witched by the game (cf. Günzel 2010). To all appearances, there is no difference
in simply using any ordinary computer program, as it is run by the same interfac-
es. It‘s simply circuitry, not necessarily magic.

On political purpose – play as critique

of course we know, that the combinations of playful actions with computers

enables new structures, but also the other way round, it changes the way, we look
at games respecitivly what is even recognized as a game. Through video game
programs and interfaces playful action and its visualizations can be coded, re-
corded, stored, and accessed, what was once performative, by this means elusive
and ephemere.
Dealing only with the positiv evidence of games, would ignore the notewor-
thy aspects of homo ludens: Huizinga instead makes great demands on what is a
very human, a cultural aspect and this is for a reason: He published Homo Ludens
in 1938, when fascist movements were at the peak of their power in Europe. On
his account as culture critic he also wrote on political purpose. The magic circle
is also a metaphorical refuge to civilized people, who flee from barbarous spoil-
sports, who don‘t wan‘t to sustain an international illusion of equality, because of
geopolitical advantages (Pias 2007, p. 259). He perceives his age as rather techno-
cratically ruled and he probably would have rejected many recent attempts to in-
strumentalize play in such a sense to transmit distinct messages. At least, he
would have found it trivial or futile.
Seen in its historical context, the political intention of this culture theory be-
comes apparent. If his stated tendency of a fallback of play from our culture is still
valid, we have to reconsider: although we‘re surrounded by digital gear that al-
lows to play always and everywhere; although steadily it is accepted, that games
carry cultural value, not every game is playful experience. In a nutshell: If we take
Huizinga seriously, we have to admit, that our modern societies are loosing their
senses for illusions, because it is up to computers to simulate them.
Huizingas circles. 75


Caillois, R. (2001) Man, Play and Games. Illinois: University of Illinois Press
Günzel, S. (2010) Der reine Raum des Spiels. Eine Kritik des magic circles. In: Fuchs, M. and Strou-
hal, E. (eds.) Das Spiel und seine Grenzen. Passagen des Spiels II. Wien, New York: Springer
Huber, S. (2011) Visualisierungen des Mittelalters im Computerspiel. In: Reflexiv. Geschichte den-
ken, 2, 29-42.
Huizinga, J. (2009) Homo Ludens. Vom Ursprung der Kultur im Spiel. Hamburg: rororo
McGonigal, J. (2011) Reality is Broken. Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the
World. New York: Penguin
Pfaller, R. (2002) Die Illusionen der anderen: Über das Lustprinzip in der Kultur. Frankfurt am Main:
Pfaller, R. (2007) Immer fleißig spielen! Profaner Realismus und Heiliger Ernst zwischen Men-
schen und Maschinen. In: Pias, C. and Holtorf, C. (eds.) Escape! Computerspiele als Kulturtech-
nik. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau
Pias, C. (2007) Wirklich problematisch. Lernen von "frivolen Gegenständen". In: Pias, C. and
Holtorf, C. (eds.) Escape! Computerspiele als Kulturtechnik. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau
Pias, C. (2010) Computer Spiel Welten. Zürich: Diaphanes
Schiller, F. (1794) Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen. 15. Brief [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 12. Novembre 2013]
Spitzer, M. (2012) Digitale Demenz. Wie wir uns und unsere Kinder um den Verstand bringen.
München: Droemer Knaur
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Ruprecht: Göttingen
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Available at:
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line]. Available at:
magic_circle_.php?print=1 [Accessed: 12 Octobre 2013]

Mathias Fuchs
Lüneburg, Germany

Foul play in context


Faking results in games or refusing to take the game seriously might sound like
the negation of playful experience, it can however also be understood as a way of
creating a particular form of ludic experience. It is the context of play that makes
an action of playing a playful activity or an act of breaking the rules. Different
forms of cheating and of playing the spoilsport have to be differentiated. “Bona
fide cheating” and “true cheating” (Salen and Zimmerman 2004) go hand in
hand for social networking environments and Online Multiplayer Games. Inter-
passivity (Pfaller 2008; Žižek 2007) in games can also be seen as a form of spoil-
sport practice (Fuchs 2008). The author suggests that there are multiple systems
of reference of playful experience at any given moment, and that these are not
necessarily the ones suggested to be used by game designers or fellow players. By
switching from one system of reference to another, the player, the spoilsport and
the cardsharp are able to establish playfulness in a chosen context and thereby
add to the range of accessible playful experience.

Foul play all around you

Recent attempts to hack systems that contain private data on a large and inter-
national scale raise questions about what is fair and what is foul in politics. The
hackers were in this instance not members of the mafia or of criminal gangs from
eastern countries, but rather the guardians of law and order from the West. The
NSA and their allies became known to have committed what once was consid-
ered foul play – and declared it as fair. The dispute about what is within the canon
of rules and regulations and what is not, can be said to be a political problem that
is rooted in power structures. Yet, observations about fair play in computer
games and cheating in the very same games sheds light on a similar problem:
How come that an action taken by a player is considered fair by some and foul by
others. The questions to be answered here are: What is foul play? What does it
mean to play fairly? When is somebody cheating? How can a recontextualisation
turn something fair into something foul?
Foul play in context 77

In regard to the first question asked, one can easily show that cheating is not
just changing the mechanics of the game. Marking the back side of cards or ma-
nipulating a roulette wheel does not necessarily imply foul play. It could be that
the parties participating in a game agreed to modify the wheel to create a new
game that is governed by unconventional distribution of probabilities for the var-
ious numbers from zero to 36. As long as the modification is known to all of the
players there is nothing wrong with the altered state of ludic settings. But what
happens, if I am the only player in the game? Can I cheat in a game that I play
against nobody else then myself? Think of a game like this: You toss a coin and if
the side with the head is up, you win. If the coin falls down with the number up,
you lose. If I decided to play this game with a coin that has two sides with a head,
I would always win. But is this cheating? Not according to the previous definition
because all of the players of the game (me and only me) are aware of the modifi-
cation of the coin.
Can I cheat when playing against a computer? Research carried through by
Mia Consalvo (2007) and by Julian Kücklich (2004) demonstrated that cheat
codes, cheat webpages and a whole industry of cheating tricks, codes and devices
is an integral part of gaming cultures. Consalvo and Kücklich both assume that
games provide a cultural setting that allows for certain forms of cheating or of
spoilsport practice, and they seem to differentiate between cheating in games
and cheating in other fields of human experience. The point that I want to make
in this chapter is that cheating is currently turning into a general practice that is
firmly embedded within art, politics, finance and other social sectors. My guess
is that cheating in Half-Life, cheating in Wall Street and cheating at the Venice Bi-
ennial all become one type of ludic action that is strongly informed by the way we
deal with cheating in games. For Kücklich a fraud in a videogame is still a com-
pletely different matter than to cheat on the workers of a factory. Consalvo goes
one step further and demonstrates that on the level of “parole” a cheat is a cheat
is a cheat, irrespective of the context of activities. She notices that we identify
cheating in games and cheating in real life by using the same words to describe it.
Both forms of cheating seem to have to do with rules and the neglection of rules,
but also with good deeds and wrongdoing. One of the players, Consalvo inter-
viewed for her study on “Gaining Advantage” mentions that cheating via cheat
codes involves “… wrongdoing. Someone has to be worse off because someone
else took unfair advantage. … You can only cheat another person” (Consalvo
2007, p. 92). The rationale to this argument is obviously that cheating hurts other
people’s feelings or their right to be treated fairly. If a machine has no feelings and
no rights I guess there is no way of cheating on the computer.
78 Mathias Fuchs

Fig.1: Screenshot from Cheat Engine 6.2,

With programmes like Cheat Engine 6.2 (Dark Byte 2012) that guarantees that
you can always win, it is a miracle to me, how one is supposed be cheating in the
case of running the programme. The machine can obviously not be cheated. The
player cannot cheat himself or herself. The user manual makes it quite clear to ev-
erybody that the player will always be happy with the results:

If you’re tired of always losing at a certain computer game, then this is the program
for you. Cheat Engine makes single-player games easier to play so you always win.

It might turn out that the only way of explaining who is cheating here, is in as-
suming that the company who produces the cheat engine is cheating on its users.
But that would be a cynical view of the software product and its designers.
Similarly miraculous are cheating games that belong to the now popular cat-
egory of kissing games. Boyfriend Cheater (Games2win 2012) is a game that asks
you to cheat on your avatar’s boyfriend by “kissing” the companion to your right,
whenever the boyfriend turns away to grab a glass of wine at the bar. The actions
that the player can take are limited to clicking the boy next to the girl in the red
dress. “Boyfriend Clicker” would be a more appropriate name for the game than
“Boyfriend Cheater”, because cheating involves some social convention on what
is fair and what is not. Conventions however require recognition of being such by
human beings. The cartoon characters can not recognize a situation as following
Foul play in context 79

the conventions or breaking the rules, they just perform according to the code.

Fig.2: Screenshot from Boyfriend Cheater

Obviously a code is not a convention and a convention is no code. The player

of the game could cheat on a real boyfriend, but that would require kissing real
boys or girls – and not cartoon boys. The act of cheating always needs to be rela-
tive to a system of reference. Such a system of reference could be the real world
of boys and girls and drinks and parties, or it could be the simulated 2D environ-
ment of the Boyfriend Cheater application. Whether something is fair play or not
can only be determined relative to the system of reference. It is not a portable
property that can be taken from one system to the other. As a preliminary sug-
gestion to define what is fair and what is foul (a cheat) we would like to suggest:

Fair play: Ludic actions according to rules and conventions within a specific system
of reference.

Foul play: Ludic actions that break rules within or conventions about a specific
system of reference.

Sometimes there are more than one system of reference and in these cases it
only seems to make sense to speak of cheating as cheating within system A or
cheating within system B. Players of Entropia Online (Mindark PE AB 2003)
know that Entropia prides itself of being the first “Real Cash Economy of Online
Gaming”. If system A is the real cash economy than playing with greed and exclu-
80 Mathias Fuchs

sively to make money is fair play within system A. In a system B that is governed
by Huizingian renunciation of monetary interests, making money is clearly not
what players are supposed to do. “(Play) is an activity connected with no mate-
rial interest, and no profit can be gained by it.“ (Huizinga 1949, p.13). In other
words: the same set of actions can be considered fair play in one case – and foul
in the other. (Huizinga acknowledges that some players might sometimes play
for money, but in an ideal gaming world there would be no space for monetary
interest, if everything went fairly.)

Fig.3: Screenshot from Entropia Universe

Multiple systems of reference do not only exist in ludic context, but they con-
stitute the postmodern condition in general. A political action can not any longer
be deciphered as a statement that can be valued on a scale from 1 to 100 with fair-
ness on top of the scale and mean intention on the bottom, but will have to be as-
sessed vis-à-vis a set of rulers with different scales, units and polarities. The Cha-
os Computer Club’s hacking of the Apple iTouch system ranks high on the scale
of hacker ethics and low on the Cupertino corporation’s scale of product integ-
rity. One describes it as “The biometrics hacking team of the Chaos Computer
Club (CCC) has successfully bypassed the biometric security of Apple's Tou-
chID using easy everyday means. All information must be free!“ The opponent
curses the action as an attack on the clients’ safety and data security.
This is however more than antagonistic values of ruling class’s values versus re-
bellious movement’s values, because there are much more than two systems of
reference at stake here. There is a system of reference for the elegance of hacking,
a system for political appropriateness, a system of the protection of private prof-
its, a system of pro-US versus anti-US politics and many more. It is therefore im-
portant to become aware of the full range of systems of reference that are contex-
tualising the game – and at the type of players that play the game.
The following paragraphs intend to compare foul play in artistic practice with
foul play in games. We will analyse different forms of breaking the rules, conven-
tions or even only the expectations that fellow players have. Aggressive rule-
Foul play in context 81

breaking, acts of blurring the borders between fair and foul, and resistance via
withdrawal from the game will be looked at against the background of different
player types.

Lusory attitudes

A ludo-typology of players encompasses the obsessive player, the casual play-

er, the games addict, the social player, the professional player – but also the spoil-
sport and the cardsharp. Faking results in games or refusing to take the game se-
riously might sound like the negation of playful experiences, it can however also
be understood as a way of creating a particular form of the ludic experience.
The level of “lusory attitude” (Suits 1978, 2005, pp. 54–55; Salen and Zimmer-
man 2004) that a spoilsport might demonstrate seems to be affected by the type
of game played. In chess faking and cheating, or quitting the game altogether, is
considered to show a very low level of lusory attitude. Many card games on the
other hand almost invite for cheating practices when played in certain social con-
texts. A game of poker in the luxurious environment of a casino like Baden or
Monte Carlo is not very likely to suggest cheating on the croupier. It would also
considered to be illegal. Poker at a party amongst friends however, might be ex-
perienced fun if some or all of the players try to cheat and the other players try to
find out who has just been cheating and how. Spoilsport behaviour is not toler-
ated in bridge clubs. An online bridge site defines bridge-style sportsmanship as

Friendly club atmosphere

You must show a courteous attitude to everybody
Ethics/ protected environment
No robots - ever!

Somebody could qualify as a spoilsport in such an environment for being un-

friendly and impolite, or by placing robots in the game. For the Unreal Tourna-
ment (GT Interactive 1999) community neither friendliness nor courteousness
are required, bots however are a must. Little is required to exit the magic circle in
each of the environments. Other then Salen and Zimmerman (2004) suggest, the
act of playing the spoilsport can be quite playful. Not only in hardcore computer
games, but also in social networking environments, the level of involvement is a
continuous matter of debate. Platforms like Facebook, Bebo, or MySpace en-
courage participants to engage with the content offered and to remain playing as
long as possible. To check the level of lusory attitude and to increase involve-
ment, opinions have to be polled all the time. New add-ons and minigames chal-
lenge the users to participate even further. For good reasons the alternatives “I
82 Mathias Fuchs

will participate” and “I will not participate” are often accompanied by “I don’t
care” options. What looks like an offer to leave the game is however an attempt
to create an in-game spoilsport alternative that allows spoilsports to stay in the
game. Ticking a checkbox of negligence is different from not replying to the
question. In politics not taking any notice of an election differs from actively at-
tending the polling station and marking the ballot paper. Selecting such an op-
tion is different from not selecting anything and might lead to intense forms of
communication amongst voters, non-voters and “make belief ” voters. Slavoj
Žižek reminds us of the constraints of binary choices offered in a set of rules in
political games: e.g. voting for a candidate. In a critical analysis of the setting of
elections like one in the US state of Louisiana when

… during the election for governor for the State of Louisiana, the only alternative to
the ex-KKK member David Duke was a corrupt Democrat, one saw on many cars a
bumper-sticker which read, ‘Vote For A Crook -It's Important!’ Contained within the
message of this sticker resides the ultimate paradox of democracy; that within the
existing political order every campaign against corruption ends up being couped by
the populist extreme Right. (Žižek 2009)

Contained within the sticker resides however also a piece of spoilsport play-
fulness, a strategy to break the rules in a situation where obedience in regard to
the rules seems mandatory. The doctrine of the political game designers is: Make
your choice! The spoilsport’s subversive game is: What, if we didn’t make a
The tactical move from playful resistance to a public statement about the crit-
icised system has been exercised in politics, as the example mentioned above
demonstrates. The very same practice can be observed in other fields of human
activities. Think of the arts and the art market as a playing field for successful
spoilsport behaviour.
Being a spoilsport is common artistic practice and artists like Tracey Emin
demonstrate that neglecting the rules can be a lot of fun. (Emin 1999) It can also
be serious business, as the example of Marcel Duchamp proved, when he alleg-
edly quit art-making for the sake of chess-playing. In 1923 Duchamp declared that
chess “has all the beauty of art – and much more. It cannot be commercialized.
Chess is much purer than art in its social position.” He was immediately inter-
preted by art critics as having renounced art for chess, which he actually never
claimed. The spoilsport act of playing chess in an art context created a debate sit-
uated in an art context and thereby built a magic circle around Duchamp’s activ-
ity which was seen by many as destructive of the art circle’s magic. From a histor-
ical perspective however, it never was. Similarly Tracy Emin pretended to be the
spoilsport with her “My Bed” piece, which won her the Turner price in the first
instance – and some £ 150,000 for the bed thereafter. The provocation to exhibit
Foul play in context 83

a bed with dirty linen and seemingly not a painting or sculpture made her the
spoilsport first and London’s art world’s most cherished child then. The playful
act of Tracy Emin’s consisted in leaving the magic circle and re-entering it at the
same time. (Fuchs 2010)

Fig.4: Tracy Emin: My Bed, Turner Prize winning installation, 1999

There is of course a certain risk contained in the strategy applied by Emin and
others. The risk consists of to not being able to re-enter the circle one just left.
Tracy Emin is clever enough to keep this risk very low. She does so by position-
ing clues to the art world and the art market. The bedlinen does not differ sub-
stantially from a painter’s canvas and everyone familiar with the history of paint-
ing in the 20th century will immediately recover Oldenburg’s spoilsport master-
piece “Soft Bathtub—Ghost Version” (Oldenburg, 1966) or other sculptural Old-
enbourg pieces on canvas.

Fig.5: Claes Oldenburg: Soft Bathtub—Ghost Version, 1966

84 Mathias Fuchs

It is the way how artists show their spoilsport activities, rather than the fact of
not following the rules that makes spoilsport strategies a driving force in the de-
velopment of the arts. Other then Huizinga’s assumption that the spoilsport
leaves the magic circle (Huizinga 1955), we would like to suggest that there is a
playful mode of trespassing the rules, that reinitiates the magic circle in the very
same moment it seems to have broken into pieces.

Magic, enchantment and enlightenment

the dialectics of magical enchantment and rational thinking were carried out
on the intellectual battlefields in the age of enlightenment (Felderer and Strouhal
2007). It was quite characteristic for practitioner/scientists like Johann Christian
Wiegleb to comprise magic and modern sciences in one subject area. His “Ono-
matologia” from 1759 refers to “electricity”, “the telescope”, “dragons”, and “sor-
cery” - all of them at the same level of discourse. In his chapter on illusion
(“Blendwerk”) he refers to a methodology of cheating for the sake of enlighten-
ment, a process recently described as “Enlightenment by smoke and mirrors”
(“Aufklärung durch Täuschung“) (Hochadel 2004). For Wiegleb and his contem-
poraries magic would not reside in a circle that could be drawn around the “non-
scientific”, rather were science and magic two overlapping terrains of knowledge
equally intensely explored by us to find out about phenomena surrounding us.
The understanding of what we consider “magic” and “scientific” changed during
the 17th century. In Felderer and Strouhal’s publication on the cultural history of
the magic arts (Felderer and Strouhal 2007) Peter Rawert points out that magic
enchantment was no longer considered to be of either a diabolic or natural ori-
gin, but that legerdemain (“Taschenspielerei”) gained the status of the most in-
novative, up to date, and enlightened magic. The new focus of interest was on
“speed, cheating and the appropriate instruments required” for that. Supersti-
tion or religious connotations were definitely out in enlightened circles.
I would like to suggest that our mode of playing computer games has reached
a quasi-enlightened level during this decade. It seems likely that we experience
an enlightened playfulness by leaving and re-entering the magic circle as spoil-
sports with an attitude – or as cardsharps. The fundamentalistic believe in the
game, the obedience to follow rules and the tabu to question them seems like a
distant echoe from the past.


Interactivity is at the core of gameplay in any conceivable computer game. It

seems impossible to imagine how gameplay would work, if there was no interac-
Foul play in context 85

tivity between human and computer involved. But what happens if a gamer
writes a script to enable his or her avatar to perform certain actions in the ab-
sence of the player? Game artists like Corrado Morgana of furtherfield find joy in
running games in auto-execution mode and do not interact except for the mini-
mal start command. Non-action as an activity, or interpassivity (Pfaller 2008;
Žižek 2007) in games can also be seen as a form of spoilsport practice (Fuchs
2008). Pfaller describes interpassivity as a cultural practice to enjoy without par-
ticipating and presents this non-involvement as opposed to interactivity. The
game artist who lets the game engine go on its own, rejects his responsibility to
control the avatars, he does not get entangled into the quest of loss or win, and he
rejects the basic rule of any game, which is: You have to play! The spoilsport does
however not leave the arena completely. He remains a voyeur, a spectator of an
action he enjoys passively. In this regard the introduction of auto-executables, i.e.
software agents physically detached from the players, and other modes of dele-
gated play can be righteously called interpassive gaming. Pfaller and Žižek point
out that the psychological aspect of interpassivity is grounded in our subjectivity.
Pfaller and Žižek convincingly demonstrate how certain works of art seem to
provide for their own reception. One cannot help feeling that these artworks en-
joy themselves or that we enjoy through them (Van Oenen 2008). The mecha-
nism described by Pfaller and Žižek can again be found in games and their modes
of performance. It is not only Game Art, but everyday gamers’ practice where in-
terpassive phenomena can be observed. Delegated enjoyment and delegated fear
are possible forms of letting go in First Person Shooters. We know that it can be
fun to just camp in an MMORPG and watch others play through the eyes of an
avatar. We have experienced delegated death fears when about to be shot and we
know peer players who take some masochistic and interpassive delight in being
fragged. But even less martial areas of disguise and simulation like the Secon-
dLife (Linden Lab 2003) environment will disclose interpassive delegation of
love, lust and longing. If we can enjoy the outsourcing of enjoyment, we have to
either declare this as a perverse, a hysteric, and a neurotic attitude in a Lacanian
perspective (Van Oenen 2008), or analyse it as a spoilsport/ sportsman attitude
of staying in the magic circle when pretending to leave it.

Social dimensions of cheating and spoilsport behaviour

Cardsharps and cheaters make us pose another question: How does cheating
contribute to the cohesion of the player community? In many forms of childrens’
play the obvious possibility of cheating seems to create a strong link amongst
players and serves as a special form of joyful entertainment. The game known in
German as “Eins-zwei-drei! Dreh dich nicht um” would seem completely boring,
if cheating was not a possibility. The playful experience of closing the eyes with
86 Mathias Fuchs

the hands and expecting others to believe one would not look through the fingers
involves a high degree of self-deception and mastering of a cultural technique of
half-believe (Pfaller 2000). “Bona fide cheating” and “true cheating” (Salen and
Zimmerman 2004) go hand in hand for social networking environments like
SecondLife. We can find pretention, cheating, discovery and possible forms of
punishment in SecondLife when we follow the conversations taking place.
The following hide and seek ritual is typical for SecondLife conversations and
was recorded by the author at “France Pitoresque” on 15th December 2008:

[12:37] apache Kips: c’est toi Anne?

[12:38] DavRodrigS Turbo: bonsoir Chavez... ;-)
[12:39] fra Pelazzi: c'est vous Nirina?
[12:39] melya Galaxy: coucou !!
[12:39] beuzatom Orfan: coucou
[12:40] Chavez Warwillow: b bonsoir tous les monde
[12:40] fredenbois Allen: ho mais ta grandi nirina ¸.•? L O L ?•.¸
[12:40] Nirina Bing: oui c'st moi ;-)

The SecondLife users seem to be enjoying a certain level of hide and seek
about their names or real identities, they widely accept cheating, yet seem to pre-
fer certain forms of cheating. The question could to be asked here of whether fi-
nancial exploitation in SecondLife needs to be named cheating, and why profit
making in SecondLife is appreciated in one form and condemned in another.
User agreements and informal codes would have to be compared to a practice of
rule-breaking and rule-following.

Border-crossing between systems of reference

The author suggests that there are multiple systems of reference of playful ex-
perience at any given moment, and that those are not necessarily the ones sug-
gested to be used by game designers or fellow players. What I mean here is that
at a certain point during the game played, the player can legitimately create con-
notations to not only one, but many systems of reference: The system of histori-
cally grown rules of the game, the system of aesthetic value and acoustic beauty,
the system of casually agreed modes of play, the system of technical constraints,
the system of cultural context, the language the game’s rules are expressed in, the
system of amateurism or professional gambling, the system of academic research
and the systems of ludology or narratology.
Any activity taken at any time differs in meaning, regarding on the system of
reference we denotate it in. A shot at an aim with a rocket launcher can be aes-
thetically pleasing, ethically embarrassing, economically fruitful, technically so-
Foul play in context 87

phisticated, and rebellious in regard to the rules of the game. The very same ac-
tion can therefore make you a hero in one system of reference and a villain in an-
other. It also becomes apparent, that you might become a spoilsport in one sys-
tem of reference and not in another. By deliberately switching from one system
of reference to another, the player, the spoilsport and the cardsharp are able to
establish playfulness in a chosen context and thereby add to the range of acces-
sible playful experience. The cheaters, the spoilsports and the players in general
will find themselves in a situation that has once been described as: “Fair is foul,
and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.” (Shakespeare: Macbeth


Consalvo, M. (2007) Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. Massachusetts : MIT Press

Felderer, B. and Strouhal, E. (2007) Rare Künste. Zur Kultur- und Mediengeschichte der Zauberkunst.
Wien New York : Springer Verlag
Fuchs, M. (2008) Get Yourself a Life! Unpublished conference paper for amber08. Istanbul : Inter-
passive Persona Conference
Fuchs, M. (2010) Ludic Interfaces In: Ruth Catlow, Marc Garrett & Corrado Morgana (Eds.): Artists
Re:thinking Games. FACT, Liverpool
Hochadel, O. (2004) Aufklärung durch Täuschung. Die natürliche Magie im 18. Jahrhundert. In: Beri-
chte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte. Weinheim : WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA
Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo ludens. A study of the play element in culture. London : Routledge (= 1955
Boston : Beacon Press)
Kuecklich, J. (2004) ‘Other playings: Cheating in computer games,’ paper presented at the Other
Players conference. IT-University of Copenhagen
Kücklich, J.(2004) Modding, Cheating und Skinning. Konfigurative Praktiken in Computer- und Vide-
ospielen. [Accessed: 16 October 2013]
Pfaller, R. (2000) Interpassivität. Studien über delegiertes Geniessen. Wien New York : Springer Ver-
Pfaller, R. (2008) Interpassive Persona. Unpublished conference paper for amber08. Istanbul : Inter-
passive Persona Conference
Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play. Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge : MIT
Suits, B. (2005) The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Peterborough: Broadview Press
Van Oenen, G. (2008) Interpassivity revisited: A critical and hstorical reappraisal of interpassive phe-
nomena. In: International Journal of Žižek Studies. Rotterdam
Wiegleb, J. C. (1759) Onomatologia. Curiosa Artificiosa et Magica oder ganz natürliches Zau-
ber-Lexikon. Ulm, Frankfurt and Leipzig : Gaumische Handlung,
Žižek, S. (2007) The Interpassive Subject. Fetish between structure and humanism. Saas-Fee : EGS
StarEuropean Graduate School Faculty
Žižek, Slavoj: Democracy... and beyond. Webessay on
[Accessed: 12 August 2013]
88 Mathias Fuchs

Cited games and game modification software

boyfriend Cheater (Games2win 2012)

Cheat Engine (anonymous aka Dark Byte 2008, vers. 6.2 2012)
Entropia Universe (Mindark PE AB 2003)
Second Life (Linden Lab 2003)
UnrealTournament (GT Interactive 1999)

Cited artworks

Emin, Tracy (1999) My Bed. Installation, mixed materials including bed. London : Tate Gallery
Oldenburg, Claes (1966) Soft Bathtub - Ghost Version. Acryllic and pencil on foam-filled canvas
with wood, cord, and plaster. Washington DC : Hirshhorn Museum

Tobias Scholz
Siegen, Germany

Does context matter? Conceptualizing relational



Is context a way of grasping modern phenomena? Recently research is focus-

ing on the understanding of the context of problems. Thereby stating that contex-
tualization helps to improve the accuracy and robustness of those research mod-
els. But it also leads to an increase of complexity and variety. In an industry like
the video game industry that already is highly complex the process of contextual-
ization is problematic. But we don’t want to disregard the concept of contextual-
ization and we want to conceptualize a relational contextualization. Based on the
development of Bioshock Infinite and its usage of the auteur theory, we present
the relational contextualization and derive several principles for it. Such a rela-
tional contextualization will help to select the relevant context-factors and by
that construct a context that improves the video game development.


The term Context Matters! is often used in modern research, especially in the
field of organizational behaviour, language, and video games. It seems logical to
look at context to understand a research object. Context is about “the surround-
ings associated with phenomena which help to illuminate that [sic] phenomena,
typically factors associated with units of analysis above those expressly under in-
vestigation” (Cappelli and Sherer 1991, p.56). Therefore context, as a construct,
does matter, however the tricky and complicated part is the contextualization of
such a phenomenon.
Contextualization can be described as the process of “linking observations to
a set of relevant facts, events, or points of view that make possible research and
theory that form part of a larger whole” (Rousseau and Fried 2001, p.1). Contex-
tualization seems a reasonable tool for understanding phenomena, but the selec-
tion of context-factors is arbitrary and incomplete. The question that arises: How
to choose the context-factors that are relevant? In addition, contextualization is
90 Tobias Scholz

also problematic as context is an interactional problem (Dourish 2004). Propos-

ing interaction amongst context-factors increases the complexity and variety
Therefore we will focus in this article on the relational aspect in the contextu-
alization. The process of contextualization is described mainly in an analytic way
and from the scientific perspective. We will describe the relational contextualiza-
tion as a description of the development process of a video game. By using the
example of the video game development of Bioshock Infinite we show that the
contextualization follows a distinct path. The video game development provides
a unique setting, in particular due to the focus on creativity and business orienta-
tion (Scholz 2012) The game is thereby interesting as it is a success and attracts a
huge number of consumers. In addition, it also follows a relational contextualiza-
tion with different importance of context-factors and that significantly reduces
the complexity.

Balancing act of contextualization

there are several aspects that make a contextualization within the develop-
ment of a video game tricky. First, we see an increase in actors and stakeholders
that are involved and are interested into influencing a video game. Publishers are
interested in games that make a profit; similar case is for the retailers. Developers
want to produce an interesting game. In addition, the video games today are so
complex that many developers and many studios are involved in the process. And
finally, consumers are interested in good games they like. Even though this
sounds rather simple, it should be obvious that making a good game is complex.
In addition, there is a strong entanglement between developer, consumer, pub-
lisher and retailer (Tschang 2007) that makes a classification of the contextualiza-
tion difficult. Moreover the video game industry is highly volatile (Teipen 2008)
accompanied by the general dynamization trend in the modern business world
(Stein and Müller 2012). Such an assemblage (Taylor 2009) of influences will en-
able a holistic contextualization. However it increases the complexity to a level
that no video game developer can efficiently handle. We have to keep in mind
that developing a video game is time-critical. Reducing complexity is of utmost
importance for the video game developer. Reaching a holistic contextualization
is not possible and any complexity reduction will lead to a subjective selection.
This means that contextualization is a random process and leads to the construc-
tion of potential context.
Another challenge is that in the video game industry creativity and innovation
are crucial for the success of organizations and their products. But if a holistic
context is aspired by those organizations it will trigger a convergence with the
competition. It also means that organizations will seek for the least common de-
Does context matter? Conceptualizing relational contextualization 91

nominator in order to maximize the potential target group and therefore opti-
mize their profits. Such a development would hurt the creative and innovational
power that would lead to a competitive advantage and uniqueness.
The next challenge is concerning the process of contextualization. There is a
procedural difference between a linguistic contextualization and an organiza-
tional contextualization. If we put something into context, something becomes
clear and understandable, at least in linguistics. This is a simple process, contrary
to a contextualization of an organizational phenomenon. Here a contextualiza-
tion is a complex process. That relevant context is not only influenced by the phe-
nomenon but also influenced by the researcher’s interest. Context is always a
constructed reality. This means a holistic context approach is unfeasible and, fur-
thermore, context-factors are selected as if they are put into context. Therefore
the comparability of contextualization is problematic, especially if there are blind
Although those explanations and deduced consequences are setting limits to
contextualization, it also reveals the limits of such a concept. Especially as cur-
rent research is often neglecting the complexity and variety problem that comes
with a thorough contextualization. Furthermore, with a dynamic view that com-
plexity and variety is not manageable. Those aspects make it difficult to balance
the contextualization concerning the complexity degree. Few context-factors
will lead to blind spots that are crucial. Too many context-factors will lead to
standardization and a decrease in creativity (Gilson et al. 2002). It is essential to
look for alternative constructs on contextualization. Dourish (2004, p.22) as-
sumes a different view on context and contextualization: First, he states that con-
textuality is a relational property. Second, he argues that the scope of contextual fe-
atures is defined dynamically. Thirdly, he considers that context is an occasioned
property and the fourth assumption is that context arises from activity. Thereby
Dourish focuses more on relational aspects in the context and centers around the
interactions between different context-factors.
In our research we expand the interactional context towards relations. “We
are no longer looking at just a ‘technology’ and its ‘users‘ but the event of their
relationships, of their reciprocal configuration” (Giddings 2006, p.160). Describ-
ing the relational connection allows us to distinguish the significance of different
relational aspects. By that it is possible to rate the importance of context-factors.
In our case such relations could be between stakeholders that are involved in the
video game development. Those stakeholders are context-factors that influence
the production of a video game.
92 Tobias Scholz

Contextualization of bioshock infinite

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite is the third instalment in the Bioshock franchise after Bio-
shock and Bioshock 2. It was released in 2013 and the game was developed by Ir-
rational Games. Based on the metascore the game has in average a score of 94 out
of 100 (Metacritic 2013). Irrational Games (2013) are describing the game as “a
first-person shooter like you’ve never seen. [...] Set in 1912, players assume the
role of former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, sent to the flying city of Colum-
bia on a rescue mission. His target? Elizabeth, imprisoned since childhood. Dur-
ing their daring escape, Booker and Elizabeth form a powerful bond -- one that
lets Booker augment his own abilities with her world-altering control over the
environment.“ The critical reception of the game was positive by the majority.
Cowen (2013) states that “BioShock Infinite has an unshakable claim to be chal-
lenging what we think games are capable of.“ In other reviews it is called “jaw-
dropping” (Orland 2013) or “sophisticated storytelling” (Suellentrop 2013). For
this paper it is relevant to mention that the creative director was Ken Levine and
in this function he had the final say (Rosenberg 2012).

(Studio) Auteur theory

The process of contextualization of Bioshock Infinite is different, as it shows

some resemblance to the auteur theory. This theory originates from French film-
makers, particularly Bazin (1957) and Truffaut (1954) in the 1950s and describes
the filmmaking process where the directors’ personal creative vision shines
through the film. This personal creative vision is the prime and centrepiece con-
text. Notable auteurs are Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick in film and Shigeru
Miyamoto or Ken Levine in video games. Such a vision affects the film or video
game through three aspects: Technical competence, distinguishable personality,
and interior meaning (Sarris 1962).
In the auteur theory it is important that the director has the aptitude to and
knowledge of the technology that is involved in the development. Sarris is even
stating that without the skill and flair for filming directors will not have any suc-
cess. This is similar to video game development, even though not to the full ex-
tent as in filming. An auteur in video games needs to have an understanding of
programming, designing and storytelling. Such knowledge is beneficial for the
process and the development, as with this technical proficiency the auteur knows
what is possible to produce. Knowledge like that is also part of the technical com-
Secondly, Sarris talks about the distinguishable personality of the auteur.
Does context matter? Conceptualizing relational contextualization 93

Nowadays we would call it the signature style. For Bioshock Infinite there is some
sort of signature in the way that there is always a lighthouse, a man and a city. This
could be recurrent characteristics, technical specifics or artistic distinctiveness.
The third aspect is the interior meaning of the product. Sarris is thereby talk-
ing about mis-en-scène as well as about the soul of a film. Mis-en-scène and the
soul are mostly about storytelling. The first is focusing on the design aspect and
the second on the storytelling style. However the third premise is ultimately the
combination of the other two aspects. Based on the technological knowledge
and the signature style an auteur can make something unique and develop a dis-
tinct product.
Due to the reason that video game development is mostly consisting of big
video game studios it is rare that we know the creative director by name. And of-
ten is not one person important but the whole team. Ashcraft (2010) is therefore
expanding the auteur theory towards the studio auteur theory. The team and the
studio have a clear vision and similar to auteurs like Hitchcock, games from Bliz-
zard also have a signature style. In the video games development the auteur and
the studio auteur have many similarities.

Theoretical model of relational contextualization

in order to analyse the relational contextualization and make a theoretical

model, we want to look into the development of Bioshock Infinite. The creative
director Ken Levine heavily influenced this game (Rosenberg 2012). We are de-
picting the foundation for the model from the auteur theory, as it is a simple basis
for a context or the prime context. One person’s context is the basis for the cre-
ation of a product. Based on that common ground, the context has a unique com-
mon denominator but also allows establishing simple rules and simple ideas be-
hind the new product. Ken Levine acts hereby as the person that gives the gen-
eral direction. He stated (cited by Rosenberg 2012): “Games I work on sort of end
up being […] about the kind of stuff I like talking about.” Therefore the auteur will
help to build up the context that influences a video game development. Further-
more, Jaffe (cited by Ashcraft 2010) mentions that the team should pick up the
personal vision and add to that fundament.
Hence it is of utmost importance that the prime context is an able auteur.
Blow describes the importance of technical competence as follows: “If someone
can’t program, then I would be sceptical of their ability to be a competent au-
teur” (cited by Schreier 2011). Furthermore signature style and interior meaning
are as important. “The great films of all time came from one vision” (Bilson cited
by Schreier 2011). There is some evidence that Ken Levine had a big influence on
Bioshock Infinite and can be described as a capable auteur. For example Ken
Levine did not produce Bioshock 2 and although it was a successful game it was
94 Tobias Scholz

received as nothing special. Reiner (2012) mentions that the game was “too fear-
ful to inject anything new into this twisted world“. The game was conceived as
just some sort of rerun (Arendt 2010).
As we can see in figure 1 the (studio) auteur is the prime context and on the
basis of this context we analyse what other context-factors are relevant for the
relational contextualization. In this simplified case there are publisher, con-
sumer, developer (competition) and retailer. In this video game development
the consumer has a strong and important relation towards the process, there-
fore it is in the second circle. Publisher and developer have a weaker relation
and so it is contextualized in the third circle. Retailer is not important and
therefore outside the circles. Consequentially the most influence in this rela-
tional contextualization is the (studio) auteur, following by consumer, devel-
oper and publisher, and retailer.

Figure 1: Theoretical model of a relational contextualization

In the presented case of Bioshock Infinite this is a valid contextualization. Ken

Levine is the lighthouse for the context of the video game development. Con-
Does context matter? Conceptualizing relational contextualization 95

sumer and developer are influencing him, but only to a low degree. As stated in
Gilbert (2013) Levine mentions: “This is my game. […] but at the end of the day
… this thing’s gotta be my decision.”


There are several contributions of this paper. First, while current research in-
volves a process of contextualization by adding context-factors, we propose that
a contextualization has to implement a relational aspect. With a relational value
it is possible to identify the relevant context-factors and establish a rating of rel-
evance. Such relational approach will also help to establish a dynamic view on
Furthermore, it seems that stakeholders within the video game industry also
discuss the aspect of complexity and the problems accompanying the big size of
teams. Bilson (cited by Schreier 2011) mentions that: “Ultra-collaboration can be
deadly in the game business. One voice must lead.” And we see at games like Bi-
oshock Infinite that the result is a clear and precise vision that is recognizable.
In this paper it is assumed that auteur and studio auteur can be the dominant
context and should be regarded as equal. Most successful games showed that it is
mostly an either-or situation. Either the game is produced by an auteur or the
studio is the auteur. Maybe there is an auteur group within the studio. These rela-
tions should be researched further, in order to categorize it within a relational
Another contribution is that a relational contextualization on the basis of the
auteur theory enables researchers to analyse the aesthetic dimensions of a video
game (Demirbaş 2008) due to the potential of analysing the auteur and therefore
the prime context. Researchers will have a solid basis for identifying influences
due to focus on the auteur.
As a consequence of the theoretical and conceptual approach in this paper, it
will be necessary to validate the model. Is such a contextualization helping to re-
duce complexity? What are other problems and challenges that will emerge
through a relational contextualization? If we look at the auteur theory the impor-
tance of one person is ubiquitous and therefore the risk is focusing on that one
person (Petrie 1973). In addition, conflict and conflict management will become
increasingly difficult. Schreier (2011) states that in the development of God of
War the creative director David Jaffe had some disputes with his team due to the
reason that he changed his minds a lot.
Furthermore we focus on the contextualization of a video game and therefore
use the development perspective. However such a contextualization process can
also be used for the analytic and scientific contextualization. There are several
overlaps that make the theoretical model usable for a scientific perspective.
96 Tobias Scholz


In conclusion this means that the (studio) auteur will be the basis of the con-
struction of the relational context. That will execute a selection of context-fac-
tors. In our simplified example those context-factors are consumer, retailer, pub-
lisher and other developer. The focus lies on the context-factors that also act as
stakeholders in the video game development. Those stakeholders influence the
production and therefore they are described as context-factors in a broader
sense. Furthermore, based on Dourish, we expect a dynamic contextualization
and that the auteur will change the relation towards the context-factors over
time. In addition, this arbitrary selection also counteracts towards convergence
efforts and leads to a divergent influence as well as an innovational input. Mostly,
the relational interaction of context-factors will lead to changes in the strength or
weakness of those relations. However, this selection will lead to a reduction of
complexity and variety. Still in this creation process several context-factors will
be banned and there will be more blind spots. But with this concept it will be
possible to select some relevant and important context-factors in the vastness of
noise of possible context-factors.
In a dynamic environment it will be possible to recontextualize after the com-
pletion of the video game. In this process it will possible to select new emergent
context-factors or revaluate the importance of existing context-factors. Howev-
er, it is important to point out that a selection of context-factors can lead to dif-
ferent products. But in the video game industry competitive advantages are nec-
essary for the success of a product and those are only done by the creative and
innovational power of thinking and acting different.
Relational contextualization with a centrepiece of context will help to get a
clearer picture and reduces the complexity within a complex system. Not every-
body within a video game development should be involved equally in the process
and some will have different interests that could weaken the innovation and cre-
ativity and consequentially the competitive advantage of a video game. Eventu-
ally the game gets a clear message and becomes a signature game franchise like
the Bioshock universe.


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Games cited

Bioshock (Irrational Games 2007)

Bioshock 2 (Irrational Games 2010)
Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games 2013)
God of War (SCE Studios Santa Monica 2005)

Jonathan Church
Philadelphia, United States

Constructing a neoliberal archive: Spreadable media,

video games, and a culture of history


This chapter examines video gaming enthusiast blog sites that cultivate com-
munity participation, reviews and forums within the North American context.
These sites are generating particular contexts and affinity spaces (Gee 2005)
where video game players enact their identities and construct what Suominen
(2011) has called a “culture of history.” The examination methodologically focus-
es on paratextual productions surrounding two recent games, Assassin's Creed III
(Ubisoft Entertainment 2012) and BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games 2013). I’ll
suggest that fluency by players in this history demonstrates what Consalvo
(2007) considers is a form of “gaming capital.” As enthusiast press websites have
cultivated these affinity spaces, games gain greater paratextual context through
spreadable media ( Jenkins et al 2013) and become turned into cultural artifacts as
a focus of user interest, reference, critique, and memory. The amalgam of these
spaces forms a kind or archive of neoliberal subjectivity, positionality, and strug-
gles over the sedimentation of context.


Let me begin this chapter with a personal anecdote, a form of rhetorical context
that suggest less of a division between the definitional struggles of our daily lives as
‘gamers’ and the performance of our professional ones as ‘academics.’ Of course,
the anecdote, itself, is a trope of most texts of cultural anthropology, and it is a form
of writing culture as suggested so long ago by Clifford and Marcus (1986).
So here is the anecdote: I am in the middle of a meeting with my research as-
sociate.1 He is about 35 years younger than I am. He is struggling with the meth-

1 Acknowledgements: this project was made possible through research support from the De-
partment of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, Arcadia University, Glenside
Pennsylvania, United States. Many thanks extended to my research assistant, Michael Klein.
100 Jonathan Church

odological imprecision and inspiration for doing this type of odd research which
requires that both of us have been ethnographically immersed in gaming as more
participants than observers, We play a lot, talk with a lot of gamers, web surf a
lot, and both keep current with gaming. However, the work we do analyzing the
plethora of paratexts about gaming constitutes a kind of archival research with
which I am quite familiar, and he is not. He keeps wondering what I mean by in-
dexical knowledge (Boellstorff 2012), that as anthropologists who constantly
play games we have both developed a great familiarity with play, but we aren’t re-
ally creating ethnography, as such. Rather, we are utilizing an ethnographic
stance to elucidate what Stoller (2009, p.53) has called the “epistemic anxieties”
along the archival grain.
We are in that strange lifeboat of all anthropological research where all we see
are huge waves. No longer visible is the sinking ship of our research design, nor
the landfall of any data that actually makes a lick of sense. It is about a week be-
fore BioShock Infinite is to release. I ask him how the archiving is going of all the
websites, blogs, and list serves that we are following. He says that he has decided
to stop for the next two weeks. I am shocked. We both know that reviews will hit
this week. He says, “I’m on media blackout, man. No spoilers.” I look at him quiz-
zically, and ask about his commitment to the project. “I’m committed, dude,” he
rejoins, “but in two weeks nothing will have been lost.” “Besides,” he counters,
“if you’re so worried, then you can pick up the slack.” But truth be told, neither
one of us wants to confront “spoilers.” Both of us have planned to be on media
blackout for the next few weeks. I relent. He will complete the game a day after
release; I am much slower. It takes a week.
This is when he understands what I mean by the indexical field that now sur-
rounds our play, that both of us attempt to come to some games in a less medi-
ated fashion, because our very prior immersion, our index of knowledge and
gaming capital, makes us anticipate that there will be a “twist” to the game, and
that to enhance our enjoyment of playing this game, our fun, we should feign a
type of narrative and ludic innocence. We don’t want the game “spoiled.” We
don’t want to know too much before we actually play. Declarations of being on
media blackout and attempts at moderating context are becoming part and
parcel of the work of being a “gamer.” Context matters and must be managed.
This chapter explores this indexical media context where participation, man-
agement, and avoidance of the paratextual becomes a strategic element in the
production of gaming discourse, gamers’ identifications and gaming culture.
That one of the commonplace management strategies of context is to avoid a
particular form of this indexical context, media blackout, points to the very
depths of our immersion.
Constructing a neoliberal archive 101

Gaming capital and the paratextual

avoiding being immersed is becoming more difficult to do as commercial

gaming websites have attempted to construct and manage “community” as a
strategy of monetization and commodification of gaming culture. This means
providing tools for site users to blog, the creation of discussion forums, and the
solicitation of users’ responses to articles, features, previews and reviews, as
well as Facebook pages and the cultivation of Twitter followers by website
podcast hosts. While the paratextual industries have always solicited user con-
tent, for example free game walkthroughs available on the internet, increasing-
ly the solicitation of user generated content has become a central strategy in
this process of commodification. In turn, paratextual site users are now able to
more directly influence the currency conversion of gaming capital. These sites
are generating affinity spaces (Gee 2005) where video game players enact their
identities and construct what Suominen (2011) has called a “culture of history.”
I suggest that fluency by players in this history, and stories about managing
their fluency, demonstrates what Consalvo (2007) considers is a form of “gam-
ing capital.” For Nieborg and Sihvonen (2009) game capital “is a fluid and al-
ways changing currency held by those who have gained knowledge and infor-
mation about games and game culture and are able to voice their opinions or
relate their experiences to others.”
As enthusiast press websites have cultivated affinity spaces by endorsing blogs,
user comments to reviews, and user reviews, what has been termed “spreadable
media” ( Jenkins et al 2013), games gain a greater paratextual sense of temporal
persistence by being turned into cultural artifacts as a focus of user interest, ref-
erence, critique, and memory. Therefore “gaming capital” isn’t just about being
good at playing a game in terms of instrumental skill, but has become an indexi-
cal marker via aesthetic dispositions of participation within culture and genera-
tion of this culture of history through spreadable media. This suggest that aes-
thetic discussions about games have moved from being about what Kirkpatrick
(2012, 2013) has described as focused on “gameplay” internal to the ludic struc-
ture of a particular game, to being about the aesthetic relations and comparisons
between games, and the culture of history of games. However, I don’t want to
paint the paratextual industries as being singular or centralized. Rather, to name
them as an ‘industry’ is to recognize that on one side game publishers are utiliz-
ing them so as to further their market interest, while on the other game players
are competing over gaming capital. Therefore the generation and competition of
gaming capital is not a singular process by a centralized paratextual industry, but
rather a field effect generated by a loose confederation of “spreadable” media.
Therefore the important histories charting how games’ media have informed
gaming context and struggles over gaming capital (cf. Consalvo 2007, Kirpatrick
2012 & 2013, Nieborg. and Sihvonen 2009, and Suominen 2011) have mostly ana-
102 Jonathan Church

lyzed reviews within printed gaming magazines and not shifts of context caused
by new forms of interactive spreadable media.

Conceptualizing context: The archival pulse

So given the increasing spreadability of this field effect by these paratextual in-
dustries, a question arises as to how best conceptually approach this growing
plethora of paratextual materials. While paratextual materials on the internet re-
semble a vast repository, a kind of archipelago of information, blogs, reviews,
liveplays, YouTube videos and discussion forums that link to the market interests
of games’ publishers, commercial enthusiast press sites, and engaged fans provid-
ing much of the content and analysis, a new kind of archival effect is taking place.
The question becomes how to conceptualize this archival effect that is both cen-
tralized by market interest and personalized by fan engagement and participa-
tion. Informed by Stoller’s (2009) sense of the archive as a site of condensed and
anxious, often contradictory, knowledge formations, a place that is not a mere
repository of dead letters, but has a living affect laden pulse regarding gover-
nance, technologies of rule and power relations, this chapter conceptualizes the
plethora of web-based information about gaming as a kind of “neoliberal ar-
chive,” as distinct from Stoller’s colonial archive.
The colonial archive was what Stoller (2009) calls a “shadowed place” of sov-
ereign state secrets residing with “the power to designate arbitrary social facts of
the world as matters of security and concerns of state (p. 26).” The archive served
the colonial state and was more than a repository of information and intelligence,
but a way of constituting identities, especially of the colonized populations. La-
tent within the concerns of the production of social facts about and categoriza-
tions of people was an affect of distress. What was secret was not the information
but the distress that violations of the colonial commonsense constituted for the
colonial state.

Once so assigned, these social facts – Indo children breastfed by native servants
(who were sometimes their mothers), poor whites who went by non-Christian
names, Indo “disguised” in the dress of native traders, language-use at home – are
dislodged from the contexts, flung into the orbit of a political world that is often not
their own. These otherwise innocuous practices become iconic indices of a colonial
world perceived at being at risk, signs of alert that accrue political deliberations,
that sanction the rushing in of more evidence, that confirm causal connections that
warrant more secreted documentation (Stoller 2009, p. 26).

To understand the archive, one must understand, as Stoller (2009, p.25) puts
it, “the institutions that it served.” If colonial archives relentlessly documented,
Constructing a neoliberal archive 103

often in quite contradictory ways, the subjects of the colonial state, and focused
affectively on categories of social miscegenation, it was to serve the state, and to
define those subjects as interpolated by state power. To understand our contem-
porary documentation cultivated by spreadable media with the constant partici-
patory production of opinions, polls, comments, and reviews, the institution
that spreadable media serves is the market. If the colonial archive was a shad-
owed place of secrecy, then what I have termed the neoliberal archive is a negoti-
ated place of apparent transparency where tastes, fashions, and opinions are
made visible through participatory statements of identity formation.
In the neoliberal archive the individual participates in constructing the ar-
chive as a way to negotiate subjectivity (the identity “gamer”) and compete over
gaming capital. As Gershon (2011) has argued regarding neoliberal agency, the
self becomes a deliberative and demonstrated construction of skill sets and ex-
pertise linked to the potentials of market value. Thus the cultivation by commer-
cial web blogs of “community” as a strategy of monetization around advertising
is linked to the individual participation and identification of these affinity spaces
as a place to learn, present and compete over gaming capital. Kirkpatrick (2013,
p.21) has suggested this identity of gamer is a kind of ‘streamlined self ’ where “the
positive work of games and gamers in fashioning new social spaces becomes
more of a source of concern because, rather than being spaces of deliberation and
choice compatible with the democratic ideal of citizenship, the new spaces they
open up in our experience may actually be openings to more profound kinds of
manipulation and social control.”

Archival and discourse analysis: Aesthetics of disappointment

The question becomes how to get at this archival pulse? The amount of raw
data is overwhelming. Our strategy was to conceive the commercial gaming cul-
ture in North America as having a form of annual seasonality, and a kind of pil-
grimage cycle of international conferences, conventions and exhibitions, like
D.I.C.E. (Design Innovate Communicate Entertain summit), GDC (Game De-
velopers Conference in both North America and Europe), PAX (Penny Arcade
Expositions), Gamescom, and the Tokyo Game Show and E3 (Annual exposition
of the Entertainment Software Association) that result in features, previews, and
content reported upon by the enthusiast press. We identified the E3 exposition as
the beginning of the annual cycle of pre-release hype. During the 2012 E3 exposi-
tion we identified both Assassin's Creed III and BioShock Infinite as focal points
for our archival investigations because of the critical praise received at the expo
and the amount of enthusiast press attention. We discursively analyzed and the-
matized the cycle of prerelease, release, and post-release commentary, criticism
and reviews from June 2012-May 2013 mainly found in user reviews on gaming
104 Jonathan Church

enthusiast press websites, such as,,,

Hailed as the potential best in the Assassin's Creed series at E3 2012, Assassin's
Creed III released to high expectations and very mixed reviews among profes-
sional game reviewers and game players who commented on professional re-
views or left user reviews. So while being an overwhelming commercial ‘hit’ with
over 7 million copies sold in the 2012 holiday season (Ubisoft Entertainment
2012a), and currently 14 million units sold, the game was also framed by review-
ers within an aesthetic of disappointment. It didn’t meet expectations.
However, disappointment, we found, doesn’t result in consensus, as much as
create discursive space for arguments and indexical references to other games
and other moments within gaming history by which to aesthetically judge. So for
instance, site users on began a conversation entitled, “Can we
please talk about why Assassin's Creed III was disappointing?” a month after the
game released. The originator of the post framed the issue, “I really wanted to
like Assassin's Creed 3 (sic), I even tried to force myself to like the game -- to vali-
date the $60 purchase. Eventually I had enough.” After presenting his major com-
plaints with awkward controls, poor level design, game tutorials that are both too
long but don’t cover all gaming systems, and a weak narrative, he turned to other
site participants, “What do you guys think, am I crazy, or do you agree?” The re-
sponses to this query and the discussions generated were quite varied and highly
nuanced. Some responded quite critically to the overall game:

Shoddy level design throughout, an irritatingly dull protagonist, and the feeling of
“why am I even bothering” for all of the game’s side missions. On top of all of that,
it brings Desmond’s story to a ridiculously disappointing close.

Others responses were much less critical of the narrative and gameplay given
both the history of the overall Assassin's Creed series and the buildup of fan ex-

The game was satisfying for me in the only regard it needed to be at this point, the
narrative. I enjoyed the plot and found the ending satisfactory. There is not much
more I can ask for after the expectations put upon the game. I can overlook the
bugs. The core game play was as good or bad as it ever was. The naval missions
were a fantastic surprise.

Many responses also linked to paratextual knowledge and speculations about

the game development process, resources and budgetary constraints:

The story was half-baked at best, and the gameplay wasn’t very fun (except the
naval battles, those were awesome). It was a very ambitious game on a technical
Constructing a neoliberal archive 105

level, if the interviews I’ve read/seen are right, and I feel like there was a lot more
stuff they wanted to include but had to cut at the last minute (gaps in the narrative,
better modern-day sequences, etc.).

Maybe if they’d had more time to work on it (they wanted to get it out in time for
the Mayan apocalypse), or managed their resources better, it would have been the
game we all dreamed of. Instead I see people saying it’s worse than Revelations,
and Revelations drew a looot (SIC) of criticism.

What disappointment affords is the space to both address what may have gone
wrong, but also to engage in a discussion, usually quite comparative, with how it
went wrong. The degree of disappointment given prior expectations both para-
textual and experiential is always an open question. Therefore, an aesthetic of
disappointment is very conducive to generative discussions that both display
gaming capital by subtly promoting disagreement.
This is seen clearly in the case of BioShock Infinite which released to critical
praise, seen as either a worthy successor or surpassing the original BioShock (Ir-
rational Games 2007). Within a week after release, major websites like Kotaku
would republish a critical blog post by the freelancer and cultural critic Leigh Al-
exander (2013). She would frame the question like this.

We can do anything, now. We were promised everything. Why didn't we mind

"ludonarrative dissonance" so much before? Because that was before and this is
now. What happens without the cage? Are you as obedient as ever? That question
underlies everything the game's done with the resources it's been given, and an-
swers itself. This can't be the way forward, at least,

Phew. Okay. That was the violin-note. My last thought is to emphasize that I think
a thorough critique is the highest compliment I can pay to any work. This vision
deserves it. And I'd rather have a hundred imperfect games aching with the hollow
voices of their strained creators than the loveliest cover shooter ever made. This is
a crucial moment in our canon, and I honor it.

The issue of ludonarrative dissonance, where the violence in the gameplay was
seen as potentially contradicting the narrative arch, became a focal point by
which BioShock Infinite was seen as both worthy of critical renown, and yet had
the potential to disappoint. In ranging discussions, forum contributors some-
times responded quite differently. So here is a brief set of post from Destructoid.
com in response to game journalist’s Jim Sterling’s (2013) defense of the violence
in the game:
106 Jonathan Church

Personally I wouldn't have minded some slight ways to avoid combat but I have to
agree that the violence fits. It's well-paced too and doesn't feel detached from the
experience. It also plays into Booker's character as someone for whom violence is
in their nature, despite being something they regret.

Great points. I was getting tired of the violence complaints. For Bioshock, I honestly
believe some people are looking for problems where there aren't any just so they
can have a criticism for a game that is mostly loved.

BlueJester’s sense that one must have “a criticism” to demonstrate fluency and
gaming capital points to how an aesthetics of disappointment is one of the lynch-
pin strategies by which “community” is managed, and where the actual play of
games is indexically connected to gamers through their participation on gaming
blogs, websites, and podcasts. Both the discussions generated by Assassin's Creed
III and BioShock Infinite were much more relational and comparative in terms of
other games that were recently released, such as Mass Effect 3 (BioWare 2012),
Dishonored (Arkane Studios 2012), Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics Inc. 2013),
and The Last of Us (Naughty Dog Inc. 2013), to name but a few, than our examples
above have suggested.
Disappointment is particularly generative for gaming paratexts as it allows for
the variegated display and competition of gaming capital without coming to
completion or resolve. It is a constant interrogation of both identity and position-
ality given how the “culture of history” of gaming is comparatively and relation-
ally constructed to the marketplace and within market segments. As Bourdieu
(1984) has told us, ‘taste’ is always relational. Yet disappointment is an affective
stance that requires gamers to keep current with trends, with the play of actual
games, and with continued purchasing in the neoliberal marketplace both by
clicking on websites and by purchasing games. It is always history in the making
in that sense of what Leigh Alexander means when she comments about critical
sensibilities, “Because that was before and this is now.” It is a peculiar affect for
aesthetics, and deeply linked not with a sense of beauty (as in Kantian aesthetics
and disinterested repose), but the expression of skills and accomplishment as
fun. It seems particularly well suited to what Ngai (2005) has called the “ugly feel-
ings” of a neoliberal age where aesthetic subjectivity is linked less to fleeting mo-
ments of sublime experience (beauty), but more with a constancy of motivation
to continue the hard work of having fun.
Constructing a neoliberal archive 107


Part of the pleasure of contemporary video game playing for many self-identi-
fied “core” gamers is to both play games and aesthetically discuss the game being
played. However, the very categorization of a “core” gamer is rather recent and
part of the very spreadability of new media and the participation in affinity spac-
es. In this sense, if gaming culture exists as Shaw (2010) asks, then it exists as a se-
ries of lived practices and complex, often contradictory, recursive discourses in
the making. Context matters both in terms of the affordances it allows for play,
but also in terms of the categorizations on knowledge and affect that become sed-
imented as a culture of history. This sedimentation is precisely why some games
look “retro.” Why “16 byte” has become a nostalgic style utilized by some game
developers to mark their games as independently made even while avoiding ex-
pensive development costs. Or to end this chapter with another brief anecdote,
it is why my research assistant gently teases me for “being too old to be an indie
hipster” in our competition over taste, history and gaming capital. The idea of a
gaming “indie hipster” has only recently come into existence, although both in-
dependently developed small budget games and their players have always been
part of gaming, but now a mostly forgotten part of gaming history.
As Consalvo (2009, p. 415) has put it, “there is no innocent gaming.” As seen
from the examples of Assassin's Creed III and BioShock Infinite, an aesthetic of dis-
appointment productively generates a comparative sense of gamers’ cultural
present by framing expectations of what the present and future of gaming should
play like given its past. Enthusiast press websites have cultivated community par-
ticipation by endorsing blogs, user comments to reviews, and user reviews,
games gain a greater sense of temporal persistence that is outside the magic circle
(Stenros 2012 and Consalvo 2009) of the traditional ludic play of the game.
Games, play, and gameplay take their place within the changing and contested
context of a history of gaming culture. This process may be conceptualized as the
formation of neoliberal archive linked to the commercial marketplace of commu-
nity cultivation through forms of individual participation. Yet we have to be care-
ful with this image of the archive. First, as part of spreadable media, there is a re-
cursive, iterative and plural quality to the archives. As participatory spaces, they
are many. Even the archives of our academic musings and writings are part of this
archipelago now falling under the archival sign of “game studies” which consti-
tutes a field of study as it proclaims a particular attachment to an academic iden-
tity. We, academics, may want to the tell them, gamers, who they are, even as we
acknowledge that we, too, are gamers. Yet, as ethnographers have so regularly
discovered, our informants are quite often much more insightful and knowledge-
able as experts about their culture and history in the making than we are (cf.
Pearce 2009). Finally virtual archives are just as well ordered and messy and or-
ganizationally chaotic as their brick and mortar counterparts. Archives are cul-
108 Jonathan Church

turally informative and constitutive both in how they arrange materials, their
logics of categorization, as well as in what materials are immediately available,
what is lost, and what is discarded. Therefore, the construction of context is nev-
er transparent as much as a process of sedimentation which may render other his-
tories less visible. One should examine how an aesthetics of disappointment
springs from the visibility and indexicality of particular kinds of neoliberal affin-
ity spaces, particular forms of community so deeply tied to the marketplace,
where the hard work of fun is forged and new categories of identity fabricated as
this chapter has, but also acknowledge and attempt to trace the shards of history
forgotten and identifications become detritus – a call for future endeavors.

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Ubisoft Entertainment. (2012). Assassin's Creed III [PlayStation 3, PC Computer, Wii U, Xbox 360],
Ubisoft Entertainment.

David Myers
Michigan, United States

Authorial intent and video games


This essay focuses on author/designer contexts and how authorial intent (cf.
Iseminger 1992) might affect video game meanings, with reference to the interac-
tive qualities of digital media. The essay reviews existing analysis of authorial in-
tent in fiction – and art more generally – and considers the relevance of that anal-
ysis to video games.


Do video games have meanings? There are no clear arguments as to how or

why this must be the case.
Certainly, video game designers often claim their games have meanings. Rod
Humble’s The Marriage ( 2007) carries an opinion and attitude about
its namesake; Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia ( 2012) is a blatantly
self-conscious effort to share a transgender experience; and Lars Doucet’s expla-
nation of Tourette’s Quest ( 2012) is equally direct:

Lots of people know what Tourette's symptoms look like from the outside, but it's
very hard to communicate what it feels like internally, and that's what I am trying to
capture with this experience. (Doucet, quoted in Campbell 2012)

Video game theorists also assume video games have meanings – or, at the very
least, referential functions – in accord with the intent of designers. Salen & Zim-
merman (2003) claim that proper games “provide meaningful play at every mo-
ment” (p. 354) and define this meaningfulness with reference to mechanics pecu-
liar to games: goals and achievements representing player progress.
Yet, despite such deference paid to the unique qualities of digital media and
games, video game theorists simultaneously allow video games to convey the
same sorts of messages and meanings as other, non-digital-based media. Bogost,
Farrari, & Schweizer, B. (2010) advance the notion that the video game’s “proce-
Authorial intent and video games 111

dural rhetoric” might operate in parallel with newspaper editorials. For Gee
(2008), video game play references social and cultural literacies immediately rel-
evant to beyond-game contexts; and Sicart (2009) argues that game play pro-
vides useful insights into real-world values and behavior.
In such theoretical contexts, interactive video games are positioned as a par-
ticularly persuasive form of realistic fiction and, by extension, propaganda. The
long-lived and popular game Civilization (Microsoft 1991), for instance, has been
interpreted in just this way: as advancing values and biases associated with na-
tionalist, imperialist, and colonialist policies (Poblocki 2002; Lemmes 2003).
However, it is unclear whether video games and the meaning-making process-
es associated with their play are best understood using the same conceptual anal-
ogies as those used to understand other communication messages and practices
– even when video games, in some part, reproduce the form and content of pre-
vious media. Some, in fact, claim precisely the opposite: that the meaning-mak-
ing processes evoked by game rules and procedures are incapable of functioning
in parallel with those meaning-making processes most commonly associated
with non-digital media and non-game forms.
In the case of Civilization, Myers (2005) has argued that the colonial themes
and related historical tropes of the game are hollowed during persistent and in-
teractive game replay. This replay process, an inescapable consequence of the
formal properties of digital media and video games, carries no meaningful refer-
ence to social institutions or cultural histories and may actively oppose any au-
thorial intent to impose these (or similar) references during play.
Acknowledging conflicts between audience/player and artist/designer leads
Bordwell (2009) to question Jenkins’s (2003) promotion of “transmedia story-
telling” as a viable alternative to existing story formats. Bordwell claims that too
much transmedial interactivity dilutes and distorts artistic vision – and, critical-
ly, that vision’s meaning:

Storytelling is crucially all about control. It sometimes obliges the viewer to take
adventures she could not imagine. Storytelling is artistic tyranny, and not always
benevolent. (Bordwell 2009)

A parallel argument by Walsh (2011), applied more directly to digital media

and games, examines the difficulties encountered when subjecting video game
play to conventional narrative restraints: a digital game, as a simulation, is in-
compatible with this subjugation.

...any description of the system itself, with its multiple simultaneous recursive op-
erations, necessarily defies narrative form... simulation and narrative are categori-
cally distinct modes of representation. (Walsh 2011, p. 75; 77)
112 David Myers

Given these controversies, what sort of arguments justify and validate the
“meaning” of video games? Arguments of this sort have often focused on social
and cultural contexts and, correspondingly, the social construction of meanings.
This essay examines more formal contexts framing the relationship between
game designer (i. e., authorial) intent and potential game meanings.

Authorial intent

“Authorial intent” here indicates the ability of an artist to influence the aes-
thetic experience – including “comprehension and assessment” (Stefanescu
2010, p. 125) – of a work of art. Authorial intent has been often considered signif-
icant in determining the “meaning” of a work of art. However, biographical criti-
cism (cf. “genetic” criticism (Raval 1980)) and formal criticism take oppositional
positions regarding this determination.
Biographical criticism views authorial intent as critical to understanding a
work of art; within this view, the artist’s influence may be more active (e. g., “ge-
nius”) or more passive (e. g., the consequence of a particular sociological or psy-
chological profile). Formal criticism, in contrast, holds that authorial intent is in-
significant in determining the meaning of a work of art; this position is character-
ized by the “New Criticism” of Wimsatt & Beardsley (1946):

“the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard
for judging the success of a work of literary art” (p. 468)

Stefanescu (2010) notes discussion of the nature and influence of authorial in-
tent has gained momentum over the last couple of decades – particularly since
the publication of Iseminger (1992). Biographical criticism – and its ilk – are rep-
resented broadly as intentionalism. Those who oppose intentionalism – including
descendents of the New Critics – are anti-intentionalists.


Here is a dilemma for intentionalists: If authorial intent is derived from the

form of a work of art, without direct access to authorial intent, then authorial in-
tent seems superfluous to that form. That is, either a work of art is sufficient to
determine its meaning, or it is not. If it is not sufficient, then it is problematic as
to how this insufficiency might be overcome in an aesthetically relevant way.
To address this issue, some intentionalists reject an “actual” intentionalist po-
sition in favor of one with caveats. Stecker (2006), for instance, argues for “mod-
erate actual intentionalism,” in which the author must successfully communicate
Authorial intent and video games 113

intent. Others favor a more “hypothetical” intentionalist position, which would

assign priority to an “ideal reader’s best account of the author’s intention [rather
than] that intention itself ” (Iseminger 1996, p. 320).
Regardless, these and related variations of intentionalism have, as a critical
feature, the assumption that artworks are (based on Currie 2004) “intentional
products of communicative action” (p. 132). Authorial intent is then important to
the aesthetic experience precisely because that aesthetic experience is a commu-
nicative process – something like a conversation. Based on this view, it is incum-
bent on the reader to be able to determine authorial intent with whatever degree
of accuracy is necessary to properly satisfy the conversational loop.


A critical issue for anti-intentionalists is this: Even if authorial intent is not vi-
tal in all instances, there are instances in which authorial intent does seem vital –
i. e., in those instances where there is confusion about an artwork’s meaning.
Anti-intentionalists, however, disagree that such cases necessitate referencing
authorial intent in determining meaning. Maes (2008) notes that authorial intent
is important in these instances of confusion “... not so much because it is crucial
in determining the meaning of a work, but because it is crucial to its evaluation
and appreciation” (2008, p. 92). And then, as Gaut (1993) argues, “one does not
research novels, one appreciates them” (p. 599) – a distinction that the anti-inten-
tionalist might well apply to restrict the benefits of accessing authorial intent to
evaluation alone.
While, indeed, authors may have intent, it is the consequence of this intent on
aesthetic experience (or “appreciation”) that is most at issue for anti-intentional-
ists. If art is a communicative process, then the aesthetic experience is, in effect, a
conversation (à la Stecker); and, in order to successfully accomplish this conver-
sation, authorial intent is necessarily a part. But it is unclear that this conversa-
tional metaphor is the correct one.
Anti-intentionalists have argued against intentionalism either while accepting
this conversational – or communicative – metaphor, or while rejecting it.
Where anti-intentionalists accept the communicative metaphor, they are
prone to deny its function in contexts most aesthetically relevant to the apprecia-
tion of a work of art. That is, anti-intentionalists might carefully scrutinize works
of art in order to root out distinctions among various communication message
types (e. g., linguistic vs. nonlinguistic) and/or functions (e. g., informative vs. af-
fective). Trivedi (2001) makes just these sorts of distinctions in arguing, simulta-
neously, for art as communication and against actual intentionalism (or, at least,
Carroll’s (1992) version of it).
This scrutiny results in some hybrid positions, in which “partial intentional-
114 David Myers

ism” (e. g., Maes, 2008) slides toward “weak anti-intentionalism” (e. g., Wilson
1997), and vice versa. These hybrid positions include Davies (1982) “value-maxi-
mizing” account, which, in effect, replaces hypothetical intentionalism with a
hypothetical conversational context in which the meaning of a work of art is most
properly ascertained through imagining that work’s most aesthetically satisfac-
tory (i. e., pseudo-conversational) outcome. This same, hybrid-ish category also
includes Gaut’s (1993) “patchwork” account, which holds that “the role and im-
portance of intentions in determining the correct ascription of properties varies
greatly depending on the properties involved” (p. 603).
Regardless of the depth of scrutiny, however, this sort of analysis remains in
the grip of a communicative metaphor. And, for this reason, this analysis runs the
risk of “render[ing] artistic practice rather trivial” (p. 280).

... it seems unclear why we would preserve the practice of art...if its only merit were
to serve as a more efficient (but less reliable!) container for meanings than ordinary
language. (Keifer 2005, p. 280)

Alternatively, anti-intentionalists might reject the communicative – and, par-

ticularly, the conversational – metaphor outright.
One popular paradigmatic alternative is a more constructivist one, in which
works of art are not conceived as communication channels but rather as plat-
forms for the creation of (often collaborative) meaning(s) – cf. “shared intention-
alism” in Bacharach, S. & Tollefsen, D. (2010). Another paradigmatic choice is to
understand works of art as less communicative than expressive – and therein de-
prioritize the necessity of an intentional author-to-reader exchange.
These three broad conceptualizations of aesthetic objects – communicative,
constructive, and expressive – adjudicate the function of authorial intent quite
differently. Which is most appropriately applied to video games?

Digital media and video games

Playing video games as a communicative process.

The communicative metaphor assumes that author and reader share a com-
mon (linguistic-like) system through which communication is made possible. Is
there equally a video-game-based linguistic system?
There has been a great deal of interest in positioning video games as rhetorical
devices carrying their messages in embedded “procedures,” much like a mule
might carry its most valuable cargo in its bones rather than on its back. This no-
tion emphasizes the interactive (i. e., “ergodic”) necessities of video game play –
to push that button and react to that image – associated with rules integral to and
Authorial intent and video games 115

definitive of video game play. These rules then seem unavoidably influential on
whatever meaning the game might subsequently convey.
Given the communicative metaphor, the rules and procedures of video games
are most closely analogous to the syntax of a language. And, conventionally, we
draw a distinction between form and content – or syntax and semantics – such
that sentences with the same syntactical form might nevertheless convey differ-
ent semantical content, or meaning.
Conceptualizing video game meanings as determined by rules and procedures
de-prioritizes the conventional semantic elements we associate with texts much
like these are de-prioritized within musical compositions and abstract paintings.
However, even as regards non-language-based art forms such as music and paint-
ing, there are familiar and systematic (i. e., visual and auditory) experiences pre-
ceding those that are manipulated and rearranged within the artist’s composition
(e. g., sensations of “red” or “brightness” or “loudness” or “cacophony”). These
familiar sensory experiences can then function equivalently to the semantics of
language in this respect: their juxtaposition, without any accompanying change
in the more formal (i. e., syntactic) properties of the composition, can result in
different aesthetic experiences and, correspondingly, different “meanings” of the
If we allow this division between syntactic and semantic elements in non-lan-
guage-based (but still linguistically “meaningful”) artistic compositions, then do
the rules of interactive video games possess equally analogous properties to ma-
nipulate and compose? Are there, for instance, pre-existing human experiences
– similar to those of brightness and loudness – that are manipulated within the
formal rules of games?
Perhaps. But these analogous experiences seem to be, if anything, not of eye
or ear or language, but of cognition itself: pre-existing forms of thought and
thinking that result in human reason, analysis, and interpretation. If so, then the
rules of games are a truly unique aesthetic form: a self-reflexive form of forms, in
which conventional content is not merely de-prioritized (as might occur in ab-
stract painting or music), but intrusive and misleading wherever that content ap-
pears to be some essential part of a rules-based “message.”
This implies that the video game functions most fundamentally as means of
denying conventional semantic-based meanings (rather than asserting them).
That is, the aesthetic experience of video game play, as a communicative process,
conveys a fundamentally self-reflexive message: i. e., “This is not the meaning it
would be if this meaning were conveyed in some form other than a game.”
Many – most – video games explicitly designed to communicate authorial in-
tent, when using the game’s rules and procedures as a rhetorical strategy of this
sort, exhibit this tendency of the game form to communicate through subversion
rather than assertion. Freedom Bridge ( 2012), for instance,
communicates a sense of oppression and frustration associated with being un-
116 David Myers

able to cross the actual Freedom Bridge (in Imjingak, South Korea) through de-
nying expected game player “freedoms” in game. All’s Well That Ends Well (pip- 2011) offers a similarly ironic message concerning game player expec-
tations and real world hopes and desires: both may be equally dashed.
And, significantly, when the video game form conforms too closely to conven-
tional expectations, authorial intent – particular subversive and “serious” intent
– is difficult to convey. Bogost’s Cow Clicker (Facebook 2010)experiment on
Facebook, for instance, was (apparently) designed to convey an ironic message
within a relatively conventional game form; over time (and, perhaps, somewhat
to Bogost’s dismay), the game came to assert that which it was intended to sub-
vert: game form trumped game meaning.

Playing video games as a constructive process

The conversational metaphor implies a two-way communication channel.

However, this “channel” is ill-balanced. The metaphor’s prevailing notion is that
authors code a meaning into a message, and then readers decode that message
and extract its meaning. While this decoding (or, alternatively, interpretive) pro-
cess can be quite varied and active, the equity implied by a communication-
based metaphor is a figurative analogy, not a literal mechanic.
Conceivably, digital media might actualize this interpretative process, making
that process more substantive, experiential, and, correspondingly, more influen-
tial on the meaning of a work of art. Buttressed by digital-based mechanics, read-
er interpretations may then more readily intrude upon authorial intent – and,
perhaps, substitute for it.
This, at least, is a rough sketch of an alternative to the communicative meta-
phor – a constructivist paradigm – in which the artwork is malleable enough for
multiple and varied manipulations, and one in which the reader/audience has
sufficient means to exert those manipulations. The prototypical video game with-
in this paradigm is the “sandbox” game (e. g. Minecraft (Mojang 2009)).
Within the constructivist paradigm proper, aesthetic experiences associated
with playing video games are representative of aesthetic experiences engaging
digital media more generally – and a direct consequence of digital media interac-
tivity as “possibly the defining characteristic of the video game” (Corliss 2010, p.
7). This then requires a conceptualization of interactivity compatible with the
constructivist paradigm.
There are difficulties associated with such a conceptualization, particularly in-
sofar media interactivity is media- (rather than audience-) determined. If so de-
termined, then audience interpretations are not merely actualized by the digital
medium; they are in important ways constrained by that medium.
These sorts of difficulties motivate Smuts (2007) to define digital media inter-
Authorial intent and video games 117

activity as a “relational, not an intrinsic concept” (p. 65)). Such a definition al-
lows interactivity to remain integral to “concreativity” (cf. Collingwood (1938)),
in which the artwork is “shaped by both the artist and the audience” (see also
Cover (2004)). Even if given a supportive definition of this sort, however, ques-
tions remain concerning collaborative play in video games: “Whether concre-
ativity truly affords a potential that lends much to the achievement of artistic ex-
cellence is a highly suspect claim” (Smuts 2007, p. 71)

Playing video games as an expressive process

Digital video games might be considered a linguistic system capable of com-

positionality (within the communicative metaphor) or as a more generic symbol
system capable of compositionality and decompositionality (within the con-
structivist metaphor).
A third paradigm can be distinguished: art as an expressive process. This third
paradigm has affinities with constructivism, but differs from it in considering the
representational functions of media as potential impediments to aesthetic experi-
The complexities of prose and the unconventional stylistics of poetry are con-
ventionally understood as a necessary means to convey complex and unconven-
tional meanings. These are not always equally understood as simulations of the
actual process of meaning-making itself [ James Joyce’s Ulysses notwithstanding].
Rather, works of art are construed as consequences of that process – more focused
on ends than means.
Within this third, expressive paradigm, art is a sort of primal scream, less in-
tended to communicate a social message or construct a shared experience than
to satisfy a desire. Subsequently, this scream might be filtered through a sign and
symbol system, adding detail and nuance and clarity of purpose, but at the ex-
pense of altering the scream itself, masking it and requiring it to conform to other
(e. g., communicative or constructivist) goals. This filtering creates information
and, perhaps, shared values and meanings for the audience, but it simultaneously
filters – and potentially mutes – the satisfaction of the artist, who must therein
become an artisan.
Within this paradigm, artwork may be produced in absence of any ulterior
motive whatsoever – such as those circumstances purportedly surrounding the
production of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (i. e., a drug-induced stupor). Such com-
positions may still be considered constructivist acts, but they are equally acts iso-
lated from social intervention – and fundamentally non-collaborative.
Likewise, within a communicative metaphor, video game rules and proce-
dures must somehow function as elements of a shared sign and symbol system.
But the rules and procedures of video games have their own, iconic and experi-
118 David Myers

ential properties. During video game play, these rules and procedures do not
serve merely as representations of meanings derived from experiences else-
where; they serve as reproductions – or, more descriptively, simulations – of ex-
perience itself. Video game play is then not unlike the experience of a dream,
which, during its dreaming, delivers an experience that is just real as that which,
upon reflection, the dream is considered to have “represented.”
Walsh – quoted earlier (2011, p. 77) – sees simulation and narrative as “cate-
gorically distinct modes of representation,” yet the simulation remains, for
Walsh, a “representational mode.” Within the expressive paradigm, the simula-
tion represents that which is outside the simulation no more (or less) than the
mechanical reproduction of artwork represents its original. With its function not
limited to mere representation, this reproduction evokes a unique aesthetic ex-
perience of its own: not precisely in a mode of representation, but, as Benjamin
(1936) described it, in “a mode of appropriation.”

Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men... Mechanical reproduction of

a work of art, however, represents something new. (Benjamin 1936)

When applied to video games, this expressive metaphor requires its own dis-
tinct conceptualization of artists and artworks – a conceptualization not unprec-
edented. For instance, Langer’s (1953) notion that art “cannot really be said to re-
fer to something outside itself ” (p. 380) is relevant, as is Dewey’s (1934) notion of
“art as experience.” (See, for instance, the discussion in Deen (2011)).


In existing analysis of video game play, the influence of authorial (designer) in-
tent is seldom questioned. However, the digital medium’s unique representation-
al (i. e., communicative) properties – alongside its fundamentally “interactive” (i.
e., constructivist) properties – complicate intentionalist assumptions, making
the influence of authorial intent on video game meanings problematic. Prior to
assuming social and cultural contexts have important influences on video game
play, some sort of solution to the problem of properly contextualizing game de-
signer (authorial) intent seems necessary.
Using a communicative metaphor to evaluate video game play as a unique aes-
thetic experience leads us to consider whether video games convey meaning
through an equally unique semantic system: i. e., though “procedural aesthetics”
(Myers 2012). This unique semantic system would not necessarily eliminate the
influence of authorial intent, but does appear to channel that influence so that it
operates most efficiently in denial of conventional meaning. This is most obvious
when video games attempt to convey messages that are somehow “serious” – or
Authorial intent and video games 119

otherwise in opposition to – those natural pleasures associated with game play.

Under the assumptions of a constructivist metaphor, the influence of autho-
rial intent on the meaning of a video game is muted by the video game’s media-
determined interactivity. Though some would argue for the creative potential of
this interactivity, the most visible consequence of digital media interactivity has
been to reconfigure and defuse authorial intent during video game play – most
particularly undermining narrative control (see Ryan 2001).
The third, expressive metaphor prompts a re-examination of those aesthetic
theories that emerged prior to the widespread use of digital media. These theo-
ries – e. g., those of Langer and Dewey – emphasize the personal and experiential
qualities of aesthetic experience. Within this metaphor, video games serve less as
works of art than as reproductions – or partial simulations – of a natural world in
which art is made possible. It is then the careful distillation of video game play
that most reasonably justifies that play as a “meaningful” aesthetic experience.


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Pilar Lacasa, María Ruth García-Pernía, Sara Cortés Gómez

Madrid, Spain

From gamers to game designers: Looking for

new adolescent literacies


This chapter is the result of an innovative experience that explores new educa-
tional methodologies in which the design of video games becomes an all-impor-
tant activity during school hours. Video games, as cultural tools, present at
school, have become platforms from which to generate new literacies needed to
cope in 21st Century society. Ethnographic and action research approaches are
adopted, complemented by a discourse analysis perspective. The data comes
from a workshop carried out with teenagers working together with teachers and
the research team from an interdisciplinary standpoint. The results show that,
when designing a platform game, the process of becoming aware of its mechanics
occurs gradually, while integrating aspects of fiction and the rules of the game.
The verbalization of the design process, based on the interaction with both adults
and peers, helps to transform practice. The video game design appears, from this
experience, as an important instrument to promote digital literacy.
The main goal of this paper is to analyze the experiences of adolescents when
designing video games in an innovative learning environment based on the con-
cept of participatory culture. More specifically, we will look at the process of de-
signing video games in a collaborative and interdisciplinary workshop. The specific
objectives are the following:
1. To explore the game design process in the classroom looking for educational
strategies supporting the acquisition of new literacies. Students become pro-
ducers, not just receivers.
2. To analyze how the process of designing video games helps to raise awareness
of their internal mechanics in a virtual world.
3. To examine the interaction and scaffolding situations among the workshop
participants during the video game creation process.
122 Pilar Lacasa, María Ruth García-Pernía, Sara Cortés Gómez

Theoretical framework

We will consider the theoretical framework that structures these specific ob-
jectives. First, new technologies offer users not only the chance to be consumers (cf.
Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robison, & Weigel, 2009; Kember & Zylinska,
2012) but also creators in several spheres such as YouTube, blogs, social media,
webs and even video games. In this case, the design of video games acquires a
new meaning when understood together with the concept of participatory cul-
ture, Jenkis and collaborators (2009) understand it as a culture with relatively
low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for cre-
ating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby ex-
perienced participants pass along knowledge to novices. From this persective,
playing is not enough, now it is necessary to create games and become senders of
information and not just receivers.
Second, the development of literacies demands becoming aware of the lan-
guage used (Gee, 2010b). When looking to develop new literacies through
games, it will be necessary to become aware of the discourse used to create these.
In this case, the discourse is related to two dimensions, namely, the game rules
and the drama behind the presentation of its contents (cf. Fullerton, Swain, &
Hoffman, 2008). From this perspective, we understand game design as a mea-
ning-building process immersed in a specific cultural context. The game is a formal
system because it makes us act according to a set of rules and requires the players
to put certain strategies in practice. It is also a cultural system because each game
offers different world models, agglutinating specific dimensions of the environ-
ment, whether physical or social, ethical or aesthetic. According to these au-
thors, “being game-literate means understanding how game systems work, ana-
lyzing how they make meaning, and using understanding to create your own
game systems.” (Fullerton, Swain, & Hoffman, 2008, p. 9)
Finally, the design of video games also offers new forms of collaboration that
challenge the relationships between individuals and the social world. The design
of a game in the professional realm is not usually an individual activity, it implies
an interdisciplinary collaboration processing in which there is interaction be-
tween specialists when working, organizing, deciding and taking specially rele-
vant decisions. The complexity of the design (cf. Murray, 2012) in virtual worlds
no doubt calls for interdisciplinary collaboration. When the design of video games
is introduced into the classroom, young people and adults learn different things
from each other. Besides, traditional social roles can be exchanged in the class-
room: those who were teachers now become apprentices, even though they can
keep their role as guides in learning situations (cf. Lacasa, 2013).
The following sections show how the process of designing a video game con-
tributed to awareness of internal grammar, related to its mechanics, rules and fic-
tion content. This process is possible because students design and dialogue in in-
From gamers to game designers: Looking for new adolescent literacies 123

teractive situations, where both peers and adults are present. Social interaction,
understood as the external grammar of the game (cf. Gee, 2003) produces verbal
representations of the game being gradually built. Playing video games is a cul-
tural practice that involves not only learning the mechanics of gameplay, but
learning how to negotiate its contexts, and they are them which James Gee con-
siders as external grammars.


The research was carried out adopting an action research and ethnographical
perspective. This study is part of a broader project which involved a whole sec-
ondary education school during the 2012-2013 school year with the aim of intro-
ducing video games as educational tools in the classroom. The context is a private
school next to the University, where the research team worked for three years.
Different workshops were designed involving teachers, researchers and students.
In this case, we worked on a workshop oriented to design video games by using
Game Maker. The workshop lasted fourteen sessions during school hours.


A group of 20 students participated working in large and small groups. Every

student played a different role: director, artist, designer, developer and sound
technician. To define them, we considered Mitchell's (2012) proposal when he
describes the different roles associated with work situations in relation to the cre-
ation of a video game. In this case, and because of the relevance to the objectives
of this paper, we look at the role of the game developer and designer, the person
in charge of almost any aspect of the game design. This student was also the
scriptwriter, the person who develops the story of the game and its characters.
A teacher and an interdisciplinary research team consisting of educational
psychologists, specialists in communication and computing, also took part in the

The corpus of data

In this paper, we analyze the process followed in the workshop to understand

the process itself and not only the final product of the video game design activity.
The corpus of data consists of all video-recorded sessions, the photographs taken
in each session, the recorded computer game and the video games designed;
moreover, the researchers elaborated an interpretative summary of the session.
124 Pilar Lacasa, María Ruth García-Pernía, Sara Cortés Gómez

Besides, once the workshop was over, we carried out interviews to the groups.
From a discourse analysis perspective (Gee, 2010a), the enquiry was carried out
with Transana software (2.52) in a two-phase approach in order to understand
the adolescents’ experiences in the context in which they occurred. In the first
phase, the recordings of each session were segmented and transcribed in order to
analyze the conversations to understand the meaning that this experience had for
teenagers and researchers. During the second phase, we explored the video
games designed by the students.

A first look to the workshop

A preliminary approach to the data allowed us to describe the context of the

workshop, the participants' activities and the process of game design. Photos,
video and audio recordings and the researchers' summaries were combined for
the analysis. Figure 1 shows that the workshop generated a multi-modal educational
activity with 5 phases. The introductory sessions of the first phase include discus-
sions in large and small groups. We notice that sessions 5 and 14 represent mile-
stones and relate to specific phases (i. e. second and fifth), since in them each
group presented the results of the design process formally to a group of experts.
These sessions included an intense previous preparation. The third and fourth
phases were dedicated to work on the specific processes of design in small groups.

Figure 1. The workshop development: sessions and phases

From gamers to game designers: Looking for new adolescent literacies 125

Figure 2. The classroom

Figure 2 includes a visual presentation of how the classroom was organized in

the three most relevant work situations: working in large and small groups, and
the interaction with the research team in the formal presentation sessions where
the researchers acted as a jury.


We assume that the game design process facilitates the grasp of awareness of
the different dimensions, thus contributing to the acquisition of a specific digital
literacy ( James Paul Gee, 2010b). The main results are presented by some exam-
ples explored according to a discourse analysis approach. The main goal is to ex-
amine how the students’ representations of the game evolve during the design
process. The analyses of their conversations with peers and adults, as much as
written text, are considered, in order to show how students’ representations of
the game integrate the mechanics and narrative aspects. Scaffolding processes
among participants are also explored ( J. Bruner, 1986). The definitions of these
three core concepts that are considered essential in the discourse analysis pro-
cess are presented below.
By game mechanics, what we mean is the building blocks of the game design.
From this perspective, mechanics and rules are intertwined. “Mechanics tend
to be more subtle, behind the scenes rules, though they can also be pretty large
and noticeable” (Mitchell, 2012, loc. 368). We consider, according to Juul
(2005), that “the rules of a game add meaning and enable actions by setting up
126 Pilar Lacasa, María Ruth García-Pernía, Sara Cortés Gómez

differences between potential moves and events. That is, "rules describe what
players can and cannot do, and what could happen in response to player ac-
tions” ( Juul, 2005, loc. 602)
Narrative is related in this research to the story that drives the game. Juul
(2005) establishes close relationships between the rules and the fictional aspects
of the game, the latter being those relating to the narrative or the game script: “It
is not possible to deal in fiction in games without discussing rules. The fictional
world of a game is projected in a variety of ways – using graphics, sound, text, ad-
vertising, the game manual, and the game rules. The way in which the game ob-
jects behave also influences the fictional world that the game projects. Though
rules can function independently of fiction, fiction depends on rules“ (loc. 1175).
We consider the scaffolding to be the process of support which takes place dur-
ing a dialogue between two or more people in formal or informal learning situa-
tions, that is, Jerome Bruner’s model (1986; 1996) when proposing the recon-
struction of the concepts through which people interpret the world in a cultural
universe: “The message itself may create the reality that the message embodies
and predispose those who hear it to think about in a particular mode” (Bruner,
1986, p. 121-122) These concepts enclosed in the message are attached to language
and society has been creating different institutions to strengthen them, including

What is a game

To understand how the students approach the design process, it was relevant
to know what they understood by games, and more specifically video games. In
the third session, we asked them to answer some questions on this topic in a writ-
ten text. Fragment 1 shows a transcript of the responses of one of the students,
Verónica, who played the role of designer.

Fragment 1, Session 3. What are a game and a video game for you. Verónica, 15
years old

A game is a form of entertainment; it can take many forms and may even have edu-
cational purposes. Usually it has rules that must be followed so that everything goes
well. Also, it can be either individual, where you try to improve every time and beat
your last mark, or collective, so that you need to work together with other people
and coordinate actions in order to beat the opposing team.

A video game is a way to play with a game console. It has rules as well and can
also be individual or collective, but here, you are competing against the computer.
From gamers to game designers: Looking for new adolescent literacies 127

Different aspects are clear in Veronica's opinions. The game is related to the
player's amusement, it has rules and it involves achieving a goal. The main differ-
ence with video games is that these involve competing against the machine, the
Looking at researchers’ definitions, we found clear similarities. For example,
Jesper Juul (2005) links the game with fun activities and the challenge of achiev-
ing a goal. Moreover, in this context Fullerton's ideas (Fullerton et al., 2008) are
especially relevant when she considers that the game is meaningless without the
player. She speaks of a playcentric approach that relies on “inviting feedback
from players early on and is the key to designing games that delight and engage
the audience because the game mechanics are developed from the ground up
with the player experience at the center of the process” (page 2). That is, both the
player and the rules are key elements in the game.
In the following sections, we look at how the mechanics and the narrative di-
mension move onto the consciousness of students when they are part of the
game creation process. Written texts by Verónica and some conversations in
which she participates will be analyzed. We shall rely on graphic resources and
several figures which synthesize and allow us to check the changes that occur
over time in the student’s representations of the game.

The mechanics’ grasp of consciousness

The way the sessions developed, working in small or large groups, facilitated
the interaction of both peers and adults. There is a contrast between the two situ-
ations, since the latter are the ones who facilitated the awareness of the difficul-
ties involved in designing, something that the students themselves were not able
to discover.

Talking in small groups and writing

During the fourth session, the students discussed some ideas in small groups
and wrote the synthesis and objectives of the game they were to create individu-
ally afterwards. Let us consider, for example, Verónica's text:

Fragment 2, Session 4. Planning the pitch. Verónica's text


The game involves a parent who realizes his family has been infected by a virus,
passed on by his zombie mother-in-law.
Each floor is a level and he will find specific challenges in every room and will have
to face his infected family.
128 Pilar Lacasa, María Ruth García-Pernía, Sara Cortés Gómez

If he manages to get through all floors, he will reach the attic, where he will have to
fight his mother-in-law, who will throw croquettes at him. If he beats her, he will win
the game. If not, he must start all over.


The goal is to beat the mother-in-law, which cannot be done without killing the rest
of the family, so as not to be infected by the virus.
Apart from escaping death, he needs to be careful not to come in contact with
bacteria in the house, because if he did, he would be infected and die a slow death
unless he finds a new life in one of the bonus boxes.

Figure 3 (below) shows the most relevant elements of earlier texts. We ob-
serve that the first one includes items related to the construction of a story. It
presents the context and the characters, the problems and the resolution (cf.
Ryan, 2004). This fictional world becomes intertwined, at least to some extent,
with the game mechanics. For example, the problems relate to the challenges,
they are associated with different levels of the game and also with specific actions
to be played by the characters. Later on, when Verónica refers to the objective,
we notice that the text includes specific conditions to achieve the game's goal,
barriers and facilitators to reach the final level (cf. Fullerton et al., 2008).

Figure 3. Elements as present in Verónica representation of the game

From gamers to game designers: Looking for new adolescent literacies 129

Classroom conversations

As we advanced through the sessions, we began to discover the difficulties ex-

perienced by this group of students. During Session 5, as seen when describing
the history of the workshop, students were faced with pitching their game to a
jury, pretending that they faced potential investors to finance their projects. The
researchers discussed the possibilities and difficulties of all proposals with each
group. At this point, the discussion with Verónica shows that she tries to solve
the problems by introducing increasing levels of complexity, something that will
be difficult to implement when programming the game. The students tend to
avoid simple solutions that would be more attractive and easy.

Fragment 3, Session 5. Presenting the pitch: The researcher poses difficulties

The following transcript shows how the expert, a computer scientist of the re-
search team, tries to help the students in their design. It refers not only to the
general objective of the game, but also to the goals to be achieved in the different

Looking for the game's main goal

Two options were considered when designing the end of the game: either to
kill or to "disinfect" the mother-in-law, who is responsible for having infected the
rest of the family members. It is unclear whether this proposal raises any moral
issues or is a strategy considering changes in the game design process.

1. Researcher: I also liked the idea, the only one thing I'd criticize is that the final
goal is to kill the grandmother.
2. Everyone laughs
3. Student: The purpose is to "disinfect" her.

Exploring specific goals for the game levels

In fact, the students have not established any clear differences between what it
means to suggest a negative option, such as killing the grandmother, or whether
a more positive one would be best (i. e. her disinfection). They do not seem to
have become aware of the implications of either choice, regarding the game de-
sign. Then, the conversation moved to specific difficulties to be overcome in each
level of the game.

4. Researcher: Regarding the challenges at each level, have you thought what you
intend with these challenges?
5. Verónica: (...) you see a floor plan. Then, he walks around the house and enters
different rooms and there are boxes coins he can pick up. Some of them may be
130 Pilar Lacasa, María Ruth García-Pernía, Sara Cortés Gómez

negative and, for example, the child might throw something at him, fireballs or
whatever. If he's hit, it's like a virus that will eat him alive, so you need to run and get
a bonus box to heal, so to speak. If the virus reaches his whole body, he'll become
a zombie and he'll have to start all over again.

Figure 4, Session 5. Verónica's verbal representation of the game

The difference with the third session is that Verónica seems to establish more
clear relationships between the positive and negative elements and the interac-
tions between them when it comes to designing the game. However, they con-
tinue to experience some problems that the adults will need to make explicit.

Unsolved difficulties
The text below shows how students are struggling with a dilemma: If they
must defeat all infected individuals to finish the game, then they will have to kill
all the family members. In this case, the game mechanics will lead the player to
contradictory situations:

6. Researcher: Have you any idea of how to finish each level?

7. Verónica: Well, when he defeats all the characters on a floor, he can move up to
the next.
8. Researcher: But does he also need to defeat them? Then he not only defeats the
grandmother, but the whole family...
9. Verónica: No, no, well, yes, but (…)
10. Students laugh
11. Researcher: No, but hey, maybe you can come up with some other idea
12. Researcher: Some mechanics so that, instead of beating them…
13. Verónica: Curing them!

Having a final goal for the game is not enough, they must be also be clear on
the subgoals for each of the game’s levels. Here, we realize that they do not seem
to be aware of what the best option would be, that is, to kill or to disinfect. Both
seem to involve certain difficulties.
From gamers to game designers: Looking for new adolescent literacies 131

Integrating narratives and mechanics

Advancing in the workshop development, the following fragment contains

the Verónica's presentation in the final session of the workshop. Here, she inte-
grates all the elements that progressively appeared in previous conversations and

Fragment 4, Session 14. Verónica’s final presentation: fiction and game mechanics

1. Well, the game's main character is the father, who comes home from work
one day and finds out that his mother-in-law, who is a zombie, has infected the
entire family.
2. So, what the father needs to do is to fight his whole family to cure them, thus
risking infection.
3. He could end up dead, he could either be shot and killed, or else he could be
shot in the arm and become infected. This way, his whole body would be infected
until he died.
4. What he must do is either beat or heal his family until he reaches the last
level, which is a kind of room where he will have to fight the grandmother and see
who wins, healthy people or zombies.
5. OK, to heal, there are several modification boxes to heal, containing either
the antidote to... the disease or whatever you want to call it.
6. Either one life or death or a neutral character, that is, the father's parents,
who can appear in the game to give advice on what he can or cannot do, and also
to give some gifts or new things to shoot.
7. Well, as for the mechanics... We can move forward, backwards, left or right,
and we can jump. This is not a linear game because, when viewed from above, we
see a map of the house and we can go where we need to go and, well, the place is
the main character’s home and well, the zombie becomes a cloud, and everything
starts all over again until manages to reach the last level and beat his mother-in-law.

The relevance of this oral presentation is the fact that it involves a new aware-
ness of the game’s possibilities in relation to the interactions the characters estab-
lish among them mediated by antidotes, shots or infections. Figure 4 shows the
fundamental elements included in the final representation of the game at this
132 Pilar Lacasa, María Ruth García-Pernía, Sara Cortés Gómez

Figure 5, Session 14. The last description of the game (Final presentation)

In this case the main characters are presented as involved in the problem faced
by the player. For example, it is not said that the main character must heal his
family with the risk of being infected. It describes several options in detail, con-
sidering possibilities open to the player (both negative and positive). The latter
are bonus boxes, and they represent unfinished resolutions of the conflict, which
allows us to progress in the game, at least partly.
Finally, we will see the comments of one of the researchers who did not usu-
ally attend the workshop but was present in the two public presentation sessions
(five and fourteen). He synthesizes and evaluates the game according to his own

Fragment 5, Session 14. Researcher's comments and evaluation

1. Luis: Well, I noticed that you did very well, the narrative is well articulated, the dy-
namics are well communicated and well integrated as well, and there is character
development, I like that. They have insisted that the first level is quite difficult, what
you did is fine, but it's probably better to put it down as level 10.
2. People laugh
3. Luis: Well, what should be explained a little is what the other levels are like. The
first level is in the house, but what is the rest? Is one person saved at the end of
each lever or (...)?
From gamers to game designers: Looking for new adolescent literacies 133

Two aspects are relevant from the previous fragment. First, according to the
researcher’s opinion, the students have integrated the mechanics (referred to as
"dynamics") and the fiction, which relates to the narrative dimension and the
main characters. However, as in the previous cases, there are still some problems.
For instance, the sublevels' main dimensions remain unsolved.
Considering specific difficulties as present in the researchers’ opinions, the
students were forced to answer in terms of planning, that is, appealing to some-
thing that is yet to be performed. They are faced with the question of who the
possible zombies are (just the family members?) and also what their relation-
ships with viruses are, etc. Finally, this last day, they seem to be aware that, sure-
ly, a simpler game would be better.

4. Isabel: The levels were organized by floors, so the house was to have five floors.
(Levels) are adapted to the house.
5. Researcher: OK
6. Isabel: And then, there was going to be different family members on each floor,
and on the very top floor we'd have the mother-in-law, who was the one who had
infected all of them in the first place, and they would have to fight her till the end.
7. Researcher: And on the top floor there was just the son and her mother.
8. Student: Well, there were eleven children and the mother.
9. (laughter)
10. Researcher: So there was one at every level, I see, understood

The previous paragraph shows that the students have finally created only one
level of the game and for example, the following ones must be defined in relation
not only to the characters of the game (the family members), but also to the
space and environment in which specific challenges are posed. The game is a sys-
tem ( Juul, 2005), and the awareness of the relationships between the elements is
not a simple task, it requires verbal processes in the context of conversations with
peers and adults. The fragments that we presented (both conversations and texts)
show how the representations of the game were evolving during the workshop
related to collective processes of work, by interacting with peers and adults in
teaching and learning situations.


The above analysis allows us to draw some conclusions in relation to the main
goals of the paper and emphasize the relevance of the results by taking into ac-
count the formal educational contexts in which the workshop took place. We will
point out that the results of an ethnographic study, combined with an action re-
search approach, are not oriented to obtain universal results, generalizable to any
134 Pilar Lacasa, María Ruth García-Pernía, Sara Cortés Gómez

population. Looking for in-depth explanations related to socio cultural phenom-

ena, they contribute to develop possible ways of going forward in educational
contexts, looking to contribute to create innovative contexts that bring students
closer to new forms of digital literacies.
First, designing a video game in this classroom contributes to the develop-
ment of new literacies related to the grasp of consciousness of the game’s me-
chanics, associated with game elements which are part of a system (cf. Juul,
2005). In this context, the verbalization processes generated in conversations
with adults and peers will support that awareness. Moreover, generating situa-
tion of collaborative work and promoting social interaction seems to be much
more appropriate than individual work situations (cf. Lacasa, 2013).
Second, the analysis of the classroom conversations reveals the representa-
tions that the adolescents have of the game. The game elements (sound, images,
stories, graphics) start making sense once they become part of a system and once
the students define its rules, the virtual environments in which they will be in-
volved and the fictional elements to organize the world of the game (Fullerton et
al., 2008). The process of creating the game, considering all these dimensions,
caused difficulties for the students as the task was really "open". From an educa-
tional perspective, a more effective alternative could be to suggest further closed
tasks or else to help the students set their own gaming limits without turning the
design process into a never-ending task.
Third, the context created and the people participating in the workshop al-
lowed us to design a learning space based on the different roles played both by
the students when creating the games and by the researchers while supporting
and helping the students (Mitchell, 2012). The roles played by the students helped
them understand that computational programming is not the only important
thing in the game; the design and the narrative also play, as we have seen, a key
role. The researchers/educators favored reflection and analysis in the first stage,
while the experts in the design and the technical part of the game were key at the
time of creating it.
As a general conclusion, we hope to have shown that the process of video
game design can be introduced in classrooms with value in itself, and not restrict-
ed to be a support for teachers when it comes to bringing students closer to cur-
ricular contents. Designing video games can help to develop digital literacy, a
necessary skill in and out of school in the twenty-first century.


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Fullerton, T., Swain, C., & Hoffman, S. (2008) Game design workshop: a playcentric approach to cre-
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Héctor Puente Bienvenido, Marta Fernández Ruiz

Madrid, Spain

User generated content: A situated production of video

walkthroughts on Youtube


There is a long tradition of examining player productivity in the field of game

studies. In this context, walkthroughs production is a significant area of player
and fan studies which has received an important attention by researchers. Al-
though the explicit intention of walkthroughs is to inform, there is a growing
body of user generated videos that make use of the rhetoric and social devices
that are present in expressive videos in order to enrich their narration. In this pa-
per we address how these instrumental videos are becoming more and more ex-
pressive media, becoming cultural manifestations where different texts and me-
dia converge. According to that we carry out an empirical study consisting both
of non participant observation and the collection of data of several videos avail-
able in YouTube. This study is a practical case for transdisciplinarity in the field of
inclusive cross-cultural game studies which combines socio-cultural, media and
narrative approaches.


New information technologies (especially the 2.0 web) have given rise to new
forms of media consumption and new kinds of consumers. Now what is the most
transcendental issue is the fact that the audience share and participate in media
as active agents. On the one hand, consumers have become content generators
(in a similar or even equal way as producers) and, on the other, consumers are
acting as indicators of the relevance the user generated contents are acquiring
among the social networks.
In the context of gaming, the assessment of this media production and con-
sumption is located in the study of the ways in which players extend the act of
playing into meaningful forms of creation (Buckingham, Carr, Burn and Schott,
2005; Wirman 2009), mainly inspired by Jenkins studies of fan production
(1992). In general, the center of interest has been the transformation of con-
User generated content: A situated production of video walkthroughts 137

sumption practices into creative forms of production (Flowers 2006; Consalvo

2003). These authors understand the game as an originator of creative praxes that
go beyond the act of playing. Others go further and look at play itself as an act of
creative production or “productive play” (Pearce 2006). In this field, walk-
throughs have become a growing and significant area of player and fan studies
which have received important attention from researchers (Consalvo 2003).
Although at the beginning walkthroughs were mainly instrumental, we have
seen that the variety of user generated content in this genre has increased , and
the contents have changed. In this paper we reassess how these instrumental vid-
eos are becoming more and more expressive media, introducing several users’
expressive ambitions, becoming cultural manifestations where different texts
and media converge and meet. We make an approach to this phenomenon from
a cross-cultural situated point of view (Taylor, 2006; Mäyra, 2007; Pearce, 2009)
and taking Minecraft as a case study. We examine both English and Spanish vid-

Literature review

User generated content

When talking about User Generated Content, we must take into account three
key concepts developed by Jenkins (2006), namely media convergence, partici-
patory culture and collective intelligence. With media convergence Jenkins re-
fers to the interconnection between distribution channels, platforms and tech-
nologies. But, above all, Jenkins uses this term to describe a cultural transforma-
tion process that affects the way media are used. This cultural process is based on
the new action possibilities and the user’s participation, which now are possible
thanks to the media digitalization. Thus, convergence involves the co-existence
of new media with the growth of a participative culture. With participatory cul-
ture Jenkins refers to a culture with no barriers in what artistic expression and
civil engagement concerns. It encompasses a blending between amateurs and
professionals. Finally, with collective intelligence, Jenkins describes how a group
of participants gives rise to more complex knowledge than the knowledge cre-
ated by a single person. So, it draws in the combined knowledge of a more di-
verse community and recognizes the value of each person’s potential to contrib-
ute. In gaming, collective intelligence takes place in a different ways. Some ex-
amples are unofficial forums, websites, participating in guilds and, of course,
YouTube videos.
In this way, we can see how unlike older forms of mass media primarily charac-
terized by one way exchange, gaming offers the opportunity for two way, active
engagement that encourages bottom-up forms of production (Benkler, 2006).
138 Héctor Puente Bienvenido, Marta Fernández Ruiz


Minecraft (Mojang AB 2011) is an emergent (Pearce 2006) sandbox where

players are given an unlimited number of resources and ready-made tools to be
able to create anything they want. It allows users to play in two possible modes.
On the one hand, it displays the survival mode, in which players must break the
world components in order to gather basic resources, craft tools and protect
themselves against hostile monsters that come out at night. Players need to carry
out an efficient strategy so that they maintain their health and avoid hunger to
survive. On the other, it allows playing in the creative mode, in which players are
given an unrestricted number of assets and tools to be able to create anything
they choose. The game sessions can be in single or multiplayer in each mode.
According to Jenkins (2003), there are four ways in which narratives can ap-
pear in a game.
• Evoked narratives, where the environment of the game is a reproduction of a
world from other fiction which brings its own narrative with it. The aim of this
narrative is to evoke associations with pre-existing narratives or genres, so
that the player gets immersed in a familiar world.
• Enacted narratives, where stories are structured around the players move-
ment through a space. Arranging the storytelling becomes a task consisting of
“designing the geography of imaginary worlds, so that obstacles thwart and
affordances facilitate the protagonist’s forward movement towards resolu-
tion” (p. 125).
• Embedded narratives, where the player reconstructs the plot from the con-
tents of a space.
• Finally, emergent narratives, where a game space is filled with behavior-rich
objects from which the player constructs their own story.

Due to the game’s lack of documentation and context meaning, and given that
Minecraft world is randomly generated, we may think that the only possible nar-
rative in this game is the emergent one. Nevertheless, the actions of users, both
in the creative and the survival mode, and also by the production of mods, can
give rise to other kinds of narratives, such as the evoked ones. An example of that
is the evocation of the Dragon Ball world through a mod where the tools, noises
and other affordances imitate several aspects of the anime series.
Lee-Leugner’s research (2013) shows how Minecraft exemplifies the meaning-
ful forms of bottom-up participatory practices enabled by the current socioeco-
nomic and sociotechnical conditions that underlie the network society. Never-
theless, she doesn’t give emphasis to the videos shared on social networks. In this
sense, Youtube hosts a great amount of player generated videos.
User generated content: A situated production of video walkthroughts 139


The audiovisual platform Youtube is a highly participative platform which

hosts a great amount of user generated videos. According to Simonsen (2011), the
affordances of Youtube’s interface include commenting, rating and responding,
as well as meta-communication such as tagging. If we understand the term affor-
dance in relation to the Gibson’s definition, then an affordance of Youtube is what
the site offers or provides for its users (Gibson, 1986). In that sense, the affor-
dances of Youtube also include accessibility (streaming software and uploading
mechanisms) and social organization. Additionally, intertextuality on Youtube is
accentuated as a consequence of the navigation processes such as the linking
structure, tags and annotations. In that sense we can also regard intertextuality as
an affordance of Youtube.
The amount of actions that the social network allows both to producers and to
consumers has lead researchers to work on the creation of typologies for user
generated content in Youtube. According to Simonsen (2011), user generated
content on Youtube can be categorized into typologies that run from how to and
instructional to Vlogs, musical performances or parodies.
We may think that Minecraft walkthroughs fall on the category of how to and
instructional. By means of this label, Simonsen (2011) refers to the videos in
which the producer presents a specific artifact or instructs the viewers in a given
act. The interest focus is on the object being presented and not on the presenter.
Moreover, this category often involves a learning aspect and is less likely to in-
volve autobiographical or artistic expressions. But if we take a deeper look at Mi-
necraft walkthroughs, we could say that they are somewhat transversal to all the
above mentioned categories, since these videos have components of other kinds
of audiovisual productions, such as vlogs, musical performances, collections of
best moments, short narratives or parodies.
Vlogs are a form of video blogging where the author of the video presents him-
self through a first person camera and communicates directly to the viewer. The
focus is placed mainly on the creator and on the self-representative mode. In this
sense, although the intentions of many of the Minecraft walkthroughs is to show
parts of the gameplay sequences in order to instruct the audiences, the author
also makes its presence explicit, breaking the transparency of the medium and
adding some other informational contents which have nothing to do with in-
struction. For example, many producers start the video with a speech, or place a
frame that displays themselves playing during the whole video.
Musical performances are self-representational videos which are always pre-
sented within a musical piece. Compared to the Vlogs, they often intend to com-
municate the artistic skills of the video creator, rather than autobiographical or
personal issues. In this sense, we can see how the videos of users like Deigamer
start with intros where the author sings different songs composed by himself.
140 Héctor Puente Bienvenido, Marta Fernández Ruiz

Youtube moments are compilations of captured dramatic, funny or humoristic

situations. They don’t have an informative context. An example of this kind of
videos can be found in the series Top Lebreladas, a collection of the best mo-
ments that the user MinecraftZaragoza gathers from his playing sessions.
Following Simonsen (2011), artistic and lyrical videos place the emphasis on
the aesthetic expressions and forms rather than on contents. In these videos a
number of post-process elements are frequently integrated, such as sound ef-
fects, animations, frame rate manipulations and other visual tricks. Some exam-
ples can be found in the series Piratas de Bar Cariba.
By means of the label political statements this author refers to videos which
display thematic contents tied to a political argument. We can see many Minec-
raft videos where users complain about governmental measures, such as the rise
of the costs of electricity in Spain.
Short narratives and sketches are defined as staged sketches performed by the
creators playing a fictional role. In this sense, a number of Minecraft walkthroughs
are taking the structures of fiction TV series. Producers organize them into chap-
ters and seasons, and present themselves with fictional names.
Finally, for Simonsen (2011) parodies are similar as short narratives, but differ-
ent in terms of their reference to other texts, which they imitate in a humoristic
manner. Examples of parodies can be found in El Señor de los Lebreles, a series
based on the world of The Lord of the Rings, where the players-producers present
themselves with names which resemble those of the Perter Jackson’s film charac-
ters (for example, the female player calls herself Legolinha, as a way to resemble
Taking these categories into account, we could say that video game walk-
throughs need other kind of treatment when being analyzed. In this sense, we
agree with Briggs and Bauman (1992) when they state that although here is com-
mon agreement on the understanding of genre as a tool of making sense in every-
day situations as well as in discourses, focus on genre, instead of concrete texts,
could lead to reductionism.

Research goals and methodology

Inspired by previous works we advocate an interdisciplinary approach (Bryce

and Rutter 2003; Puente and Tosca 2013) integrating different analytic tools from
Humanities and Social Sciences. According to the exposed hypothesis we started
an empirical study with a non-participant observation (Spradley 1980; Vallés
1998) for three weeks in order to acquire an acceptable knowledge of the Minec-
raft´s fan community. After that we collected data of 40 videos (Spanish n=20,
English n=20) available on YouTube using an intentional sampling (Ortiz, 2004)
in order to ensure that the most significant texts (videos and comments on these)
User generated content: A situated production of video walkthroughts 141

were part of the sample and at the same time to attain structural/qualitative rep-
resentativity (Ibañez 1979). But why have we chosen different videos in Spanish
and English? Up to now research on fan culture manifestations in different media
has focused on Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian culture ( Jenkins 1992; Consalvo
2003; Taylor 2006; Pearce 2009; Wirman 2007). The lack of studies regarding
other cultures makes the introduction of new analysis perspectives necessary in
order to add richness and understanding to the phenomenon. The meanings of
the game vary greatly depending on the social and cultural context where it is de-
signed, distributed and practiced (Ermi and Mäyra 2005). Besides, according to
Taylor (2008) “Rather than simply identifying emergent culture […], we also need a
better understanding of the complex nature of player-produced culture and its relati-
on to technical game artifacts” (2008, p.188).
For this reason we have chosen the Spanish fan community as a representa-
tive example of the Mediterranean (southern-European) culture. We study the
production of walkthroughs from a situated perspective understanding the
production of tutorials in the larger culture in which game is inserted. To sum
up, our study is a practical case for interdisciplinarity in the field of inclusive
cross-cultural game studies which combines sociocultural, media and narrative
Using all the collected information, the next step was the design of an analysis
chart (see below figure 1) in order to classify and analyze the collected data.

Figure 1: Analysis chart of Minecraft´s videos on YouTube.

In video´s purpose we try to discover the author´s intention in connection

with the selected video. Apparently the author´s purpose should be the same
that he explicits but as we see it could be highly different. Through the explora-
tion of the number of likes and dislikes in each video we try to quantify the satis-
142 Héctor Puente Bienvenido, Marta Fernández Ruiz

faction of the audience in relation to the quality of the video. The number of visits
and subscriptions is a great success indicator of the video and the author respec-
tively. By instrumental and expressive components we understand the kind of
fan´s production. Albrechtslund quoting Wirman (2007) defines expressive pro-
ductivity as: "activities which do not exist or directly support playing as essential
parts of games" (2010, p.114) such as miniseries, fan fiction, machinima or paro-
dies whereas instrumental productivity is understood by Albrechtslund as: “texts
which offer tools for more effective play" (2010, p.114) such as walkthroughs, cheats,
tips and tricks. Finally, we aim to get some notions about the nationality of the
people who is participating through the exploration of the explicit comments
and public profiles.
Puente and Tosca consider that “even though the explicit intention of these (ins-
trumental) videos is to inform, they made use of the same rhetoric devices to spice up
their narration” (2013, p. 5). Thus, we aspire to find instrumental and expressive
components in all the explored videos regardless their apparent intention. Final-
ly through engagement ratio1 we try to measure the audience´s implication with
the video dividing the number of comments between the number of visits. There-
by a very popular video could receive a lot of thousands of comments but propor-
tionally to the number of comments the engagement´s ratio could be significant-
ly low.


According to our analysis, we have decided to organize our results into three
main sections.
In the first place, we have noticed that even the most Minecraft´s instrumental
video has a significant amount of expressive components. As we exemplified be-
In Captain Splarklez´s video, titled Minecraft: Hunger Games Survival w/ Cap-
tainSparklez & Friends - Part 12, a girl teaches how to play one of the mods for Mi-
necraft based on the Hunger Games. Theoretically, this is a video where instru-
mental components predominate but in reality the expressive elements emerge
strongly (Figure 2).

1 A ratio is the result of the division between two numbers a,b (Soto, 2011).
User generated content: A situated production of video walkthroughts 143

Figure 2: An example of how expressive elements emerge in instrumental walkthroughs.

As instrumental components, we have collected different comments elaborat-

ed by the video creators while producing the videos. As an example, we can see
how the female co-author has used a mainly goal-oriented perspective, showing
us some instrumental advices and tips.
- “Rules for the players. Only one player can win the survival games. You can not
break any block, except for leaves and mushrooms. You are only allow to place
blocks you find in chests. “Your inventory must be empty before you start”.
- “Running it´s faster than swimming”.
At the same time, the male co-author is more focused in the instrumental side
of the walkthrough, making some jokes and funny noises, singing songs, Actual-
ly, this users recognizes “Ok, I’m a rebel”.
As a second result, we realized that the audiences have a strong capacity of
agency (Latour 2005; Lasén 2012; Sicart 2009). Actually, much more than we
can usually find in the specialized literature. We can find it in the comments they
do, suggesting the producer of the video to add specific types of contents. Some
examples are present in the video called “Minecraft 1.4.7 MINI-SERIE Mod Dra-
gon Ball!! Cap.33, where the creator of the walkthrough clearly justifies part of the
contents he shows answering to audience claims and wishes. As this quote shows:

144 Héctor Puente Bienvenido, Marta Fernández Ruiz

“One thing you asked me, for you to see that I read your comments”4
A third important point is we found is intertextuality. This intertextuality is
mainly expressive, since the references users make of other texts are mainly in-
cluded to give the videos an additional meaning, or narrative evocations. This is
the case of the Hunger Games videos produced by youtubers like Captain Spar-
klez, or Mundo Chiquito, produced by Minecraft Zaragoza, which makes con-
stant reference to the popular Spanish comedian Chiquito de la Calzada.
Finally, we have noticed that the different cultural realities must be interpret-
ed from the same cultural reality they make reference to. For example, we found
some misunderstandings when a cultural reality is interpreted from a different
cultural view. Even if the audience are fluent in the same language. For example,
the Dragon Ball series aforementioned, shows different comments of users dis-
cussing about denominations of the original series in the different countries. For
example, as an Argentinian user affirms:
-  “and in Argentina it is Dragon Spheres”5
In addition, lots of users complain about the video producer’s comments be-
cause they could not understand the jokes, which referred to a concrete cultural
and territorial context (names of popular people, local expressions and jokes, lo-
cated jargons…).


Lot of previous works have overlooked the cultural perspective. We hope that
our work has served to assert the importance of cross-cultural approaches pro-
posing a more rewarding perspective that takes into account different cultural re-
alities. The greater sensitivity to cultural issues has allowed a better understand-
ing of the phenomenon so that we have achieved a more reliable result.
The same way as Puente and Tosca (2013) we noticed that the strict division be-
tween instrumental and expressive productivity is more blurred and misleading than
what we find in the academic literature. Therefore we propose to understand this di-
vision more as a continuum (as we can see below) than a strict separation. Even the
most instrumental of the videos showed expressive components, and vice versa.

4 Translation from original Spanish. “Una cosa que me pedisteis, para que veáis que leo vuestros
5 Translation from original Spanish. “y en argentina esferas del dragon”
User generated content: A situated production of video walkthroughts 145

Figure 3: Continuum of author´s productivity.

Instrumental components seem to have a greater effect than expressive ones

in the engagement ratio whereas expressive contents generate a greater number
of visits. According to the collected data the videos where expressive compo-
nents dominate tend to be more successful in terms of visits. Nevertheless, in-
strumentalized videos have a more active audience regarding the generation of

Figure 4: Example of engagement ratio in expressive videos. Source:


Figure 5: Example of engagement ratio in instructional videos. Source:

146 Héctor Puente Bienvenido, Marta Fernández Ruiz

As we can see in the previous examples, if we compare both ratios, although

the total number of visits is higher in expressive videos, the degree of engage-
ment in audiences which watch instrumental videos is proportionally higher (as
a higher engagement ratio shows).
In addition English speaking communities seem to be more heterogeneous re-
garding their audiences, thereby they have a more diversified public. In contrast,
Spanish speaking community seems to be culturally more homogenous. Latin-
American Spanish speakers and Iberian Spanish speakers share a closer culture.
In the case of English videos the audience is from around the world.


We hope that our methodological proposal (see Figure 1 and 2) has contrib-
uted to the creation of a tool for the analysis of fan productivity on this kind of
media, and of course, in Minecraft. We think this approach could be replicated in
other games. The chart is quite useful for comparing the user generated content
from different cultural realities. Thanks to the charts we could compare the simi-
larities and differences between the generation of content by communities be-
longing to different cultural contexts.
Regarding cross-cultural findings we discovered an illuminating trend. We no-
ticed the multiplayer element of Minecraft is harnessed by Spanish speaker com-
munity to narrate from several players while English speakers are usually individ-
ual narrators. Within the Spanish community it is quite common to find a lot of
videos which has been narrated by two or more players. This trend is more un-
common among English community.
Being aware of its limitations, we believe our tool has improved the methodol-
ogy of study available in the field of user generated content on YouTube. Regard-
ing limitations of this studio, we believe that a tool which detects the nationality
of all users involved in the co-creation of the walkthroughs could be really helpful
in order to obtain a more precise information in our cross-cultural approach.


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Games cited

Minecraft (Mojang AB, 2011)


Gerhild Bauer, Daniel Martinek, Simone Kriglstein,

Günter Wallner, Rebecca Wölfle
Vienna, Austria

Digital game-based learning with “Internet Hero”

A game about the internet for children aged 9–12 years


Currently 98% of children aged 6-13 use the Internet at home, 52% of them use
it daily or several times a week (Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Süd-
west 2012b). Internet Hero is a game aimed at increasing the digital literacy of
children and preparing them to safely navigate the Internet. It teaches minors to
be consciously aware of the dangers of links, online forms and phishing-mails to
protect them from exploitation. In a playful context the game raises awareness
for the potential dangers they may face by using the Internet and explains gener-
ally how the Internet works. The game was implemented in Adobe Flash and
Unity3D. Its elements are preloaded in the background to avoid long loading
times. The goal of this game is to increase the ability of the younger generation to
safely and adequately use Internet-technologies and to get a feeling for the dos
and don’ts of the medium.


The Internet has become an increasingly important aspect in everyday life for
many people, including young children. As a recent study (Medienpädagogisch-
er Forschungsverbund Südwest 2012b, p. 27) shows, already 98% of the children
aged 6-13 years use the Internet at home, 21% with their own device and without
control or supervision of their parents. 37% use the computer almost every day,
which is nine percent higher than in the year 2010. Especially the daily use in-
creased about 7% in the last three years. In most cases children don’t have a des-
tination when they start surfing. However, the activity of surfing increases with
the age of the children (ibid. p. 28-37). Usually they use searching tools, sites spe-
cifically made for children, video-sites, social communities and e-mail clients
when they are in the Internet (ibid. p. 37). Shifting the focus to digital games, two
out of three children – exactly 64% – play computer games on their own or to-
Digital game-based learning with “Internet Hero” 149

gether with friends, according to the aforementioned study. Learning games in

particular are still used by 36% of the children, despite a decrease of seven per-
cent over the last two years. These statistics and the fact that children often use
the Internet without reflecting or being consciously aware of their decisions (Me-
dienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest 2012a, p. 38) and activities gave
us the occasion to think about how children can be briefed in important areas like
online fraud, search and security, as well as privacy. For this purpose we are in
the process of developing an educational computer game – called Internet Hero.
Internet Hero should provide the children with an appealing context to teach
them about the Internet, some of its most popular services, and the dangers as-
sociated with Internet use. In the development of the game it was also important
for us to consider the different contexts in which the game can be played (e.g., in
the classroom, at home).
In the following sections we describe the current state of the game along with
its learning content. After that we will discuss the pedagogical foundations, the
technical implementation and preliminary evaluation results. The paper is con-
cluded with a short discussion of future work.

Internet Hero: Concept and learning content

Internet Hero1 (developed within the project Play the net2 – a joint project be-
tween the Entertainment Computing Group of the University of Vienna and the
Vienna University Children's Office) is an educational game for children (currently
in German only) aged nine to twelve years, in which the player is transported into
a fictional world representing the Internet. By playing the game children should
get to know the different aspects of the Internet, involving social, technical, and
content issues without consciously being aware of being involved in a learning
activity. Every educational content is tightly integrated into the story so that the
attention of the player is on the playing part of the experience.
The game starts in the Internet world with a video sequence in which three
characters called Dot Net, Dot Com and Dot Evl - named after different top level
domains (referred to as TLD henceforth) except the latter who is the game’s se-
cret villain - are talking about evil forces which are trying to gain control over the
Internet. To stop the evil they decide to seek the help of a hero from the human
world. But instead of an adult, a child gets sucked into the Internet world who is
entrusted with the mission to save it. The child is the main character controlled
by the player.
During the further course of the game the player meets several inhabitants of

1 Internet Hero,

2 PlayTheNet,
150 Gerhild Bauer, Daniel Martinek, Simone Kriglstein, Günter Wallner, Rebecca Wölfle

this Internet world and is asked to help his/her robot-friend Ping to solve four
different mini-games, correlating to four relevant aspects of Internet use: e-mail,
malicious programs, social networks, and connection types. In order to com-
plete these mini-games the player needs to understand the basic technical or so-
cial aspects of these topics.
• The first mini-game teaches children about what a server is and how to distin-
guish legitimate e-mails from spam-mails (cf. Figure 2). For that purpose the
game provides instructions for the children about what they have to pay atten-
tion to (e.g., unfamiliar sender, suspicious winning notifications, unknown
links and attachments).
• The malicious software mini-game conveys information about the different
types of malicious programs. Children learn that a Trojan is software that
seems harmless at first (depicted as a pink pony in the game) and that a scan-
ner is necessary to uncover the malware inside (depicted as a red brute). Mali-
cious programs can be locked out by a firewall and antivirus software needs to
be updated to provide improved protection.
• In the social network mini-game children learn to be careful with whom they
are sharing their information within online social networks and that privacy
settings can help them to restrict access to their updates.
• The last mini-game teaches children about the various types of Internet con-
nections and how they are different from each other.

Figure 1: World map

Digital game-based learning with “Internet Hero” 151

At the end of each mini-game a screen shows the achieved score and awards
between zero and three golden stars depending on how well the player per-
formed. These stars are also displayed on the world map (see Figure 1) to mark
the player’s progress. There is also a scoreboard on the map where the player can
compare his/her performance with others. This scoreboard also shows how
many points the top three players achieved (cf. Figure 1). Mini-games which can-
not be played yet are hidden behind a grey cloud. In the following sections the
individual mini-games are described in more detail.


In the first mini-game the player meets the mail-sorting android Ping, who will
become his/her companion for the rest of the game. Ping works in a mail server
and is currently overwhelmed by a wave of spam mails. He needs help separating
legitimate e-mails from spam-mails and asks the player to assist him by sorting 20
different mails. Spam-mails need to be thrown away while legitimate e-mails
need to be forwarded to their recipients. The player’s task is to read the incoming
e-mails and decide whether they contain any unsolicited advertising or suspi-
cious URLs, senders, or attachments.

Figure 2: E-Mail mini-game (left) and instructions (right) to explain children the differences bet-
ween legitimate e-mails from spam-mails.

An example of a legitimate e-mail, within the games fictional world, could be

a trackball mouse writing a letter to a laser mouse that she feels old and obsolete.
Examples for spam-mails could be a suspicious winning notification, someone
impersonating a mother asking her own children where the spare house key is
hidden or an offer on how someone can earn money easily. After the player has
read the e-mail and decided if it is a spam-mail or a legitimate mail, they can send
it forward or destroy it by dragging the e-mail either to the right side of the screen
or onto the trash bin on the left side (cf. Figure 2, left). In case the player managed
to correctly categorize two or more e-mails in a row s/he gets a chain bonus as an
extra reward.
152 Gerhild Bauer, Daniel Martinek, Simone Kriglstein, Günter Wallner, Rebecca Wölfle

Malicious software

After the spam-wave is over Ping expresses his gratitude to the player, but
soon starts feeling sick because he got infected by a virus. The player accompa-
nies him to a hospital, where an USB-doctor explains a few of the different kinds
of malware and how to stop them from weakening Ping. The player has to stop
the disease from destroying Ping's CPU by playing a tower-defense-like mini-
game (cf. Figure 3). The player can build different types of defense towers on pre-
defined building lots. There are three types of towers to choose from: shooter,
scanner, and firewall. The firewall stops various malicious programs (viruses,
Trojans, and worms) from getting to the CPU, the scanner identifies Trojans as
malware, making them vulnerable to shooters. In order to win the mini-game the
player has to survive ten waves of attacks. Each wave enters from one of two sides
of the game field. Each time a malicious program is killed it drops Ping-Points,
the mini-game’s virtual currency, which can be reinvested into new towers or up-
grades. If an enemy reaches the CPU, Ping’s health-bar loses life. Once the CPU
is destroyed the mini-game is lost.

Figure 3: Malicious software mini-game Figure 4: FesBuk mini-game

Social networks

The story continues with Ping feeling weak after his illness and retreating to
his apartment. At home Ping looks at his profile on FesBuk, a social networking
site where status updates, messages and pictures can be posted (see Figure 4). He
shows the player his profile and tells him/her, that he has been having trouble
with a cyber-bully posting rude comments on his pinboard. He asks the player to
manage his online security settings. The mini-game starts with a screen showing
the FesBuk site with a single post by Ping that is being commented upon by other
characters. The player’s task is to choose the right privacy setting for this post –
private, for friends or public – or delete it if the post is mean. When the settings
are correct the post disappears and the next one appears. If the player doesn't
find the right settings or deletes a legitimate post, Ping becomes increasingly un-
Digital game-based learning with “Internet Hero” 153

happy, until he cries and the mini-game is lost. Each time a post’s privacy setting
is correctly adjusted the player gets a piece of a puzzle which, once completed,
reveals the identity of the person who is bullying Ping.

Connection types

In the following cutscene, Ping voices his suspicion that the bully might be the
same person who is causing all the trouble in the Internet world. Therefore, the
child and Ping want to inform the TLDs but the villain Dot Evl manages to inter-
cept their plans by taking control of Ping (via the virus which infected Ping ear-
lier in the game).
The player’s task is to rescue Ping and bring him back to the TLD’s as a witness
before he gets caught by the villain. This is the setting for the fourth mini-game,
in which the player has to win a race through the different connection types of
the Internet, like wireless or tethered Internet. By picking up special items the
player’s vehicle gets, for example, a speed-boost. If it collides with one of the data
packets, which are flying through the Internet, it will lose speed. If the player
manages to eventually arrive at the headquarter of the TLD’s, Ping is safe and the
game is won.

Pedagogical foundations

Two of the pedagogical foundations used in the game are, amongst others, the
learning principles of James Gee (2007) and the theory of Fromme & Jörissen
(2008) called the four formal design elements (or the "Vier Punkte der formalen
Gestaltungsmittel“ as they are called in German). The four points, which will be
illustrated in this section, are supposed to help the player to stay at a healthy dis-
tance to the game, to be critical of the story but still have fun playing it and to
learn something:

1. Tutorials
At the beginning of every mini-game, tutorials present short introductions
and important facts about the concepts to be learned. The educational informa-
tion is embedded in the story and presented as an animated sequence at the start
of each mini-game – for example "How to distinguish a spam mail from a regular
mail?" as shown in Figure 2 (right). In addition to the tutorials, each mini-game
itself also features a help button to retrieve information on the various game ele-
ments and about the controls. This helps the player to obtain information with-
out leaving the game world.
154 Gerhild Bauer, Daniel Martinek, Simone Kriglstein, Günter Wallner, Rebecca Wölfle

2. Rule and fiction

The second formal design element concentrates on rules and fiction: After a
mini-game is completed the player is awarded points and stars. The amount of
obtainable points differs for each mini-game whereas the number of awarded
stars always ranges from zero to three. The scoreboard and the stars per mini-
game are shown on the world map (cf. Figure 1). This allows players to compare
their performance with the results of others. According to Fromme & Jörissen
the design element of rule and fiction is still present when the player leaves the
game and should help to transfer the educational information to the real world.

3. Irony
This part of the theory focuses on the aspect of irony. The Internet world of the
game is mostly populated by living mechanical and electrical parts - like Mr. CPU
or the USB-doctor. These characters have friends, family, share Internet artifacts
(like e mails or social network posts) amongst themselves and have a social life
like any human being in the real world. For example, one of the e-mails in the
e-mail mini-game is sent by a soundproof tower who is complaining about his
neighbor, a standard tower, who has no insulation and makes too much noise. In-
ternet Hero includes a lot of comical references to technical context, but the play-
er needs a bit of knowledge about the technical aspects and the Internet to un-
derstand them.

4. Irritation of conventional perception as a mode of action

The player still works in real-time while the game doesn‘t. For example, s/he
has the possibility to pause the game, and in special cases (like in the malicious
software mini-game) the player can speed things up by pressing a fast-forward-
button. This should help the children to keep a distance to the game.


One of the main goals of the project was to reach as many children as possible.
Therefore the game should not require any installation. This is also important
with respect to classroom use of the game, since studies have shown that teachers
often spent more time on solving technical problems than they found acceptable
or have originally allowed for (cf. Kirriemuir and McFarlane 2003). It was there-
fore initially considered to realize the game with HTML5 which would have had
the benefit of not requiring any plugins and would have had allowed to run the
game without modification on various mobile and tablet platforms. However,
the task of creating and maintaining our own HTML5 game engine would have
increased the workload essentially. Although the game was developed by a team
of various people, only one full time programmer was assigned to the project.
Digital game-based learning with “Internet Hero” 155

Therefore, it was not feasible to develop the necessary technologies ourselves in

the available timeframe of one year. Based on past experiences in the develop-
ment team it was decided to use Unity3D3 as the main development tool. Unity3D
has a feature rich toolset and is widely in use. It even comes with its own web
player that can be used to play games directly in a browser. Unfortunately this
web player has to be installed onto the client’s machine when running the game
the first time. This, however, was in contrast to our initial goal to keep the entry
barrier for players as low as possible. Therefore, we finally decided to use
Unity3D’s Flash export capabilities and distribute the game in the Flash format.
Although the Adobe Flash platform also requires the installation of a browser plu-
gin, the Adobe Flash Player plugin is readily available, with a penetration of 99%
as of 2011 (Adobe 2011).

The actual implementation of the game was structured in multiple stages:

• Create a server backend that will provide the data for the game
• Build a game framework that connects the game parts (e.g., mini-games,
• Build all mini-games using the framework either directly in Flash or Unity3D

1. Server backend
As server a basic Debian Linux server running an Apache HTTP server is used.
All user related data, like user accounts, game progress and high scores are saved
in a MySQL database running on the same machine. The mini-games themselves
are stored in Adobe Flash file format and are served to our game framework by
the Apache server. The editable data content for the different mini-games like e-
mails or social network posts are saved in JSON file format on the server, and can
be edited by an administrator using a simple web form. We have chosen JSON
because it is readable by humans, and can be directly parsed in ActionScript. To
simplify access to the multiple data sources all communication with the game is
done via http post requests. Multiple PHP scripts on the server react to the http
requests from the clients and serve the desired data, like high scores or game

2. Framework
The framework of the game is created in ActionScript and consists of two
parts, the application programming interface (API) and the framework itself.
The API is a small library that provides ActionScript functions for use in the
mini-games. These commands range from logging into the game over getting
data from the database to submitting high scores to the server. The API also al-

3 Unity3D - Game Engine,

156 Gerhild Bauer, Daniel Martinek, Simone Kriglstein, Günter Wallner, Rebecca Wölfle

lows to remotely gather gameplay data from players in order to assess if the game
is well balanced and playable.

The second component is the actual framework. At the core this is a webpage
and an Adobe Flash file that contains the API and general game content. For ex-
ample, the login and register screens, the loading screen, the game over anima-
tions and some minor graphics that are reused by multiple mini-games, like but-
tons. The framework is loaded initially when a player visits the game’s website,
while all mini-games are loaded dynamically at runtime. This reduces loading
times, both at the initial startup of the game as well as during the game itself. In
other words, while the game is played the framework preloads the parts of the
game that are needed next in the background. For example, while the login
screen of Internet Hero is visible the game preloads the intro sequence. Similarly,
the individual mini-games are preloaded while the player watches the cutscene
for a mini-game. Secondly, it allows for future extensions of the game since mini-
games can be easily added. In addition, it doesn't matter in which program the
mini-games are created as long as they are exported to the Adobe Flash format
and use the ActionScript API for communication with the framework. This way
the developer of a mini-game can choose a programming platform which suits
his purposes best (e.g., Adobe Flash for 2D mini-games or Unity3D to create 3D
An additional feature that is enabled by the framework structure is the over-
laying of different Flash sources. The content of multiple Flash files can be added
to the framework and played back simultaneously. This allows, for example, to
create a 3D world in Unity3D and overlay a 2D user interface designed in Adobe
Flash. Currently, its main use is to superimpose the game-over screens over the
finished mini-games.

3. Mini-games
With respect to the individual mini-games described above, it was initially
considered to create all mini-games with Unity3D and export them to Flash for-
mat. However, this decision was reversed later, since most of the artwork was di-
rectly created in Adobe Flash by the graphics artist and importing the artwork to
Unity3D increased the size of the game considerably. In the end, the e-mail mini-
game and the FesBuk mini-games have been created with Adobe Flash, whereas
the malicious software and the racing mini-game were developed with Unity3D. In
case of the malicious software mini-game the debugging and live tuning abilities
provided by Unity3D enabled us to dynamically adjust variables, like enemy
speed or tower strengths while playing the mini-game. With respect to the racing
mini-game, we considered it harder to realize its 3D feel with Flash and therefore
opted for Unity3D too.
Digital game-based learning with “Internet Hero” 157


Proper polishing has emerged as a key factor for a successful learning game
(see, e.g., the study by Isbister et al. 2010). During the design and development
process it was therefore important to constantly integrate children to not only
get a better understanding of their needs and expectations of the game but also to
make sure that the difficulty is appropriate for them. Therefore, the Vienna Uni-
versity Children's Office involved children into the design process by conducting
surveys with nine to twelve year-olds. For example, early in the development
process children were shown different design styles of the game to choose the
one most attractive for them. Figure 6 shows, by way of example, four different
versions that were presented to the children. In the end, the design shown in the
lower right image turned out to be the most popular with the children and has
therefore been used for the game.

Figure 6: Examples of different combinations of design styles for characters and backgrounds.

In addition to the design questions, children were also asked to choose their
favorite name for the game from a set of five possible suggestions: HeroDotnet,
Internet Hero, NetWorldAdventures, NetWorldHero, and Playthenet. 25 children
participated in the survey. The results clearly showed that Internet Hero was the
children’s favorite (selected by 68%). The second most frequently selected name
was NetWorldHero (20%) followed by NetWorldAdventures (8%), Playthenet
(4%), and HeroDotnet (0%). Furthermore, opinion surveys were also used for
names and terms within the game in case the designers had different opinions or
158 Gerhild Bauer, Daniel Martinek, Simone Kriglstein, Günter Wallner, Rebecca Wölfle

were not sure if a term was understandable for the children or not. For example,
the following names were discussed for a mini-game about social networking
during a design meeting: DotBook, FesBuk, HeroBook, HeroNet, meBook, NetBo-
ok, NetSpace, SharedMemory, and webBook. In order to identify which name the
children preferred, 17 children were asked. The vast majority of the children
(82%) selected FesBuk, followed by HeroBook (12%) and meBook (6%). All other
names received no votes from the children.
In addition to the surveys conducted by the Vienna University Children's Offi-
ce, the game was also presented at two workshops during the Children's Univer-
sity Vienna in June 2013 (see Figure 7). In total, 36 children (18 male and 18 fe-
male) between 9 and 13 years old (M = 10.7, SD = 1.1) participated. The first part
of the workshop gave children a behind-the-scenes look at the design and devel-
opment of the game. Afterwards the children could play the first two mini-games,
that is the e-mail and the malicious software mini-game (the other two mini-
games were not playable at that time) for approximately 30 minutes. Once they
finished the two mini-games, the children were asked to assume the role of a beta
tester and to critically review the game with its two playable mini-games. For that
purpose they played the first two mini-games again but this time on-screen ques-
tionnaires were shown which allowed them to input their feedback on the game.
The questionnaires included open and closed questions (a) to identify what they
liked and what they disliked, (b) to ask if the difficulty of the mini-games was too
easy or too difficult, and (c) to find out if they liked the graphics and the sounds
of the game. The open questions were optional and allowed children to give a
more detailed explanation of their responses to the closed questions (e.g. why
they liked the e-mail mini-game). Finally, a discussion round was arranged to
identify further suggestions for improvement. The children were very motivated
and provided very useful feedback. For example, they stated that they found the
texts were sometimes not visible long enough and hence difficult to read. For the
malicious software mini-game, they mentioned that they would like to have more
waves and more enemies, and they remarked that the e-mail mini-game was tak-
ing too long.
The results of the questionnaires showed that the game was rated very posi-
tively by the children. 56% and 40% of the children found the game “very good”
respectively “good”, followed by 4% who thought the game was ”bad”. Especially
the malicious software mini-game was well received by the children with 55% rat-
ing the mini-game as “very good”. 31% of the children thought the mini-game was
“good”, 10% rated it as “so-so” and 4% considered it to be ”bad”. The graphics
(named by 3 children) and the selection of weapons (stated by 2 children) were
the most common reasons mentioned as to why they liked this mini-game. How-
ever, they also stated that the rules of the malicious software mini-game were not
clear to them at the beginning and that they missed short descriptions, e.g., about
the weapons (stated by 5 children). Although the e-mail mini-game was not rated
Digital game-based learning with “Internet Hero” 159

as highly as the malicious software mini-game it was still rated as “very good“ by
21% of the children and as “good” by 58%. 18% rated the mini-game as “so-so” and
3% considered the mini-game to be “bad”. Children liked that the e-mail mini-
game helped them to learn more about e-mails (stated by 6 children). However,
it was also noted that it was sometimes very difficult to decide if an e-mail count-
ed as spam or not (stated by 8 children) and that they missed feedback about
whether their categorization was correct or not (stated by 2 children). With re-
spect to difficulty, the analysis of the questionnaires showed that most of the chil-
dren had the feeling that the difficulty of both mini-games was appropriate (79%
in case of the e-mail mini-game and 66% in case of the malicious software mini-
game). Only 12% and 14%, respectively, found the e-mail and malicious software
mini-game too difficult. On the contrary, 9% considered the e-mail and 21% the
malicious software mini-game to be too easy. Furthermore, the children liked the
graphics of the game. Most of them (56%) stated that the graphics were “well
done” and 40% found them “very cool”. Especially the design of the characters
met children’s expectations. However, they were more critical with respect to the
sound and the voices of the characters. Although they rated the sound primarily
positive (32% considered it to be “very cool” and 28% as “well done”), 32% also
stated that the sound was just “so-so” and 8% found the sound “bad”. Children in-
dicated that the sound and the voices should be improved. For example, it was
often mentioned that they sometimes had problems to understand the distorted
voice of Ping – the player’s sidekick – correctly.

Figure 7 - Children played the game and filled out questionnaires during the Children's University
160 Gerhild Bauer, Daniel Martinek, Simone Kriglstein, Günter Wallner, Rebecca Wölfle

Conclusion and future work

Internet Hero is a digital learning game about the Internet and its dangers that
focuses on being fun to play. The preliminary results of our evaluation suggest
that the game was well received by the children. However, further evaluations
will be necessary to assess the design and balancing of all four mini-games in
more depth. An open key question is if the game actually provides a context that
facilitates learning. Subsequent evaluations will therefore also have to determine
if the game is capable of communicating the concepts to the children or not.
Once the game is finished it will be published on different Internet sites, like
the game’s website4 and on the homepage of the Vienna Children’s University5.
The latter also contains information about the Play the Net project team and the
current status. A preliminary version is also available at these sites. To reach
teachers and other institutions who work with children we will also publish in-
formation about the game, e.g., on the A1 Internet für Alle Campus6 which works
with school classes all over Austria.
A first version is scheduled to be released by the end of 2013 and will contain
the four mini-games described in this article. However, it is planned that three
more mini-games on topics related to searching, creativity on the Internet, pass-
words and electronic shopping will be implemented next year. As part of a future
version a translation into other languages is also planned.


The work described in this paper was financially supported by netidee7 (Proj-
ect number: 326). We also thank all the people involved in the development of
the game, namely Helmut Hlavacs, Karoline Iber, Leopold Maurer, Kornelius
Pesut, Fares Kayali, Patrik Hummelbrunner, Benjamin Kitzinger and last but not
least the children at the Children's University Vienna and the A1 Internet für Alle
Campus for helping us with the evaluation.

4 Internet Hero,

5 Vienna Children’s University,
6 A1 Internet für Alle,
7 Netidee: Österreichs größte Förderaktion für Internet-Ideen,
Digital game-based learning with “Internet Hero” 161


Adobe Flash Platform runtimes penetration 2011 [Online] Available at:
at/products/Flashplatformruntimes/statistics.displayTab3.html [Accessed: 18 October 2013].
Entertainment Computing Group of the University of Vienna [Online] Available at: http://cs.uni- [Accessed: 16 October 2013]
Fromme, J., Jörissen, B., Unger, A. (2008) Bildungspotenziale digitaler Spiele und Spielkulturen. Me-
dienPädagogik, 15/16, p. 1-23 [Online]. Available at:
ments/medienpaed/15-16/fromme0812.pdf [Accessed: 14 October 2013]
Gee, J. P. (2007) What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Second Edition:
Revised and Updated Edition. Palgrave Macmillan
Kirriemuir, J., & McFarlane, A. (2003) Use of Computer and Video Games in the Classroom. In
Proc. of Level Up: The Digital Games Research Conference. University of Utrecht.
Isbister, K., Flanagan, M., & Hash, C. (2010) Designing Games for Learning: Insights from conver-
sations with Designers. In Proc. of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in
Computing Systems, ACM Press.
Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest (2012a) JIM-Studie 2012. Jugend, Information,
(Multi-) Media [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 14 October 2013].
Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest (2012b) KIM-Studie 2012. Kinder + Medien,
Computer + Internet [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 14 Octo-
ber 2013].
Vienna University Children's Office [Online] Available at: [Accessed:
16 October 2013]

Jeremiah Diephuis, Michael Lankes, Wolfgang Hochleitner

Linz, Austria

Another brick in the (fifth) wall: Reflections on creating a

co-located multiplayer game for a large display


The game Limelight was developed for co-located play in an exhibition space
with a large display. Although intended for a larger audience and designed to ac-
commodate multiple player roles, its first public demonstrations have revealed a
few unexpected design issues that inhibit cooperative co-located play in con-
junction with the large projection surface. In particular, observation and video
analysis indicate that player movement and positioning not only significantly af-
fect gameplay performance, but can also severely limit the awareness of individ-
ual players and thus impede cooperation. The authors utilize the concept of the
fifth wall to designate the game design dependencies that separate the experi-
ence of individual players.


Creating a game for a specific physical space offers designers the promise of
comprehending, at least to some degree, the context in which the game will be
set. Games developed for large displays, for example, can take advantage of par-
ticular contextual settings since such displays are usually unique to a specific lo-
cation, whether that is a city square or a museum installation.
Although large displays are becoming increasingly common, particularly in
public venues, their utilization for interactive applications is by no means
straightforward. Brignull and Rogers (2003) identify three distinct user catego-
ries that emerge in settings with large public displays: participants (first catego-
ry) are in direct contact with the installation, whereas bystanders can either have
a focal awareness of the display (second category) or simply share a peripheral
awareness (third category).
The use of such large displays for multiplayer games that make use of different
player roles is, as such, very promising. Machaj et al (2009) maintain that, in ad-
dition to offering one shared gameplay area, successful large display games need
Another brick in the (fifth) wall 163

to utilize the space directly in front of the display. Visitors to such spaces can thus
more easily engage in cooperative or competitive play with others, comment on
gameplay or simply observe a game in progress. As Fink et al (2008) point out,
the multiple roles of participant, spectator and bystander can also be transition-
al; i.e. the game space can be quite dynamic, allowing for visitors to shift their fo-
cus and degree of participation. However, the combination of mechanisms to ac-
commodate this type of co-located play can create unintentional boundaries.
Similar to the concept of the fourth wall, the imaginary boundary that separates
the audience from the performance, a fifth wall can arise between individual par-
ticipants in a co-located viewing experience. Davenport et al (2000) refer to the
fifth wall as a “…semi-porous membrane that stands between individual audience
members during a shared experience”. This separation of participant experiences
is of particular importance for co-located games that employ a large display and
aim to foster cooperation.

Designing limelight

Limelight was initially developed as a custom application for the 2012 Ars
Electronica Festival1. Inspired by the festival’s theme of “The Big Picture”, Lime-
light utilizes the Deep Space cinema room of the Ars Electronica Center as the
setting for a game featuring a sorcerer’s apprentice who is alone in a dark cellar.
Monsters inhabit the cellar, but the apprentice’s magic wand barely illuminates
the space around him, so he is dependent upon magical will-o-wisps to help him
find his way and collect the three magic stones necessary to banish the monsters
from the level.
Three main design goals for a co-located multiplayer game were identified
based on an analysis of previous work, including Cao (2008), Fink (2008), and
Machaj (2009).
• Scalability: the game needs to work with an indefinite and dynamic number of
• Smooth transition gameplay: it should be easy to switch from one player role
to another.
• Participant interaction: participants should be aware of each other and able to
work together or against each other.

As seen in figure 1, Limelight employs three player roles: the sorcerer Limus
is played by one individual with a game controller; a variable number of players
who are standing on the floor projection are tracked and illuminate the game
world as Lumees; other audience members can generate monsters (SMorcS) at

164 Jeremiah Diephuis, Michael Lankes, Wolfgang Hochleitner

any time in the game by sending text message (SMS) or e-mail to a specified
number or address.

Figure 1: A schematic view of the Deep Space room. The game is shown on the wall projection sur-
face whereas the floor is used for tracking the individuals playing as Lumees (inner rectangle). The
person playing as Limus and the spectators remain outside of the tracking area.

Playing limelight

Limelight was featured at three public events in the Ars Electronica Center
with significantly different audiences: a regional comics convention2 (with ap-
proximately 60 audience members) a local gamers evening3 (approx. 70 audience
members), and a children’s summer school4 (approx. 30 audience members).
Due to a limited schedule (40 minutes to 1.5 hour sessions) and the common
practices5 of the exhibition space, some instruction and commentary were re-
quired. Although such involvement limits an entirely unbiased investigation, ob-
servation during each event and a post-event analysis of the video footage reveal
three unintentional design issues that seemingly inhibit co-located play.

5 The Deep Space room in the Ars Electronica Center is frequently used for educational viewing
experiences that feature a guide, referred to as an infotrainer, who leads audiences through one
of several different programs. Visitors to this space are rarely left alone and typically expect
some form of guidance.
Another brick in the (fifth) wall 165

Field of vision

To prevent individuals playing as Lumees from straining their necks as they

move towards the projected game world, we chose to invert the coordinates so
that they would actually approach their avatars as they moved towards the wall.
Although this had the intended effect and even appeared to intensify the bond
between player and avatar, it also severely limited the players’ field of vision; the
closer they were to their avatars, the less aware they were of what was going on in
the game.


The close proximity of players to the projection surface resulted in shadows

that not only occluded their avatars, but the illuminated parts of the level as well.
Also, the players’ bodies, occasionally positioned directly in front of the wall, ob-
structed the view for the individual playing as Limus (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Limelight in action: individuals playing as Lumees cast real-world shadows over their vir-
tual illumination.
166 Jeremiah Diephuis, Michael Lankes, Wolfgang Hochleitner

Stage fright

Despite efforts to reduce potential for social embarrassment, such as the dark
room setting, the attractive game graphics that aim to direct attention away from
participants and a general sense of anonymity in the game, many visitors were
still hesitant to play in front of others. Surprisingly, even during the second test
scenario, when the audience consisted almost entirely of gamers, most visitors
remained outside of the tracking area and restricted their participation to watch-
ing and generating in-game monsters using their smartphones.


Although the three initial design goals of scalability, smooth transition game-
play and participant interaction resulted in clearly defined mechanisms for coop-
erative co-located play within a large display setting, the degree of interaction
that was actually observed between individuals playing the game was limited.
This can be primarily attributed to the previously addressed issue of the reduced
field of vision, but is in fact most likely a result of multiple factors. The attractive
visual appearance of the Lumees, for example, could clearly be identified as an
element that distracted players from the rest of the game. Several individuals not
only attempted to touch the projected creatures on the wall, but also photo-
graphed or even filmed their physical interaction with the virtual will-o-wisps.
Together, these factors can be seen as a fifth wall for co-located games. They
separate the experiences of individuals playing in the same space, limiting their
awareness of what else is going on and thus inhibit cooperation. Some of these
design issues can be easily addressed. For example, most of the occlusion prob-
lems could be remedied by simply raising the projection and/or moving critical
level design elements to higher positions. However, the use of tracking for the
physical space around such a large display creates challenges that are not as easily


Context not only provides situational data that can be used to help interpret
player behavior or the significance of a particular symbol; it also serves as a frame
for design constraints that allow game designers to model unique experiences.
However, design decisions based on such constraints can potentially create de-
pendencies that may inhibit the playing experience.
Limelight was designed for co-located play in a specific setting using a large
display. Although Deep Space is a relatively unique environment, the aforemen-
Another brick in the (fifth) wall 167

tioned design issues are relevant for virtually any multiplayer game that com-
bines the use of a large display and its surroundings. In fact, it is the combination
of these two elements that creates the potential for obstacles that can serve as a
fifth wall between game participants.


We would like to thank the students Gerald Hauzenberger, René Ksuz, Thom-
as Peintner and Magdalena Soukup for their efforts on Limelight as well as the
Ars Electronica Center for providing their facilities. We would also like to thank
the A1 Telekom Austria AG for providing us with their SMS server solution.


Brignull, H., and Rogers, Y. (2003) Enticing people to interact with large public displays in public
spaces. In Proceedings of the IFIP International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction, IN-
TERACT 2003, 17–24.
Cao, X., Massimi, M., and Balakrishnan, R. (2008) Flashlight jigsaw: an exploratory study of an ad-
hoc multi-player game on public displays. In Proceedings of the 2008 ACM Conference on Compu-
ter Supported Cooperative Work, CSCW ’08, ACM, 77–86.
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Lizzy Bleumers
Brussels, Belgium

Capturing context: Mobile and pervasive game-play

in participatory sensing


In participatory sensing (PS), people participate in data gathering and analy-

sis of their surroundings through the use of mobile devices and web services. Of-
ten PS campaigns involve concerned citizens. In this paper, I explore how mobile
and pervasive game design and research can inform the design of PS campaigns
that appeal to a broad audience.
I discuss the outcome of an analysis of 10 game-based PS cases. Making use of
Mitgutsch and Alvarado’s Serious Games Design Assessment Framework, I have
decomposed each case into its different game components, and consider their
mutual alignment and their relationship with participatory sensing (i.e. which
contextual data is collected, how it is interpreted and represented).
While some game-based approaches to participatory sensing hold promise,
this analysis also suggests that care should be taken so as to not compromise the
participatory nature of PS campaigns by adding game components.


Participatory Sensing (PS) is “an approach to data collection and interpreta-

tion in which individuals, acting alone or in groups, use their personal mobile de-
vices and web services to systematically explore interesting aspects of their
worlds ranging from health to culture” (What is Participatory Sensing?, 2013).
For example, D’Hondt and colleagues (2013) asked a citizen-led action group to
participate in a campaign that involved measuring noise through mobile devices
to create a noise map of their city area. Context clearly matters in PS campaigns,
as people are encouraged to literally and figuratively speaking ‘make sense’ of
their environment.
D’Hondt and colleagues’ study shows that PS campaigns conducted by a
group of concerned citizens can result in high-quality data, given extensive cali-
bration and a clear measurement protocol. When one considers scaling up such
Capturing context: Mobile and pervasive game-play 169

campaigns, however, the question is raised how to effectively engage a wider au-
dience. How can we create an experience that is fundamentally interesting, and
also ensure that the campaign yields the required data? How can we encourage
people to contribute to campaign goals, while respecting their autonomy, skills
and privacy?
With regard to PS, it is crucial that participants take measurements accurately
and report truthfully. Hence, it has been emphasized that mechanisms for incen-
tivizing people (e.g. monetary incentives or reputation scoring) be put in place
(Li et al. 2012). Such schemes often fail to acknowledge the possibility of making
the activity itself more meaningful for participants.
Mobile and pervasive game design and research may inform the design of
playful PS campaigns that appeal to a broad audience. Pervasive games – through
the use of technology or otherwise – expand beyond the conventions of typical
game play, blurring the boundaries of where, when and with whom a game is
played (Montola 2005). In this paper, I explore to what extent this idea has been
discussed or implemented, and what can be learned from these rare experiments.
The starting point for this review is the collection of PS scenarios1 described by
Goldman et al. (2009):
• Personal reflections on environmental impact and exposure (p.8): E.g. Indi-
viduals monitor, reflect on and change their personal behaviour (such as car-
bon footprint) based on processed, visualized sensor data
• Participatory sensing for science and education (p.10): E.g. Scientists and/or
teachers set up a campaign in which people search and observe plant life
• Grassroots sensing by community groups (p.12): E.g. Community group sets
up a campaign in collaboration with a university to expose pollution in their
local neighbourhood
• Personal health monitoring using mobile phones (p.14): E.g. Elderly use the
sensing technology to share specific health and lifestyle information with their
• Distributed sensing for commuters (p. 16): E.g. Bike commuters gather infor-
mation that enables them to find safer, healthier, social routes to work

1 Goldman et al. (2009) described a comprehensive set of hypothetical PS scenarios which they
deemed feasible in the nearby future (p.7).
170 Lizzy Bleumers


Case selection

For each of the aforementioned PS types, I looked for cases that introduce
game elements to PS (i.e. gamification) or transform PS into mobile games or
pervasive games. To describe our selection criteria more concretely, I searched
for cases of which the implementation entails:
1. A mobile game, a pervasive game or form of gamification
2. That involves sensor technology, which the Cambridge online dictionary de-
fines as "a device that is used to record that something is present or that there
are changes in something".
3. Through which people explore their environment and knowingly gather, in-
terpret and/or contribute info about it
4. Within the scope of the five defined scenarios

In addition, cases needed to be documented to a sufficient degree. I also al-

lowed cases that were still in a conceptual or prototypical form.

Case search

To find cases that met these criteria, I ran a literature search on the following
databases, in addition to a grey literature search on Google and Google Scholar:
• PubMed
• PsycINFO
• ACM Digital Library
• Web of Knowledge
• IEEE Xplore

I searched for sources that referenced to at least one of the search terms of
each of the following sets of terms:
• Set 12: Gamification, mobile game, pervasive game, ubiquitous game, treasure
hunt, assassination game, pervasive larp, alternate reality game, smart street
sports, exergame, playful public performance, urban game, reality game
• Set 2: Sensor, sensing, monitor(s)/ing, map(s)/(ping)
• Set 3: participatory, grassroots, community, health, wellbeing, commuting,
environment, science, education

2 Montola et al. (2009) discuss different types of pervasive games, the name labels used in their
work informed the search term delineation in set 1.
Capturing context: Mobile and pervasive game-play 171

From the collected cases that met the aforementioned criteria, a final selec-
tion of 2 cases per PS scenario was made, which allowed for a comparative analy-

Analytical framework

I described and analysed each of the cases focusing on the following compo-
nents: background information (actors involved, development stage, label used
to describe the application), participatory sensing involved, the game system,
and available user research data. I also specified the source material (literature
and websites) from which this information was drawn.
With regard to participatory sensing, I looked at which contextual data is be-
ing gathered, and how it is collected, analysed and presented. These three tasks
of gathering, interpreting and representing data often involved a combination of
technology operation and human effort.
As a lens for looking at the game system (which may be partial in case of gam-
ification), I used an existing framework called Serious Game Design Assessment
(SGDA) framework. Mitgutsch and Alvarado (2012) proposed this framework to
assess the design of games that were created with a specific purpose beyond en-
tertainment. In essence, it supports the act of examining whether the different
game components are balanced and well in line with the purpose of the game.
Aside from the game’s purpose, the SGDA framework includes the following
components: content (information and feedback given via the game), game me-
chanics, fiction and narrative (incl. characters and plot), aesthetics and graphics,
and framing. To identify game mechanics, I additionally made use of the MDA
(Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics) framework (Hunicke et al. 2004), a
methodological instrument for the creation and study of game design.
As a user researcher, I am particularly interested in the framing component,
which encompasses the intended target group (which holds specific skills and in-
terests) and the context of use. I looked for user research data (i.e. positive, nega-
tive and neutral issues, and perceived missing features) that were gathered to in-
form the design process.
172 Lizzy Bleumers


A complete list of selected cases can be found in Table 1 below.

Scenario Case Purpose Participatory sensing

Environmental im- Power Agent Reduce energy consump- Sensor on power meter
pact & exposure tion Picture taking

Professor Tanda Promote environmentally Location (Cell ID)

friendly behaviour Subj. reports (e.g. ener-
gy meter)
Science & educa- Budburst Mobile Motivate plant data col- Location (GPS)
tion lection, green space usage Accelerometer
and appreciation Picture taking
Black cloud Foster environmental Air quality sensor
agency, critical reading
and writing
Communities & Neighbourhood Support playful monitor- Air quality sensor
grassroots Satellites ing and awareness of air Light sensor
quality in people’s neigh- Accelerometer
CityWatch Promote sustainability Picture taking
and connectedness in the Location tagging
Personal health & ‘Ere be dragons Provide an aesthetic expe- Heart-rate data
wellbeing rience and make people Location (GPS)
aware of their body and
Wind runners Encourage daily peak ex- Spirometer
piratory flow measure- Pressure sensor
ment as part of asthma
Commuting & pub- Playing in traffic Promote awareness and Location (GPS)
lic transport help communication be- Accelerometer
tween commuters to facil-
itate traffic
Tripzoom To understand and influ- Location (GPS)
ence mobile behaviour on Accelerometer
an individual and at city Wi-Fi, …

Table 1. Overview of the 10 selected cases.

Capturing context: Mobile and pervasive game-play 173

Scenario 1: Environmental impact and exposure

The pervasive game Power Agent (Gustafsson and Bång 2008; Gustafsson et al.
2009) was created to stimulate teenagers and their relatives to reduce energy
consumption at home. The game introduces a mission-based competition be-
tween teams of households to minimize energy consumption. How well players
do also depends on cooperation in their team, such as building consensus and
jointly devising strategies. The game platform gathers power meter data. A char-
acter, Mr. Q, delivers mission information and feedback (e.g. consumption
graphics) to players via their mobile phone.
Similarly, Professor Tanda (Chamberlain et al. 2007) is a pervasive game in
which game-play is facilitated by a character, Professor Tanda, who contacts play-
ers via their mobile phone. In contrast to Power Agent, people play individually
and play sessions are brief. At certain moments during the day, they receive envi-
ronmental questions and feedback from Professor Tanda based on their current
situation. Through these context-sensitive quizzes, players are encouraged to re-
flect on their environmental footprint. The developers hope this will result in
more environmentally friendly behaviours.
Preliminary user research data on Professor Tanda showed that players desired
more social interaction and felt score-based content was missing (Chamberlain
et al. 2007). In Power Agent, interview data (see Gustafsson et al. 2009) point to-
wards the competition aspect as a primary driver for engaging with the game.
Secondarily, participants reported that the motivation to do well in the game and
reduce electricity consumption was strengthened through social demand within
the team. Together the user research data underline the importance of interac-
tion with other players.

Scenario 2: Science and education

Han et al. (2011) included a game feature similar to geo-caching to a mobile ap-
plication for the PS project BudBurst, i.e. Budburst Mobile, to explore new forms
of motivating data collection on plants in the context of climate change. Using a
smartphone, participants search for plants at specified locations and receive
points for finding them. As soon as they have sufficient points, they can establish
so-called floracaches themselves. A plant is officially discovered by taking a pic-
ture and making an observation. Being able to see other volunteers’ pictures was
considered an important motivational factor.
Whereas Budburst Mobile was developed for scientific research, Black Cloud
(Niemeyer et al. 2009) was conceived within an educational context. In this al-
ternate reality game, created for secondary school students, air quality informa-
tion is gathered through a tailored device not just for data collection, but as part
174 Lizzy Bleumers

of an empowering discovery process in which students gather and generate

knowledge about their neighbourhood and report it across different media
forms. This discovery process is framed by the story of the appearance of a black
cloud, a mystery which students are asked to help unravel.
The role of narrative clearly distinguishes Black Cloud from Budburst Mobile.
While Niemeyer and colleagues acknowledge the immersive potential of the fic-
tional intrigue built up in the game, they also express concerns about immersing
students in an alternate reality space where teachers and designers control the
process. They argue that a trade-off needs to be made so that students have suffi-
cient access to information and can act upon it without losing the sense of being
part of a playful activity.

Scenario 3: Communities and grassroots

In his master thesis project called Neighbourhood satellites (NESA) (2005a),

Milicevic created a working game prototype to enable people to collectively
monitor air quality in their neighbourhood. A sensing device, equipped with an
accelerometer and air quality and light sensors, functions as a game controller. A
monitor displays game actions and status. A notebook carried in a backpack runs
the game in which players collect samples and avoid getting virtually over-
whelmed by pollutants. The activity was intended as a challenge as well as a pas-
time that makes citizens aware of their environment.
Milicevic’s small-scaled project in which he envisioned people eventually as-
sembling sensing devices themselves contrasts strongly with CityWatch, which
results from collaboration between a city council, university and a major devel-
oper (CityWatch n.d.; Wong 2013). Dublin’s city residents can download a smart-
phone app and report positive and negative events or resources by location tag-
ging. Points are given and subtracted for correct and inaccurate tagging respec-
tively and rewards can be gained individually or collectively. What citizens re-
port is combined with fixed sensor and open government data. This is visualized
in a public city map, tagged with text and pictures.
Aside from the scale difference, CityWatch and NESA differ in terms of the ex-
tent to which game-play and sensing are connected. The sensing device in NESA
is used to control the game through a direct relationship between sensing activity
and action in the game space. The anecdotal user evidence (Milicevic 2005b)
shows that this requires mastering skill. In the CityWatch case, however, the sens-
ing activity itself is framed as an achievement that is immediately rewarded with
points (if deemed authentic).
Capturing context: Mobile and pervasive game-play 175

Scenario 4: Personal health and wellbeing

The project ‘Ere be dragons is an artistic, playful take on making people aware
of their own physical health. Boyd Davis et al. (2006) describe how they equipped
people with a pocket PC rendering a virtual environment that was mapped on
their physical location (via GPS data) and condition (i.e. heart rate). Emphasiz-
ing discovery and make-believe, they steered away from competitive game for-
mats. Trying out their concept at public events, they found that participants en-
joy the real-time mapping but also that, in multi-player mode, some players
spontaneously seek out competition.
Wind runners was created by researchers for asthmatic children to support ad-
herence to their medical treatment plan, namely measuring peak expiratory flow
(Nikkila et al. 2012). Like ‘Ere be dragons, one cannot play without bio-sensing.
However, in ‘Ere be dragons, sensing accompanies the entire playful experience,
whereas in Wind Runners it precedes it, providing necessary resources to play.
At the start of the game, players blow air into a spirometer, which fills up a virtu-
al air reservoir in the game. This resource is used to overcome obstacles while
navigating through the mobile platform game.
‘Ere be Dragons intentionally targets an audience that is not invested in im-
proving their health. On the contrary, Wind runners aims to reach an audience
that is dealing with a health condition, is likely to be aware of it, but may need
help in following a medical regimen and coping with an illness. The latter case
may demonstrate that even when people are invested with a particular cause that
requires sensing, incorporating game components can still add meaning to the
monitoring activity. Nikkila and colleagues (2012) report plans for user testing in
their paper that could help to confirm this.

Scenario 5: Commuting and public transport

With the game concept, Playing in Traffic, Chan (2011a; 2011b) explores the
possibilities of a pervasive game for cyclists and car drivers on their daily com-
mutes. Based on a visual ethnography, Chan identifies commuting as a mainly in-
dividual experience, with limited awareness and understanding of other (types
of ) road users. Chan proposes to get people to play a multiplayer game with role-
playing aspects in line with their interests. Referring to Bartle’s MMORPG player
archetypes (1996, in Chan 2011b), he suggests that explorers for instance could
advance in the game by deviating from the routes they frequent. To achieve this,
the game would minimally rely on location data.
The Tripzoom case (Holleis et al. 2012) is part of a European FP7 project fo-
cusing on urban mobility management. It is aimed not only at individuals and
communities, but also at city administrators, and third party service providers.
176 Lizzy Bleumers

In the envisioned use case, citizens can gain insight on their mobility patterns
through a mobile application, and also receive challenges tied to these patterns.
Meeting the challenges is rewarded with points, which can be exchanged for ben-
efits. City representatives would have access to a dashboard application, which
allows them to monitor mobility patterns on a city-scale, and provide and adjust
incentives to influence transport behaviours.
Placing the player centrally, Chan aims for reflective experience, rather than
persuasion, a process of self-discovery rather than instant gratification and im-
proved efficiency. As such, his concept differs from cases such as Tripzoom and
Waze. Waze gives drivers up-to-date road information based on passively collect-
ed GPS data and active member contributions (e.g. accident reports). Waze uses
points, leaderboards and badges (PLB) to encourage such contributions. This
PLB-approach is also evident in Tripzoom.

Cutting across scenarios: Coherence

Following the SGDA Framework, I considered how well each case’s described
characteristics are in line with one another and with the intended aim of the ap-
plication. In this section, I will elaborate on possible cohesiveness issues, rather
than discussing these per case.
A first important observation in this respect is that overall coherence may be
challenged when the case originates from a large consortium of partners. Indeed,
partners may have different expectations concerning what constitutes a desirable
outcome. Given that they are also likely to have different roles in creating and im-
plementing the application, this may lead to an imbalance in the overall game
system if this process is not carefully managed.
Secondly, the relationship between the PS process and game-play may vary in
strength depending on the role that data collection has in the game. In some cas-
es, the relationship appears strong. Here the sensor device functions as a game
controller (e.g. NESA), it yields building blocks for story creation (e.g. Black
Cloud), or it provides game resources (e.g. Wind runners). In other cases, it seems
weaker. There, the act of sensing is framed as an achievement and rewarded, with
more or less demand on players (resp. Budburst Mobile and CityWatch). Finally,
there are cases where sensing only results in personalization of game challenges
(e.g. Professor Tanda) or where sensing takes place during game-play but does
not have a fixed role in it (e.g. picture taking during Power Agent missions).
Thirdly, I considered how the cases’ framing (incl. target group and intended
usage setting) fitted other case components. Observed efforts or failures to ob-
tain a good fit include allowing participants to choose a difficulty level, tailoring
game mechanics to player types, and delivering age-appropriate fiction. When
user research was available to ensure a match, it was mainly evaluative in nature.
Capturing context: Mobile and pervasive game-play 177

Mostly, it is part of an iterative prototype testing process where evaluation be-

comes more large-scaled as the prototype matures. Only in one case, Playing in
Traffic, user research was mentioned to have occurred at the start of the design
process to inform it.
Finally, misalignment between purpose, the PS activity, and delivered con-
tent can occur. Sometimes, it appears to be assumed that access to contextual
data will make players more aware about their situation and understand it. More-
over, that they will want to change their behaviour or environment and take ac-
tion. However, many obstacles can obstruct this chain of events. In Power Agent,
where the purpose is to reduce energy consumption, this concern was taken up
in the design. Players are given suggestions on how to reduce energy consump-
tion, they encourage each other, and can learn from one another’s strategies
(Gustafsson et al. 2009).


In this paper, I presented, compared and discussed a series of cases in which

participatory sensing was gamified, or embedded within a mobile or pervasive
game. To analyse these cases, I applied the Serious Games Design Assessment
Framework that was put forth by Mitgutsch and Alvarado (2012) as a lens to crit-
ically assess the design of games with a purpose beyond entertainment.

Looking beyond the current study

The SGDA framework appears a meaningful tool, not only to assess existing
game products but also to facilitate discussion and maintain cohesion within de-
sign research projects leading up to gaming or gamification prototypes. This is
acknowledged by the framework’s authors: “The framework can be used as a
constructive structure for additional (serious) game criticism, assessment and
evaluation and it might even structure design and prototyping processes.” (p.127,
Mitgutsch and Alvarado 2012).
When using the SGDA framework for prototyping, I believe user research
would be critical to ensure that a match between the target group and the appli-
cation is not based on mere assumption, but on actual field data. User research
could have a function beyond evaluation, feeding knowledge about the intended
audience and usage context into the design and technological research to inform
and trigger new design ideas. In future work, I would like to explore how user re-
search could be meaningfully linked to the framework.
Whereas the current study looked at cases that are purposeful by design, it
would be valuable to extend the analysis towards game-based applications that
178 Lizzy Bleumers

could or that are already being repurposed for participatory sensing. One could
call this a study of purposeful play as opposed to games that are purposeful by de-
Finally, this study revealed that in many cases participation in sensing involves
than people becoming data collectors. Often, a change is envisioned on an indi-
vidual, collective or environmental level where the gathered data is used to dem-
onstrate a change process to participants, which is also hoped to sustain engage-
ment with the given service. Future work needs to address this feedback loop.
When and how do people want access to data representations? Would this be dif-
ferent for people who are already invested in the envisioned change versus those
that are primarily interested in playing?

Adopting a critical perspective

Chatzigiannakis et al. (2011) posit participatory and opportunistic sensing as

two extremes: “With participatory sensing users consciously opt to meet an ap-
plication request. A participatory approach incorporates people into significant
decision stages of the sensing system, such as deciding what data is shared and to
what extent privacy mechanisms should be allowed to impact data fidelity. With
opportunistic sensing, users may not be aware of active applications; their devic-
es are utilized only when required.” (p.105).
For the studied cases, at the very least one can find instances where there is a
fine line between participatory and opportunistic sensing. Participants can be
highly aware of one type of data being collected, when it is central to game-play
and represented visually, but oblivious to other forms of ‘silent sensing’. They
may get so caught up in the game that they lose sight of what is being tracked. Or
non-participants, innocent bystanders, may unknowingly become the subject of
participatory sensing.
A case such as Tripzoom combines different data streams, both from participa-
tory and opportunistic sensing (e.g. parking camera surveillance). Its city dash-
board where city representatives would monitor the effect of their incentives eas-
ily evokes a dystopian vision where both the city and its citizens are programmed
and people can only find solace in cheating the system.
Rather than getting lost in technological pessimism, I believe the message
should stick that ensuring privacy and autonomy in PS campaigns, game-based
or other, cannot be reduced to mobile device owners opting in to share certain
data, accepting a list of terms and conditions. People must be kept aware of the
contextual data they gather and shown how knowledge about this context may
matter to them, but also to other stakeholders.
Capturing context: Mobile and pervasive game-play 179


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Darmstadt, Germany

Active design – how the built environment matters

to mobile games for health


Mobile games for health aim to provide both for an attractive gaming experi-
ence and for a positive effect on their users’ wellbeing. Most of these games are
context-sensitive, as they take note of the state of the player’s environment and
use this information to adapt the game experience. This article points to the lim-
ited research available that validates either the physiological effects of playing
context-sensitive games for health regularly, or research that focuses on the com-
plex relationship between mobile games, a players’ health and wellbeing, and the
(urban) environment in which many of these games are being played. It reviews
aspects of health-oriented urban design that has been shown to influence peo-
ple’s everyday activity patterns including running and cycling. It speculates how
“active design” context can also have an impact on how we play mobile games for
health and explains how this knowledge can be used to improve such games.


More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, which has placed
research and development of health-promoting urban environments at the core
of policy making (Dye, 2008). Gameful and playful experiences have shown signs
of success in addressing health-related behaviors and their close relation to the
context of people’s everyday activities - situations, agendas and specific built en-
vironments. For example, designers turned the steps of a Stockholm under-
ground station into a large piano keypad with every step of the stairs causing a
corresponding sound. It was observed that two-thirds more people took the
stairs that day compared to the adjacent escalator (Volkswagen, 2009). Knöll et
al. describe such approaches as “spontaneous interventions for health”, which
creatively combine serious gaming technologies and new urban interfaces in or-
der to stimulate health-related behavior changes. Next to the obvious potentials
of such interventions to urban environments, they indicate the need for more in-
182 Martin Knöll, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy, Stefan Göbel

depth studies in order to evaluate their long-term health-related effects. To this

end, Knöll et al. suggest an increased interdisciplinary cooperation between ur-
ban designers and serious gaming researchers and highlight new curricula that
would make students more aware of the existing potential to initiate and imple-
ment joint projects (Knöll, Moar, Boyd Davis, & Saunders, 2013). In this article,
we focus on the design and evaluation of mobile games for promoting physical
activity, so-called exergames, as a further approach to playful experience that is
highly sensitive to urban context. The game Zombies, Run! by British software
developer Six to Start has been one of the most successful fitness apps on the
Apple App Store in 2012 (SixToStart, 2012). As we have argued before, the con-
cept of mobile, context-sensitive exergames has great potential to engage users,
as these games can blend interactive, virtual storylines into the user’s real life en-
vironment, thus adding a new aspect to the challenge of motivating players for
physical activity (Knöll, Dutz, Hardy, & Göbel, 2013). In this article, we argue
that a great potential exists for mobile and context-sensitive exergames to make
more out of the urban context they are played in. By urban context, we under-
stand all social, cultural, and behavioral aspects of living in a city that are directly
or indirectly influenced by the shape and content of the built environment. Re-
lated work in this field has pointed to the possibility to identify real world loca-
tions that would augment the atmosphere and storytelling that is stimulated in
pervasive gaming experience (Walther, 2007). Many designers and researchers
in the field of mobile and context-sensitive gaming have highlighted the need to
make sure that users are safe while moving around the city with their attention
focused on the displays of smartphone screens (Boyd Davis, et al., 2007). There
is an emerging research on how the urban environment influences our daily (tra-
ditional) movement patterns such as walking, cycling, or running. However, to
our knowledge, there is no scholarship that elaborates how this body of research
can contribute to the design challenges mentioned above. Specifically, there
seems to be no research available that looks into the mechanisms involved in
stimulating the amount, intensity, and quality of moving in the real world while
playing mobile exergames.
In this article, we thus seek to provide a theoretical model that helps game de-
signers and serious gaming researchers to better understand the role of the built
environments in exergames. This model is meant to provide a better insight into
the broad spectrum from which to choose locations for exergames and for which
to develop context-sensitive playful activities. First, we will identify relevant re-
search from the field of urban design and planning. We will present relevant lit-
erature on Active Design guidelines and illustrate them with best practices. Sec-
ond, we will address the question of how to integrate insights from other disci-
plines with more established research on locations in pervasive gaming. Third,
we will develop and present a model that makes this knowledge accessible to
mobile exergaming design and research processes. And finally, we will discuss
Active design 183

these models by presenting early prototypes that have been developed in the first
months of our integrative and interdisciplinary design seminar Developing Urban
Health Games at the TU Darmstadt, Germany, where students of architecture,
psychology and computer science jointly develop and research context-sensitive
games in small project teams.

Activity patterns: Walking, cycling, running, mobile exergaming?

For the last twenty years, researchers have collected a considerable body of
knowledge that shows how different aspects of the built environment shape its
inhabitants’ daily activity patterns. Frank and colleagues have provided a com-
prehensive overview of aspects of urban planning from the scale of regional to
neighborhood planning (Frank, Engelke, & Schmid, 2003). They have focused
on walking, cycling, and running – both as utilitarian activities (e.g., to commute
from home to work) and as non-utilitarian activities (with foremost recreational
purposes). Specifically, they have highlighted the importance of walking for
health and wellbeing, as it is highly accessible and also the most cost-efficient
mode of transportation, as it does not require any additional equipment or acces-
sories. Walking could therefore be well integrated into almost any routine and
agenda. This observation is important for us, as for our purposes we have to esti-
mate if playing mobile exergames and / or using mobile fitness apps in general
can be compared to those more traditional activity patterns. Using fitness apps
has been described as moderately accessible, with mobile devices and access to
mobile internet is becoming more and more widespread among users of all age
groups and as almost every new mobile phone sold today in western countries is
a smartphone (Bitkom, 2013). With the average cost of an iOS-based app being
about 0.19 US dollars (Gordon, 2013), the overall accessibility of applications for
smartphones is extremely high, including apps for health and wellbeing and es-
pecially exergames. In terms of exercise, exergames may well be compared to
walking and running, depending on the degree of physical exhaustion their
gameplay activity seeks to stimulate. Based on this observation, we assume that
mobile exergaming can be compared to walking and running in terms of accessi-
bility for a wide range of users and the possibility to integrate exergaming into
daily routines and agendas. Figure 1 gives an overview of the relationship be-
tween the built environment, people’s activity patterns and public health out-
comes, as observed by Frank et al. in 2003.
184 Martin Knöll, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy, Stefan Göbel

Figure 1

Future research will have to address the distinctive differences and similarities
between traditional activity patterns shown in Figure 1, and new emerging pat-
terns of digitally enhanced ways of moving through the city. To this date and for
the purpose of this article, we feel it is safe to assume that knowledge on how the
built environment shapes movement patterns will also be relevant for analyzing
how people move within an urban environment while using exergames. In the
following sections, we will outline some of these guidelines.

Which context matters when playing exergames in the city?

In order to guide our investigation of the large body of research on Active De-
sign, we identify the following key aspects that have been shown as being crucial
for playing digital games in real world locations. In one of the few more compre-
hensive works on the topic, Walz has put forward a framework of “locative di-
mensions” as a set of questions to be asked about space when designing and ana-
lyzing digital games (Walz, 2010):
• Player: Where in the game is the player and where is the game for the player?
• Modality: In what modalities of location, when, and for how long does the
game take place?
• Kinesis: How does the location affect kinesis and rhythms between player and
• Enjoyment: What is the play pleasure set of the game’s locale? What emotions
does the site inspire?
• Context and Culture: How do the context and culture of the play site affect
the play site?
Active design 185

Even though Walz excludes the field of serious and persuasive games from
his discussion and does not distinguish between mobile games and traditional
console and PC video games, his set of questions may well help to orient our
own analysis. In other research, Knöll et al. have found Walz’ five “locative di-
mensions” helpful to organize the variety of locations that they have observed
where mobile exergames are played. Their typology of “locations in mobile
exergames” includes parks, conduits, modern agoras such as shopping malls,
places to socialize and to rest, and street furniture. Their observation confirms
aspects such as a users’ agenda, sense of safety, social interaction, and practi-
cal matters such as GPS signal reception as being crucial for mobile exergam-
ing (Knöll & Moar, The Space of Digital Health Games, 2012). Walz’ “player-
dimension” points to a site’s topographic dimensions such as widths, heights,
shapes, and borders. These dimensions enable designers and researchers to lo-
cate the player within a specific area of the built environment and to develop
playful activities based on access and movement patterns. Zooming in on a
more detailed view of objects, street furniture such as benches, fountains or
stairs, architects would extend their observation to other “morphological
qualities” including textures, colors, haptic and olfactory sensation ( Janson &
Tigges, 2013). This morphology of urban context will influence how people
engage in physical activity in interaction with the urban space, comparable to
free running as observed by Feireiss (Feireiss, 2007). In our view, the aspect of
movement and play rhythm indicates the need for designers to consider in
how far the shape of a site delivers restrictions or potentials for safety, but also
for playful activities that require GPS reception and mobile internet access. As
introduced above, Walz furthermore points to “modality” as the question of
when and for how long a game takes place at a given site. In our view, modal-
ity is a further relevant aspect to exergames, as it allows putting the game ses-
sions in the context of their users’ agendas, e.g. their existing activity patterns.
Designers may ask what a players’ place of origin is, and what their destination
will be after playing a mobile exergame. The sense of enjoyment, as well as so-
cial and cultural context, are crucial for making people engage in location-
based games as much as for moving in between everyday locations. Urban de-
signer Jan Gehl points to the potential of “lively” public spaces for city devel-
opment including public health agendas (Gehl, 2012). Debra Liebermann has
pointed to immersion as the grade to which players feel invited to enter a new
world while the surroundings seem to vanish, focusing their attention and be-
coming “the character we play” (Lieberman, 2010). She highlights that im-
mersion and engagement in games for health are being closely related to many
intended outcomes such as learning and behavior change. We suggest summa-
rizing factors as enjoyment, cultural aspects, and atmospheres of urban con-
text as the capability to contribute to player’s immersion and engagement to
mobile exergames.
186 Martin Knöll, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy, Stefan Göbel

As a result, we will summarize the aspects discussed above in the following

three topics and questions to ask when analyzing urban design guidelines and
mobile exergaming:
• Safety: In how far do morphological dimensions provide a safe environment
for becoming physically active?
• Agenda: How does the built environment influence or indicate a user’s agenda
before and after the game?
• Immersion: How does the atmospheric, social, and cultural context of the lo-
cation or a series of locations provide activities that influence the activities in
the game?

Active design guidelines

In this section, we present key aspects of the built environment that have been
shown to shape physical activity patterns on various scales of urban planning. Re-
cently, research has started to investigate how the layout of buildings influences
people’s choices to become active, for instance by climbing the stairs as opposed
to taking elevators (City of New York, 2010). And even though we assume that
this field will become relevant to the design of future context-sensitive exer-
games that are designed to be played indoors, for instance the iOS-based stair-
climbing game Monumental (Me You Health, 2011), we exclude active building
design from our investigation and refer it to future work. Here, we rather focus
on findings on a neighborhood scale, which we consider as more relevant for cur-
rent mobile exergames design practice. Games such as Zombies, Run!, Geochac-
hing, or Google’s popular Ingress cover an area within walking distance for the
player and consist of play sessions between a few minutes and a couple of hours.
As pointed out before, the way in which different layouts of neighborhood areas
influence activity patterns has attracted a lot of research interest over the last
couple of years with a considerate body of studies and evidence and as shown
above, Frank et al. have indicated “land use mix, transportation systems, and ur-
ban design aspects” as crucial factors on this scale of urban planning and design
(Frank, Engelke, & Schmid, 2003). In the following, we will present research
and specify its potential influences on exergaming through our three dimensions
of morphology, agenda, and immersion:

1) Land use mix

A great variety of different usages within a neighborhood such as resident,

work, recreation, shopping, and transport facilities results in a great amount and
density of destinations to walk both from and to in a city area. In such areas,
Active design 187

which can be found in inner city centers, people are more likely to undertake
non-optional daily tasks such as shopping on foot. Many studies have shown the
close relationship between neighborhoods with a diverse use mix and an in-
creased amount of pedestrian traffic (Robertson-Wilson & Giles-Corti, 2010). In
the design of a context-sensitive exergame such areas, as opposed to purely resi-
dential areas, will allow for a gameplay that extends and addresses existing walk-
ing patterns. For mixed-use areas, designers can assume those walking patterns
to be considerably higher in a majority of inhabitants than in suburban areas with
residential use only. A variety of usages will also allow for more possibilities to re-
spond to with the exergame gameplay. It would therefore cater to a greater
amount of use case scenarios and people’s agendas.

2) Transportation systems

The layout and shape of the street networks and the sizes of blocks also have
been shown to have great influence on walking patterns. A “well-connected”
street network is one in which pedestrians can walk the most direct way between
two destinations. This can be seen in grids with short block lengths, which also
provide more than one option to choose from while allowing to walk close to the
shortest (Frank, Engelke, & Schmid, 2003). In our view, choosing a well-con-
nected street layout as a context for a mobile exergame will allow for gameplay
activities that require players to change directions and to navigate through the
city. On the other hand, exergames which seek to augment an otherwise “less in-
teresting” task - such as going for a run – with a story seem to be less dependent
on choosing well-connected areas. Our own observation of playing the game
Zombies, Run! suggests that getting immersed in an audio content requires not
having to focus on navigation too much. We speculate that less well connected
areas may have a positive influence on immersion to comparable kinds of games,
as less pedestrian traffic and possible routes to choose from also reduce distrac-
tion through navigating in real world locations. Yet, such a hypothesis would
have to be investigated in future research.

3) Urban design features

More recently, the influence of design characters of urban spaces such as

squares, public gardens, and sidewalks has received increasing attention from re-
search projects. Gehl has pointed to the effect that well-designed urban space
sparkles on the livelihood of cities and has directed our attention to its various
positive effects on activity patterns. Gehl explains how seeing and hearing other
people makes us want to stay in a public space, makes us feel safe and as a result
188 Martin Knöll, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy, Stefan Göbel

affects the likelihood of us choosing one possible path through the city over an-
other. He also points out that children prefer to play in populated places and es-
pecially in those where there are adults to play with and show off their skills to
(Gehl, 2012). What we have framed above as the capability of a site to stimulate
immersion extends to the potential to divert from gameplay activities. Both po-
tentials being stimulated by a more populated place will influence gameplay.
Knöll and Moar have shown that many exergames are played in parks, as they
provide for an enclosed space, which is indicated by walls and entrances. Their
boundaries suggest and to some extent provide for a safe environment which is
protected from car traffic (Knöll & Moar, The Space of Digital Health Games,
2012). Burden et al. have gathered and commissioned research on how different
qualities of sidewalks – building heights, sidewalk widths, and the design of the
sidewalk “room”, influence the usage of sidewalks (Burden, Burney, Farley, & Sa-
dik-Khan, 2013). We suggest that studying comparable work and looking into
sections of sidewalks and places will help game designers decide, if a certain site
provides a safe context for an exergame.


As pointed out before, in 2013 we initiated and led a novel and ongoing course
at the TU Darmstadt which brings together students from the fields of architec-
ture, psychology, and computer science with the goal of establishing a coopera-
tive environment that promotes the creation of urban mobile exergames. The
students enlisted in the course are assigned to small project teams of five to ten
members, each team consisting of at least one student of each of the three fields
of science. The basic idea is that this kind of arrangement guarantees an expertise
in each of the three steps required to create successful serious game prototypes,
namely design, implementation, and testing and evaluation (Goebel, Hardy,
Wendel, Mehm, & Steinmetz, 2010), with the game design being mainly the task
of the prospective architects, the implementation of the Android-based proto-
types being within the responsibility of the computer scientists, and finally, the
psychological and physiological effects of these games being investigated by the
students of psychology. The necessity of this type of interdisciplinary approach
was supported by our experiences gained from a course Games for Active Design,
which was limited to students of architecture and led by Knöll (Knöll, Lehre,
2013). The students of this course were also assigned the task of creating urban
mobile exergames, but while some of the designs presented here were exception-
ally creative, almost all of the participants failed to implement a working proto-
type, leaving alone an evaluation of the effects that their game has on its players.
This confirmed our assumption that an interdisciplinary team of students might
actually be necessary to produce much more comprehensive results and that stu-
Active design 189

dents from a single scientific field might not bring all the skills required for creat-
ing such games. But while the interdisciplinary student teams indeed provided
working game prototypes and were able to conduct evaluations of their effects,
we found that the coordination of, and the collaboration within, these teams was
not without difficulty.
During the summer course of 2013, one of the student teams produced an An-
droid-based game named GoGreen. The game is centered on a specific park in
Darmstadt and features a set of small location-based games to be played in this
park. Among them is a game named Gate Run, which requires players to pass a
series of random “Gates” (GPS coordinates) within a given amount of time. The
game also features a virtual player avatar dubbed Mee, which changes its appear-
ances over the course of days, depending on whether the player mainly selects
running activities or games that promote an upper body workout, meant to mo-
tivate the player to ensure a balanced full-body workout. Figure 2 shows a screen-
shot of the app’s main screen in which the player selects an available activity and
a design draft of the Mee.

Figure 2

While the group technically produced a very good result considering the time
they had available to do so, the project also illustrated the need to ensure that
such teams work together from the very beginning. Through the final project
documentation, we found that the architecture students had precisely analyzed
forty different places within the city of Darmstadt that might be suitable as loca-
tions for urban health gaming. As a first step, the group preselected spots that
were in walking distance of the central university campus in order to comply
190 Martin Knöll, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy, Stefan Göbel

with daily routines of their target group and the modality of playing during their
lunchtime break. As second step, the team analyzed the sites using Active Design
guidelines and additionally using guidelines provided by the German Federal Mi-
nistry of Transport, Building and Urban Development to evaluate the sites’ poten-
tial value to rest in public spaces (Bundesministerium für Verkehr, Bau und
Stadtentwicklung, 2011). Figure 3 shows two exemplary location breakdowns of
the GoGreen student team, illustrating the sites’ potential to rest or to become ac-
tive, which in turn would influence the game character Mee. They had ultimately
failed to make their knowledge accessible to their team members in a way that it
would influence the game mechanics, partly because the computer scientists did
not realize the necessity of waiting for their colleagues to present the results and
simply began implementing the game once the general concept was concluded.
Consequently, the final game is playable at only a single location. This vividly
demonstrates the necessity to foster knowledge transfer in interdisciplinary
teams from the very beginning and to especially stress the fact that urban health
games will benefit from carefully selected locations, as pointed out in the previ-
ous sections of this article.

Figure 3

The second student team designed and implemented a game named PacStu-
dent. The game is basically a location-based version of the well-known arcade
game Pac-Man. In this group, the collaboration between the team members went
much smoother and the places that the architecture students identified as opti-
mal for playing the game actually made it to the final game version. Figure 4
shows three screenshots of the game, the location selection screen on the left and
two actual in-game screens on the right. Next to being in walking distance and
providing a space safe from car traffic, the PacStudent team focused on how mor-
phological aspects such as floor finishing, guiding plants along the path, or topo-
graphic differences would influence the ease with which people navigate a given
site. The two in-game screens on Figure 4 show how the PacStudent team adopt-
ed the original Pac-Man game mechanic to different game sites by altering the
rules how the virtual coins are distributed and how the player and her virtual en-
Active design 191

emies (the “ghosts”) would move. More information on PacStudent is available at

Figure 4


The first results of our new interdisciplinary student course have provided a
useful framework to experiment with form and content of our cooperation be-
tween architects and serious games researchers. Specifically, the projects have
confirmed and pointed to further work needed in our theoretical framework that
we have discussed above. Whereas PacStudent provides the possibility to point
to safe environments by analyzing the morphological features of a site, it was also
experimented how urban design features such as fences, sculptures, and floor fin-
ishing can stimulate different ways of playing the exergame. Both projects used
data from land usage and walking distances to estimate if the game would fit into
a players’ daily agenda, e.g., into a student’s day on campus. The question to what
extent the environment effected players’ immersion has only been marginally
targeted by the student groups. The group GoGreen was analyzing to what extent
different atmospheres would be suitable to get active or to relax. Both groups
have found the Active Design Guidelines a useful tool to analyze urban context
with respects to how different layouts and shapes of the built environment stimu-
late activity patterns. They have also pointed to its possible restrictions when
they combined active design to other urban design guidelines - for instance,
guidelines dealing with a site’s potential quality to relax the player. We therefore
conclude that our model can be applied to other use cases by choosing research
on context according to the intended purpose. For example, designing a mobile
192 Martin Knöll, Tim Dutz, Sandro Hardy, Stefan Göbel

game for health that seeks to support activity in players with restricted motoric
skills would have to analyze the urban context from the perspective of Inclusive
Design (Burton & Mitchell, 2006) rather than Active Design. The three dimen-
sions of urban context that we introduced in this article - safety, agenda, and im-
mersion – act as a mediator between an in-depth analysis of urban context and
the actual game design.


In the upcoming next seasons of our interdisciplinary seminar Developing Ur-

ban Health Games, we will focus on methods that allow game designer to better
access location-based information. One possible route is to combine analysis
with more established categories of location-based services such as Foursquare
or Google Maps. As part of the design curricula, we will ask architecture students
to combine their own analysis of potential game sites with the use of existing data
bases such as data on sound and pollution emissions. At the same time, students
with a background in computer sciences will be asked to combine their analysis
of location specific health aspects with openly accessible APIs of location-based


We thank the participants of the Urban Health Games summer course 2013 at
the TU Darmstadt for the design and implementation of the game prototypes
GoGreen and PacStudent.


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Eszter Tóth, Alenka Poplin

Hamburg, Germany

Cooperative learning games – a successful tool for

promoting children’s participation in urban planning?


This paper presents the cooperative learning game Pop-up Pest. It focuses on
the questions whether cooperative games are appropriate tools to raise the inter-
est and motivation of children and youth in participating in urban planning and
if they can foster learning about the built environment. The learning game ad-
dresses 12-18 year old children and youth from the city center of the Hungarian
capital, Budapest. Players are invited to discuss urban topics and co-create their
living environment through small interventions. Following the theory of coop-
erative learning (Slavin 1990, Kagan 1992, Aronson and Patnoe 1997), the game
fosters collaboration among the players and reduces competition. The pilot-ver-
sion of the game was presented in September 2012, and has been tested with 167
players, primary and secondary school groups, and university students.


Games are most commonly linked in people´s mind to fun and pleasure, with
the experience of immersion and flow, as well as experimenting virtual worlds
and imaginary roles and characters. Nevertheless, the impact of games goes far
beyond fun and enjoyment. The act of playing and learning is connected in hu-
man development from the very beginning (Müller-Schwarze 1978). Through
playing games we learn about social behavior, improve our senses, enhance our
stamina and performance and get to know our own limits. Games provide infor-
mation and knowledge, and they promote personality development. In particu-
lar, the acquisition of social skills and social behavior is supported by play (Brun-
er 1972). Games also have a reinforcing effect in certain learning processes. They
increase motivation through the experience of flow (Csíkszentmihályi 1992) and
promote sustainable learning (Gee 2003).
As gaming fun can easily be turned into a positive learning experience, games
have a long tradition in the theory and practice of pedagogy (Flitner 2002). More
Cooperative learning games 195

and more games are designed especially for learning purposes. Since the drastic
changes in media use, computer games have been increasingly used for educa-
tional purposes and are often called “serious games”. Serious games are games
with “carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be
played primarily for amusement” (Abt 1975, p. 9.). Nowadays, serious games are
applied in several fields of learning and education, prevention or therapy (Göbel
2011). But, as Ian Bogost suggests, beyond accomplishing institutional goals,
“videogames can also disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs
about the world, leading to potentially significant long-term social change” (Bo-
gost 2007; p. IX.). Social impact games aim to affect the player´s perspective
about certain social issues, so these games are always used in further context. In
order to fulfill these additional purposes and promote change in society, the
games always have to place an emphasis on the enjoyable gaming experience and
promote fun.

Games for participation in urban planning

Historical overview

As games are implemented in different contexts with different purposes in or-

der to bring forward changes in society, they attract more and more attention in
the field of urban and community planning. This linkage between urban planning
and games has a longer history. Clark C. Abt described the role-playing game
Simpolis in his book Serious Games published in 1970, which was implemented in
order to assess possible reactions, crises and consequences of urban planning de-
cisions and to involve the local population in these discussions (Abt 1970). Sim-
polis was played in the public space of the Central Park Mall in New York. The
participants could take optional roles, representing the different sectors of city
administration, business and civil society and discuss real or devised conflict sit-
uations. The final evaluation and reflections of the aspects of the measures devel-
oped in the course of the game. New aspects and arguments widened the per-
spective of the participants on the one hand, and delivered tangible results for
local politics on the other hand. Since then, numerous examples of participatory
games have been developed and implemented in planning processes, varying in
format, content, objectives and genres. In 1979 Sanoff (Sanoff 1979) published a
collection of urban planning games in his book Design Games. It was devised as a
“practical guide to design problem solving, using techniques that involve users in
decisions and helping them to grasp complex environmental relationships”
(Sanoff 1979; p 2.).
Since the 1990s, the proliferation of videogames and novel technologies has
opened new ways of playful participation in urban planning. Zone 63065 was one
196 Eszter Tóth, Alenka Poplin

of the earliest computer games developed especially for planning purposes. The
3D real-time interactive adventure game was launched in 1999. Players were able
to follow the changes of urban space in Offenbach, Germany, and by acting and
experimenting in the virtual city learn new ways of dealing with their own world.
They had to solve tasks in reference to the reality and experiment the change of
functions of decaying public spaces (Friedrich 2005).
Since then, more and more digital games have been supporting the process of
urban planning including games that link the digital technology and the person-
al, or in situ, exchange. The game Participatory Chinatown is based on the theory
of augmented deliberation, i.e. “an approach to designing community engage-
ment that emphasizes the simultaneity of face-to-face and virtual situations (Gor-
don and Schirra 2011). It is a 3D multiplayer game, developed to support the com-
munication process on the new master plan for Boston’s Chinatown neighbor-
hood. The game is meant to be played in the shared physical space of a tradition-
al master planning meeting and the virtual game in order to motivate a broader
audience to take part in the discussion of community issues.

Research questions

In spite of all these efforts in creating games for urban planning there were not
many digital games created for solving real-world issues. The majority of these
games were played for fun or entertainment. In our research we concentrate on
serious games, games that are designed for more than just entertainment. How
should serious games for urban planning be designed and what are their main
characteristics? In research presented in this paper we concentrate on children
and their involvement in urban planning processes in order to raise their interest
towards urban issues, to stimulate them to formulate their needs and wishes re-
garding public places, and at the same time aim to motivate them to participate
and help develop creative ideas for intervention.
Can serious games help to attract children in serious urban planning process-
es? If yes, how should such games be presented to the children and which topics
can best be covered in the form of a game? Our goal is to focus on collaboration
and learning. Are cooperative learning games appropriate tools for children’s
participation in urban planning? In order to answer our research questions we
decided to develop a collaborative learning game for children. This paper ex-
plains the design of the game, first testing results and our future direction in this
area of research.
Cooperative learning games 197

Pop-up pest – a cooperative learning game for participation

The game

Developing Pop-up Pest, our primary aim was to design and implement a co-
operative game for children and youth that promotes active engagement in urban
planning. The game aims to raise their interest towards urban issues, to stimulate
them to formulate their needs and wishes regarding public places, and at the
same time aims to motivate them to participate and help develop creative ideas
for intervention. As Pop-up Pest is primarily a learning game, the emphasis is on
the educational aspect of the game, which aims to facilitate learning about the liv-
ing environment, as well as contemporary urban phenomena and concepts. Be-
sides the transfer of knowledge, the game design can support the development of
skills and competences regarding the use and the co-creation of urban space.
These skills include communication skills, social and civic competences includ-
ing cooperativeness and empathy towards others, and all forms of interpersonal
competences and behaviors that enable to participate constructively and effec-
tively in social and spatial issues. The game can support the development of ini-
tiatives and the sense of entrepreneurship. In order to test and prove the develop-
ment of these skills and competences, we have implemented the concept of co-
operate learning in the gameplay. The realization was supported by the Hungar-
ian Ministry of National Resources, the National Institute for Family and Social
Affairs, and the Kunsthalle Budapest.


The game Pop-up Pest consists of a 25 m2 large playing area that lies on the
floor (Fig. 1). It represents the 6th and 7th districts, and parts of the 8th district of
Budapest’s city-center (Fig 2.). The players can move on it and change its appear-
ance by placing building blocks on the playground. Main traffic routes and nodes,
green spaces and cultural institutions and sites are marked on the playing field.
The aim of the game is to make the city more attractive for the inhabitants by
means of small interventions, which are suggested changes in the game environ-
ment. These interventions are symbolized by twelve different kinds of building
blocks, such as community gardens, bicycle stands, public art works, etc (Fig. 3.).
198 Eszter Tóth, Alenka Poplin

Fig. 1: The playing field of Pop-up Pest designed by Dóri Sirály (left)
Fig. 2: The selected area on the map of Budapest (right)

Local context

The game enables the players to learn about the current planning conditions
and deficiencies of the selected area in Budapest. The new knowledge acquired
by playing the game is linked to the immediate living environment of the players,
as the main target group of the game consists of 12–18 year-old children and
youth living or studying in the 6th, 7th and 8th districts (Fig. 4.). This multifaceted
area along the right riverbank of the Danube called Pest is the densest and poor-
est area of the Hungarian capital. On the one hand, the main touristic attractions
as the UNESCO World Heritage Site Andrássy Avenue – surrounded by several
monuments, museums, theaters and cultural institutions – is located here, on the
other hand, the area is characterized by the so-called "Roma District”, inhabited
in large part by the Roma minority, and the Jewish Quarter, with a lively religious
community marked by narrow streets, deficient open spaces, green areas, and
places for play and interaction. Thus, the selected parts of the city for our study
are both an outstanding cultural heritage, and a deprived area with social issues
and urban deficiencies. Our game aims to bring children and youth with different
social and ethnical background together and foster discussion about their com-
mon environment amongst them.

Cooperative learning games 199

Fig. 3: Building blocks, designed by Dóri Sirály

Fig. 4: Local youth playing Pop-up Pest in the Andrássy Avenue

The gameplay

In Pop-up Pest, twelve players are divided into three groups, all striving for a
common goal, namely to improve their living environment through small urban
interventions. Although they share the same ambition, each of the three groups
has a special priority regarding the development of the urban space. The first
group stands for a better, more ecological transportation, accessible also for
handicapped citizens. The second group strives to broaden the cultural activities
and the preservation of cultural values. The third group’s aim is to gain more im-
portance for environmental concerns and create additional green spaces. Addi-
tionally, every player has an individual mission, thematically linked with the
group aims (Fig. 5.). For example, Player ‘A’ from the group “transport” is re-
sponsible for bicycle paths, player ‘B’ for bicycle stands, player ‘C’ for parking
and player ‘D’ for ramps. Each of the players has to acquire three building blocks,
symbolizing their individual mission, and place them on the playing field. The
course of the game is as follows:
200 Eszter Tóth, Alenka Poplin

Fig. 5: Individual missions within the groups

1. Site-visits
On the playing field so called “priority sites”, such as transport hubs, cultural
institutions and public green spaces are marked with colors of the respective
groups (blue for transport, orange for culture, and green for nature). Priority
sites are graphed and marked with an inscription on the fields in order to strength-
en nodes and landmarks in the selected areas. In the first step, players have to vis-
it these places. They move with a dice. When they reach the priority site, they re-
ceive their individualized information card which contains a short description of
a small intervention in the neighborhood (Fig. 6.). These interventions can be
either constructive or deconstructive. For example: a constructive intervention
for the player of the nature group responsible for parks could be to mobilize the
residential community in order to grass the concrete yard of the tenement. A de-
constructive example could be to harvest vegetables from community parcels
and public places. A constructive action for the player of the culture group re-
sponsible for street furniture could be to decorate old lamp posts by guerilla knit-
ting and a deconstructive one to destroy a bench as a result of inadequate use.
The information cards are short and funny and are always connected with the
real urban phenomena in the selected area (Fig. 7.).

Fig. 6: Individualized information cards

Cooperative learning games 201

Fig. 7: Information card “bicycle stand”

2. Intervention
When players have received an information card which describes a construc-
tive intervention, they receive a building block. In the next step they have to
place these building blocks on the playing field on the building areas marked by
striped fields.

3. Interplay
When the intervention is done, the player has to visit priority sites or inter-
ventions of the other groups in order to assure rest and recreation. The three
groups are therefore in constant dependence upon each other: the more inter-
ventions the other groups have fulfilled, the easier it is to achieve rest and recre-

4. Cooperation
The game Pop-up Pest fosters cooperation amongst players from the same
group in order to accomplish their individual and group goals. They can help
each other by placing building blocks on the building areas or by reserving a free
building area for their team members. As there are less building areas on the play-
ing field as building blocks, there is a competition amongst the groups. The play-
ers have to be quick and need to cooperate in order to fulfill their mission.

When all four players succeed in fulfilling their individual mission, i.e. to place
their building block on the playing field, the group wins the game.

Pedagogical concept of pop-up pest

By planning the learning process which takes place while playing the coopera-
tive learning game Pop-up Pest, we followed Illeris’ theory of the three dimen-
sions of learning: the content level, concerning the acquisition of knowledge and
skills, the incentive level, which comprises incentive elements like motivation,
202 Eszter Tóth, Alenka Poplin

emotions, etc., and the dimension of interaction, that is the external impulse that
initiates the learning process (Illeris 2009).
On the content level, Pop-up Pest can foster knowledge acquisition about the
immediate living environment of the players, as well as promote the acquisition
of knowledge, skills and competences regarding the active participation in the
co-creation of the urban environment. Knowledge acquisition is embedded in
different levels in the game Pop-up Pest. The first level is represented by the
overall, unifying theme or message of the game, namely the idea of active partic-
ipation, which is reinforced by all the other elements of the game. On the second
level of the learning content, players can become acquainted with different op-
tions for actions and interventions in urban space. These examples for small in-
terventions are represented by the building blocks that have to be obtained and
placed on the playing field by the players. The third level of the learning content
is the information about the living environment in the selected area of Budapest
with a focus on existing or possible concrete interventions, explained on the in-
formation cards. These different levels of knowledge transfer allow the imple-
mentation of differentiated learning, which involves players from different age-
groups or with different previous knowledge acquiring content at different lev-
els. However, the content of the game is limited through the rules, building
blocks and information cards. It mediates information on certain aspects of
transport, green spaces and culture, but the content is not extendible and does
not offer free space for the integration of new content elements during the game.
The acquisition of skills through playing the game Pop-up Pest is fostered by
methods of cooperative learning. The game can foster collaboration among the
players and reduces the importance of competitiveness among them. The game
follows the idea of Aronson’s jigsaw method (Aronson, Patnoe 1997). This meth-
od indicates that children work together in groups while each of them has an in-
dividual task which is an indispensable part of the group task. Accordingly, the
group goal can be fulfilled only if every member of the group succeeds with his or
her individual task. Everyone is responsible for their own work and for the per-
formance of the whole group at the same time. In order to motivate players’
achievement, we have emphasized collaboration but also implemented one com-
petitive element in our game. We followed the idea of Slavin’s Student Teams
Achievement Divisions (STAD) method which includes both individual ac-
countability and group rewards (Slavin 1990). In STAD, children learn in groups
and the success of the group is measured by the means of the individual progress
of each group member. The group with the highest rate of progress among its
members is the winner of the game.
The gameplay is based on the following main principles of cooperative learn-
ing by Kagan (2001): a structured division of positive interdependence, individ-
ual accountability, equal participation and parallel interactions. Due to the mu-
tual dependence, children become more acquainted with each other and accept
Cooperative learning games 203

each other's point of view, regardless of their social or ethnic background (Aron-
son 2004). This is a crucial skill regarding participatory processes, where empa-
thy is needed for consensus decisions, as well as the individual responsibility,
which is promoted by common aims (Kagan 2001). In Pop-up Pest, the possibil-
ity for simultaneous interactions – as group members move, read information
cards and place building blocks at the same time on the playing field - accelerate
dynamics of the game and enhance the motivation of the players. Players strive
for a common aim and are arranged in small groups, where they have to cooper-
ate with each other in order to be able to reach the goal. However, the extent of
cooperation is limited by the game rules, so that they can follow given strategies
but there is only little space for creating new ways of collaboration.
Besides this functional level that supports the process of constructing mean-
ing and ability applicable in practical life, the incentive dimension of the learning
plays an important role in the game Pop-up Pest as well. The game can strength-
en the individual's incentive for learning, as it enhances motivation through
game experience, and can promote emotional linkage between learner and learn-
ing content by applying content elements, motifs and examples form the learn-
er’s own living environment and everyday life experiences. The external interac-
tion that initiates the learning process is the game itself which is based on partic-
ipation, communication and co-operation.

Evaluation of the game


The pilot version of the game Pop-up Pest was presented in September 2012
during the centenary celebrations of the Ernst Museum in Budapest, and subse-
quently during the European Mobility Week, both taking place in the 6th and 7th
districts of the capital. Playing in public enabled the residents of the districts to
participate freely and independent of their age or social and educational back-
grounds. They were able to join, quit, interrupt or repeat Pop-up Pest spontane-
ously. On both festivals, a total of 167 players from all age groups played the game.
In addition, the game has been tested with 14 and 17 year- old pupils and a group
of university students.
A mix of methods was applied during the evaluation procedures. First we used
a paper-based survey to collect demographic information and ask the players
about the game experience. The survey contained 28 statements regarding the
format of the game, the understanding and acceptance of the aims of the game,
the game mechanics and dynamic, and personal motivation. In the second part of
the questionnaire there were statements on team and cooperation, the topic in
general and the concrete content of the missions and information cards. At the
204 Eszter Tóth, Alenka Poplin

end, we asked players about the graphic design and aesthetics of the game. Play-
ers had to mark their opinions on a 5-point Likert scale, with strongly disagree as
1, strongly agree as 5. In this way we were able to measure the attitude of the play-
ers related to certain issues. In addition, we made observations during the game
in order to be able to compare players´ statements with their behavior and reac-
tions. In the test phase, we investigated whether the concept of Pop-up Pest was
appropriate for the target group (regarding mechanics, aesthetics, content and
format), and whether children and youth of the age group 12-18 could accept
Pop-up Pest as an interesting game in order to gain information for its further de-


In the first test phase, during the two open air festivals, a total of 48 persons
participated in the survey with an average age of 26 years. As it was an open,
“easy-in, easy-out” format, it attracted a broader audience. Players form different
age groups, as well as those with different social and cultural backgrounds at-
tended the game sessions. We were able to acquire a differentiated picture on the
interests, needs and attitudes of the different age-groups. We could also observe
the very positive social effect of this cooperative learning game which made peo-
ple with very different backgrounds play together and strive for common goals in
these multicultural districts.
Due to the surveys we can state that participants enjoyed playing Pop-up Pest,
and had a very positive game experience. The format of the game had a very high
rating (4,74), and during the interviews several players underlined that they had
enjoyed physical activity, playing and moving on the playing field and placing the
building blocks by themselves. Another aspect that was very positively evaluated
was the cooperative method: Participants enjoyed playing in teams (4.87), they
esteemed to strive for a common goal (4.76) and would have preferred even
more possibilities for cooperation (3.69) than for competitiveness (2.71). These
results correspond to our observations, regarding the positive game experience
and the social effects of the game. Playing in public spaces, we experienced that
children, youth and adults from different age groups and with very different so-
cial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds joined the game. Pop-up Pest brought peo-
ple together, striving towards a common goal and discussing urban topics and
their community life. In other contexts, they would rarely have the chance and
the motivation to exchange ideas and opinions. Playing with school classes, we
also observed that students who are normally isolated from class-activities were
fully involved in their groups and could cooperate with their group mates with-
out any difficulties.
Cooperative learning games 205

Fig. 8.: Opinions regarding the statement “I enjoyed playing in a team”

Fig. 9. Opinions regarding the statement “It is good that the players had to strive for a common

Fig. 10: Opinions regarding the statement “I would have preferred to have more chance for coop-
Fig. 11. Opinions regarding the statement “I would have preferred to have more competition in the

The learning content was also evaluated very positively. The relevance of the
general topic (co-creation of urban space) was rated very high (4.58), and even
the individual missions, i.e. the small interventions (4,71) and the information
cards (4,56) were esteemed as very interesting and amusing. However, there is a
decreasing tendency regarding the interest for the learning content with the in-
crease of age (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12. Opinions regarding the statement “I got new ideas and some of them I would implement in
real life as well”
206 Eszter Tóth, Alenka Poplin


We started with this research project in order to find out whether cooperative
learning games are appropriate tools for children’s participation in urban plan-
ning. The first pilot version of our game Pop-up Pest showed us that this format
and method have a huge potential in order to impart knowledge on built environ-
ment and skills for active participation. The differences in the evaluation of the
learning content of the different age-groups relegates to the necessity of the im-
provement of a differentiated, age-appropriate content. Therefore, we are inte-
grating a group of children and youth in the further development process of the
game, and are organizing monthly two-day workshops to discuss the individual
interests and needs.
Paper-based surveys, interviews and observations pointed out the demand of
the players for a more dynamic gameplay and a better flow of communication.
For the further development process the question arises how we can possibly im-
plement novel media technology in order to enhance these aspects.
In the first phase of evaluation we focused on the interaction dimension of the
learning process, in order to gain information for the further development of
Pop-up Pest. We surveyed and observed the reaction and attitude of the players
regarding game mechanics, gameplay and general content. In future evaluation
processes it will be necessary to integrate both the content and cognitive dimen-
sions of learning more strongly in order to cover the whole field of learning and
understand the output of the learning process. To propose further research, it
would be of great interest to investigate the transformative dimension of the
game, to find out whether it motivates players to apply the acquired knowledge
and the ideas they created during the game in their real living environment and
could promote change in the urban environment.


Serious games designed for urban planning often place their game environ-
ment in a setting that is close to reality. They model, design and simulate real
world environments such as parks, city districts, central stations or even hospi-
tals. The game Pop-Up Pest presented in this paper simulates three districts of
Budapest and aims to represent them as realistic as possible taking into account
the game story and its rules. How the models of environment are built and de-
signed in the game environment depends on the goals of the game. How close to
reality and/or how imaginative and therefore also distanced from reality should
this model of reality be? This issue is especially relevant in designing serious
games for urban planning. These games mostly address real world problems re-
flecting the needs of a specific environment. They can aim at discussing a new
Cooperative learning games 207

bridge planned in the neighborhood, reconstruction of an old building, issues re-

lated to traffic, cycling routes, or a design of a park in the city’s downtown area.
The context matters! The design of these game-based virtual environments and
their interactive potential influence the response of the player and his or her abil-
ity to interact with them and with other actors in the game.
In our future research we aim at developing a digital version of the game Pop-
Up Pest and including improvements suggested by the players testing the game
environment. Our research interests are in the role of the game context, the in-
teraction with the game environment, and in measuring immersion. The game
context in digital serious games is a rather complex issue; it can refer to the con-
text in which the game is used, the context in which the players play and use the
game, the context in which the players behave, live and act, or the context that
can be added by the players themselves. It is an issue that requires additional re-
search. Interaction in the game environment refers to an active relationship
among two things (Salen and Zimmerman 2004). It has many different dimen-
sions and we believe it influences the use of the game and users’ experience with
this game. Measuring immersion is somewhat related to the user´s experience
with research. How do the players experience the game environment and them-
selves in this environment? We aim at measuring these experiences with a special
focus on the dimensions of immersion in this environment.


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Nina Grünberger, Krems, Austria

Clemens Fessler, Vienna, Austria

Play between cable car and couch

Reflections on the importance of the environments of
gameplay through Böhme’s atmosphere concept


The possibility to play an online game on a mobile device almost anywhere

with playing partners from around the world, shows not only the variability of
play environments but also motivates the following research questions. How can
we contextualize the environments of gameplay? Is it relevant whether a game is
played on a mobile device in a cable car, on a PC in the youth room or on a con-
sole in the living room? We analyze these three situations in accordance with the
phenomenological concept of atmosphere by Böhme with regard to the question
of how a game atmosphere in the game and through the environment of play can
arise. This may open new venues in researching the latest technological develop-
ments and accompanied changes in context of gaming.


In many different ways the main properties of computer gameplay has been
discussed (for German speaking analyses see: Holtorf and Pias 2007; Mitgutsch
and Rosenstingl 2008; Diestelmeyer et al. 2008). Analyses concerning the con-
text of gameplay deal mainly with two aspects: On the one hand they contextual-
ize elements within the game such as a specific game content, a narrative or ludo-
logic game structure, or the meaning of avatars and their significance for players
(Lacasa and Martinez-Borda 2010; Begy 2010; Harrer 2010). All these are ele-
ments within the game‘s “magic circle” as Johan Huizinga would call it (1939, p.
68/90). On the other hand the context outside this “magic circle” is discussed.
This includes for example exploring locations and communities of play as well as
questioning the implications of computer games for cultural communities (Mit-
gutsch et al 2010, p. 77-147; Wimmer et al 2012, Part B).
But what will change by further technical developments of computer games?
Which perspectives do these developments offer for the analysis of the computer
210 Nina Grünberger, Clemens Fessler

game context? Which changes result from the possibility to play computer games
with a mobile device, almost anywhere with online playing partners? Which im-
plications arise from merging virtuality and reality, as it is the intention of “aug-
mented reality” technologies (Gangurde 2011; Hemmerling 2011). This move-
ment of computer games into our everyday life and the merging of virtual and
real life make it necessary to analyze the context of gameplay in a new way. Due
to this technical change, research methods have to involve the environments of
(game-)play as a context. That includes environments within the game (such as
the game design) and the environment, in which a game is played (such as the lo-
cation, devices, interface and involved persons) as well the interplay of both.
To be able to consider the scope of these elements and their interplay we want
to investigate whether the phenomenological concept of “atmosphere” by Ger-
not Böhme (1995; 2001) can be useful. This concept embraces the account of a
room, of objects and of a person‘s perception as well as their interplay, to de-
scribe the way we experience a specific environment. By including these aspects
of the environment Böhme‘s approach of atmosphere seems encouraging for a
contextualization of environments according to computer gameplay.
To investigate this approach we analyze three typical scenarios of playing
computer games. We consider the situation of playing on a console in a living
room, on a computer in a youth room and on a mobile device in a public place.
To contextualize the environments of play for these scenarios, we use photos we
received by a public call and screenshots of games appearing as popular by actual
Amazon best sellers charts (October 2013). Although we are guided by the con-
cept of photo analysis by Pilarczyk and Mietzner (2000; 2005), a systematic and
detailed photo analysis is not our intention, but to investigate the approach of
Böhme in terms of gameplay environments. Therefore each scenario will be ana-
lyzed concerning the gameplay‘s material setting such as the hardware and inter-
face – we term the toy-aspect. Secondly, the room such as a living room as well as
the virtual world within the game – we term the aspect of playground – will be
analyzed. Finally, we focus the conditions for the player’s perceptions. Therefore
we analyze their physical position and ask which role they take in game. During
the entire analysis we include and explore the virtual environment within the
game, the material environment in which the game is played and the interplay of

The concept of atmosphere and game as atmosphere

The concept of atmosphere has come up within the discourse about aestheti-
cization in the 20th century. There are many different terms and concepts, which
seem quit familiar and often used synonymously. Aside from the well-known
term “Aura” by Walter Benjamin, Hermann Schmitz established the term “Atmo-
Play between cable car and couch 211

sphere”. He used this concept to characterize the appearance of a room or a loca-

tion, and not just of pictures as it had been before. Gernot Böhme picked up
Schmitz’s concept, and expanded it by adding a person‘s perception as essential
for a room’s appearance. Böhme describes atmosphere as a kind of space “in-be-
tween,” which arises between a person and objects in a room. An atmosphere is
a spatial carrier or medium of moods and emotions („räumlichen Träger von
Stimmungen“) like a room (1995, p. 29). The mood is flooding the room, which
causes an impossibility to exactly locate the emotion’s origin. The objects and
their characteristics are essential for the development of such an atmosphere.
The atmosphere also seems to arise in the room as interplay of objects and a pres-
ent person. Böhme describes the perceiving of an atmosphere by explaining the
difference of “I can see a tree” and “I can feel a tree.” Normally we might perceive
a tree with our sensory organs. The concept of perceiving an atmosphere means
to perceive something bodily. This process is not monodirectional in the way that
a person perceives objects and their properties, but that a person perceives the
atmosphere as interplay of itself and the objects in a room. We not just see or hear
the tree, but feel the presence of the tree with its properties by being also present.
The simultaneous present of the tree and the person in a room cause the effect on
the person’s mood (Böhme 2001, p. 37; Chandler 2011, p. 557). By entering a
room we first perceive this atmosphere. After becoming aware of the atmo-
sphere, it is possible to separate objects from persons. Both of them may appear
affected by the atmosphere’s attribute (Folkmann 2010, p. 42). Perceiving the
room’s atmosphere bodily, presents the possibility to become aware not only of
the room and the objects, but also of one’s own presents in this room. Then it is
possible to feel the conditions of oneself and to perceive one’s own positioning in
the room (ibid. p. 31). This self-perception is also affected by the atmosphere’s
properties. As the example of “feeling” the tree showed, the room we enter or the
surrounding we “feel” mediates a specific mood. The person feels this mood and
interconnects it with the conditions he made before entering the room (Böhme
1995, p. 95). In terms of an atmosphere, the strict dichotomy of a person and ob-
jects might be questioned. Their relationship can be described as intertwined
(Böhme 1995, p. 26 et seq.; Chandler 2011, p. 559; Merleau-Ponty 1945; Folk-
mann 2010, p. 42). Since the atmosphere evokes in the “in-between” of a person,
the room and the rooms’ objects, it exists as long as they stay in relation to each
other. When a person would leave this room, the atmosphere would collapse
(Böhme 2001, p. 52). This makes clear that atmospheres are interdependent with
the rest of the personal world (Böhme 1995, p. 47).
Thus atmosphere is what puts a subject into a specific mood by entering a
room and influences their emotions (Böhme 1995, p. 15). The atmosphere is not
localizable exactly, neither through the objects nor the subjects or the room. The
atmosphere “floods” the “in-between” of subject and object (Chandler 2011, p.
558). Although the atmosphere cannot become localized exactly, the atmo-
212 Nina Grünberger, Clemens Fessler

sphere’s attributes can exactly be defined into depressing, tiresome and so on. A
book project coming up in spring 2014 will discuss this phenomenological ap-
proach and its impact for game studies in detail (Huberts and Standke, forthcom-
ing). The way Böhme describes the meaning of the objects in a room for the per-
ception of the room’s mood, is similar the way concepts describe the influence of
a game setting for the experience during game play. Entering a game in general,
is as if we enter a specific atmosphere. And entering a specific room in a game –
for example an area in a virtual world of an online computer game – is as if we en-
ter a specific area in real, outside a game setting.

Analysis of typical scenarios of computer gameplay

The following analysis will focus on the toy, the playground, the physical posi-
tion and the role that are taken by the players during gameplay. To examine these
aspects, we analyze the collected photos from a call and involve screenshots of
popular games for each scenario. Considering both, the following analysis will
seek for hints, how a specific atmosphere arises in the interplay between the en-
vironment in which a game is played and the environment within the game.

With a console in the living room

Figure 1: Party-dancing play scene Figure 2: Skylanders play scene from Youtube-video
Play between cable car and couch 213

Figure 3: Just Dance 4 (2012) screenshot Figure 4: Skylanders: Giants (2012) screenshot

Figure 1 and 2 show typical scenes of console gameplay. In the first scene a
man and woman play a party-dancing game, similar to Just Dance 4 (Ubisoft,
2012) (Figure 3). The second scene shows a man and a boy playing the action-ad-
venture Skylanders: Giants (Activision, 2012) (Figure 4) which is quit similar to
the game Disney Infinite (Avalanche Software, 2010). Both games are examples of
popular console games, based on the Amazon best sellers charts (10/2013).
First we take a look on the toy-aspect: Regarding the first scene, we can see
that the motion control of the game affords the usage of a big part of the living
room. Both people are dancing on a separate place, defined by the equipment for
their feet. They move their bodies, holding and swinging the motion control with
both hands. They look in the same direction, but the position of their head is dif-
ferent. That may be an effect of the body movements, but could also mean, that
they need to follow the game on the screen and be aware of the living rooms
space for moving at the same time. On the picture, we see only the players with
the control-equipment. The TV completes the interface of this toy-complex of
console gaming.
The play scene from Skylanders (Figure 2) shows a toy-complex that is differ-
ent from the usual controllers-console-TV setting. The Skylander and Disney In-
finite games use 3D plastic toy-figures with a memory-chip inside and a portal-
device. The boy puts a skylander-figure on the portal-device to bring its avatar
into the virtual environment within the game. Other playable avatars take their
material space on a board behind the couch. The figures can either be used to
play without the console, put on the portal to enter the game at home, or even be
taken to a friend to enter the game there. The skylander-figures are portable ava-
tars with a hybrid identity between a virtual and real toy. By placing toy-figures
on the portal-device in the living room players interact with the in-game environ-
ment (see Figure 4).
This leads to the aspect of playground for console gaming: In the first scene
the players are surrounded by a bed, a couch, a couch table and a bookshelf.
These objects of everyday live stay present in the background of gameplay. Fur-
niture like the couch table must be put aside to transform the room into the con-
sole-playground. In the second scene, the players take the couch and the skyland-
er-figures seem to colonize the board behind the couch. The curtain behind the
214 Nina Grünberger, Clemens Fessler

skylander-players is closed, which may indicate that daylight should be reduced

for playing or that the time of playing is in the evening.
The horizon of play is a private location where family and friends stay togeth-
er. The material ground for the interaction within the game is the floor or the
couch. On the other hand the interface of the toy-complex transforms this ground
to real-virtual playground. The environment within the game determines their
actions in the living room through audiovisual and motional feedback and vice
Next we consider the position players take at the playground performing their
role within the game: Regarding the first scene, we can see, that the cables of the
controllers are swinging. Players need enough space to move for the party-danc-
ing play. Considering their parallel position, each player must coordinate his or
her moves with the other players’ moves, to prevent contact with the other one
in a heavy move. At the same time they interact with virtual objects presented on
the screen. Let’s take a closer look: They may follow the virtual objects on the
screen, but these objects including their own avatars are represented in the living
room trough the feedback interface of the motion control. The players’ role as
dancers and their positioning in the living room are elements of one game envi-
ronment they perceive while playing. Their bodies are still very active in the liv-
ing room, but virtual elements from the virtual environment within the screen
enrich this room.
In the second scene both players’ position is sitting on the couch, controlling
their avatars mainly with their thumbs. They control their avatars like a puppet
master from a convenient position. The act of putting new avatars into the game
is reminiscent of playing trading card games, where players choose a character
according to special abilities. Considering the interaction between the two play-
ers and the fact that they choose different characters while playing, there may be
a lot of discussion about playing tactics. This means, that the role of a skylanders-
master is played in between the screen and the living room.
Finally, what does this all tell us about the atmosphere of the console game-
play experience in the living room? The environments within the game, includ-
ing genre, story, scenario, avatars, audio-visual elements and so on, build one
side of the atmospheric context. This context differs a lot from game to game. The
environment in which the game is played varies according to the equipment, the
players’ position and their role. Concerning both scenes the atmosphere is a
team-play experience. This experience with other players takes place in a kind of
third space, between the living room and the virtual elements of the game. Meta-
phorically speaking, the virtual- and the material playground float into each oth-
er and build a unique playground, where the players feel and perform their in-
game role. Concerning games like Just Dance 4, this ground creates an atmo-
sphere to get into a Party-Dancing mood, while the Skylanders’ playground may
let the kids (and adults) feel like a master of strong creatures.
Play between cable car and couch 215

With a Computer in a youth room

Figure 5: Play scene with a computer in a youthroom

Figure 6: Final Fantasy XIV (2013) screenshot Figure 7: Total War: Rome II (2013) screenshot

To analyze the scenario of play with a computer in a youth room, the picture
above will be considered (Figure 5). Screenshots of Final Fantasy XIV – A Realm
Reborn (Enix Studios, 2013) and Total War: Rome II (Sega, 2013) complete the
scenario with two examples of popular games for this setting (Figure 6 and 7),
based on the Amazon best sellers charts (10/2013)
First, we focus on the toy-aspect of a computer in the youth room: The picture
shows a man with a headset, sitting on a chair at a desk close to a flat-screen, key-
board and mouse. Behind his head, we see the computer-tower. The tower, the
screen, the headset and the keyboard-mouse-controlling build a unit with the
desk and the chair. This unit is also used for various activities like working, com-
munication and information, as the bureau stuff on the desk tells us. When it’s
used as a toy for gaming, its equipment allows a kind of isolation from outside
world. The man on the scene seems to be focussed on sound and view: The screen
(and its content) is the biggest part of his view. The headset holds back the sounds
from his surrounding. The interface of this toy-complex offers a usage, where in-
terruptions can be minimized.
Considering the aspect of playground for this scenario, we can say that it rep-
resents a different, nearly opposite setting to the console scenario we analyzed
216 Nina Grünberger, Clemens Fessler

above. One player takes place in front of his toy and stays there alone. Single-play
seems to be his next spatial situation, which may not be his in-game situation.
Many popular games played on PC are multiplayer online games, but the next
bodily experienced ground is a chair in front of a computer. From this ground the
player enters the game by a typical grip to the keyboard-mouse-controlling.
While playing, he seems to scan the screen with his eyes. In high contrast to the
console scenario, at this playground most moves are made only by his hands and
fingers, in a range of centimetres. The material playground, located in the youth
room, takes a small amount of space. The environment within the game – we can
see on the screenshots above – directs the player’s full awareness. The virtual en-
vironment on the other side of the screen seems to be the playground he is tuned
We consider the physical position a player takes at this environment of play
and the role he performs in the game next: The player enters the game from a
kind of cockpit position. In a position like this, the player can partly refrain from
his real body. He may embody himself in the avatar of a role-playing game like Fi-
nal Fantasy XIV – A Realm Reborn (Square Enix, 2013). He may also control the
environment within the game from an omnipresent perspective, playing a strate-
gic game like Total War: Rome II (2013). During the game the player finds out
how to behave with his simulated body in the game environment. Concerning
online games, he may play with many other players simultaneously, but doesn’t
experience them bodily in the youth room, although he can interact with their
avatars on the virtual playground. In this scenario the player melts with his in-
game role and perceives his actions as performed at this virtual playground.
The atmosphere of this scenario may be described as a travel to a virtual world.
The environment of the PC enables an exclusive awareness to sink into the vir-
tual game world and its atmosphere. Apart from the material playground, the
game design with its sounds, music, photo-realistic scenery, story-telling ele-
ments support the creation of an atmosphere being someone else in another

With a nobile device in a public place

To analyze the scenario of play with a mobile device in a public space, two
photos are considered. The first one shows a player with a tablet PC sitting on a
public place in the city. The second one shows a player with a smart phone sitting
in the cable car. Screenshots of Temple Run 2 (Imangi Studios, 2013) and Cut the
Rope (ZeptoLab, 2010) complete the scenario with two examples of popular
games for this setting.
Play between cable car and couch 217

Figure 7: Play with mobile in cable car Figure 8: Play with a tablet-PC in a public space

Figure 9: Temple Run 2 (2013) screenshot Figure 10: Cut the Rope (2010) screenshot

Concerning the toy-aspect, both pictures show a small device players can hold
with one hand. The players control the device with their fingers on a touch-
screen. Both screens are rather small, compared to the screens of other playing
scenarios. Therefore the external environment may attract the player to look at
other objects of this environment, while he is playing mobile. The sound of smart
phone and tablet PC may be interrupted by other sounds and noises in the play-
ers’ environment. Otherwise the sound of the game might be switched off in or-
der to avoid disturbing other persons. Neither player uses earphones to enable
hearing the game’s sound.
Next let’s consider the playground for mobile gaming: The occasions of play-
ing are various. The player in the first scene may be on his way to work. The play-
218 Nina Grünberger, Clemens Fessler

er in the second scene may be waiting for a friend. In both cases, the playground
is a spontaneous one, which is not intentionally chosen or arranged by the play-
ers. The time of playing may not be chosen in advance, but may be a period of
time, while they are waiting for something else. In the second scene, the period
until something will happen at this place is used for playing. The player in the first
scene may use the “dead” period of time, until she arrives at her destination. In
both cases playing may work as a distraction, from the external environment and
the players’ situation. Playing mobile may be a better option than waiting at a
place or sitting on a small seat in the cable car.
Consider the physical position the players take at this environment of play and
the role they perform in the game next: The position of the players in both scenes
is sitting somewhere for a limited time, manipulating the game by touching on
the screen. From this position, they look at game-immanent environments, the
screenshots of Temple Run 2 (2013) and Cut the Rope (2010) present. According
to the scene in the cable car, the game play of Temple Run (and other games of
this kind) shows an interesting similarity. The player feels the movements of the
cable car, while making his decisions for moving the temple runner. In the real
world environment, players may be moved or waiting passively, whereas in the
small game-immanent worlds they can perform moves outside the borders of
their next spatial environment.
The atmosphere of this scenario of mobile gaming is like having a small virtual
world with oneself that can be taken out of a pocket or bag at anytime, in any-
place. The player is occupied by the device and the virtual game-world, but is
ready to leave it nearly anytime, to fulfil the business of public life again.
In contrast to that the development of games using “augmented reality” tech-
nology may facilitate a different usage of mobile devices for gaming. These tech-
nological developments again allow the use of mobile devices for a transfer to a
hybrid world between reality and virtuality, as we saw by analysing the playing
scenario with consoles. But in contrast to playing at a console, this gameplay can
be used while mobile. Again we might stay “more” in the real world than in the
virtual world. While running around in a city it is not so likely to switch the role
intensively with a kind of a avatar. But this technology shows that virtuality and
reality can not be separated that clearly, as we also saw by analysing the typical
situations of game play.


This paper asked to what we must pay attention for when analysing the con-
text of computer gaming according to technological developments. The ap-
proach we investigated was to analyze the environments of typical gameplay sce-
narios while taking account on the concept of atmosphere by Gernot Böhme
Play between cable car and couch 219

(1995; 2001). As we showed in the analysis of three scenarios of play with various
toys and playgrounds, where players take different physical positions and roles
within the game, these elements imply specific atmospheres.
The console and its interfaces allow the environment of play, for example the
living room, to be enriched by virtual elements of a computer game. The inter-
face encourages us to move in the room that becomes the playground itself. The
players therefore are bodily present in the living room, where the virtual game
world is present as well. To sum up, playing at a console allows transforming the li-
ving room to playground. The gameplay’s atmosphere spreads out in the environment
of play and the environment within the game to the same extent. Therefore we can
point out, that playing at a console creates a hybrid atmosphere between being bo-
dily present in a real room and moving as an avatar in the game’s world. We see that
virtual and real elements seem to facilitate the typical atmosphere equally. The
atmosphere here encourages in the “in-between” of the living room and the vir-
tual game environment. The player becomes aware of him- or herself in the game
setting, while being bodily present in the real environment of play.
In contrast, the main focus when playing a game at a computer is on the envi-
ronment within the virtual game world. The material environment of play is min-
imized to a kind of cockpit. Everything is designed for gaming experiences in the
virtual game setting. The material toys facilitate to control the avatar in the vir-
tual playground, which is designed for involving the player intensively. The at-
mosphere is expanding to a player that is focused on a virtual environment in a way
that enables to play someone else and refrain from the material environment of play
and the real world.
Finally, we outlined that the toy of a mobile device and the design of a typical
mobile game are more likely to avoid switching one‘s role with an avatar. The
toys’ and the games’ complexity is reduced. The player does not enter a game
world, but looks at one. The atmosphere is therefore more like having a mobile
virtual world to play with, while passing a “dead” period of time in the real envi-
ronment. This may change when mobile devices are used for computer games,
which blend virtual and real space.
The application of the concept of atmosphere by Böhme to the analysis of
gameplay environments showed how various elements create a unique gaming
context. To understand how this context facilitates specific game experiences,
we must pay attention to the interplay of in-game environments and the environ-
ment in which games are played as well as various toys, playground‘’s properties,
the physical positions of the players and their possibility of performing roles.
Like an atmosphere a game can be understood as a spatial carrier of emotions. A
games emotional space depends on the players’ perceptions, their interaction
with material and virtual objects and the room where they play. According to
computer games that space is a hybrid playground consisting of virtual and mate-
rial elements. This phenomenological approach describes the function of these
220 Nina Grünberger, Clemens Fessler

elements for a games’ atmosphere. It shows how environments mediate specific

moods and enable player interaction on different playgrounds. A method like
this reminds us on the material and bodily conditions of play and considers their
interplay with aspects of game design and technical developments at the same


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Play between cable car and couch 221


Cut the Rope (ZeptoLab 2010)

Disney Infinity (Avalanche Software 2010)
Final Fantasy XIV – A Realm Reborn (Square Enix 2013)
Just Dance 4 (Ubisoft 2012)
Skylanders: Giants (Activision 2012)
Temple Run 2 (Imangi Studios 2013)
Total War: Rome II (Sega 2013)

Maresa Bertolo, Ilaria Mariani

Milan, Italy

Meaningful play: learning, best practices and reflections

through games


Considering the current technological development and the rapid change in

how we communicate, we focus on the field of learning and the new roles within
it. With learning we refer, in particular, to the process of gaining and absorbing
information and knowledge, a process that requires engagement, involvement
and dedication. The meaning ful experience concept is connected to and harness-
es reflections and awareness, suggesting best practices. The game as a representa-
tive system reflects the context and the culture in which it was born. Therefore,
the act of playing within a particular context leads the player to overcome the
magic circle boundaries and symbolically interact with the socio-cultural ele-
ments of the society itself. On account of this, we present five Game Design proj-
ects dealing with social innovation, socio-cultural and cross-cultural issues inves-
tigated through ludical metaphor, stimulating individual and collective socio-
cultural reflections aimed to support learning.


We are in a dense and ever-changing historical moment that sees the field of
communication become more and more complex and interdisciplinary. The
amount of communicating actors is growing. Social networks and Web 2.0 open
the communication to almost all of us, turning always more frequently users into
producers; new tools are available in the form of various devices and channels. Ur-
ban and social context is deeply intertwined and crossed by communication ele-
ments; it is articulated and multi-faceted and is characterised by a growing tenden-
cy for technology and a trend towards multiculturalism which leads to a vary num-
ber of consequences. On the one hand, we are witnessing a proliferation of ideas,
creative contributions, projects and brand new opportunities to exchange both in-
formation and practices. On the other hand, the encounter of numerous human di-
versities brings a number of problems, tensions and conflicts to the forefront.
Meaningful play: learning, best practices and reflections through games 223

The complexity of the contemporary situation ranges from the small size of
the everyone’s everyday facts, to an enlarged sphere of action that involves
groups of people – in schools, workplaces, and places of transition, among others
– and extends itself to become topics of collective dimensions, of urban and na-
tional size, such as gender issues, the generation gap, and the encounter between
different cultural systems. These aspects affect and involve several dimensions of
the human – individual and/or collective – life, involving contexts of reference
that are often far from each other and have been observed, analysed and treated
by scholars of numerous disciplines with many different and interesting ap-
proaches. We intend to focus on the boundary between game context and real
context, being it a sort of porous membrane that allows communication and
sometimes contamination between both sides.
In this chapter we aim to provide an insight that comes from the Design branch
of knowledge, by offering not only an overview of some projects designed to re-
lieve tension or increase empathy, but especially by describing an interdisciplinary
methodology and its set of conceptual, practical and design tools. Design disci-
pline has emerged as a field in which various consolidated experiences, expertises
and competences merge and flow together. It is able to balance the scientific meth-
odologies with the purely creative and artistic aspects of the design practice. Games
studies are showing a growing interest towards the formation of a Game Design
competence that does not forget the importance of an inventive and creative stim-
ulus as a free and imaginative act; a competence that leans on tools and methodolo-
gies for a conscious and aware project.
Politecnico di Milano is engaged in research, teaching and interaction with
local communities and businesses models in the areas of Engineering, Archi-
tecture and Design. We work in the Design Department, dealing with the top-
ics of social innovation, socio-cultural and cross-cultural issues in the urban
context, environmental sustainability and the quality of life. Within our re-
search group we are particularly interested in communication strategies, au-
diovisual language, storytelling and ludic experiences both for enterprises and
social innovation, through a design approach. Our personal interest mainly fo-
cuses on games since the ludic artefact is nowadays more and more studied
and considered as a representation and communication system that can con-
vey meanings.
Thereof, we believe it is important to conduct researches between theory and
practice in the direction of approaches that aim to develop and hone systems of
tools and techniques for real, pragmatic projects. The ludical metaphor becomes
a means to spread reflections and disseminate good practices. Our activity is
therefore composed of a fundamental theoretical component that concerns both
the Games Studies field and the problematic issues which emerge in the sur-
rounding context; this theoretical component presents itself in a number of proj-
ects that actually put ideas and concepts into practice.
224 Maresa Bertolo, Ilaria Mariani

Here, we present five projects and their corresponding outcomes designed

under our supervision and conceived to foster awareness, to stimulate an individ-
ual and collective socio-cultural reflection, and to support learning. In fact, we
look at the game as a facilitator for social innovation, sustainability and dialogue;
as an artefact that generates ludic experiences as a means for changing how we
think, act/react and reflect. We especially focus on the relationship between peo-
ple, as well as the relationship between people and the environment in which
they live, both as an urban space and as socio-cultural context to which they be-

Literature review and research objectives

The ongoing and increasing technological presence is influencing the contem-

porary society, which has actually evolved into an interwoven structure of wide-
spread information and pervasive knowledge. The actual growing of the mass –
and mobile – communication devices is a mere fact that has contributed to the
evolution that is running by and turning the contemporary users’ role (cf. Jenkins
2009). In particular, we intend to focus here on the users’ role that is changing
according to meaningful play experiences, being less and less in a relationship
with the passive learning, that is a fundamental element of the traditional meth-
odology concerning formal teaching and content fruition. The learner listens, re-
flects on topics, learns and sometimes interacts with the teacher asking questions
or proposing new views. He/she takes part in a process that, by its nature, results
in imbalance: the teacher supplies information while the learner passively assim-
ilates. The game paradigm is part of a learning vision and acquisition of knowledge
that allows one to learn by practicing real situations and acting in different con-
texts. A game designed to be a vehicle of information (such as cultural, ethics, or
behavioural) moves along the direction of a trial-and-learn paradigm that sees
learners change from education spectators to learning actors (cf. Jenkins 2009;
Salen 2008; Prensky 2007). This enables an experience that etches content into
memory, arousing spontaneous reflections and simplifying personal information
retention. This attitude suggests the need for theoretical and methodological
tools to wittingly read – and deal with – the present state of the art and to design
future experiences. In this paper, with the term learning we mean not only the
traditional scholastic and academic instruction, but also – and above all – the
process of gaining and absorbing information and knowledge. In a society that is
constantly evolving, individuals continue to learn and gradually change behav-
iour and attitudes in order to face and tackle new situations and adapt to every-
day changes.
The boundary between game context and real context is increasingly ascer-
tained as a blurred and indefinable element that allows contamination. The mag-
Meaningful play: learning, best practices and reflections through games 225

ic circle is today observed as a frame of belonging that – temporally – changes and

projects the player in a different context (Zimmerman 2012; Juul 2008; Montola
and Waem 2006; Walther 2005).
As Huizinga (1938) already argued, the game as a representative system re-
flects, in some traits, the context and the culture into which it was born. There-
fore, the act of playing within a particular context leads the player to overcome
the magic circle boundaries and symbolically interact with the socio-cultural
elements on the ground of the society itself (Salen and Zimmerman 2004). The
concept of experience plays a crucial role in Communication Design as well as
in Game studies: the game is deeply intertwined with the meaning ful experien-
ce concept, being a vehicle for content, communicate issues and stimulate re-
flections about them (Flanagan 2009; Salen and Zimmerman 2004; Salen
2008; Bogost 2007; Prensky 2007). Games have the power to transfer defined
contents leading information and harnessing reflections towards the definition
and the increase of awareness of different attitudes, as demonstrated by a num-
ber of scholars such as Mary Flanagan, Jane McGonigal, Ian Bogost. Moreover,
during play activity it is possible to maintain the ability to learn and grow, train-
ing our individual and collective skill to adapt to the evolving condition of the
surrounding context. In light of that, we believe it is crucial to harness a con-
scious and aware design process able to lead to a ludic meaningful experience
activity that, on its side, is able, on the one hand, to engage and involve players,
and on the other hand, to transmit meaningful concepts and prompt interest-
ing contexts. In this chapter we use the term “meaningful” not only in the tra-
ditional sense that over the years has been established in the research on games,
but we specifically intend it as the “meaning” that the game can spread, convey
and carry as informative content, as a reflection, and as the amount of feelings
aroused in players; a meaning that players tend to maintain even after the
gameplay experience. The game as a representation is able to narrate and con-
vey the context values, and thus it can be a facilitator when it transports and
communicates these values to the players who may endorse and internalise
them during the gameplay, and sometimes even later.


The game can present itself in such a variety of forms that the definition of a
design method that is exact, defined and suitable for the creation of every possi-
ble game is unthinkable. In addition, game creation is partly an artistic process
that by its very nature escapes the regulation. Nevertheless, it is possible to iden-
tify a Design framework that configures itself as a methodological tool able to be
responsive to requirements arising from the environment and its inhabitants,
providing a foothold on which to build games of a different nature.
226 Maresa Bertolo, Ilaria Mariani

A first point is the theoretical study. In order to create games that are able, not
only to entertain but also to inspire meaningful experiences (in the various mean-
ings of the word), it is crucial to be grounded on a sound conceptual basis. From
our point of view, the designer has to start from the theoretical study, fundamen-
tal to reflection, and then continue to update the knowledge of the matter and to
gain awareness of the possibilities. It is common knowledge that Game studies
were born as confluence of many and various contributions from other fiels of
study, either science and humanities. These elements’ crossbreeding can engen-
der innovative reflection and connections, as well as hints toward future develop-
ment. We believe it is crucial to keep being open minded looking outside the
boundary of the discipline for incoming and outcoming ideas and suggestions. At
the same time the research has to be supplemented by a practical part made of
play activity to experience the games mentioned in the research texts, preferably
supported by a collection of personal notes and projects of reference. The analy-
sis and the awareness of the existing are clearly essential: for that deepens our in-
terest in the case studies and state of the art collection, and consequently the
quality of results obtained in the applied research.
A game aiming to facilitate reflection and change needs to focus on a particu-
lar problem, identifying its nature and possible intervention points. In particular,
the protagonists and the context in which the issue has grown are both essential:
they are the basis of the process of the ludic metaphorical translation. The games
we design are indeed metaphoric representations of difficult contexts that create
fictional frames of reference wherein players are projected; during the gameplay,
players live an experience that conveys meanings that – also and above all – de-
pend upon the fact that players are placed in a different context observed and ex-
perienced from an unexpected and unusual perspective.
The projects we present here have in common an attention towards the games
ability to observe the context with different eyes, giving players the opportunity
to immerse themselves in other roles, and go through a meaningful experience
that they could not live outside of the game. This often gives the players a heri-
tage in terms of memories and emotions that can boost reflection and change. It
is therefore important to the analysis of the target to direct the attention to, and
the definition of specific objectives. In particular, the analysis of the people that
could be involved as players should focus on observing their features in relation-
ship to the real or perceived problems that populate the everyday life and arise
from the context in which they live. The context is analysed and observed as an
entity capable of interacting, conversing, charging itself of meanings.
We have two different types of objectives for our projects. The first is our ob-
jective as a designer: the result we hope to accomplish is a higher sensitivity to a
problem, or the discovery of different behaviours. The second is the goal of the
player, that can be, as we shall see, very different and completely neutral with re-
spect to the issues that are being addressed. The definition of these two points al-
Meaningful play: learning, best practices and reflections through games 227

lows us to proceed with the well-established game design process, namely the
definition of mechanics, technology, narrative, conflicts and what is necessary
for each project.


We are outlining five design projects carried out according to the approach
described so far. Each project is the result of MSc thesis realised under our super-
vision by as many students of the School of Design at Politecnico di Milano, and
each focuses on a specific topic, namely: rules governing the social conventions,
safety in the workplace, relevance of gender issues, difficulties on cross-cultural
urban space and the relationship between people and the way they move in


Survivors (designed by M. Agosta) is a board game that encourages players to

reconsider their own beliefs and certainties about the relationship between
themselves and social norms. The design objects of this project does not lie as
much in subverting the society, but rather in shaking people from an often too in-
flexible attitude that does not help the social dialogue in a time of change, such as
the current one. Gameplay takes place on a desert island where a plane crashed
on. Players perform the role of the plane passengers who explore the surround-
ing space and engage in a struggle for survival, facing events triggered by a deck
of cards that adds a random factor to the resources-management nature of the
game. In the meanwhile, players accumulate material resources such as bananas
and wood, they also move in a brand new social context populated by all the play-
ers and characterised by the variability of a factor called "level of social welfare".
The players’ goal is to survive until help arrives. At the beginning there are no
existing social norms on the island: that’s why when you have to survive, social
norms in a sense loose their ordinary role and get set to zero. As players build
huts and accumulate resources, they also develop a set of rules for community
life; in the game, these rules are proposed by the cards that have a light side and
a dark side (Figure 1). When one of these cards is picked up, players are asked to
choose among the two social conventions, each corresponding to a side, and
then act accordingly; the game system is balanced in such a way that players often
discover themselves to act very different compared to how they would in the real
world and in their ordinary context.
By playing you realise that social norms are not something right and absolute;
the fact that made social norms become real rules depends on a series of circum-
228 Maresa Bertolo, Ilaria Mariani

stances; accordingly, our players have often claimed to have better understanding
of the rules we follow as real conventions and not absolute elements; and that
each of us, under certain conditions, may be willing to change his or her own be-
haviour or habits. This game is clearly not intended to make us all rude, but to
train us to loose the grip of the rigid social convention: by playing we broaden
our horizons, we better understand the role of social conventions and reflect on
their role in our lives (see also Ackermann 2013).

Figure 1. Game cards with a light and dark side, and during the gameplay each player has to chose
among the two social conventions, by putting their pawn on the corresponding side.

The unprepared

The Unprepared (designed by A. Mocchetti) aims to raise awareness on the im-

portance of respecting safety rules in the workplace. This project has come out
from the fact that our School provides, at students’ disposal, instrumental labs
where everyone can use potentially dangerous workstations. In order to enter
and use these spaces, our students follow courses on safety: they know the rules,
but they do not take them too seriously, either because of their early age or ges-
ture repetition over time. In doing so, students are often likely to get hurt because
they neglect gloves or protections of another kind (Figure 2).
The project is planned to be an app where an unprepared stickman deals with
the dangers of workplaces where he is left in high-risk situation and, every now
and then, he could loose something such as his head or fingers. The player has to
play the role of a caring angel, aiming to give him protection equipment (e.g.,
glasses, gloves) and to try to stop him from making mistakes, thereby saving his
life. This kind of relationship with the game’s protagonist sensitises players/stu-
dents and boosts them to be more aware about what they actually do in the in-
strumental labs: that in order to actually take care of themselves in the everyday
life at school, they should be wearing protective clothing and equipment, re-
specting security norms and standards of protective measure. This game encour-
ages players/students to understand dangers and to remember how to react.
Meaningful play: learning, best practices and reflections through games 229

Figure 2. A real student intent to settle, wearing only one glove instead of two. During the game-
play, the student/player has to give the stickman protection equipment to save his life.

Re-gender yourself!

Re-gender yourself! (designed by V. Prosperi) is a board game that intends to

sensitise players to gender issues. Every player aims to have a successful career in
a specific work sector: the doctor, the dean, the homemaker to mention a few.
During the gameplay, each player uses his or her own personal board to track
progresses in the game-career, the level of skills reached, such as smartness,
beauty, physical strength or intelligence and the number of children. The core of
the game system is that it reacts differently to men and women; for example, in
Figure 3 there is the card “You look awesome”: when played by a woman, it al-
lows her to easily overcome a job interview, while it is totally useless if possessed
by a man.
The aim is to bolster the players to understand through a ludic meaningful ex-
perience the daily difficulties that those who belongs to the other gender have to
tackle. To enhance the understanding “of the other”, the game mechanics ensure
that during every gameplay changes of gender occur. Each player starts to play
the game with his or her own gender and faces the difficulties that characterise
their daily lives, and then, suddenly, out of the blue everyone has to switch game-
genders (Figure 3). This event forces players to reconsider the role of their game
skills: they pass from strengths to weaknesses and vice versa. In this sense, the
game uses stereotypes as game material but actually it captures a reality that is
still unfortunately well entrenched in Italy. For example, the card “Sudden urge
to have children” blocks a woman for 3 rounds, but it does not affect men. This is
an ironic and provocative approach that aims to make people reflect and con-
front these issues by boosting individuals to put themselves and their certainty
into play, experiencing the other gender’s issues and reflecting on this thorny
230 Maresa Bertolo, Ilaria Mariani

Figure 3. The card “You look awesome” , and, in the right side, before and after the “switch game-
genders” event.

A hostile world

A Hostile World (designed by L. Ierardi) is an urban persuasive non-digital

game that leads players to live an experience similar to what happens to a foreign-
er that is for the first time in a completely new context. The goal as designers is to
put indigenous players in the role of the foreigner and to have them feel the dif-
ficulties and daily problems of foreign people unable to understand the native
language of the country they live in, increasing and enhancing both empathy and
sensitivity by raising awareness. The game is based on a series of simple missions
that relate to daily life tasks, such as buying a medicine, or borrowing a book
from the library. The goal of the players is to solve the missions facing a world
that grows hostile because of our design decision to use Esperanto as the game
language. It is an artificial language that very few people actually know and speak,
but at the same time its sound makes it quite familiar to everyone in Europe. The
game material is in Esperanto and players have to solve simple tasks by facing the
difficulties of dealing with an unknown language. The game has different game-
locations where game-Actors interact with players. It is not mandatory that Ac-
tors know Esperanto: we tested that in order to have a successful game session, it
is possible to train people to play their role by simply giving them some useful
sentence. The game has a set of spatial sign elements and mission items (in Espe-
ranto) designed to be graphically recognisable as game elements in the surround-
ing environment. A Hostile World thrusts players out of the context they belong
to, diving them into what we have called “a hostile world”, that is a context with
a different language and different interpretations of both signs and archetypes.
This immersion has proven to be such that it increases empathy and sensitivity to
Meaningful play: learning, best practices and reflections through games 231

foreign people, going to relieve the tensions that today increasingly afflict and af-
fect our cities.

Figure 4. An Actor in the role of the library secretary; some game elements and an interaction be-
tween an Actor and some players.


QRiosity (designed by M. Bertolo, V. De Luca, I. Mariani, M. Zannoni) is an

environmental exploration game that was developed by the project Giuc[MI]
(Mariani 2011). It is a pervasive game based on the interaction among space, mo-
bile technologies, people and knowledge. It is an applied playfulness system de-
signed to adjust itself different contexts, moving players towards a more con-
scious relationship with the environment and the active learning. The system
consists of three main elements: the people who play; the digital system based on
QR code and mobile web app; and the context itself, intended both as a space to
explore and as an informative component.
Game elements have a graphical characterisation in order to emerge from
the context in which it is played. Figure 5 shows some pictures of the game ses-
sion we performed at Play, the major Italian exhibition of games and game cul-
ture. People access the game and become players by scanning the QR code of
their Game Card; the system then informs them that they have to search for
clues hidden in the environment where each quest starts. To solve a mission the
player must explore the space and search for information to reach a particular
point, where it is necessary to scan a QR code. The main theme of QRiosity’s
missions is the game itself. Players are encouraged to use their ludic knowledge
and skills to progress in the game, and they are rewarded with curiosities from
the Game studies field. Through its gameplay, QRiosity allows us to observe
how a variant, in the form of a ludic element, is capable of motivating people to
abandon their traditional paths and explore the space according to new pat-
terns (Alexander 1979). This capability is a strong point when applied to a spe-
cific context: for example, in our Italian city where this kind of approach is pro-
232 Maresa Bertolo, Ilaria Mariani

moted to manage the flow of people with greater awareness, especially during
the pedestrian days.

Figure 5. On the left, the game elements in the environment and the mobile system. On the right,
the exhibition building’s layout with an indication of the main visiting paths, the locations of Quests
Markers and way players abandon the traditional path, going through new ones.


The projects presented in this paper has been developed by the students under
our supervision; their core often – but not always – stems from our ideas and sug-
gestions, on the basis of the interest lines of the research group of which we are
part. Belonging to the area of Communication Design, our interest in ludic activ-
ity as a meaningful system has lead us to intensively investigate the different fea-
tures of the relationship that occurs between the two fields of design and game
and the possibilities that come from that connection; a game can create experi-
ences that are not only simply pleasant, but are also provided with a communica-
tive value. The game has already widely been proven to be a capable vehicle for
the transmission of meaning and knowledge thanks to the experience of play that
it engenders. As a matter of fact, when the game designer designs a game, he/she
is designing an artefact that leads players to live a play experience, and in this pro-
cess may emerge an element of meaning. The concept of meaningful play experi-
ence has been widely analysed, studied and described. Its elements have been
identified over the years; they relate to the interaction among players, between
them and the system, and between them and the context in which the game takes
place. The meaningful play experience may also occur when we think about the
relationship between choices, the player’s actions and the results obtained. Final-
ly, it also refers to a sensation that we feel of “being in tune” during the gameplay,
with the environment, the experience, the culture, and the context we are in,
Meaningful play: learning, best practices and reflections through games 233

meaning a social, cultural, personal or collective context. All these concepts can
be seen as layers of meanings (Figure 6), involving players and context; we are
particularly interested in the layer that is positioned above the others: it is the
stratum which involves all sets of patterns of behaviours, habits and meanings
that people attribute to the elements of their everyday life.

Fig. 6. The different and overlapped layers of meanings that belong to the game: the player, the con-
text, the habits.


In its own way, each of these projects shows how the game can provide real
support to social innovation and stimulate reflections towards change. The issues
we are interested in are of particular interest for the social role they cover in the
contemporary time: in this sense it is important to continue to think and experi-
ment, therefore our openness to other contexts is crucial, especially at the inter-
national level. We consider it interesting to investigate how different contexts re-
act to the same game system; we are always looking for contexts to dive into and
design for in order to analyse how games react to context change and how players
react to frames of reference other than their usual. A game mechanism can in-
deed help to increase motivation, making the strenuous learning process more
pleasant; it can also improve the activity and overcome the tension by adding
spaces of applied playfulness and increase the awareness of aspects entrenched in
the cultural and social context, considering the social innovation issues from dif-
ferent points of view. The ludic activity takes shape as a linguistic and design par-
adigm, with noticeable communicative potentialities.
Therefore, our intent is to share our point of view both as researchers and
game designer, as well as our design approach and method, and to propose an
overview of ludic artefacts we have developed with our students. Our whole re-
search activity arises from the assumption that playing is an innate aptitude and
part of our culture as human beings, and this makes the game a very interesting
system for communicating contents as well as making reflections.
234 Maresa Bertolo, Ilaria Mariani


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Maike Groen
Göttingen, Germany

Exclusion and inclusion of women in e-sport and

the example of StarCraft: Wings of liberty


Computer games and video games are still male dominated. They remain a
sphere where women are almost rendered invisible (Taylor 2009 p. 159). Gaming
as a hobby, its professionalization in the form of e-sport has become a multimil-
lion-dollar industry involving international teams and regular tournaments. The
professionalization of competitive gaming has seen triumphant advances within
the last few years. This chapter focuses on the aspect of female players and what
they face in the competitive world of e-sport, using StarCraft, a real time strategy
game, as an example of this fast-growing industry and its diverse online game

StarCraft, e-sport and gender

StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty (Blizzard Entertainment 2010) is one of the

leading games in this scene with a history of e-sport especially in South Korea
(Cheung and Huang 2011). Its genre is real-time strategy, with players building up
a base and armies to fight each other and with all movements happening simulta-
neously. Multitasking is a key element, but strategy is at least as important as re-
action time. The game is mostly played one on one.
Video games have always been closely linked to masculinity and they continue
to be predominantly the domain of heterosexual white men. Women and girls are
positioned as marginal and less competent users of digital technologies: Not only
their technology and design, but also their commercial presentation is thorough-
ly ‘masculinized’. They thus reaffirm the binary gender system as illustrated, for
instance, by the research of Nicholas Taylor (2009). However, in his analysis he
focuses on Halo 3 (Microsoft Game Studies 2007), a shooter-game that is gener-
ally considered violent, strongly competitive and team-based. So are those find-
ings even comparable to the ‘gentleman sport’ that StarCraft claims to be? With
this aspect in mind, let us take a closer look at the game itself.
236 Maike Groen

The warlike design of StarCraft promotes masculinity through stereotypical

appearances of (mostly) men and (rarely) women, but this remains dispensable
for multiplayer gameplay. Furthermore the game has the potential to be appeal-
ing for casual gamers and offers an easy entry, since it is not team-based and has
an anonymous matchmaking system that assigns people of similar skill.
Its professionalization and fame inside the e-sport scene has established a
communicative, non-competitive environment: at so-called BarCrafts, fans
watch events together publicly. In this aspect, communication and passion seem
to be the key to enter the community. On top of that, norms and values concern-
ing player behaviour are constantly changing. Especially actors with financial in-
terest try to implement ‘good manners’ instead of discriminatory actions in an
attempt to transform a subculture into a ubiquitous sports media event. Although
these may be mainly marketing reasons, first professionals taking a stand against
hate speech punishing players for misogynistic behaviour or firing casters for rac-
ist slurs still have a positive impact on the playing environment.
Nonetheless the scene itself remains male dominated, as recently illustrated
by the non-representative census of TeamLiquid, the biggest community web-
site, where of the 2900 respondents only 2.3% are identified as female (TeamLiq-
uid, 2013). Women within e-sport remain in the service of this masculinized
technoculture, mostly limited to sexualized and supportive roles (Taylor 2009 p.
140), with young white heterosexual males as the targeted audience. One way in
which this fact presents itself is through shows hiring female models as hosts in-
stead of women from the community with knowledge of the game.

Gender socialization and technology

Historically, “geeks” and “nerds” had been constructed as a demarcation to-

wards hegemonic masculinity (Taylor 2010; Connell 1995) but there has always
been an overlap and interlinking with other dominance mechanisms concerning
race, class, gender and sexual orientation, amongst others. Still many people
considered as nerds feel pressured by not fulfilling the ideals of hegemonic mas-
culinity. But even though this construct constrains men as well, the binary gen-
der system hurts in fact mainly women and marginal identities. The fact that the
privileged group is forced under their own rule is of course something complete-
ly different, something paradox, compared to the oppression of others (Bour-
dieu 1997).
One way in which the binary gender hierarchy manifests itself in the commu-
nity is the way in which its members deal with femininity and homosexuality.
Both are widely considered as the ultimate devaluation and are commonly used
as an insult: heterosexuality and masculinity remain undisputed in an attempt to
upgrade one’s own status through defaming others. T.L. Taylor’s research about
Exclusion and inclusion of women in e-sport 237

professional players not only highlights this, but shows the different kinds of
prevalent masculinity in the scene: some identify themselves as nerds and might
feel uncomfortable and awkward in public. Many others already show a market-
able story of drugs, sex and fame – in a scene-specific way. But overall e-sports
players echo “the values of traditional athletic masculinity, simply minus the em-
phasis on physical qualities” (Taylor 2012 p. 116).
Women on the other hand already face a challenge before they even play. Al-
though gender roles are heterogeneous in our society and depend on a structural,
institutional and economical framework, some codes are more general than oth-
ers and the gendered dichotomy remains a fundamental structure within society
through all social spaces. Through daily interactions in the process of socializa-
tion, through gendered and gendering toys, specific interests and abilities which
are associated with the ascribed sex are fortified and direct women towards their
expected places. The constant repetition of gender norms leads to internalization
and incorporation - and any activities outside those schemes come with unease
and shame for the individual (Trautner 2006; Alkemeyer 2006). So it is possible
to modify the role given by society, but it is very complex and difficult for the in-
dividual. Therefore even considering activities for oneself is strongly tied to role
expectations concerning aspects like race, gender or class, and is the result of
complex resource-dependent positioning in society. Choosing leisure activities
hence cooperates (unwillingly) as a kind of anticipatory obedience with other
mechanisms of exclusion that hinders many women to enter scenes (Tillmann
2010) – both ultimately creating and reinforcing homogenous groups.

Female gamers in StarCraft

Thus in real terms girls are discouraged from playing video games starting at a
young age. They generally have fewer friends to share the experience with and
are not supposed to engage in “nerd activities”. Regarding games, boys support
and help each other, while girls usually don’t have that possibility in their peer
group (McNamee 1998; Tillmann 2010).
The emerging male dominated community tends to ignore the female living
environment: contents besides game-specific topics rarely feature common fe-
male interests or point of views. On top of that, misogynistic stereotypes of wom-
en prevail, which result in continuous questioning of the technical know-how of
the few women who try to enter – infamously symbolized by the “fake geek girl”
meme. This misconception that women merely pretend to be interested in order
to feel wanted and utilize men is also virulent in the StarCraft-community.1 More

1 Sad examples are community reactions to topics involving women: A thread on TeamLiquid,
where someone argues for more female casters in StarCraft. The ongoing thread includes mul-
238 Maike Groen

direct manifestations are sexual harassment or misogynistic language; this is il-

lustrated, for instance, by existing debates about desirable body types of women.
This kind of sexism and prejudices forces women to position themselves: wheth-
er they ignore it or arrange themselves with it, they are always faced by it.
Women who try to avoid that often hide their gender online. In StarCraft mul-
tiplayer gameplay, it is relatively easy to do so, since the nickname is the only
thing you can personalize in the game. But if a woman or girl really wants to get
involved in the community and participate at liveevents or forums, it is almost
impossible. Another common coping strategy is the so-called ‘aping masculini-
ty’, in which case women adapt aggressive behaviour from man, for example
trash-talking. Others may try to perform both sides, enacting hyper-masculine
and feminine behaviour (Taylor 2012 p. 123). An alternative is offered by the
group GoSC – Girls of StarCraft (, which was founded in 2011 to encour-
age and support females in the community. The informal membership is open to
all self-identified women interested in the game, from casual to professional, be
it players, fans or organizers from around the world. Except for game advice,
their chat system and Facebook forum focus on supporting each other – for ex-
ample in dealing with encountered sexism. They are visible at events, however –
as they emphasize – not for public attention but to be recognized as a support
system by other female gamers. This illustrates the widespread fear of women of
being labeled as “attention whore” and classified as “fake geek girl”.
Frequently playing women and the few females in the pro-scene face an even
bigger challenge: as they are more visible, hiding their gender is not a possibility.
Visibility has become an increasingly problematic issue for women ever since live
streaming on platforms like emerged as one of the basic ways to earn
money as a player. Players stream not only their tournaments, but also their prac-
tice hours with a cam on themselves (to make it more interesting) and a chat that
generally encourages them or allows to debate strategies. However, many wom-
en experience visitors focusing on and commenting their looks. Their gamerness
and skills are not only questioned, but often even completely ignored (cf. Taylor
2012 p. 125). Women who speak up against that treatment are (at least) hated for
being a prude, a spoilsport or a drama queen – ironically enough often alongside
being labeled as “attention whore” for even playing at all. The misogyny of the
scene seems to offer no right or even appropriate behaviour for gaming women.
Supportive men are also discredited and usually either labeled as so called ‘white
knights’, implying they are only trying to impress the girl to get laid - or as gay.
Misogyny might be one phenomenon, but transphobia is another prevalent is-
sue within the scene. Since some prominent players have openly announced that

tiple misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic utterances (Teamliquid, 2013a). Another ex-
ample is the reaction on the „gamer girl manifesto“, where women spoke up against harasse-
ment and prejudices (TeamLiquid, 2011).
Exclusion and inclusion of women in e-sport 239

they are male to female transgender, they have faced severe rejections. Their ex-
istence is even more than women’s in the scene a sheer defiance of the binary
gender system and the heterosexual matrix. Although Girls of StarCraft and
some professional events, teams and casters have immediately welcomed and ac-
cepted them, many communitymembers keep up their transphobic behaviour.
This ranges from outing the players in public to asking transphobic questions.
Cynically enough, it sometimes even comes with an attempt to restore the as-
sumed biological differences between the sexes, claiming transgender to be good
at the game only because of their supposedly male brain.


In conclusion, homogenisation of rooms and their usage is the result of com-

plex, resource-dependent relative positioning inside the social space of the Star-
Craft community. What people choose to do has a social framework which ex-
cludes women in multiple ways from playing competitive computer games:
through their socialization and by the scene itself.
Changing that would require active solidarity with the discriminated, based
on sensitivity regarding mechanisms of dominance. I would also suggest a prag-
matic approach to female trans leagues or championships. They do not simply
fortify the binary gender system, but offer a transitional solution for women to be
visible and have a safer space at the same time.
Despite the described problems, I want to emphasize the possibilities this
community offers. Due to the composition of the professional scene, StarCraft at
least offers a limited visibility of non-hegemonial forms of femininity and mascu-


Alkemeyer, T. (2006): Lernen und seine Körper. Habitusformungen und - umformungen in Bil-
dungspraktiken. In: Friebertshäuser, B. (eds.): Reflexive Erziehungswissenschaft. Forschungs-
perspektiven im Anschluss an Pierre Bourdieu. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, p.
Bourdieu, P. (1997) Die männliche Herrschaft. In: Dölling, I. and Krais, B. (eds.) Ein alltägliches
Spiel: Geschlechterkonstruktion in der sozialen Praxis. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, p. 153-
Connell, R.W. (2005) Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cheung, G. and Huang, J. (2011) Starcraft from the Stands: Understanding the Game Spectator. CHI
2011, May 7–12, 2011, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
McNamee, S. (1998): Youth, gender and video games: power and control in the home. In: Skelton,
T. / Valentine, G. (eds.): Cool Places. Geographies of youth cultures. London and New York:
Routledge, p. 195-206.
Taylor, N. (2009) Power play : Digital gaming goes pro. PhD Dissertation, York University, Toronto.
240 Maike Groen

Taylor, T.L. (2012) Raising the Stakes – E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming.
Cambridge: MIT Press. (2011): Gamer Girl Manifesto [Online]. Available at:
forum/viewmessage.php?topic_id=298534 [Accessed: 10. November 2013] (2013): [Graphs] TL Census 2013 [Online]. Available at: http://www.teamliquid.
net/forum/viewmessage.php?topic_id=427622 [Accessed: 10. November 2013] (2013a): Where are the female casters? [Online]. Available at: http://www.teamliq- [Accessed: 10. November 2013]
Tillmann, A. (2010): Girls_Spaces: Mädchen-Szenen und Mädchen-Räume im Internet. In: Hug-
ger, K.-U. (ebs.): Digitale Jugendkulturen. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, p.
Trautner, H. M. (2006): Sozialisation und Geschlecht. Die entwicklungspsychologische Perspe-
ktive. In: Bilden, H. / Dausien, B. (eds.): Sozialisation und Geschlecht. Theoretische und methodo-
logische Aspekte. Opladen: Verlag Barbara Budrich, p.103-120.

Games cited

StarCraft: Wings of Liberty (Blizzard Entertainment 2010)

Halo 3 (Microsoft Game Studies 2007)

Sébastien Hock-Koon, Paris, France

Iris Rukshin, New Jersey, USA

Princesses and princes in video games: A preliminary

survey on audience reception


From a young age, most children are exposed to fairy tales and video games,
which often seem to enlighten them about basic double standards regarding
damsels in distress rescued by valiant princes. In both cases, “female passivity
against male action” (Bryce and Rutter 2002) might be charged with reinforcing
gender stereotypes (Butler 2006). However, fairy tales are often named after a
featured female character; male characters are rarely developed and often appear
at the very end of the story. Contrarily, the active character of a video game has
to be played from the beginning to the end. Thus, one might question princes’
presentation in video games. To assess whether and how the video game industry
favors princes over princesses, a survey requiring responders to identify charac-
ters of both genders and equal stature from video games and fairy tales is being
proposed as part of a preliminary study of the topic.

The contextualization of a princess

Vienna’s annual Games Conference, “Future and Reality Of Gaming”

(FROG13), aimed at exploring how “Context Matters”. The previous part of this
research about princesses in video games has been presented at FROG11. It fo-
cused on the game Super Princess Peach (Nintendo 2006). This game has shown
that a princess is not necessarily a damsel in distress. In fact, Peach is the main
playable character of this game and is tasked with saving Mario and Luigi, who
were abducted by Bowser. Nevertheless, the game might be seen as sexist, since
Peach’s powers are based on emotions (Frasca 2006). A careful study of the
game’s story in relation with fictional universes revealed that Peach “happens to
have the combined powers of several, rather masculine, superheroes,” such as a
Super Sayan and a Jedi Master (Ferreira & Hock-koon, 2011). However, Peach is
a single princess and is the main playable character of a single game: Super Prin-
cess Peach. Her example cannot be accurately projected onto other games and
242 Sébastien Hock-Koon, Iris Rukshin

princesses. A study on a larger scale is necessary to understand the representa-

tion and reception of princesses and princes. The lingering effect of an object or
occurrence on a specific audience is directly related to the context in which it is
presented. This paper intends to explore the audience reception, as indicated by
memorability, of princesses and princes in video games. There may be significant
differences in the representation and perception of princesses and princes be-
tween Western and Eastern countries, but while we have easy access to translat-
ed Japanese video games, the Japanese audience is much more difficult to reach.
For this reason, the study was focused on audience reception in a Western con-

Princesses and princes

Bryce and Rutter (2002) summarized research done on gendered game con-
tent. According to this research, in most cases, “female game characters are rou-
tinely represented in a narrowly stereotypical manner, for example, as princesses
or wise old women in fantasy games, as objects waiting on male rescue. […] Re-
peatedly female characters in computers game fulfill roles linked to stereotypes
of ‘feminine’ skills and characteristics.” The emphasis on “female passivity against
male action and investigations [in games] often parallel work done on gender
roles in children’s books.” Fairy tales and video games might be charged with re-
inforcing gender stereotypes (Butler 2006). Gender studies show that many fac-
tors may take part in the construction and the intensification of gendered stereo-
types (Belotti 1973, Monnot 2009). Traditional domestic and scholarly education
may be cited, but video games and fairy tales are also worth considering as devel-
opmental factors.
Bryce and Rutter (2002) argue that “the relationship between gender and
computer gaming is complex and operates at a number of different levels.” There
are many famous princesses from fairy tales; they appear as more relatable indi-
viduals due to their names and personalities whereas fairy tale princes are not
granted the same privilege. Male characters, even though “active” are rarely de-
veloped and often appear at the very end of the story. Indeed, a story may focus
on the ordeal of a “passive” character and only bring the “active” savior in the
end. Contrarily, the active character of a video game has to be played from the
beginning to the end. Then, the perspective of a game should be the one of an ac-
tive prince. Video games should give a more important role to princes than they
do to princesses. However, it seems difficult to come up with famous video game
princes, while there are several princesses in video games.
One could expect video games to favor males over females. However, prin-
cesses seem to be more visible and better-known than princes. One might won-
der about the representation of these characters in video games. Considering the
Princesses and princes in video games: A preliminary survey 243

sheer amount of released video games, an unfocused content study would entail
a huge content base. For this reason, this study focused on the most popular,
memorable characters. A preliminary work is also necessary to bring out a clear
research question. For these purposes, a preliminary survey was conducted in
which subjects were asked to recall and name princesses and princes from fairy
tales and video games. This contribution will present the results of the survey and
the questions that arise from them.

Fairy tales, classic fairy tales and video games

Data (101 answers) was collected from students ranging from 12 to 18 years old
from France and New Jersey. Subjects were asked three questions about fairy
tales, classic fairy tale, and video games. The three questions were:
1. How much do you know the topic? not at all / a little / rather well / a lot
2. Can you name five princesses from the topic? (please specify the title between
3. Can you name five princes from the topic? (please specify the title between

The survey itself was entitled “Princesses and Princes in the Entertainment
Industry.” This title allowed us to guise the primary focus on video games. In ad-
dition, obtaining information about princesses and princes in fairy tales could
have revealed useful. “Classic fairy tales” was added in an attempt to avoid Disney
characters without specifically asking for non-Disney answers. Indeed, when a
Disney movie is released, it is likely that video games derived from the movie will
be released too. Hence, there was a possibility to collect the same answers for
video games and fairy tales. In the end, adding classic fairy tales did not prove to
be fruitful because responders did cite neither princesses nor princes from mov-
ie-derived video games. It appears, that most of the time, the subjects were un-
able to differentiate between fairy tales and classic fairy tales. Consequently, only
fairy tale and video game answers are considered in this paper.

Answers and unique names

To understand the results, it is necessary to preface on the difference between

answers and unique names. Consider the three following fairy tale princesses
given by three different responders:
• Aurora, The Sleeping Beauty
• Rose, The Sleeping Beauty
• The princess in The Sleeping Beauty
244 Sébastien Hock-Koon, Iris Rukshin

These three princesses would be recorded as three answers, but as one unique
name. Even when the first name changes, the princess remains the Sleeping
Beauty. Misspellings and first name confusions were not taken into account. An-
swers that were obviously jokes, such as Fernandel as Prince Puget (Fernandel
was a French actor who appeared in commercials for an olive oil brand named
Puget) were also excluded. The results are summarized in the following table.
Answers Unique names
Fairy Tale Princesses 431 22
Fairy Tale Princes 192 33
Video Game Princesses 246 22
Video Game Princes 98 28

More than twice as many answers were recorded for princesses than for princ-
es, but at the same time there are more different princes than princesses. This
phenomenon has an impact on the “score” of the most popular characters.

Fairy Tale Princesses Votes Fairy Tale Princes Votes

Cinderella 82 Aladdin 36
Snow White 76 The Beast (The Beauty 23
The Sleeping Beauty 69 Henri (Cinderella) 17

Video Game Princesses Votes Video Game Princes Votes

Peach (Super Mario) 82 Mario (Super Mario) 23
Daisy (Super Mario) 63 Link (The Legend of Zelda) 14
Zelda (The Legend of…) 57 Luigi (Super Mario) 11

The most popular princesses, in both fairy tales and video games, are the same
in each country. But the difference with the less popular princesses is more sig-
nificant in France. Concerning princes, American responders tend to be stricter
on the definition of a prince. They did not cite Aladdin as a prince while citing
Jasmine as a princess. Concerning video game princes, we could assume that
someone familiar with Peach and Daisy would be familiar with Mario and Luigi.
Then, not including them as princes would be a consequence of their social stat-
ure rather than a consequence of ignorance. However, without any further infor-
mation we would not relate the difference in the way the word “prince” is under-
stood and nationality. Age might also affect this understanding: French respond-
ers citing Mario and Luigi as princes are mainly between 12 and 15 years old.
A specific characteristic of video game princesses does not appear in the ta-
bles. The fourth and the fifth most popular fairy tale princesses are Belle (The
Beauty and the Beast) with 51 votes and The Little Mermaid with 44 votes. The
fourth and the fifth most popular video game princesses are Rosalina (Super Ma-
Princesses and princes in video games: A preliminary survey 245

rio Galaxy) and Midna (The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess) with only 9
votes each. There is a significant gap between the three most popular video game
princesses and the others.

The “Ninten-Domination”

At the inception of this study, Disney’s domination over fairy tales was a con-
cern; however, it appears that Nintendo may have the same type of domination
over princesses and princes in video games. Indeed, the most popular video
game princesses and princes comprise three couples (Peach/Mario, Daisy/Luigi
and Zelda/Link) from two of the most successful series of the company. While
Peach, Daisy, and Zelda are actual princesses; Mario, Luigi and Link do not have
equal royal stature and are not princes. The former two are plumbers while the
latter could be considered a knight in most Zelda games. This distinction might
explain why the three princesses seem to be more popular than their male coun-
Since the Zelda games are named after Zelda, it might explain why she is more
popular than Link. Mario and Luigi should theoretically be at least as popular as
Peach and Daisy, respectively. Some responders seem to consider that these male
characters did not qualify as princes. On the contrary, others may understand the
word “prince” as “main male character.” Very few female characters that are not
real princesses were cited by responders. Of course, one could argue that Cinder-
ella is not more a born princess than Aladdin is a born prince. Perhaps the under-
standing of the word “princess” is very strict; maybe there are more princesses
among female characters than there are princes among male characters in video
games. These differences may be worth considering in future study of princesses
and princes’ representation in video games.
In addition, the fact that the most popular video game princesses and princes
come from Nintendo games also brings some difficulties in terms of research.
Nintendo characters may star in many different types of games, with many differ-
ent roles. There are not only many games to study, but it also becomes necessary
to determine in which game or games the character has been encountered by the
player. Indeed, Peach is a common damsel in distress but she is also a playable
character in the Smash Bros and the Mario Kart series and, of course, in Super
Princess Peach. She might be a passive character more often than an active one.
Conversely, Daisy is rarely an abducted princess and may appear as a playable
character more often than as a passive one. The perception a player has of a char-
acter might be very different depending on the games he or she has played; such
information may be valuable to consider.
246 Sébastien Hock-Koon, Iris Rukshin


The preliminary survey was intended to identify the most memorable charac-
ters and to bring out a precise research question. The overwhelming popularity
of Nintendo’s princesses and ‘princes‘ makes it difficult the study their represen-
tation and reception. Nintendo characters may have various roles in many differ-
ent video games; it is therefore necessary to understand in which game or games
a character has been encountered by a player. The results also suggest that prin-
cesses might be overrepresented in video games compared to princes. It could be
explained by two hypothesizes that have to be confirmed or infirmed:
• The male counterpart of the princess is not the prince but the hero generally
• Some responders understand the word “prince” with a strict meaning while
others understand it as “main male character.”

Thus understanding princesses and princes representation and their recep-

tion in video games requires understanding several contexts. They include the
different roles a character may have in different video games, the game or games
in which he or she has been discovered by the player, and finally the place prin-
cesses and princes have among the other female and male video game characters.


Belotti, E. G. (1974) Du côté des petites filles. Des Femmes.

Bryce, J., and Rutter, J. (2002) Killing Like a Girl: Gendered Gaming and Girl Gamers’ Visibility.
Computer Games and digital Cultures Conference proceedings [Online]. Available at http://digi-
Butler, J. (2006) Trouble dans le genre: Le féminisme et la subversion de l’identité. Editions La Décou-
Ferreira, A., and Hock-koon, S. (2011) Gender stereotypes in video game: Super Princess Peach in
question. Applied Playfulness: Competence, Media and Sociability of Play, p. 177–184.
Frasca, G. (2006) “Playing with Fire: Trouble in Super Macho World?” Serious Games Source.
Monnot, C. (2009) Petites filles d’aujourd’hui: L’apprentissage de la féminité. Editions Autrement.

Games cited

Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo, 2007)

Super Princess Peach (Nintendo, 2006)
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo, 2006)

Judith Ackermann
Siegen, Germany

Appropriating game rules


Game rules are one of the central elements of digital games. They do not only
determine the actions that can be realized inside the game, but also the ones that
are excluded from it. Despite their importance, the game does not disclose all of
its rules to the users from the outset. The identification of those actions that are
allowed and meaningful rather takes place successively during the game process
in the context of the performed game actions and the participating players. As a
basal knowledge about the game rules is required to play a game, a more or less
intensive rule appropriation precedes every game action. Gamers can address
various learning ecologies for support. The article shows the different spheres, in
which game rule appropriation takes place and highlights the ways in which it is
being negotiated and performed depending on the individual appropriation


Digital games are “a combination of rules and fiction” ( Juul 2005, p. 197). Fol-
lowing Salen and Zimmerman (2004, 80) a game can be seen as „a system in
which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a
quantifiable outcome“. In that way rules define the way, in which the artificial
conflict can be solved to succeed in the game. They do so by determining the ac-
tions that can be realized inside the game as well as those that are excluded from
it. In that way, „[r]ules provide the structure out of which play emerges” (ibid.).
This makes rules one of the key components of digital games. They occur in di-
rect connection to the game but also in connection to the context of the play ac-
tivity. As Vygotsky (1978, p. 94) points it: “[T]here is no such thing as play with-
out rules”. Still on the other side “knowing only the recorded rules of a game is
never enough to allow you to play the game” (Sniderman [1999] 2006, p. 480) for
every play activity takes place in the non-game-world it is played in. Even when
given a certain set of rules for a game, their application, negotiation and modifi-
248 Judith Ackermann

cation heavily depends on the actual gaming session. The context of the play ac-
tivity includes the number and familiarity of the participating players, the game
device in usage, the experience in the specific game (or gaming in general), and
the motivation for starting the game. All these factors influence the appropria-
tion of game rules in a crucial way.
Engaging in a digital game requires rule knowledge in different fields. First,
one has to know about the rules that apply to the story of the game. This means
learning about the goal of the game and the possible ways of reaching it. After
that, one has to appropriate the control rules of the game, which are the rules de-
fining the ways to make the game character follow the game goal (like pushing
space to jump). Only after being familiar with those fields, one can start thinking
about working with the rules in a more efficient way, e.g., combining them to in-
crease the outcome and developing tactics and strategies (Ackermann 2011, p.
Despite their importance, games do not disclose all of their rules to the users
from the outset. The identification of actions that are allowed and meaningful
rather takes place successively during the game process. Rules are something
“that players negotiate and learn, and at which they gradually improve their skill”
( Juul 2005, p. 2). Still any person “approaches every game with whatever reper-
toire of skills he or she has, and then improves these skills in the course of playing
the game” (ibid. p. 5). As rules in the case of digital games define the play activity
quite rigid, they are one of the main fields for players to work at, in order to im-
prove their gaming skills. However, there is often no chance of reaching a full rule

Regardless of what game you're playing, you cannot know all the rules […] [T]
he entire set of rules governing the system cannot be spelled out. No matter how
hard we try to indicate what is required, allowed, and proscribed, some of the most
fundamental principles of playing the game will always elude us. And yet, paradoxi-
cally, we can still play the game - some deeper rules are always operating (i.e., af-
fecting the players' behavior) without the players being aware of them (Sniderman
([1999] 2006, p. 477).

Still since the game rules coordinate the players’ possibilities to reach the
game goals and sometimes present “challenges that cannot be easily overcome”
( Juul 2005, p. 5), players spend a lot of effort in appropriating game rules. In the
following section, the appropriation process of media is discussed in general be-
fore looking into game rule appropriation in specific.
Appropriating game rules 249

The process of appropriation

The appropriation of media includes usage, perception, evaluation as well as

processing and focuses on the selective and mental acts in the realization of the
available media and their integration into life. Media activities are embedded into
the routines and time structures of everyday life and in large part happen as social
and collective processes (Karnowski et al 2008, p. 192). Media meanings there-
fore are not adopted immediately but negotiated and productively appropriated
in the context of everyday experiences (Röser and Peil 2010, p. 221). Therefore,
examinations of media actions should always take the context of their occurrenc-
es into consideration.
Hall (2001, p. 515) identifies “three hypothetical positions from which decod-
ings of a televisual discourse may be constructed”. The first one is called the do-
minant-hegemonic position and is present “[w]hen the viewer takes the connoted
meaning from, say, a television newscast or current affairs programme full and
straight, and decodes the message in terms of the reference code in which it has
been encoded” (ibid.). The second one operates with a negotiated code:

Decoding within the negotiated version contains a mixture of adaptive and oppo-
sitional elements: it acknowledges the legitimacy of the hegemonic definitions to
make the grand significations (abstract), while, at a more restricted, situational
(situated) level, it makes its own ground rules – it operates with exceptions to the
rule. It accords the privileged position to the dominant definitions of events while
reserving the right to make a more negotiated application to ‘local conditions’, to its
own more corporate positions (ibid. p. 516).

The third position uses an oppositional code:

[I]t is possible for a viewer perfectly to understand both the literal and the connota-
tive inflection given by a discourse but to decode the message in a globally contrary
way. He or she detotalises the message in the preferred code in order to retotalise
the message within some alternative framework of reference. This is the case of the
viewer who listens to a debate on the need to limit wages but ‘reads’ every mention
of the ‘national interest’ as ‘class interest’. He or she is operating with what we must
call an oppositional code (ibid. p. 517).

The descriptions of the different types of readers all presuppose a moment of

understanding that can be assumed to be the basic form of appropriation (De la
Rosa 2012, p. 16). As mentioned above a person working with an oppositional
code perfectly understands the intended meaning of the media message but de-
cides to decode it in a different way. Aktins (2003) finds such readings in the field
of computer games and labels them subversive readings, underlining that a „sub-
250 Judith Ackermann

versive reader is also likely to be, or have been, the ideal reader […]. He or she will
be well aware of how one ‚should‘ complete the game, but will deliberately reject
any notion that this is the only way the game-fiction can be read or played“ (At-
kins 2003, p.50).
Androutsopoulos (42008, 247) differentiates between primary and secondary
media thematizations. The former take place during the media reception, the lat-
er subsequently. Primary media thematizations include speech acts focusing on
organization, perception, expressiveness, information, evaluation and interpre-
tation (ibid. p. 247 f.) In the field of multiplayer games, organizing speech acts
have a more prominent role than in the case of classic mass media usage. This is
because the coordination efforts are much more complex than for example in the
field of television. The larger the partaking group, the more manifold the possi-
bilities of playing together (Ackermann 2011, 325). Perception based speech acts
include comparing the different game characters according to their appearances
and abilities as well as inter-individual comparisons concerning the in-game per-
formance (ibid.). In the field of expressive speech acts one can find game out act-
ing and game-immanent utterances that pop up during the game process without
being planned by the communicators. This includes emotional experiences (e.g.,
sudden death of a game character, succeeding in a complex move) (ibid.). Infor-
mation related speech acts contain the sharing of knowledge about a game ex-
ceeding the actual gaming process. This happens especially after a certain game
round (ibid p. 325f.). The same applies for evaluating and interpreting speech
acts, which are also moved into the sphere of secondary media thematizations. In
addition to the already mentioned ways of appropriating media Ackermann
(2011, 326) found that concerning the appropriation of digital games, media-al-
tering speech acts and media-explaining speech acts must be added to the classic
appropriation model. Both fields are found especially around game rules. While
media-explaining speech acts help developing an understanding of the game
rules and by that enable the players to apply them, media-altering speech acts
lead to modifications in the concrete game experience by modifying the existent
rules, which is a bigger intervention than the other example.
„In particular, a game is reformed when the rules are changed in such a way as
to yield a better outcome” (Gardner and Ostrom 1991, p. 122). In digital games,
there are two ways of doing so. On the one hand, it is possible to enrich the game
by adding new rules, designed by the players and focusing on the social context
of the game e.g., protecting new players (Ackermann 2012, p. 471f.).This may in-
clude shuffling the team constellations in order to have a balanced match or inte-
grating certain behavior rules like not killing each other immediately after the
start (Ackermann 2011, p. 250). On the other hand it is (under certain effort) pos-
sible to change existing rules by modding (Unger 2012) or cheating (Kücklich
2004). The necessity to modify rules evolves during the game process and is ne-
gotiated by way of communication. When researching the communication dur-
Appropriating game rules 251

ing multiplayer gaming it is striking how little of the talk can be located inside the
game frame (12%) and how much discussions take place out-of-frame (58%) and
in-between those two poles (21%), focusing a lot on explaining and adding game
rules (Ackermann 2013a, p. 189)1. Other than classic mass media, digital games
enlarge the communication forms accessible for the appropriation process. They
combine face-to-face-talk (like in co-located gaming), human-computer-inter-
action (like in a game tutorial) and computer mediated communication (like
consulting a games forum) as well as additional material specifically designed to
help the appropriation process – like printed game instructions, (online) walk-
throughs, video walkthroughs, let’s play videos etc.. These learning ecologies
(Martin 2012) contain “informal and interest-driven learning” and “offer a place
of support, interaction, and resources for finding information to solve a problem
[…] within the game” (ibid. p. 51). They differ in the way the information is pre-
sented, the foreknowledge required to make use of it and the provided interactiv-
ity. The following section pays special attention to the particular learning ecolo-
gies by highlighting their distinctiveness and suitability for different game-rule-
appropriation states and problems.

Game rule appropriation

The first information concerning the game rules is delivered with the game in-
structions, which often come together with a hard copy of the game. Still, as
found by Färber et al. (2012, p. 51), these are not taken into serious consideration
by the players. Only 1.4% always have a look into the instructions before they
start a new game. To the contrary 91.2% never (46%) or at most seldom (45.2%)
read them (n=148). Much more frequent is the use of in-game-tutorials. Only
8.1% of the surveyed answered that they skip those if possible. More than a quar-
ter (27.7%) stated to play them intensively, looking at all the given hints. A third
(32.4%) play them casually and 31.8% state that it depends on the particular game
(ibid. p. 152). Still the benefit to be taken from a tutorial heavily depends on the
players’ foreknowledge. Therefore, non-players have difficulties in beating a
game tutorial that addresses a game literate target group. Kortmann et al. (2012)
conducted a think-aloud study with non-gamers playing the tutorial of Battlefield
2 (DICE 2010) and found the following problems with the shown hints: Partici-
pants misread them, because they were so small. It took them a long time to rec-
ognize that there was a hint, but it faded out too fast. Sometimes they misunder-
stood the given advices and in consequence pushed the wrong keys, sometimes
the information seemed ambiguous to them, sometimes they needed commands

1 The missing 8% count for utterances that could not be classified and for those times where no
talking occurred.
252 Judith Ackermann

that were not in the tutorial. Sometimes they completely missed the given hints
(ibid. p. 38ff.). In all these problem cases, the tutorial was not able to meet the
participants’ needs, because the sequence of hints was predefined and not flexi-
ble, and the system did not recognize, if a certain (right) key was pushed on pur-
pose or by coincidence. This supports the idea that face-to-face-communication
is a better way to acquire a first game-rule-appropriation.
The following transcript is taken from an observation study about the appro-
priation of game controls by pairs of youths playing FIFA 12 (EA Sports 2011) on
the XBOX together (Albrecht et al. 2012).

T1-PYOU ((PAIR3/FE/ML/TC:0.28.15-0.30.16))
01 P.ML1: how does the control work here now
02 P.FE2: no((strikes at her thighs))
03 a is choosing (..) push a
04 P.ML1: i see
05 P.FE2: then
06 P.ML1: great
07 P.FE2: ha (.) there
08 P.ML1: now you have
09 P.FE2: yes you have to switch it on
10 P.ML1: i see
11 P.FE2: push start
12 P.ML1: i see (.) i play that for the first time2

In this primary media thematization an inexperienced boy is asking the girl

playing with him for help (T1, 01). She in first instance answers in a rather ab-
stract way (“a is choosing”, T1, 03), but as he doesn’t follow that instruction she
rephrases her advice to a concrete command (“push a”, T1, 03). This happens an-
other time, when she rephrases a general advice to switch on the controller (T1,
09) to the direct command “push start” (T1, 11).This shows how the given infor-
mation can be matched to the information needs, by flexibly adjusting the utter-
ances. In addition, face-to-face communication allows the players to choose the
sequence of information as needed, which can be seen in the next example of a
primary media thematization coming from the LAN-Party-communication cor-
pus of the author’s dissertation, taking place during a round of Counter-Strike
(Valve 2000).

T2-LAN ((LAN2/TC: 4.24.05-4.24.33))

01 W.LayI1 : how do you shoot?
02 M.ExpA2 : on the left.

2 This and all the following transcripts have been translated from German by the author.
Appropriating game rules 253

03 W.ExpB3 : <<shouts out, overemphasized mad, f> tell me

04 are you nuts?>
05 W.LayI1 : ((laughs out loud)) <<laughing> sorry>
06 ((all laughing))
07 W.LayI1 : how do you run?
08 W.ExpB3 : on on W A and D.

The inexperienced girl asks what she has to do, in order to make her game
character shoot (T2, 01) and gets an appropriate answer (T2,02), enabling her to
operate with the function immediately (see another girl’s reaction on being shot
by her, T2, 03-04,). After a while of trial, the girl asks for a new information (T2,
08) and again receives the required answer. This not only shows that the se-
quence of information can be fit to the information needs but also that question-
ing is mostly done, when trial does not work out.
A game provides the players with lots of challenges conquering their rule
knowledge in different ways. Sometimes they have to risk the character’s death
to learn how to master a challenge. In the example (pictures 1 and 2) the white
figure approaches a gap. As it is not possible to proceed in the game via jumping
over it, the player has to fall down without knowing, if that will cause her charac-
ter’s death or bring progress.

Picture 1: Approaching a gap (Screenshot of Duality by Martin Reiche, 2013).

Picture 2: Landing safely after having jumped into the unknown (Screenshot of Duality by Martin
Reiche, 2013).
254 Judith Ackermann

While this behavior works in this specific task of the game, the same action
might cause losses at other states of the game. In that way Juul (2005, p. 60) de-
scribes games as state machines reacting “differently to the same input at different
times.” The players have to learn, which action is appropriate for which state of
the game. Giving the command “open trunks” inside the game “The secret of
Monkey Island” (Lucasfilm Games 2009) can on the one hand generate the de-
sired action but on the other hand evoke a refusal by the game character (“They’re
just old rusty trunks”)3. This is an example of how an action is integrated into a
game in general, but is denied at a certain state of it. In order to learn which ac-
tions are (not) implemented into a game, it is a common practice to risk the
death of the game character to dare the game mechanics (Ackermann 2013b, p.
Sometimes the integrated rules and therefore the dexterities of the character
and the game world clash with the mental model gamers have about them. The
following example is taken from a blind let’s play of the game “The secret of Mon-
key island” performed by YouTube user Drusain4: In the scene in question the
game character is located on a ship near Monkey Island and has to manage to
leave the ship and reach the coast. At a certain moment, the game allows the
player to give the command “Walk to Monkey IslandTM” (TC 22.16).The possibil-
ity pops up while navigating the mouse across the sea. As Drusain is quite famil-
iar with the conventions of point and click adventures he meets this possibility
quite skeptical (“I can‘t even swim, can I? “, TC 22.10-22.14). Still he tries it and
receives the following answer from the game character: “It’s too far to walk to,
and besides, I can’t swim”. The player reacts on that by stating, “Yeah, I mean
what kind of pirate, but whatever” (TC 22.19-22.22), which shows that he dis-
agrees with the fact that a person, who wants to be a pirate does not have an af-
finity for swimming. He at that time is operating within the negotiated code (see
The player adds a “but whatever”, which shows that even though he disagrees
with the rules at that time, he still accepts them, in order to proceed with the
game. As Huizinga ([1938] 2001, p. 20) puts it game rules don‘t allow for skepti-
cism. The acceptance of the game rules is inevitable to participate in the game;
rebellion against them is only possible by changing the rules (as shown above).
Suits ([1990] 2006) introduces the term lusory attitude to describe this “accep-
tance of constitutive rules just so the activity made possible by such acceptance
can occur” (ibid. p. 190). Still the acceptance of the rules is often not enough to
master all challenges inside a digital game.

3 Drusain (2012, February 4): Let's Play The Secret of Monkey Island (Blind) Part 12- Blasted
Into Part 3! [video file] Retrieved from
(TC 06.14).
4 Drusain (2012, February 4): Let's Play The Secret of Monkey Island (Blind) Part 12- Blasted
Into Part 3! [video file] Retrieved from
Appropriating game rules 255

Facing complex rule based problems

As an example for a challenge that cannot be easily overcome, the following

arguments deal with a specific scene taken from the indie game LIMBO (Playdead
Studios 2010). The game contains a very easy to learn set of rules (moving via the
arrow keys, performing all actions by using the control button) and contains
many difficult puzzles. One example of a sequence that is quite hard to master is
the first encounter with a huge spider. In the depicted scene, the game character
spots a huge spider hiding behind a tree. When the boy approaches it, it kills him
by stabbing him. Still there is no way to proceed in the game without passing the
spider. The scene appears after about ten minutes of gameplay. The player by
then already has appropriated the rules according to the game goal and those
dealing with the control. The spider introduces a new kind of challenge. It ap-
pears after a sequence of smaller problems that guides the player into the scene
with a quite confident and relaxed feeling. (“Right we’re finally getting some-
where; we’re finally making some progress. I’m feeling like you know, me and
this kid have a connection now. We can actually get something done”, TC 09.43-
09.51)5. The surprising appearance of the huge spider (TC 09.56) leads to a sud-
den stampede by the player. Knowing that exerting the control key is the only
possibility to initiate an action and not seeing anything to use, the player has to
try out different strategies: He (1) carefully approaches the spider, trying to pass
it, but gets stabbed (TC 10.16-10.50). He then (2) tries to go back searching for
something to climb upon, in order to reach for a bear trap on a branch – the only
object in the scenery – but nothing can be found (TC 10.55-11.15). He (3) pushes
the up key harder to jump higher, making jump sounds (TC 11.38-11.43). Since
none of these strategies works out, addressing one of the learning ecologies men-
tioned above is a frequent way of reacting to the problem6.
One either pulls for the needed information (e.g., asking a question in a
(games) forum) or looks for already distributed information dealing with the
particular problem. A classic way would be searching for an (online) walkthrough
of the whole game and looking for the scene in question inside. Those “descrip-
tions of […] ‘perfect readings’” (Atkins 2003, p.47) contain minutely manuals of
all the necessary steps to solve the problem:

5 To illustrate the following arguments the text is filled with statements and problem solving
strategies taken from a blind let’s play of the game LIMBO. The encounter with the spider boss
happens at TC 09.56 (Klexxgaming (2012, July 17): Limbo Let's Play #1 - F*CK SPIDERS! [vi-
deo file] Retrieved from
6 Even though the let’s play shows the right handling of the situation in the following, one can
remark a cut in the sequence [TC 11.43] and after that a different tone in the voice of the player
before showing the right strategy. This calls for the idea that he accessed a learning ecology
before playing further or a least had to try out for a longer time than shown in the video.
256 Judith Ackermann

Approach the spider and he will try to stab you. When he lifts his leg in the air, run to
the left to avoid being stabbed. Have him do this twice. His stabbing the ground will
shake the bear trap to the left loose. Once the bear trap is on the ground, jump to
the left of the bear trap and grab it from the left side. Push the bear trap towards the
spider. Make the spider stab the bear trap, instead of the ground. He will straighten
his leg before lifting it. Once he lifts it, make sure the bear trap is when [sic!] he will
bring his leg down. Do this three times. Once you have injured three of the spider’s
legs, he will climb up the tree, allowing you to pass (

As the spider boss is a challenge many players have difficulties with, lots of ma-
terial exists only dealing with this certain problem. This includes special written
guides for the sequence (e.g., “How To: Beat Limbo’s spider boss (part I)”7) as
well as many video resources produced by others to help players face the prob-
lem. This includes video walkthroughs and let’s play videos, that underline the
important steps through specific audiovisual cues (like showing the actions re-
peatedly, or inserting material (e.g., speech balloons8) into the video). The social
web enables players not only to retrieve user generated information supporting
the appropriation of game rules, but also allows them to create and shape their
own information resources. In that way game rule appropriation can evoke lots
of creative potential.


The article has shown that game rule appropriation is inevitable to participate
in digital games. A look into media appropriation theory made clear that digital
games offer a lot more intervening forms of appropriation than classic mass me-
dia do and that they integrate all the different communication channels. Players
can not only conduct a huge variety of learning ecologies focusing on game rules,
they also have the possibility to create their own learning materials. As seen,
none of those is best suited for every game rule appropriation need. The analysis
supports the thesis that face-to-face communication works best for a first under-
standing of rules, while human-computer-interaction is preferred to broaden a
basic appropriation and computer mediated communication meets problems
that cannot be solved via the other two ways. The way game rule appropriation is
performed and negotiated is inextricably linked with context factors like the

7 [Online]. [Accessed: 20 Octobre

8 lclc01 (2010, July 27): Limbo Walkthrough Guide - How to get past the spider [video file] Re-
trieved from
Appropriating game rules 257

players’ foreknowledge with gaming, the game device in use, the number and fa-
miliarity of the participating players and the motivation to engage in a game. This
shows that the appropriation of game rules can only be analyzed when also tak-
ing the context of the concrete game session into consideration.


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Games cited

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (DICE 2010)

Counter-Strike (Valve 2000)
Duality (Martin Reiche 2013)
FIFA 12 (EA Sports 2011)
LIMBO (Playdead Studios 2010)
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition (Lucasfilm Games 2009)

Sébastien Hock-Koon
Paris, France

Learning with video games: Identifying sources

of uncertainty


Many researchers consider that video games have a unique potential for learn-
ing, and several educational institutions have been convinced of video games’
teaching potential. However, while they may be efficient as learning devices,
some studies show that they may also fail as such. This kind of uncertainty emerg-
es, at least partly, from the video game’s rules. This paper proposes a review of
some critical studies of learning with video games. It does not aim to negate vid-
eo games’ particular qualities for learning but rather to identify sources of uncer-
tainty in learning with video games. It will try to highlight video games’ proper-
ties creating uncertainty. This understanding might allow us to bring a new view
to the player’s role in his or her own learning.

Key words

Video game, learning, elliptical learning, affordance, uncertainty


The topic of the 2013 Vienna Games Conference, “Future and Reality Of Gam-
ing” (FROG 13) was “Context Matters.” Indeed, the understanding of a phenom-
enon might radically change depending on the context in which it occurs. It also
implies that changing the understanding of this context might change the under-
standing of the associated phenomenon. This paper intends to illustrate how the
context of success in video games brings a new view to the learning required by
this success. Van Eck (2006) considers that, thanks to Digital Game-Based Learn-
ing (short: DGBL)proponents, “a majority of people believe that games are en-
gaging, that they can be effective, and that they have a place in learning.” One of
the main arguments supporting the use of video games for learning comes from
Gee (2003, p.199):
260 Sébastien Hock-Koon

The argument of this book is not that what people are learning when they are play-
ing video games is always good. Rather, what they are doing when they are playing
good video games is often good learning. We can learn evil things as easily as we
can learn moral ones.

Gee (2003) identifies 36 learning principles in video games and argues in favor
of their use in education. However, video games do not magically work; they may
not meet teachers’ expectations. As explained by Van Eck (2006):

If we continue to preach only that games can be effective, we run the risk of cre-
ating the impression that all games are good for all learners and for all learning
outcomes, which is categorically not the case.

Understanding how video games may work as teaching tools is important but
understanding how they may fail as such is also crucial. Squire (2005, p. 2) used
Civilization III (Firaxis, 2001) to teach history and geography; he made some in-
teresting statements about the use of video games in school:
When I introduced Civilization III into curricula, I found that students were
anything but immediately motivated. They frequently asked, "What's the pur-
pose of this?" and "Why are we doing this?" Even middle school students were
not entirely sure how a computer game could teach them about history or geog-
raphy […], roughly 25% of students in school situations complained that the game
was too hard, complicated, and uninteresting, and they elected to withdraw from
the gaming unit and participate in reading groups instead.
This means that one student out of four found books easier and more interest-
ing than a video game to learn history and geography. Students who kept playing
the game did it “in very different ways, leading to highly differentiated under-
standings” (Squire 2005, p. 2). It suggests that DGBL is far from being infallible.
One possible explanation lies in an element that Caillois (1967) considers a key
component of games and play: uncertainty.

A matter of uncertainty

While play and games are not equivalent, they have “a unique relationship in
the English language” (Salen and Zimmerman 2003, p.83). If some activities
called “play” are games, then “games are contained within play.” If play is one as-
pect of the phenomena of games, then “play is contained within games.” In
French, we only have one word for play and game: “jeu.” Brougère (2005, p.5)
considers that a “jeu” might refer to three different aspects:
Learning with video games: Identifying sources of uncertainty 261

• the activity of play

• the object related to the activity
• the set of rules governing it

From now on, the word “play” will refer to the activity while the word “game”
will refer to the object. Video games are a particular case, in that the game as an
object is pretty much defined by its code since it has to be programmed (Craw-
ford 1982, p.41). It basically means that the rules are included in the object. Con-
sequently, we can focus on the activity and the object while looking for the origin
of uncertainty in learning with video games.
At first sight, uncertainty would come from the activity rather than the object.
From Schugurensly’s perspective (2007), ludic learning from a video game could
be considered as “informal learning.” “Informal learning” is not easy to define.
Formal learning refers to the learning occurring in situations specifically de-
signed to teach by educational institutions. Non-formal learning happens in situ-
ations designed to teach by other institutions. Informal learning would be “ev-
erything else” (Schugurensky 2007, p.14). The author states that informal learn-
ing might be unconscious as well as unintentional, which makes it difficult to
highlight or assess it. People might know more about something than what they
can say they do. Formal educational activities are designed to make learning oc-
cur. Their objective is to make students learn something specific. Exams are de-
signed to assess this learning. Diplomas are used as certifiable proof of knowl-
edge or skills. Informal learning lacks such tools (Schugurensky 2007, p.18). In
the case of informal learning, uncertainty comes from the way the activity works.
However, formal learning might also bring uncertainty.
While arguing in favor of digital play-based learning, Mitgutsch (2008, p.32)
talks about an “uncontrollable way of learning.” Digital play-based learning is for-
mal learning since it occurs in a classroom. It does not “[lead] the learners to the
correct path of achieving knowledge and true content,” but rather it forces the
learners “to be players that experiment” (Mitgutsch 2008, p.31). Teachers do not
control the way players experiment. To profit by this learning, “the players
should be capable of reflecting upon and rethinking meta-levels of semiotic do-
mains, models of game and learning cultures, and predetermined goals that re-
strict their learning habits” (Mitgutsch 2008, p.32). In other words, players who
are not capable of doing this, or not willing to do it, might not learn from digital
play-based learning.
In addition to that, uncertainty is one of Bougère’s criteria of play (2005). The
criteria are not intended to define what is play and what is not, but they provide
a framework to study different activities. Some of them may look like play to
some people but not to others. These criteria are (Brougère 2005, p.42–58):
• A secondary frame (Goffman 1991) that changes the primary meaning of the
262 Sébastien Hock-Koon

• A decision from the player to take part in the activity.

• Rules that governs the activity.
• Frivolity in the sense that the activity is designed to reduce its consequences
in real life.
• Uncertainty in that the development of the activity is not defined beforehand.

However, uncertainty in the activity may also be addressed from the object’s
perspective, since “play is free movement within a more rigid structure,” it
“emerges both because of and in opposition to more rigid structures” (Salen and
Zimmerman 2003, p.311). According to Prensky (2005, p.103) what a player can
learn with a game greatly depends on the game’s design:
Many criticize today’s learning games, and there is much to criticize. But if
some of these games don’t produce learning it is not because they are games, or
because the concept of “game-based learning” is faulty. It’s because those partic-
ular games are badly-designed.
If “ultimately, game design is play design” (Salen and Zimmerman 2003,
p.299), the game designer only defines play indirectly through the rules he or she
creates. Uncertainty in learning comes from uncertainty in the activity of play.
Then, play-related uncertainty results, at least partly, from the video game’s
properties. A video game as an object is mainly defined by its rules. In other
words, uncertainty in the learning occurring during play is allowed by the rules
of the game. Indeed, Linderoth (2010) uses Gibson’s ecological approach and the
concept of affordance to study how video games may facilitate the player’s pro-
gression without requiring learning. Thus, he points out that, in order to know
whether or not a player has learnt something in order to achieve a goal, one must
study carefully both the game and the practice (Linderoth 2010, p.8):
Game design seems to be of crucial importance for the kind of learning expe-
rience the player has, and one should expect large variations in how and what
gamers learn; variations that can depend on rather small details in game design.
Thus the matter of games and learning needs to be seen more as an empirical
This proposal aims to revisit studies bringing a critical view of learning with
video games in order to identify rules that constitute potential sources of uncer-
tainty. As many aspects of the practice may be uncertain, the focus will be put on
the uncertainty associated with learning.
Learning with video games: Identifying sources of uncertainty 263

The study

The current research may be seen as a side-study to the author’s doctoral re-
search. His PhD thesis addresses learning in video games and focuses on how
some “great games” may take “a minute to learn and a lifetime to master” (Kunkel
2003). The author studied his own training to finish the arcade game Alien Vs.
Predator (Capcom 1994) with one credit. It led him to the concept of “elliptical
learning” (Hock-Koon 2012a). Elliptical learning implies that a player thinks he
or she understands a mechanism or a game while ignoring some part of it or even
the majority of it. Elliptical learning may be regarded as a source of uncertainty.
While this kind of uncertainty is not a problem in a ludic activity, it might be in-
compatible with school activities (Hock-Koon 2012b).
The author has reviewed studies in which researchers had a critical view of the
efficiency of learning with video games. Having Brougère’s criteria, and especial-
ly uncertainty, in mind, the author understood these studies as examples of un-
certainty in learning with video games. As argued by Linderoth (2009), it is hard
to speak generally about learning and video games, it is necessary to check
whether or not a given video game helps the player before trying to relate success
and learning. The sources of uncertainty that will be discussed are not found in
every video game but might be found in any video game. Three studies will be
used to illustrate some sources of uncertainty in learning with video games.
These sources are not the only possible ones: the player may cheat or ask for an
answer or even ask someone to do something for him or her. These works have
been chosen because they illustrate cases where a researcher might witness a suc-
cess that does not imply learning. They will show that the player may succeed in
a video game without the knowledge or skills that seem to be required. Thus,
they emphasize the necessity to carefully study the game design and the practice
in order to understand a video game’s learning.

Sources of uncertainty

The reviewed studies address cases where the player achieves a given goal in-
side the game. It may be to finish a level or to use a specific mechanism effective-
ly. Questioning the relationship between this achievement and learning allows us
to highlight rules that create uncertainty.

Multiple solutions to success

In Why gamers donʼt learn more, Linderoth (2010) used Gibson’s ecological
approach and the concept of affordance (Gibson 1979) to study how video games
264 Sébastien Hock-Koon

may facilitate the player’s progression. An affordance is an action possibility of-

fered by the properties of an environment to the capacities of a subject. Accord-
ing to this concept, an action is possible not only because the subject/player is
able to perform it but also because the environment/game allows it. As for Lin-
deroth, a video game may make an action easier to perceive or easier to perform.
Facilitating an action would bring uncertainty regarding what will be learnt by
the player. Linderoth (2010, p 6) enumerates several ways to make a video game
• Designs for supporting exploratory actions: highlighting, alternative vision
modes and points of interest help players to see and find affordances available
in the game environment.
• Designs for supporting performatory actions: changing the played character,
improving his or her capacities or equipment, and giving temporary power-
ups make performing actions easier.

“Designs for supporting exploratory actions” may actually tell the players
what they should do, where they should go, which object they should use. For
example, if the player has to reach a certain destination, he or she might find it
through exploration or remember where this place was encountered first. The
game might also highlight the destination with a gigantic pillar of light. In this
case, the player does not even need to read or remember the name of his or her
destination. Following the pillar of light is enough to find the target, wherever
it is.
“Designs for supporting performatory actions” can make action easier to per-
form for the player. For example, here are two different ways to kill the same
dragon in a role paying game. The first one is the hard way:
• Study its behavior
• Try various tactics (and die every time)
• Find the right one
• Learn how to perform it

The second is the easy one:

• Kill a few thousands rats to get experience and gold
• Buy a “Dragon Killing Sword”
• Drink a “Dragon Immunity Potion”
• Slay the dragon

The first source of uncertainty may be related to “multiple routes principle”

(Gee 2003, p.209). There might be several ways to reach the same goal in a video
game. These different ways may require different learning. Thus, it is necessary to
know which route has been used by the player to understand what he or she had
to learn in order to follow it.
Learning with video games: Identifying sources of uncertainty 265

Multiple ways to the same solution

In the second study, Becker (2007) performed a detailed comparison between

Math Blaster1 and New Super Mario Bros (Nintendo 2006) in terms of learning.
Later on, she used her “Magic Bullet” to theorize the differences between the
two games. This tool is “intended to provide a visual representation of the rela-
tive proportions of the four categories of learning in a game” (Becker 2012,
p.2477). It helps by monitoring the way a game manages the player’s learning and
classifies learning in four categories (Becker 2011, p.22–24):
• Things we CAN learn: It includes “anything and everything we can learn di-
rectly from the game.”
• Things we MUST learn: This set is “almost always […] a subset of the first cat-
egory.” It includes “only those items that are necessary in order to win or get to
the end.”
• Collateral Learning: This category includes things that “are not part of the
game and that do not impact on our success in the game.”
• External Learning: This set includes “learning that can impact on our success in
the game but that happens entirely outside of the game in places like fan sites
and other social venues.”

The author showed that what it is necessary to learn in order to succeed in

Math Blaster is not the calculation skills the game is supposed to teach (Becker
2011, p.28–30):
One would assume that at least some of the Must-Learn items in an education-
al game would include the advertised educational objectives, but it turns out that
most of the math questions in this game use a multiple choice format and many
ask the player to choose between only two options and players get immediate
feedback as to whether or not their choice was correct. Furthermore, on any giv-
en level the same questions are presented in the same order. This means that it is
entirely possible to get through these levels by employing the strategy of random
selection alone, and with only two choices, the user does not have much to re-
member on second and subsequent tries.
Of course, this example is originated from an educational game. But the same
kind of mechanism may apply in non-educative video games. Indeed, the video
game journalist François Garnier (1999) has written an entire article explaining
how to finish a Japanese role playing game when the player does not understand
Japanese. A decade ago, Japanese role playing games were rarely translated into
French; most of them had to be played in the original version. It requires method

1 The author did not specify which game she was referring to in the series. Only the first Math
Blaster is referred in the Games cited section.
266 Sébastien Hock-Koon

and discipline; but it is unnecessary to understand the language or the story. If

the player is stuck in a village, there are several things that might allow him or her
to get to the next step in the game:
• Speak twice to everyone in the village and then speak twice to everyone once
• Step on every square of the map and press “Action”.
• Use every unknown item in the inventory.

Of course, these tactics might constitute actual learning. But this way to get
to the answer is not the first one an observer would think of. There is also a sig-
nificant difference, in terms of learning, between finding a solution yourself,
through trial and study, and finding the same solution on the internet. The sec-
ond source of uncertainty resides in the possibility that the player will find the
right answer without using one the ways that are supposed to be used in the
game. It means that a researcher has to check how the player actually found
what he or she had to do in the game.

Multiple understandings of the same solution

The third study argues in favor of endogenous games that tightly relate the
structure and the content so that “mastering the learning environment is itself
the learning outcome” (Halverson 2005, p.1–2). However, it also showed that
players can overlook the legitimacy of the associations behind the game’s
mechanisms. The author presents the fact that building temples and develop-
ing a religion allows the player to raise more taxes in Civilization III as an ex-
ample of this:
The connection between religion and taxation, however, is an interesting and
counter-intuitive historical association. Strictly within the context of the game,
players can overlook the legitimacy of this association to consider the relation of
religion and taxation as a mere functional dependence necessary to win the
game. In other words, within the game players may not "learn" anything more
than clicking on one kind of button to receive a desired outcome. Even though
players must invest considerable time in the game to uncover these functional
dependencies […], successful gameplay itself does not necessarily generate in-
sight into the underlying conceptual model.
Described in such a way, this source of uncertainty is difficult to conceptual-
ize. We will use Perruchet’s (1988, p.124) distinction between “working rules”
and “utilization rules.” Working rules define the causal relationship between an
event and its consequences. We can describe the relationship between religion
and taxation with the following working rules:
Learning with video games: Identifying sources of uncertainty 267

• “If the player builds temples, then religion develops in his or her civilization.”
• “If religion develops, then the player has the opportunity to raise new taxes.”
• “If the player raises new taxes, then he or she earns more money.”

Utilization rules are based on working rules but they are also relative to the
user’s purpose. The correct utilization rules built from the previous working
rules would be:
• “To earn more money, the player can raise new taxes.”
• “To raise new taxes, the player can develop religion in my civilization.”
• “To develop religion, the player can build temples.”

However, Perruchet explains that the user might transform a possibility to

get an outcome into an obligation. Thus, he or she could neglect any possible
other way of obtaining the same outcome. In Halverson’s example, the player
may also overlook some steps between the first cause and the last consequence.
As we have seen, players may “consider the relation of religion and taxation as
a mere functional dependence necessary to win the game [and] not "learn"
anything more than clicking on one kind of button to receive a desired out-
come” (Halverson 2005, p.3). These phenomena could lead to a very simplified
and partial utilization rule for the player: “to earn more money, I must build
The third source of uncertainty lies in the difference between being able to use
something and understanding it. One does not need to know how a video game
works in order to use it in the right way. Then, observing that the player is able to
perform something in a video game is not enough to prove that he or she has un-
derstood the game correctly. The learning associated to success has to be ques-
tioned by the researcher.


In this paper, we have identified three sources of uncertainty in learning with

a video game. This list is not exclusive but highlights sources that one should
carefully consider in order to study learning with a video game. Indeed, they
might lead a researcher to mistakenly believe that the player understands or mas-
ters the game:
• Multiple solutions to success: There might be several different ways to reach a
given goal in a video game. These ways may require very different learning
from the player. Some may provide him or her information or help making
success easier and learning unnecessary.
• Multiples ways to the same solution: There are several ways to get to a given
solution. Some imply much learning, such as studying the game and trying
268 Sébastien Hock-Koon

different solutions. Some only require learning the solution itself, without un-
derstanding the reasons that make it the solution.
• Multiple understandings of the same solution: There might be several possible
understandings of a video game. Players may be able to use a video game cor-
rectly without an accurate understanding of how the game works.

These sources of uncertainty highlight the necessity to question the context in

which success happens in order to relate it to actual learning. This context in-
cludes the solution used by the player, how it was found and the understanding
the player has of the video game.
In a related work, the author has suggested the concept of “elliptical closure”
(Hock-Koon 2012a, p.10–12) which combines closure and ellipsis. Closure refers
to “the action of completing something as well as the feeling that something has
been completed, or understood.” It derives from McCloud’s conception which
defines closure as the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the
whole” (1993, p.63). Through closure, a reader can view a sequence of characters
as a word, a sequence of words as a sentence and give meaning to this sentence.
In our case, closure allows a player to give meaning to a video game. Ellipsis con-
sists of “the omission of some elements.” An ellipsis is often made by an author
but a reader/player may also omit some elements of a phenomenon. When clo-
sure and ellipsis happen at the same time, the understanding built by the reader/
player might be wrong because it is based on a partial perception of the phenom-
To perform an elliptical closure, the player has to think he or she understands
a video game while neglecting a part of it. This mechanism might be applied to
our three sources of uncertainty. Closure comes from the actual success in the
game, while the player eludes the multiple solutions, the multiple ways to the
same solution or the multiple understandings of the same solution. A possible
way to further this research could be to question elliptical closure. It could allow
us to understand the conditions, from the player as well as from the game, lead-
ing the subject to think he or she understands the game while it is not the case.


Becker, K. (2012) A Magic Bullet for Assessing Games for Learning. Society for Information Techno-
logy & Teacher Education International Conference 2012, 2012(1), p.2474–2479.
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DIA World Conference. Canada: University of Calgary [Online]. Available at: https://dspace. [Accessed: 22 May
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Brougère, G. (2005) Jouer/Apprendre. Paris: Economica.
Caillois, R. (1967) Les jeux et les hommes: le masque et le vertige. Paris: Gallimard.
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Crawford, C. (1982) The Art of Computer Game Design [Online]. Available at: http://www.eras- [Accessed: 16 April 2009].
Eck Van, R. (2006) Digital Game-Based Learning: It’s Not Just the Digital Natives Who Are Rest-
less. EDUCAUSE Review, 41(2), p.16–30.
Garnier, F. (1999) RPG - Plus qu’un genre, une passion. Consoles +, (91), p.108–127.
Gee, J.P. (2003) What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Pal-
grave Macmillan.
Gibson, J.J. (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception. Houghton Mifflin.
Goffman, E. (1991) Les Cadres de l’expérience, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.
Halverson, R. (2005) What can K-12 school leaders learn from video games and gaming? Innovate:
Journal of Online Education, 1(6).
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of DiGRA Nordic 2012 Conference. Finland [Online]. Available at:
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ity to Education. Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Confe-
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19 april 2012].
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of learning. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, (1), p.4–19.
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Games cited

Alien Vs. Predator (Capcom 1994)

Civilization III (Infogrames 2001)
Math Blaster Episode I: In Search of Spot (Davidson & Associates 1994)
New Super Mario Bros (Nintendo 2006)

Katharina Mittlböck
Vienna, Austria

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?


Mentalization is a psychological concept that describes the ability to under-

stand mental states of self and others and also to reflect on them. Internalized
representations of self and the world are established in early childhood and they
underlie a lifelong development. Mentalization is a kind of technique to get in
touch with one’s internalized representations in order to modify them. Aim of
this contribution is to outline why and in which way DRPGs provide an advanta-
geous possibility space for Mentalization and in which way high level Mentaliza-
tion abilities contribute to personality development.


The following contribution touches the motto context matters in a twofold

way. On the one hand the key phenomenon Mentalization is precondition for
framing playful acts, which means being able to perceive and handle them in
their appropriate context. The other aspect is constituted by the notions of the
psychoanalytic axioms as the Dynamic Unconscious, Transference of once inter-
nalized representations and the immersive character of co-constructed Interme-
diate Areas as possibility spaces to get in touch with the internalizations in order
to modify them. For a broad understanding Mentalization and Reflective Func-
tioning of playing are to be seen in this context. The research, which this summa-
ry refers to, is literature work. The golden thread through my research work is
trying to link several - mainly psychoanalytical - developmental concepts with
Game Studies.
I used to investigate Freud’s classical psychoanalytical approach, Adler’s Indi-
vidual Psychology, Winnicott’s Intermediate Area with it’s Transitional Objects
Mentalization and the reflective functioning of playing 271

and Phenomena and Lorenzer’s Scenic Understanding – just to list a few of them
– on their relevance for a new understanding of personality development poten-
tialities induced by gaming. The common ground of them all is the idea that, if
„psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together” (Winnicott 2005, p.
51), it is legitimate to turn it around and ask in which way and to which extent
playing is a therapeutical act. „Playing facilitates growth and therefore health;
playing leads into group relationships; playing can be a form of communication
in psychotherapy; and, lastly, psychoanalysis has been developed as a highly spe-
cialized form of playing in the service of communication with oneself and oth-
ers.“ (Winnicott 2005, p. 56) This approach’s benefit is to establish systematically
a wide range of consistent hypotheses about how the act of playing Digital Role-
Playing Games (DRPGs) influences our psyche. These findings are an appropri-
ate basis for play-based concepts in educational and psychotherapeutical fields.

Research question & hypotheses

this contribution deals with a link between playing and Mentalization or as it

is also called the Theory of Mind by Peter Fonagy et al. (2004). The research
question is:
In which way do DRPGs allow the training of Mentalization in order to facili-
tate further development and modification of once internalized representations?

Three hypotheses that open up the research field can be deduced. 1. and 2. are
more or less adopted from the psychoanalytical theory framework. 3. builds up
on them and constitutes this paper’s core.
1. Internalized representations of self and the world are established in early
childhood and they mean a lifelong development.
2. Mentalization is a kind of technique to get in touch with once internalized
representations in order to modify them.
3. DRPGs provide an advantageous possibility space for Mentalization.

What is mentalization?

Mentalization is the ability to understand mental states of self and others. Fon-
agy et al. attributes this ability to the early childhood. At about four years of age
the child is not only able to perceive mental states behind certain behavior, but
also to reflect on them. It has a Theory of Mind. (Fonagy et al. 2004) This meta
cognition allows the child to develop its view of the world from just mental to ad-
ditionally representational by realizing the subjective character of its own
thoughts. (Dornes 2004, p. 175) The development of Mentalization depends on
272 Katharina Mittlböck

the affective-interactive qualities within the early relationships, which forms the
internalized representation of the self and the world. Subjectivity is therefore a
result of inter-subjectivity. (Dornes 2004, p. 178)
In the beginning the baby has a kind of Primary Awareness (Fonagy et al.
2004) of its feelings and needs. To outline them it requires the perception of the
mirroring reaction, called Reflective Functioning, which parents instinctively
exaggerate. This Marking allows the child to realize that - for example - the true
joy about its laughter is added by playing with the mirrored laughter. The exag-
geration enables the child to disconnect the expression from its representative.
In a further step the child refers the expression to itself as a reflection of its own
affects. (Dornes 2004, p. 178) By about four years of age the child figures out that
thoughts influence reality but they are not the reality. That enables the child to
play with its thoughts about reality without having to be afraid to transform its
world. (Dornes 2004, p. 182) Omnipotence gives way to the ability to play.
In the course of this Reflective Functioning the individual develops a range of
internalized representations. “The baby, having incorporated his parents, feels
them to be live people inside his body in the concrete way in which deep uncon-
scious fantasies are experienced – they are, in his mind, ‘internal’ or ‘inner’ ob-
jects.” (Klein 1984, p. 345) Current psychoanalytic findings tend to see these in-
ternalized representations drafted as scenes. (Mittlböck 2012) In case an external
scene is perceived as meaningful, the internalized scenic content is ready to con-
nect. This connecting is always an act of Transference in a psychoanalytical sense.
„Feelings and attitudes originally associated with important people and events in
one's early life are attributed to others in current interpersonal situations, ...“ In
psychotherapy the „... phenomenon is used as a tool in understanding the emo-
tional problems of the patient and their origins.“ (Mosby, Inc. 2009)

What does this have to do with gaming?

Role-playing always means that Transference takes place. Previously internal-

ized representations are released into a game space and, in an act of externalizing
Transference on one or more characters the player breathes life into them. Re-
flective Functioning can begin. The acting characters mirror the player’s Primary
Awareness in an exaggerated way. A directed interaction with the digitally incar-
nated „virtual other in mind“ (Braten 1993) takes place. The player is the puppe-
teer who pulls the strings of Agency. This is a point where deliberations about
dangers of playing could be attached. Understanding agency as „the satisfying
power to take meaningful action and see the result of our decisions and choices"
(Murray 1998, p. 126) turns around when the player feels himself as the puppet on
the game’s string. Playing always means to give up control to a certain amount.
„Immersion into an intermediate area always demands surrender to chaos. Sur-
Mentalization and the reflective functioning of playing 273

render is a precondition for immersion...“ (Stephenson-Mittlböck 2012, p. 244)

But if the player is predominantly not able to tame and domesticate the chaos and
to gain agency, role-playing can become a psyche-endangering act. Already the
infant has to learn “to transform catastrophic emotions into interactive signals“.
(Greenspan and Shanker 2004, p. 28) The protected Intermediate Area of play-
ing can be a possibility space to develop, learn and train coping with chaos and
therefore agency. But concurrently it can be a dangerous situation where agency
gets lost in an overwhelming chaos. The player‘s sufficiently available chaos-or-
dering forces (Stephenson-Mittlböck 2012, p. 244) are especially challenged if
games are minimally structured as Shadow of the Colossus (Team ICO, 2006)
described by Mitgutsch (2009) or if they are rigidly structured and very thrilling
like the interactive film Beyond: Two Souls (Quantic Dream, 2013). In summary
it can be stated that letting the reins slacken is an essential part of the game, but
utter tailspin is dangerous.
Games always communicate via metaphors, which enable a genuine access to
mental and representational models by avoiding words. (Moser 2000) Therefore
it is possible to get in touch with the mainly pre-linguistic and unconscious rep-
resentations, because the unconscious is also “…structured … in and through
metaphors.” (Adams 1997, p. 10) The metaphorical content provided by the game
connects directly to the internalized representations. In comparison to the mark-
ing exaggeration within the parental Reflective Functioning the game metaphors
are distinctly overdrawn.
For instance brutal beings within the game can be – unconsciously - perceived
as an overdrawing of internalized aggressive aspects. The ability to disconnect
this aggression from the transference object and to refer it to oneself is experi-
enced in the protected space of a game. This highly developed reflective mode
doesn’t have to express itself in a conscious way. Modell (1968) regards the meta-
phor as „the currency of the unconscious mind.“ (White 2011, p. 3) The meta-
phoric constitution of the game facilitates a detour around the consciousness in
order to enable the further development of internal representations.
Taking a role in an immersive way and appropriately framing this playing with
identities needs the ability of Mentalization. Role-playing itself means to go
through a mirroring interaction in the sense of Reflective Functioning. Therefore
Mentalization is both precondition and learning output of playing DRPGs. En-
tering the game needs already a certain level of Mentalization, which will be lev-
elled up by the act of playing.
274 Katharina Mittlböck


But what’s the benefit of highly developed Mentalization abilities?

Being able to mentalize or having a Theory of Mind provides greater attention
to mental states in self and others and it facilitates an awareness of multiple per-
spectives. (Allen et al. 2008, p. 22) Therefore Mentalization is a key to reflection
and self-stabilization in the sense of impulse control. The readiness to connect
the internalized representational content to outer meaningful scenes becomes
more and more selective and maneuverable within this developmental process.
Mentalization is the ability of framing emotions and feelings by assigning appro-
priate meaning to the context. Taking part in a scene always opens up several
possibilities, which can be divided into two opposite directions. Repetition of
old action patterns which may not be very successful, but they seem safe because
of their familiarity. Or trying new ways of reaction and interaction to facilitate
further development. In case of a rather healthy and resilient psyche “…the indi-
vidual has within himself, not only the ability to solve his own problems satisfac-
torily, but also this growth impulse that makes mature behaviour more satisfying
than immature behaviour”. (Axline 1989, p. 14) If a scope of action is lacking, and
connecting to a scene always means to serve a Compulsive Repetition, we are
talking about neurotic behavior. (Mittlböck 2012, p. 259)
In summary it can be stated that – seen in a psychoanalytical context - Digital
Role-playing Games open up a possibility space for trying and training Reflective
Functioning and Mentalization in order to enhance reflective thinking to open
up a wide range of possibilities of action, which is a matter of personality devel-

Games cited

Beyond: Two Souls. Quantic Dream, Sony 2013

Shadow of the Colossus. Team ICO, Sony 2006


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Enrico Gandolfi
Rome, Italy

The playing diorama


The intent of my article is to outline a process-oriented framework able to

connect the micro and the macro context of the ludic experience, in order to
point out an integrated vision of the phenomenon. Concerning the former, I
adopt the concept of “Magic circle”, interpreted in socio-semiotic terms (Eugeni
2010). Regarding to the latter, my reference is to the “Circuit of culture” suggest-
ed by Du Gay et al. (1997). Furthermore, these dimensions are analyzed through
two intersected continuums: the scripts, the repertory of practices that set our
heuristics (Abelson and Schank 1977), and the frames, the conceptual pictures
we employ in order to visualize and fix our symbolic systems (Eco 1975; Goffman
1974). This proposal is empirically tested following a qualitative methodology
(Silverman 2013) through observations, ludic reports, collective and single in-
depth interviews with three gaming groups.

[Introduction 0.0]

Game studies resort to a wide range of perspectives. On the one hand, design-
ers have developed a strong patrimony of procedures. On the other hand, game
scholars have improved their methods, exploring many areas of in-game practic-
es and cultures. The merger between these logics is productive, but not unprob-
lematic as it may appear. In particular, hard sociological tools, qualitative as
quantitative, are particular in their use, without a shared background and a recip-
rocal connection. Nowadays the task is to find a clear way to connect social con-
texts with game experience with the aim to systematically explore ludic feelings
and cultures among them. In order to reach this goal, I suggest a fusion between
micro and macro spheres of gaming experience, embracing a process-oriented
approach . The resulting model, which I refer to as a ludic diorama, was devel-
oped in a way that is both theoretically (with references from social sciences to
game design) and grounded: it was tested indeed in an empirical manner, focus-
ing on self-narration and positioning of some significant players.
The playing diorama 277

[An interpretative model 1.0]

We can define a diorama as a bird’s eye visualization-representation that tries

to expand in a single display our consciousness of a target phenomenon. Con-
cerning ludic worlds, there are sever criteria to take into account, which are char-
acterized by complex relations and contextual references. Thus, the intent of the
ludic diorama (graphically reported below) is to fix the interactions between so-
ciety, culture and play in a heuristic figure, starting from the player as object stud-
ied. In other words, the main aim of that model is to connect context, interpreted
as social and cultural environment, with practice, to reach an overall comprehen-
sion of the gaming activity as extended and interconnected phenomenon. My
proposal can be interpreted as a map, useful to keep in mind analyzing players
and gaming communities; studying gamers I felt the need to build a holistic
framework able to make intelligible all the operating and interrelated factors in

Fig. 1: The playing diorama

[The player (P) 1.1]

From a sociological perspective, the obligatory initial point is the human ac-
tor, the player (P). He/She represents the center of the model and the main lense
through which to observe it; also in design approaches this assertion is well es-
tablished (for example, Fullerton 2008 p. 10). In order to visualize the player’s ap-
proach to the gaming practices as significant, a useful proposal is offered by the
three-phases movement towards an experience (in our case the game session)
suggested by Ricoeur (1990):
278 Enrico Gandolfi

• Prefiguration: the background in terms of “capital” (Consalvo 2007) and “ac-

counts” (Garfinkel 1964) before the experience
• Configuration: the linearization of the events composing the experience. Peo-
ple usually tend to use their stable articulations, whereas sometimes facts
(etc.) are able to break our conventions. It is developed during the experience
• Refiguration: the comprehension/reasoning of the experience. Its newness is
relative, from reiteration to epiphany.

According to the French philosopher, every report has a narrative form. It is

the “discursive consciousness” proposed by Giddens (1984), what people are
able to explain referring to a specific situation, giving it a meaning. The twin con-
cept is the “practical consciousness”, what individuals practically do (and the
strategies involved) that they are not able to put in a discursive formula. In such
terms, our narrations become a power act through which we improve our dimen-
sions, enforce past ones and discover new issues. Even though individuals tend to
make their schemata redundant in order to become more self-confident, the use
of culture by them may be creative (Swidler 1986). From this perspective, narra-
tions inside our cultural worlds can work as models for ours.

[The axes 1.2]

According to what written above, players’ actions/interpretations are both

cultural determinate and creatively assembled. The question is how we can grasp
and synthetize their habits, within the play itself and outside it, in a coherent and
integrated manner. In the ludic diorama I have adopted two theoretically funded
continuums in order to delineate a shared analytic frame, from agency to repre-
• Scripts: the self-significant, personal repertories of practices set in time and
space that drive our heuristics (Abelson and Schank 1977). From a game eco-
logical point of view, similar concepts in design proposals are “atoms” (Elias et
al. 2012 p. 15) and “ludemes” (Koster 2010 Appendix B: Chapter 7). In a word,
we are talking about an assemble of actions that together have a meaning in
some way; they could be strictly codified in a experiential design (for example,
the procedures to pay my taxes in real life or, in a platform-game, how I can
beat the final boss) or more ambiguous and free (for example, my breakfast
ritual or the personal strategies in a grand-strategy game). Referring to this
point, a popular distinction is the couple “strategy-tactic” proposed by De
Certeau (2001 p. 71-75). The former is the manipulation of power relations
that becomes possible when a subject, able to have an own power, can be iso-
lated; thus, it enforces spatial dimension. Whereas the tactic is more similar to
The playing diorama 279

a sudden rush, it can be described as an action that takes place without an own
related place; it focuses on timing. The first is a canonic process (for example,
how usually people respect the gaming rules), instead the second is an extem-
poraneous action that does not follow the expected behavior (the occasional
cheating). My axis of scripts is based on strategies. Tactic is quite natural, a
rhapsodic scintilla; there is a turning point if it becomes a script, a continua-
tive routine. The question is if this action-unit is broadly legitimated or not.
Hence, the two extremes that I propose follow the metaphor of the samurai in
front of the ronin: the former is a formalized and hegemonic strategy; it has an
owner, a mainstream and diffused structure. The second has neither a master
nor a reference, embodying an ideology that attempts to be more influential.
• Frames: the conceptual pictures/structures (Goffman 1974) that we adopt in
order to link our symbolic systems (tagging) and to construct reality (visual-
izing). They remind of the further concept of “encyclopedia”: our models of
label and relate cultural objects are contextual and dynamic (Eco 1975). Con-
cerning this topic, a productive concept is the articulation one. Following De-
leuze e Guattari (1980), Hall (1997) interpreted it as a dynamic connection
between two or more social/cultural elements, representing in this way a sin-
gle, integrated but provisional assemble. Connections that appear automatic
are instead cultural constructs and stereotypes (e.g. gender attributions).
Hence, the identity of cultural labels and objects is neither absolute nor es-
sentialist, but contextual and subjective, based on reciprocal difference (the
other defines me through our relative distance; e.g. the alternative formalized
cheating of Munchkin [Steve Jackson Games 2000]). Concerning the extremes
of the axis, the contraposition samurai/ronin is adopted again in order to dis-
tinguish hegemonic representations (popular meaning frames, for example
cultural customs and political ideologies) and subversive ones (lateral ways of
thinking and perceiving the reality; e.g. subcultural perspectives).

Scripts cannot exist outside frames and vice versa. Every knowledge system
needs a spatial and temporal agency to operate, and every grounded movement
requires an interpretative space; a change of one has an influence on the other.
Together, they compose our inner articulations, schemata (Di Maggio 1997),
performance guidelines (Alexander 2006) and models through which we move
towards reality. As first suggested by Kelly (1955), people are efficient model
builders according to their cultural coordinates. A typical form in which this con-
nection i s exploited is metaphorical: usually we observe social facts as some-
thing else, using particularly popular keyconcepts in our environment (e.g. sys-
tem or fluidity). The effort of every social actor, individual or collective, is to find
a functioning display to reach its goals, and metaphors represent powerful devic-
es for this purpose (Gauntlett 2007). Unsurprisingly, the concept of metaphor is
particularly significant also in game design proposals (Fullerton 2008 p. 236;
280 Enrico Gandolfi

Koster 2010 Chapter 10; Sylvester 2013 Chapter 9). To sum up, scripting and tag-
ging are usually performed within a basic “visualize-action” procedure in a sym-
biotic relation. We can think that scripts as empty forms that people fill in by per-
forming. The models of interpretation and the same scansion of scripts often con-
vey the consuetudes embodied in society; culture and media give us a repertory
of bricks to build our personal narrations, but also landing places for a limited
range of visions. Using a clarifying metaphor, scripts are similar to kata, assem-
blies, assemble of connected actions used in martial arts in order to preserve the
battle knowledge. The bunkai, the sense of these movements, could vary from
time to time and from context to context: it is the framing activity. Together, they
set the meaning. In next paragraphs, I will expose the two main dimensions in
which scripts/frames operate concerning gaming activity.

[The magic circle (G1) 1.3]

The concept of the magic circle (in the following G1) is a classic one in game
studies debate. Even though several scholars have criticized its consistency (for
example, Consalvo 2009), the idea of a circumscribed space evoked by the gam-
ing practice remains valid in some way (Montola 2012); the fact that the real life
scripts/frames enter in the game instance does not break G1. The space sum-
moned by the play is nothing autistic but an integrated space (Crawford and Gos-
ling 2009); it works as a technological filter, implying a transformative instance.
We can interpret such a dimension as a combination between environmental
niches (sensorial possibilities) and cultural ones (knowledge and skills in our
memory), like every media experience (Eugeni 2010). Anywayames are a pecu-
liar type of this fusion: they represent a cultural medium able to survive on many
different technologies. As circles, they work like a membrane, translating, pro-
posing and receiving elements; the formal boundaries can be light (the call of the
rules) or heavy (causing the flow state), and relatively fixed by media traits. It is
during the play that the catalyzing instance emerges (for players and also for au-
diences, if G1 is deep enough to engage them). It could be a simple reproduction
of standards; furthermore, the agential space offered by game practices may
mean an experiential-learning bridge between everyday life and ludic patterns.
By the way, a perfect replica in both directions is impossible because the play is
always something different from the routine. The point is that the distance be-
tween no-game and game is not fixed at all, but contextual. This explains why the
game ontology changes and is subjective as well as the G1’s frontiers; it embodies
a gap. Due to this assumption, we must see games not only as a reduction, but
also as a possibility. In a close, delimitated scenario, we can build an artificial and
appreciable infinity (Baudrillard 1979). In any case, the gaming practice offers a
perfect metaphor of assembled articulations: foreign scripts/frames are stressed
The playing diorama 281

within it in an integrated and chained manner and internal ones may emerge to-
gether as working construction in everyday life.

[The gamescape (G2) 1.4]

Beyond G1, there is the gaming context around the practice itself. In order to
comprehend such a cultural sphere, we have to extend our lense, asking our-
selves what type of connections, anchor bolts and discursive spaces take place
outside the play. In their “Circuit of culture”, Du Gay et al. (1997) propose five
analytic and interrelated dimensions to conceive about cultural mechanisms:
consumption (how culture is used), production (how culture is built), repre-
sentation (how culture is represented), regulation (how culture is regulated)
and identity (the relation between culture and personal positions). Their rela-
tions are fluid and bi-directional rather than causal and functionalist. hegemo-
ny/ideologyenforced(for example, who can play digital games without stig-
mas)current Indeed, “meanings are produced at several different sites and cir-
culate through several different processes or practices” (Hall 1996 p.3). If ap-
plied to game worlds, we can define this macro-context as the “gamescape” of
the play (in the following G2) (Gandolfi 2013); the gravity center is the game as
rooted and significant socio-cultural phenomenon (e.g. boardgames in Italy):
gaming audiences’ habits, productive consuetudes (e.g. creative standards), re-
lated regulations and limitations (e.g. by Law), generalist/niche interpretations
linked to play (e.g. the idea of digital games as violent teachers) and the impact
of the examined ludic sector on people’s identity. In the end, “Gaming capital”
proposed by Consalvo (2007) is a personal/shared reconfiguration of macro
dynamics (society, culture, etc.). Anyway, this higher plane can be influenced
by the micro-dimension; the reference is to the “structuration theory” pro-
posed by Giddens (1984), who suggested a mutual relation between back-
ground structures (e.g. value systems) and their reiteration by subjects. Fur-
thermore, as cultural expressions, games communicate with the social ground
outside ludic considerations (e.g. the commercial relevance of digital games is
a strong driver of legitimation among not expert people). In the model that
outside, composed by other gamescapes and social/media worlds, is simply the
space around G2 (in the following G3).

[Connections 1.5]

We can visualize the magic circle (G1), the gamescape (G2) and the outside
(G3) as practical and discursive spaces organized in articulations. Thus, the sec-
ond and the third provide a wide range of forces and tools (practical as well as
282 Enrico Gandolfi

discursive) capable of being translated, reformulated and revolutionized inside

the first (for example, realistic patterns are fundamental bases in simulation
games). The surfaces where we can observe these connections are representa-
tional (the content) and performance-based (the gameplay) (Mäyrä 2008 p. 17).
Usually there is a sort of reciprocal enforcement between magic circle and gam-
escape. Anyway, this is not a static picture: our context is dynamic . Moreover,
the play session, even if standardized, is always a creative moment. During the
play, both the practice itself and the game as textual/technological source are sig-
nificant fronts. For example, a game could offer a breaking experience, able to
relatively change the entire gamescape around it (e.g. Ico [Team Ico 2001]). Fur-
thermore, audiences may alter the original system creating an autonomous in-
stance (the so-called home-rules); scripts/frames that were privately developed
could be exported and reach the affirmation outside, touching further magic cir-
cles. Usually old and new social representations play a strong role because they
concern our expectations and accessibility and media literacy issues. Anyway,
games may also influence their wider context (e.g. gamification is a glaring at-
tempt to import gaming logics in real life). The magic circle may support the
“keying” between frames through turning scripts, representing problem-solving
packets with a high level of transmissibility (for example, adopt in real life a per-
spective used in-game). Scripts/frames and samurai/ronin label could be consid-
ered subjective or objective, characteristic or not within a specific sphere; for ex-
ample, LGBT themes are a topic that rarely appears in digital games, differently
from other media; a gameplay based on peeve (e.g. Actual Sunlight [Will O’Neill
2013]) is still uncommon.

[The empirical phase 2.0]

This model came to exist as a supporting tool within a wider qualitative re-
search (Silverman 2013) on ludic identities; thus, it represents a sort of heuristic
appendix enforced by a triangulation of methods. The focus was on three gaming
groups, each one composed by 5-6 members aged 25 to 35. They were chosen be-
cause representative: briefly, the performing team, characterized by a sport and
competitive attitude (in the following L1); the friendship aggregation, for which
collective play is predominant even if private consumption remains significant
(in the following L2); and the enthusiast crew, newbie but engaged in many
games (in the following L3). The variety of gaming types played was huge (except
larps and pervasive games).
The playing diorama 283

[Methods 2.1]

• Qualitative interviews: personal reports are the main way to record personal
narrations, perspectives and discursive capitals. If we adopt the Cultural Stud-
ies approach, identity is something flexible, a trace of suture points (Rose
1996; Hall 1997). The linking could be interpreted as narration (Ricoeur
1990); thus, the philosopher Dennett (1991) defines the idea of the Self as the
center of our narrative gravity. Even if this center is a sort of “metaphorical
hub”, its consequences are tangible. This method, as the next one, concerns
also the private dimension of the subjects, their personal consumptions of
games and what is connected with them.
• Time use diaries: this is another manner to improve the gaming conscious-
ness about playing, enforcing the reflexive reasoning in an ampler period of
time. Even if they require a relevant engagement by players, usually the strong
connection with the research topic makes them a productive source.
• Gaming participation: Due to ephemeral status of the play, the presence of
the researcher as an active player in canonical group sessions is a fundamental
step to understand part of the subjects’ practical consciousness. Furthermore,
I have proposed to subjects/groups several games, which I defined wedge-
texts (e.g. Crusader Kings 2 [Paradox Interactive 2012]) in order to stress rea-
soning and the discursive points emerged (e.g. the gender issue).
• Group discussion/Debriefing: The collective interview with a focus group
procedure is an interesting phase, both as common moment of dialogue and
concerning the debriefing (the elaboration of the experience after a gaming
session). The former declination covers the group identity and sharing of play-
ers interviewed, whereas the latter permits to focus more on specific games,
offering a testing locus for a wider interpretation.

I have used qualitative interviews as main recording steps in the beginning, in

the middle and in the conclusion of the research, lasted for three months (even if
it tries to cover an ampler period through discursive revelations). The collective
interviews were introduced only in the second and in the third month, with the
aim to facilitate an initial private and relatively autonomous engagement. The
time use diaries were exploited as training devices in the first month. I participat-
ed in 21 sessions, seven for each group, equally distributed in the research span.
At the end, from the second month I started the debriefings for a total amount of
15. The goal was to work with subjects in order to increase the immersion in gam-
ing practices and the related consciousness. The overall aim is to analyze ludic
identities as self-narrations built within a socio-cultural context; in a word, how
gamers perceive themselves as cultural subjects. Moreover, in depth-interviews
helped me particularly to refine the model itself through the deep listening and
the debate that they permit. There is a sort of circularity between ludic diorama
284 Enrico Gandolfi

and empirical research: the former was a heuristic perspective to understand

better the latter, and the latter improved and perfected the former (in the begin-
ning the couple samurai/script was not present).

[Results 2.2]

Firstly, scripts/frames represent working concepts to stimulate discursive

consciousness: subjects reacted positively when I have introduced this distinc-
tion in discussions, immediately articulating their positions through them (a
feedback not taken for granted in qualitative approach). Also the magic circle is a
stimulating dimension because people interviewed were at ease with it.
Secondly, several ludic concepts usually considered fixed are relative instead:
terms like epicness or fun etc. have a marked individual interpretation rather than
a shared definition, also concerning the same game; this difference is due to the
heterogeneous range of personal constructs (within and outside games) linked
with these words (e.g. for competitive gamers the learning phase of a RTS is the
single player). This point could enrich famous players’ categories (for example,
Lazzaro 2004), focused on gaming activity without consider the context. This
richness may also integrated with quantitative data analysis: finding the patterns
under the in-game passages reported and linking them to other personal details
can mean significant clusters of articulations to make operational and elaborate.
Thirdly, according to single reports but also observing the gaming coherence
in participative sessions, scripts/frames from outside were interpreted as inside
the magic circle; the same claim is valid for G1s with a technological device be-
tween input and output (e.g. referring to videogames, subjects considered a
friend who watches their play an internal part of the game session).
Unsurprisingly, the private consumption represents the main domain where
scripts/frames seem to be recollected. Moreover, several subjects have devel-
oped through gaming practices ludic metaphors able to work in everyday life: for
example, a member of L3 used Asura's Wrath (CyberConnect2 2012) as a working
lense to overcome certain difficult moments in real life. It is interesting that the
majority of people interviewed judged games played usually ruled by samurai
logics, converted in innovative instances by them in a sort of creative Lego-buil-
ding bricolage.
Hence, I also noticed that in self-narrations digital games influence memories
from a structural perspective. L3 and almost all L2 members reported life stories
where contrapositions and turning events are described with ludic logics (quan-
tification of skills, boss-battles, etc.). The agential dimension of games allows a
better focalization on scripts rather than frames, being considered blurrier. In
other words, games interpreted as procedures fix shared systems of actions,
whereas the content is more ambiguous and open to free interpretations (con-
The playing diorama 285

cerning this point, the metaphor of kata and bunkai is still clarifying). Group ses-
sions, lived as described, have an extemporaneous halo instead. I didn’t note
ronin strategies developed within participant sessions; tactics were present but
only in order to fix gaming systems. Anyway, certain gamescapes were consid-
ered ronin for themselves (e.g. boardgames), whereas digital entertainment was
generally referred to samurai features. Furthermore, ronin/samurai labelling has
a group orientation (each crew showed a common consensus about that). Group
moments also enforced the instance of the player-as-gamer (the ludic role-iden-
tity people construct around gaming); there is a coherence between single narra-
tions and group attitudes concerning this point. The discursive perception of the
player-as-player (the manner in which I play) often didn’t match with the con-
crete actions observed instead: who claimed to be competitive sometimes was
more cooperative in game than expected, and vice versa. Concerning the differ-
ences, the three groups were characterized by a diverse interaction with context:
the competitive group found a strong support in external logics (the overall le-
gitimation of sport) as well as in internal trends (the consolidation of e-sport and
online gaming), with a redundant attention to rules and heuristics; the friend-
ship aggregation was more attracted by ronin instances (from independent pro-
ductions to retro-cultures) and used to discuss scripts/frames emerged both in
single and group plays; the newbie crew argued a synergy between games (and
digital games above all) and other media (they believed to belong to a rising
mainstream), constantly translating elements from gaming dimension to real life
one (e.g., quotes and patterns).

[Conclusions 3.0]

The playing diorama is a heuristic and open model with an explorative pur-
pose concerning contextual connections. According to this nature it is argued
that we have to go beyond referring to the peculiar cultural environment and the
specific target/theme we want to analyze; differently, the risk is to fall in truisms
or in extreme simplifications. The empirical test has shown that the concepts ad-
opted work, observing the positive subjects’ feedback. Moreover, even if the lu-
dic diorama has apparently a complex design, it facilitates the visualization and
the interpretation of influences between context and play. The point is that this
framework is applicable only to social analysis with a qualitative approach: in a
word, the factors within depend on personal-group positions and asserts. Thus,
with this methodology the result is always subjective, even though we can imag-
ine a sort of quantitative translation if we want to operate on a further and more
objective level. In the end and as previously argued, the analysis is mainly discur-
sive indeed: the same scripts are a manner to codify actions in memory, and the
resulting meaning in values, contents and narratives terms is the third invisible
286 Enrico Gandolfi

axis of the ludic dioramas: its complexity can be understood only through qualita-
tive methods.


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Games cited

Actual Sunlight (2013) Will O’Neill

Asura's Wrath (2012) CyberConnect2
Crusader Kings II (2012) Paradox Interactive
Ico (2001) Team Ico
Munchkin (2000) Steve Jackson Games

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

Vienna, Austria

Game design and artistic expression


The core research question of this paper is “What is the role of constraints in
designing art games?”. We follow the thesis that freedom and constraints are not
antagonists in the context of free play but that constraints contribute to freedom
of artistic expression. To examine the relation of freedom and constraints a series
of prototypes to the term free play were designed. These prototypes can be cat-
egorised into three different groups; musical play, embodied play and painterly
play. The full scope of exploring arts through play of course is much larger but
these three categories provide starting points to evaluate the role of play in an ex-
plorative and artistic context. Analysing the prototypes showed that constraints
are necessary not only to render a prototype playable but also to open up a space
for artistic expression.


Art games have become an integral part of contemporary games culture and
are often discussed regarding their meaning as cultural artifacts and impact on
players and audience. We look at them from a design perspective. Understanding
games as a medium for artistic expression and play as a way to experience arts
frames the context for this paper. Context provides the frame in which we under-
stand things. The understanding of games is primarily framed by an entertain-
ment context, which has been extended to include more serious areas like e.g.
learning or social impact. We refer to the topic of the contemporary uniqueness
of computer games and game design as presented in the FROG conference’s call
for papers with the sub-question “What alternate forms of play are of impor-
tance?". The context for answering this question is defined by looking at games as
art and art games in particular. The relevance of this contribution ist to further
the understanding of games and game design as a medium for artistic expression.
Our paper emanates from the question, which forms of play could spawn free,
safe and empowering environments to approach and explore artistic activities.
Game design and artistic expression 289

This lead us to develop the thesis that freedom and constraints are not antago-
nists in the context of free play but that constraints contribute to freedom of ar-
tistic expression. The exploration of how game design shapes artistic expression
also lead us to further understand the importance of specific design methods for
both development and knowledge construction in the space of games and arts.

Literature review

Boundaries of play

Play has always been a means of exploration. As children we start to explore

our environment and learn basic activities through play. Play also acts as a means
to challenge boundaries. Brown and Vaughan (2009, p.212) say that “Play is exp-
loration, which means that you will be going places where you haven’t been before”.
As we grow older much of its potential is superseded by more regulated play and
learning activities. Play, especially in a digital context, becomes synonymous
with games that are more structured, goal-oriented experiences. Much has been
written about the differentiation between play and games (e.g. see Aristotle 1984,
Huizinga 1955, Caillois 2001). We are interested in unstructured activities associ-
ated with the terms free play or paidia and their potential for exploring artistic ac-
tivities. Situating play within an arts space establishes the context for the per-
spective of this analysis.
There are many examples of games challenging the boundaries of play. Street
Wars (Aliquo & Yutai 2004), a street game where people assassinate one another
with water guns, led to some controversy and challenged social boundaries in a
public urban setting. Contemporary game art also uses play to challenge bound-
aries. In the PainStation not only the boundaries of play are challenged, but also
those of its players. Basically it’s a game of Pong, but every time you score your
opponent’s hand gets punished by electroshocks, heat or a whip. The first player
to lift her hand to escape punishment loses the game.
The game Rez HD (Q Entertainment 2008) blurs the boundaries between
play, music and kinaesthetic experience. Rez is a rails shooter with a techno
soundtrack where gameplay and visuals are tightly synchronized with the music.
It is recommended to place up to four controllers, which have different rhythmic
vibration patterns, on your body. Overall the game tries to communicate the sen-
sation of synaesthesia (Kayali & Pichlmair 2008) and challenges the boundaries
between play and experiencing art.
We chose the space of art games because many art games focus on exploration
but structurally they represent constrained spaces, in which freedom of play
manifests itself as the consequence of sensibly designed constraints. Rez, for ex-
ample, focuses on the experience of music, but at the same time represents a tra-
290 Fares Kayali, Naemi Luckner, Ruth Mateus-Berr, Peter Purgathofer

ditional game experience constrained by clear rules and objectives. Constraints

not only play an important role in relation to player input, but also in the design
process itself. Making games in an art context imposes new and different con-
straints. So we will first discuss the interrelation of constraints and design in gen-
eral, and later look at specific art game examples and the role game design plays
in opening up their respective possibility spaces.

Design and constraints

One of the fallacies of software engineering is the idea that constraints (or re-
quirements) are given. Henrik Gedenryd (1998) thoroughly deconstructs this
position and shows that constraints are constructed, rather than given. Bryan
Lawson (1980) already developed a model to describe constraints, and noted
that besides the client, the user and the legislator, the designer can be a source of
constraints in the design process. Combining these two concepts leads to a pic-
ture where the designer, rather than just collecting and administering all the rel-
evant constraints in a project, sees constraints as a material that can be changed.
It can even be argued that the ability to work with the constraints as a “design
material”(Ibid.) is one of the core qualifications a good designer has to acquire.
Constraint-setting is a valuable design instrument in itself. The limitation of
freedom in the process helps to focus on specific areas of the design. In other
words, it is often an interplay of constraints and freedom that leads to good de-
We can also deduct why constraints willingly set by the designers are such a
powerful vehicle for design: Deliberately choosing a constraint can reduce the
number of decisions that can be made subsequently, thus taking away complexi-
ty. That way, constraints become assumptions that help simplify a situation
(Guindon 1990), and since they are under the control of the designer, they can be
changed willingly in case they are considered harmful. Ömer Akin (1986) found
that, while designers don't follow the stereotypical analysis-synthesis patterns,
they were constantly generating new goals and redefining constraints. Thus, they
become design instruments, actively formed to serve their purpose, by the per-
son applying them toward this purpose. (Ibid.)
Gedenryd (1998) deconstructs the realist myth of problem solving as analysis
first, then execution. Interpreting Gedenryd this proposes a view of design con-
straints as a tools that facilitate exploration. Similarly constraints in games can
help to widen the space for player exploration and freedom.
Game design and artistic expression 291

Constraints and freedom in games

The connection between games and art has already been established in game
study literature (e.g. see Flanagan 2009, Jenkins 2005). Aside from aesthetic
qualities meaningful artistic expression in art games arises through the player’s
interaction with their game mechanics and dynamics (Bogost 2011). This makes
art games a good focal point for this analysis as their game mechanics and rules
(the constraints imposed through design) are made to open the space for player
exploration and artistic expression.
Jesper Juul (2005) stated that rules define both affordances and limitations of
a game. The necessary balance of freedom and constraints has been outlined for
sports video games (Kayali & Purgathofer 2008) and musical play (Kayali & Pi-
chlmair 2008). It is also known that abstraction ( Juul 2007) and arbitrary (in the
sense of unrealistic) constraints (Grünvogel 2005) are needed to render playable
experiences. Frasca (2001) wrote that behaviour rules facilitate experimentations
rather than limiting a players’ freedom. Thus we build on the premise that free-
dom and constraints are not thesis and antithesis but that their synthesis leads to
ideal spaces for explorative play. To empower players to explore, play has to act
as a safety net – everything possible is allowed and negative repercussions are re-
moved. Several examples from contemporary games culture show how rules and
constraints lead to such empowering games spaces:
• Toshio Iwai’s Nintendo DS game Electroplankton (2005) is a collection of
mini-games about music making. Each mini-game presents a musically safe
environment (in terms of rhythmic and harmonic results). Players can interact
with small plankton which produce music according to their own behavior
within environments shaped and influenced by player input.
• In the aforementioned PainStation installation the constrained and seemingly
safe context of a game even allows people to enjoy hurting others as well as
• Douglas Wilson’s game Johann Sebastian Joust (to be published as part of
Sportsfriends (2013) and documented in Wilson (2012)) is described as “a no-
graphics, digitally-enabled playground game for 2 to 7 players, designed for
motion controllers”1. Gameplay is dictated by the tempo of music – anyone
who moves too fast is eliminated and the last player standing wins. The game
has no additional rules, is played in public places, and usually attracts many
spectators. It thereby also becomes an open space for performance and ex-
• Passage (Rohrer 2007) is a game, which communicates strong emotions about
life, love and mortality through gameplay. Its impact is based on the game’s
fixed length and its unavoidable ending. As players progress through the game

1 [last accessed Oct 10th 2013]

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

they age and after 5 minutes have passed they inevitably die. This fixed con-
straint is what makes gameplay meaningful.
• In Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow 2012) gameplay takes place on a blank
canvas. By spraying color the environment becomes visible and can be tra-
versed. The constraint that you can only see the parts of the world you color
invokes a sense of exploration and wonder
• Jenova Chen, designer of the game Flower (Thatgamecompany 2009) says
games for him are a means of artistic expression and communication with the
audience2. The game Flower lets you play the wind as you blow flower petals
through the air. The game has been made with the intent to express positive
emotions and freedom of choice. Flower’s free flowing experience is enabled
by the constraints of the game’s simple controls and reduced interaction pos-
sibilities which guide the gameplay towards navigation and exploration.

These examples show that the experience while playing and constraints intro-
duced by game design are closely tied together. Much of the expressive quality of
the examples is shaped through designed constraints which shift interactivity to-
wards exploration.

Goals and research question

It has been established that the use of constraints can have a positive impact
on the work of designers. It can help them simplify the design process and con-
centrate on chosen sections of the problem they are approaching. Bernhard Suits
(1978) defined games as “... the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary ob-
stacles”, basically a constraint that is freely put into our everyday life in order to
make it more challenging and satisfying. For this paper we want to take this one
step further and ask “What is the role of constraints in designing art games?”
The approach of this paper in answering this question is experimental in itself.
Much that is documented here is more about process than isolated results. Aside
from qualitatively looking at examples (see above) our approach was to explore
the arts game space through methods of explorative design and design thinking.
Both are described with some detail in the next two sections. We take some time
to do this because we consider both not only methods for knowledge construc-
tion but also as relevant design approaches for creating art games. In the context
of this paper, game design is considered a tool and art-based research practice at
the same time.

tal-medium/ [last accessed Oct 10th 2013]
Game design and artistic expression 293


Explorative design

Explorative design is a term coined in recent years to describe an approach

where design practices are utilized to facilitate research. The concept goes back
to the John Dewey’s »Theory of Inquiry« (Dewey 1938), where he introduces the
concept of »doing for the sake of knowing«. Donald Schön built on the work of
Dewey, when he observed that much of the knowledge needed and used in the
design process is not known a priori, but acquired during the design process as a
result of interacting with the object to be designed (Schön 1983). This process,
commonly referred to as “analysis through synthesis”, is at the core of explorative
Zimmerman, Forlizzi and Evenson introduced the notion of “Research
through design” in 2007 (Zimmerman et al. 2007), advocating an understanding
of design practice as a relevant approach for research. Similar approaches have
previously been documented by Burdick (2003) and Ehn & Löwgren (2004).
Stapleton (2005) documented the use of design as research in game studies as
RADDAR (research as design, design as research) method. Explorative design
has since become the term to describe the use of design as a vehicle for knowl-
edge creation.
In (Høbye 2012), the authors list three essential components of a process they
call “research-through-explorative-design”, referring to (Buxton, 2010) and
(Hallnäs et al., 2002):
“1. A focus on ‘sketching with technology’, aiming at exploring issues of behav-
ior and enactment (as opposed to envisionment).
2. Experimentation in the sense of making and trying out prototypes or partial
prototypes is the primary mode of working.
3. The goal of the experiments is to grow an understanding and a sensibility for
the experiential qualities of embodied interaction’s materials and ensembles.”
Given the importance to focus on player experience in digital games, it be-
comes quite obvious that explorative design approaches are of high value to game
development. While many aspects of games can be tried out using sketches, paper
prototypes and similar low-tech means, the player experience often has to be de-
signed in a tightly coupled loop of explorative design and evaluative inspection.

Applying tools of design thinking

In arts Design Thinking is a well-established practice. While the term Thinking

refers to Aristoteles´ episteme (intellectual knowledge) rather than making
(poesis) and doing (praxis), Applied Design Thinking is the synthesis of thinking
294 Fares Kayali, Naemi Luckner, Ruth Mateus-Berr, Peter Purgathofer

and doing, as Schön described in “The Reflective Practitioner” (Schön 1983).

Knowledge embodied in art, which has been characterised as tacit, practical
knowledge, is cognitive, though non-conceptual (Borgdorff 2012, 49) and inter-
connects disciplines. Also basic and applied research is intertwined (Carayannis
& Campbell 2011, p25). Their approach focuses on knowledge application as well
as knowledge-based problem-solving. Design Thinking also embodies under-
standing and experimental application. It goes back to the design community
and was shaped by design theorists and designers through their practical ap-
proach as “reflective practitioners” (Schön 1983; Lawson 2006). Usually design-
ers talk and reflect about the products they design, rather than the process, which
led them to innovation.
The aim of applied Design Thinking is to facilitate innovative solutions for
complex problems through collaboration across multiple disciplines. According
to Kristensen (2004, 89-96), many design problems arise because there is little
integration of environment, people and technology. He recommends that physi-
cal space, virtual space and a visual working methodology need to be intercon-
nected in order to enhance collaborative participation and performance for dis-
persed teams (Mateus-Berr 2013).
The process of Design Thinking iteratively passes through stages; the brain-
storming process; time for ideation; prototyping; immediate testing. Between
these iterative phases feedback has an essential part. Iterative phases of Applied
Design Thinking can be compared to the Walt Disney Principles (Dilts 1994):
“Dreamer”, “Critic” and “Realist”: “The Dreamer enabled new ideas and goals to
be formed. The Realist turns the dreamer’s ideas into reality. The Critic is the one
who will filter out any ideas that are too ambitious or not believable” (Wake 2010,


Applying the above methods, students of the seminar “Explorative Design”,

held at the Vienna University of Technology, developed a series of prototypes to
the term free play. The term free play was chosen with the expectation that ex-
amples would diverge from traditional gameplay patterns.
Game design and artistic expression 295

Aufgabe 5: Players are composing music by navigating the

game. The level is composed of two layers, one to change the
background track, the other to trigger predefined samples.

Music pool: Players can drag and drop different instruments

into their “pool” of music. Each plays a unique sample. Speed
and sound effects of the composition can be changed in order
to achieve an individual outcome.

Splash balls: The game is set in a colourless environment. The

player is equipped with balls of different colour that can be
thrown to color surfaces. Splash balls: The game is set in a co-
lourless environment. The player is equipped with balls of dif-
ferent colour that can be thrown to color surfaces.

SensitiveBall: A ball with an integrated mobile phone with

speaker and motion sensor is thrown from person to person.
When the ball’s motion is stopped too abruptly, it “explodes”
making an exploding sound.

Word-Gesture: For each letter the player has to invent a ges-

ture, which can only be used once per game. Players have to
spell words using gestures, while the other players have to
recognise the performed word.

Table 1: Gameplay descriptions of the five prototypes

The resulting prototypes can be categorised into three different groups; musi-
cal play, embodied play and painterly play. These categories are interesting inso-
far as, although only the theme of free play was given, each of them is associated
with activities, which can be found in arts as well. Playing with the SensitiveBall
becomes interesting because of the constraint that it has to be thrown and caught
with extreme care. This one simple and new constraint changed playing with a
ball drastically, and led to players exploring different kinds of interactions within
this well-known kids’ game. More complex poses and gestures in Word-Gesture
are a direct result of players not being allowed to perform the same gestures
twice. The constraint leads to more enjoyable gameplay and interactions be-
tween the players and their environments.
Splash Balls is trying to reframe movement and targeting gameplay of first per-
son shooter games to a peaceful interaction of the players with the environment.
296 Fares Kayali, Naemi Luckner, Ruth Mateus-Berr, Peter Purgathofer

The goal to make a grey city more colourful and attractive seems to be a nice
agenda at first glance, but here the constraint of only being able to fully color
large surfaces restricts creativity.
Music making in Aufgabe 5 is facilitated through restrictions in sample speed,
placement and selection, resulting in an enjoyable end product. Music pool on
the other hand tries to give players more freedom in speed and additional effects
which often leads to bizarre, unsatisfying results. The challenge in these two pro-
totypes is to balance the range of possible expressions in free musical play with
sensible constraints. These constraints ensure a safety net and pleasurable re-
sults. The limitations provide the affordances for players to experiment.


The relationship of mutual dependency between freedom and constraints is

mirrored in the freedom players have in the game vs. the constraints inflicted on
them. Often, adventures or 3D action games are designed so that changes in the
environment place constraints on the players freedom of movement.
Consider for example the series of Zelda (Nintendo EAD 2007-2009) games
on the Nintendo DS. Whenever the player enters a room that holds a miniboss
fight, the door through which she entered closes. This essentially constraints the
freedom of movement of the character in order for her to face the inevitable fight
with the monster. This has become such an iconic moment in the game, that ex-
perienced players can already guess when a passage would have that effect.
The whole puzzle structure of a dungeon in Zelda can be understood as strug-
gle against a long series of cleverly placed barriers restricting the freedom of
movement. By removing one barrier after the other, the player regains the free-
dom to move about and, in the end, to reach the final boss-door in the temple.
When planning something like this, the designers find themselves in a situa-
tion where they have to permanently balance constraints against freedom. Too
much constraints, and the players will feel like they only follow a given path; too
much freedom, and the player will probably feel overwhelmed and lose her goal.
While the balance between these two dimensions can be negotiated, it cannot be
broken at will later in the game. This puts the designer into a conflicted position:
on the one hand, she has to help the player along and at the same time hinder the
player from reaching the goal too easily. Hitting the sweet spot in this conflict is
exactly what can push the play experience into the flow channel.
Rules in games are constraints and allow or prevent possibilities. Squire & Jen-
kins (2003, p25) believe that in the best cases, “the constraints of the game make
flaws in the students’ thinking visible to both teachers and students, enabling stu-
dents to learn from the consequences of their actions. Unlike most academic ex-
periences, where everyone is expected to succeed, we intuitively understand that
Game design and artistic expression 297

games can be won or lost. If a team loses, then members can reflect on the expe-
rience and figure out what went wrong”. The architecture of the game deter-
mines not only the conditions of success, but also the nature of the choices that
need to be taken in order to succeed. Miguel Sicart (2005, p3) says the following
about Lawrence Lessig’s “Code and other Laws of Cyberspace”: “[…] an analog
for architecture regulates behavior in cyberspace – code. The software and hard-
ware that make cyberspace what it is constitute a set of constraints on how you
can behave”. For example in The Sims (Maxis 2008-2013) unhappiness is an unde-
sirable game state. If a Sim experiences difficult and sad situations, the game sys-
tem’s constraints will not allow you to play successfully until the Sim has recov-
ered balance. This is a clear architectural constraint which on the one hand opens
the possibility space to consider various approaches towards achieving happi-
ness, on the other hand it closes the door on exploring the state of unhappiness
itself. Therefore goals of constraints and freedom have to be considered carefully
and should be consciously implemented.
To get a different perspective we can also look at sports video games. In soccer
games the infinite possibilities of movement and shooting a ball are highly ab-
stracted to the constrained input of a game controller. The constrained represen-
tation allows us to easily engage with the game and to design a learning curve that
diverges from that of actually learning to play soccer. After spending time with
the game the abstracted representation furthers an increasing degree of freedom
and complexity to be achieved by new combinations of moves. The same way an
art game like the previously mentioned Electroplankton, which consists of very
constrained and simple sound toys, has been used as an expressive musical in-
strument in live performances.


The role of play and game design in an artistic context has yet to fully explored,
but as a starting point for evaluation we looked at the three categories of musical
play, embodied play and painterly play that we extrapolated from our design ex-
periments. As a common theme we deduced the interplay between freedom and
constraints. One would think that constraints limit players’ possibilities and re-
strict their creativity in the game world, but it also gives them the freedom to feel
safe to explore without restricting themselves to known paths. Constraints pro-
vide a safe space and the necessary affordances for explorative play and experi-
mentation. We can say that arts establish this special context by circumventing
certain conventions of games (such as clear goals) while at the same relying on
some of the same concepts in their design. In art games these are constraints,
which shall contribute to freedom of expression, but ensure pleasurable results.
At the same time constraints have to be picked carefully to prevent restricting
298 Fares Kayali, Naemi Luckner, Ruth Mateus-Berr, Peter Purgathofer

player experience in unintended ways. We identified the methods of explorative

design and design thinking as feasible ways to both design artful game experienc-
es and to draw research results.
We conclude that constraints play a big role in the game design process and
can lead to tighter and more focused results. Freedom and constraints are not an-
tagonists in the context of free play when designing games or art games in partic-
ular. Instead, well designed constraints form the basis for creating safe and em-
powering and thus potentially expressive game structures.


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


Seminar students: Beer, Podskubka, Schindler, Hartl, Tiefenbacher, Gronald,

Huber, Ringsmuth, Adegeye, Czekierski, Ramsauer, Leichtfried, Holper & Hödl-

Veli-Matti Karhulahti
Turku, Finland

Videogame as avant-garde:
Secluded rhematic expression


This article shows how the single player videogame is by its very nature in
conflict with the institution of art, and paradoxically, because of that cannot
avoid becoming art itself. First, the article shows that the defining aesthetic of
the videogame–its kinesthetically charged ludic rhematic–has very little in
common with the meaning-centered aesthetic norms that dominate the art
world. Second, the article shows how the secluded nature of expressive video-
game play contravenes the concept of art reception. These conflicts force art to
reinvestigate itself through the videogame. That makes the videogame avant-
garde, for a moment.


The media themselves are the avant-garde of our society. Avant-garde no longer
exists in painting and music, it’s the media themselves. (McLuhan 1973, 274)

As for game studies, the plurality of efforts to defend the videogame as art
functions as an implication of its art historical unsophistication. Discoveries in
art–practice or theory–are outcomes of attack, not defense. In accordance with
the above, the premise of this article is that the numerous failures to connect the
videogame to art theoretical discussion are results of poor strategy; and that the
videogame involves art theoretically important aspects that can be revealed with
a refined strategy.
The present treatise is limited to the single player videogame, and all future
references to the videogame should be read with this limitation in mind.
The following two sections will show how the videogame is by its very nature
in conflict with the institution of art, and because of that cannot avoid integrating
into its antagonist’s domain. What makes the videogame the most aggressive
302 Veli-Matti Karhulahti

contemporary species of culture in relation to art is that it questions two funda-

mental artistic norms at one time: meaning and reception. The former is the sub-
ject of the first section. The latter is the subject of the second section.

Rhematic expression

This section will show how the aesthetic of the videogame is not a reconstruc-
tion of meaning but a physical attack against the idea of art as an interpreting in-
stitution. The point of departure is Markku Eskelinen (2001), one of the few ear-
ly critics perceptive enough to mistrust the prevailing standard when it comes to
videogame aesthetics:

There's no guarantee whatsoever that the aesthetic traditions of the West are rel-
evant to game studies in general and computer game studies in particular.

As the pioneering work of Andrew Darley (2000) had suggested a year before,
the aesthetic peculiarity of the videogame has indeed very little to do with the
hermeneutic hegemony of the presently dominating conceptions of art. The core
videogame aesthetic lies in the kinesthetically charged manipulation of the prod-
uct, not in the product’s meaning-seeking interpretation.
The second notable step in understanding the videogame as an artistic phe-
nomenon was taken by Graeme Kirkpatrick (2011). His seminal contribution was
to embody the sensually excessive but hermeneutically deprived videogame play
in the aesthetics of performative expression:

The combination of expressive performance and restraint necessary to play a game

well determines an aesthetic experience that is not contained within any kind of
sense-meaning; it is more akin to playing a musical instrument. (p. 7)

By ‘sense-meaning’ Kirkpatrick refers specifically to the meaning-seeking tra-

ditions of “interpretation that predominate in cultural studies” (p. 8) and not to
the bodily sensation that defines the ludic performance. The aesthetic of the vid-
eogame is connected to other arts solely by its expressive nature.
The expressive nature of videogame play cannot be explained by previous art
theories. Expressions of Tetris (Pajitnov 1984) players do not surface as tetromi-
no constructs that cohere with the players’ thematic interpretations but as play
styles that cohere with the players’ ludic personalities. One takes risk; another
plays safe; third has an inimitable tactic of her own. The way in which players ex-
ecute their play styles are the actualizations of ludic expression that is an entirely
different expressive mode than those of actors, dancers, and other performative
artists (which are not analogous either). Ludic expressions exist in a different
Videogame as avant-garde: Secluded rhematic expression 303

conceptual sphere from the conventional expressions of art because they are mo-
tivated by the player’s inducing configuration. If not, the player does no more
The evident counter argument claims that the expressions that occur in video-
game play are not actually those of the player but those of the meaning-convey-
ing game designer (see Bogost 2007). This observation is both valid and invalid.
While the material game object can be considered an art product with a domain
of designed meaning-filled expressions that actualize in the player’s performance,
the videogame contains not only one expressive agent but two: the player and
the designer. Videogame play may evoke the designer’s meaning-filled expres-
sions, but the expressions of the player that occur in her or his performance are
essentially meaningless due to the ludic nature of the activity.
In a recent study Veli-Matti Karhulahti (2013) separates meaning-centered
aesthetics from sensation-centered rhematics, the latter of which he argues as the
most productive approach for conceptualizing the videogame’s aesthetic and

Negotiations players have with games can be referred to (or given meaning) as
‘conflicts,’ ‘fights,’ ‘struggles,’ et cetera, yet these are not meanings in a thematic
sense. While semiotic context may, and often does, charge these negotiations with
thematic potential, an actualization of that potential is optional in terms of persua-
sive success. In this sense … gaming is fundamentally empty in meaning, a rhematic.

Here the adage, often credited to Steven Spielberg, that videogames become
art at the moment when they make the player cry is an oxymoron. Videogame art
is defined not by emotional thematics but by carnal rhematics. At the moment
when a videogame makes its player cry the videogame is no more a videogame
but a storygame (or more accurately, its aesthetic effects are no more those of the
videogame). It is no coincidence that Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream 2010) and The
Walking Dead (Telltale 2012) are the games the gameness of which is the most
equivocal: in these works the dominance of theme over rheme is evident. It is the
depth of the anti-thematic rhematic that functions as the indicator of the object’s
ludic identity.
The rhematic aesthetic is not a sole property of the videogame but is found in
various forms of sensually excessive culture, all which derive ultimately from the
seventeenth-century Baroque (see Ndanialis 2004; cf. Sihvonen 2011). Along
with the effects of the blockbuster film, the live concert spectacle, and the theme
park ride the videogame’s ludic rhematic is the overgrown offspring of the epoch
the primary art of which was to overwhelm the spectator on all possible sensory
levels. What separates the ludic rhematic from its predecessors is the physically
active position through which the spectator is invited to generate the meaning-
less content itself.
304 Veli-Matti Karhulahti

This performative position of the videogame player is not to be confused with

the positions provided by happenings, performances, and interactive artworks
that invite the audience to participate. When one takes part to a Marina
Abramović performance by sitting with the artist in a room, or to a Rirkrit Tira-
vanija installation by cooking in the provided environment, she or he enters a so-
cially recognized artistic organism in a literal sense. Due to the secluded context
of its reception, the videogame, in turn, offers participation only as a metaphor.
Its ludic performance, on the other hand, is most tangible; uncorrupted by the
hermeneutic expectations of the art world; conceiving a sensually bursting rhe-
matic experience the aesthetic of which cannot be made know by signs.
It is the dual expression of the videogame that poses a critical challenge to art
as an institution that is founded on the distinction between the creative artist and
the receptive audience. The videogame–both a designed material product and an
expressive rhematic performance–cannot be discussed in the conventional terms
of ‘artist’ and ‘audience.’ While philosophies that question the distinction are not
utterly nonexistent (above all Dewey 1934), the history knows no previous phe-
nomenon with such vastness of cultural impact that could be considered a seri-
ous ratification for the claim. After the videogame art needs to redefine itself.
That is not mere art, but avant-garde art.

Secluded expression

The present section will show how the secluded context of videogame play vi-
olates the concept of art reception, thereby forcing art to reinvestigate its con-
ceptual borders. The constitutive statement is this: Tetris in a museum is not art.
Tetris at home is avant-garde art.
In an otherwise trivial contribution Karhulahti (2012; cf. 2013) makes a worth-
while comment concerning the expressive distinctiveness of videogame play in
relation to art:

Whereas the expressive power of Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain (1917) was
based on shocking the era’s institutional art norms by means of showing, single
player videogames encourage players to perform for themselves … A single player
game is first and foremost a personal experience, which does not have to be shown.

To simplify: it is not important what videogame one plays; it is important that

one plays it alone. What makes the player’s ludic performance exceptional from
art’s point of view is that its instrumental aims are purely hedonistic by defini-
tion. Players play for pleasure. The private activity is exercised for the sole fact
that it serves the sensual desires of the performer (not unlike pornography). This
coheres perfectly with the “increasing individualization of human life that has oc-
Videogame as avant-garde: Secluded rhematic expression 305

curred throughout the past five hundred years of Western history” (Sutton-Smith
1997, p. 175).
The meaningless engagement with the ludic rhematic is both addictive and
aesthetic, and so becomes the decisive solution to the quandary of contemporary
art that has so far been unable to satisfy the privatized needs of the modern-day
consumer. As notes Eskelinen (2012), both modernism and postmodernism

are often understood as reflecting and running parallel to the increasing emphasis
upon individuality in western societies, and if that is the case, then extremely per-
sonalized ergodic experiences [videogame play as the most prominent instance]
will fit nicely into that continuum (p. 359)

At this point it becomes necessary to visit the relationship between the video-
game and sports. Sports, after all, have been providing the humankind with ex-
tremely personalized sensual experiences as long as culture has existed. For cur-
rent purposes more important than their formal similarities is the fact that the
single player videogame is unquestionably a genuine “anomaly in the eons-old
history of gaming” (Salen & Zimmerman 2003, p. 462). The pre-video game, in
other words, was more or less synonymous with social play.
In the same way as the asocial videogame ended up restructuring the general
understanding of ‘game,’ it will also restructure the general understanding of the
relations between ‘artist,’ ‘audience,’ and ‘expression.’
Videogame play is expressive performance with no other audience but the
performer itself. That expressive performance cannot, however, be derived sim-
ply from an independent artist-audience–that hybridization would tear down all
conceptual borders between artistic performance and mundane action. The vid-
eogame player expresses, but only as an audience, for there is also an expressive
artist, the game designer, who has designed the play-enabling product. It is the
designer that makes the player the audience. And it is the videogame that
amounts to the first significant medium that designs means for individual expres-
sion for the individuals themselves.
But the videogame is not of artistic significance as long as the art world ac-
knowledges it as such, declares the present-day critic. How primitive!, laughs
the future historian. It is precisely the videogame’s unawareness of its own ar-
tistic identity that makes it of significance to art. This significance will eventu-
ally wear out, true, but before that it functions as the exact substance of the
avant-garde which reflects the society of our time more clearly that any other
present cultural phenomena. Just as modern art became real because it reject-
ed realism, the videogame becomes avant-garde because it disavows art. Recall
Johan Huizinga (1955):
306 Veli-Matti Karhulahti

One is tempted to feel, as we felt about music, that it was a blessing for art to be
largely unconscious of its high purport and the beauty it creates. When art becomes
self-conscious, that is, conscious of its own grace, it is apt to lose something of its
eternal child-like innocence. (p. 202)

Enjoy the art while it lasts.


The videogame is avant-garde. It will take time for art critics to realize this;
and when it happens, the observation is already out of date.


This article was heavily influenced by many inspiring discussions with Olli


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gital Creativity, 23 (3–4), p. 260–271.
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Games cited

Heavy Rain (2010). Quantic Dream. PS3.

Tetris (1984). Alexey Pajitnov. Many platforms.
The Walking Dead (2012). Telltale Games. Mac, PC, PS3, Xbox360.

Jens M. Stober, Karlsruhe, Germany

Steffen P. Walz, Melbourne, Australia
Jussi Holopainen, Karlsruhe, Germany

Hacking as a playful strategy for designing

artistic games


Hacking is an ambiguous term. Over the past 50 years, its meaning has been
constantly expanded and refined, filtered through several disciplines from diver-
gent fields of application such as, for example, technology, computers, media,
art, design, games and more. First used to describe a playful strategy employed
to solve a problem, the term hacking now connotes an illicit behaviour in cyber-
space. Today, the common perception is that hackers are rule-breakers and sys-
tem-intruders who seek to do damage or even commit acts of war. In truth, hack-
ers helped transform computers from military devices to entertainment devices.
Early hacks consisted of artistic and gameful content such as algorithmic visuali-
sations and interactive programs: that is, games. We can think of this context
swap (military to entertainment) to be the cradle of digital games and digital art.
This paper will trace the history of hacking as a design strategy for artistic games
and look for creative strategies contained within the act of hacking itself.


Although hacking has appeared in many different technological contexts since

the beginning of the 20th century (Levy 2010), it is particularly strongly connect-
ed with the origin and development of digital games. In the late 1950s and early
1960s, the first hackers from the Tech Model Railway Club (TMRC) at the Mas-
sachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created playful programs by carefully
examining the upcoming digital computing hardware. In addition to software
fundamentals such as compilers and debuggers, these pioneers also developed
the first computer games. They used the same term to describe all of their activi-
ties – “hacking” (Levy 2010, p. 10). Although they worked within tight hardware
constraints, these researchers approached the development of games with a play-
ful disposition, a “wild pleasure” (Levy 2010, p. 10).
Hacking as a playful strategy for designing artistic games 309

Approaches to researching hacking can be derived from for example Claus

Pias (2002). He researches computer games by exploring the history of comput-
ers and delving into closely associated fields such as philology, art history, sci-
ence of history, communication engineering, economics and communication
studies. Together these fields create an as yet undefined space in which hacking
exists. Pias (2002) and others have argued that computers and games share deep
structural similarities – so much so that the ongoing computerisation of everyday
life by very definition implies an attendant “ludofication of society” (Walz 2006).
As literature demonstrates, the idea of hacking as a historically rooted strategy for
systematically designing games has not yet been explicitly discussed in the re-
search, nor have the ways in which we can learn from hacking strategies to make
new games or achieve certain artistic goals.
Hacking, after all, is an ambiguous term and thus also an ambiguous research
subject. Consider The Jargon File, a compendium of hacker slang that sheds light
on the many aspects of hacking (The Jargon File 4.4.8). The sheer breadth of ap-
proaches to and views of hacking is a reminder of the varying rhetorics of “play”
and thus the inherent ambiguity of play, as identified and discussed extensively
by Sutton-Smith (1997).
One thing we can state for certain: the understanding of the term hacking var-
ies from discipline to discipline and field to field. But whatever its specific defini-
tion, hacking is involved in nearly all areas of our daily life thanks to the ubiquity
of modern computing. Hacking as a design strategy can be found in several cre-
ative disciplines including art, architecture and product design (Schwingeler
2012; Schmidt 2011; ikeahackers 2013). Though its precise definition depends on
both the discipline by which it is adopted and the ends it is intended to serve;
“one might be an astronomy hacker, for example” (The Jargon File 4.4.8).
Hacking, as briefly outlined above lies also at the heart of digital games. Hack-
ing culture has always been closely related to game design. This research will thus
serve as an addition to existing game design research and help explicate the im-
portant role hacking has played and will continue to play in the evolution of digi-
tal games. The design strategies extracted from hacking will help reconnect cur-
rent game design to its hacking roots. This paper will demonstrate the many cor-
relations between the two fields and shed light on their shared origin.

Literature review

The following Literature Review will reveal different approaches to ambigu-

ous fields of hacking done by several authors such as Huizinga (1950), Consalvo
(2007), Schwingeler (2012), Raymond (2013), Levy (2010) and Pias (2002).
These approaches include, for instance, the relationship between hacking games
and game cheating as well as the arts. Further broader perspectives such as ency-
310 Jens M Stober, Steffen P Walz, Jussi Holopainen

clopaedic, historical and media archaeological are outlined. This review helps to
later extract strategic design elements from hacking.
Cheating in digital games is defined as the use of in-built possibilities to gain
advantage within the rules of play. A cheater is limited by the possibilities of in-
teraction dictated by the game and provided by the game rules. Rules are an es-
sential part of games. As Huizinga explains in Homo Ludens, “as soon as the rules
are transgressed, the whole play-world collapses. The game is over” (Huizinga
1950, p. 11). Huizinga defines the play-world as the “magic circle”, a space created
by a game, separate from the space of everyday life, which includes specified
rules that create order. “These rules in their turn are a very important factor in
the play-concept. All play has its rules. They determine what ‘holds’ in the tem-
porary world circumscribed by play. The rules are absolutely binding and allow
no doubt” (Huizinga 1950, p. 11). Consalvo (2007) by comparison explores differ-
ent forms of cheating, focussing especially on what drives players to cheat: “The
player is gaining more enjoyment from the game, in a variety of ways [by using
cheats]” (Consalvo 2007, p. 104). She goes on to describe the particular motiva-
tion of such players in detail.
Hacking is related to the history of art and philosophy, particularly in the
1950s, but also to newer disciplines like media art and game art. Schwingeler
(2012) offers a very thorough examination of hacking in an art context – that is,
hacking as an artistic practice used to create games. He presents four artistic
strategies for handling the “material of computer games” and offers several exam-
ples of artworks that have been made using them (Schwingeler 2012, p. 61, trans-
lated from the German). The first strategy is to fashion a “new decoration of the
material” (Schwingeler 2012, p. 62, translated from the German) as a way to mod-
ify the given system (i.e. game) and its audio-visual appearance. One example of
this strategy is the Total Conversion of the game DOOM (id Software 1995)
named Arsdoom (1995) by Orhan Kipcak and Reini Urban, shown in Figure (1).
The venue of the media art festival Ars Electronica serves as virtual play space.
The second strategy identified by Schwingeler (2012) is the “reduction and ab-
straction of the material” (Schwingeler 2012, p. 63, translated from the German)
as executed, for example, in games like Super Mario Clouds (2002) by Cory Ar-
cangels, shown in Figure (2). The artist did remove specific elements of the game
Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo 1985) with the exception of moving clouds and the
Hacking as a playful strategy for designing artistic games 311

Figure 1 – Arsdoom (1995)

Figure 2 – Super Mario Clouds (2002)

The third strategy is the “modification of game rules and non-game-conform

acts in the material itself ” (Schwingeler 2012, p. 63, translated from the German).
A good example of this approach is Velvet-Strike (2001) by Anne-Marie Schleiner
and Joan Leandre, shown in Figure (3). Thereby pacifistic images where put into
the First Person Shooter game modification Counter-Strike (1999).
312 Jens M Stober, Steffen P Walz, Jussi Holopainen

Figure 3 – Velvet-Strike (2001)

The fourth and last strategy is the “disruption of the material to the point of
unplayability” (Schwingeler 2012, p. 63, translated from the German), which can
be seen in Jodi’s SOD (1999), shown in Figure (4). It is a modification of Wolfens-
tein 3D (iD Software 1992) and transforms the visual appearance of the game ab-

Figure 4 – SOD (1999)

Hacking as a playful strategy for designing artistic games 313

In The Jargon File, Raymond collects definitions and terms in order to provide
an overview of hacking in the form of an online encyclopaedia. He describes it as
“a comprehensive compendium of hacker slang illuminating many aspects of
hackish tradition, folklore, and humor” (The Jargon File 4.4.8). A search in this
compendium for the term hacker yields no less than eight primary definitions.
The first five definitions are variations of the basic fact that hackers are able to
program programmable systems. To varying degrees, they also emphasise the
hacker’s enthusiasm for programming. In his third definition, Raymond address-
es the capability “of appreciating hack value,” which he explains using the exam-
ple of the display hack – that is, a method to compute hack value (The Jargon File
4.4.8). He points specifically to Munching Squares (1962), a display hack created
on the DEC PDP-1 that “employs a trivial computation (...) to produce an im-
pressive display of moving and growing squares that devour the screen” (The Jar-
gon File 4.4.8).

Figure 5 – Munching Squares (1962)

Definitions six and seven of the term hacker extend the sphere of hacker activ-
ity from action executed on a computer to any type of expertise motivated by
“the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limita-
tions” (The Jargon File 4.4.8). The last definition is pejorative; it describes a hack-
er as “a malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking
around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense
is cracker” (The Jargon File 4.4.8).
Levy (2010) defined the hacker ethic in his 1984 book, Hackers: Heroes of the
Computer Revolution, which explored the birth of hacking. Reissued in 2010 with
updated material, it chronicles pathbreaking developments and the people who
made them as well as exploring the hacking culture that grew up around them
over the past 60 years. The book is the only source that provides a historical per-
spective on hackers and their evolution from improvers of model railroads to cre-
ative manipulators of military computer technology. Levy (2010) defines a hack
as “a project undertaken or a product built not solely to fulfil some constructive
314 Jens M Stober, Steffen P Walz, Jussi Holopainen

goal, but with some wild pleasure taken in mere involvement.” He further ex-
plains that to qualify as hacking, “the feat must be imbued with innovation, style,
and technical virtuosity” (Levy 2010, p. 10). As formulated by Levy, the hacker
ethic consists of the following six principles:
1. “Access to computers – and anything that might teach you something about
the way the world works – should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the
Hands-On Imperative!” (Levy 2010, p. 28).
2. “All information should be free” (Levy 2010, p. 28).
3. “Mistrust authority – promote decentralization” (Levy 2010, p. 29).
4. “Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as de-
grees, age, race, or position” (Levy 2010, p. 31).
5. “You can create art and beauty on a computer” (Levy 2010, p. 31).
6. “Computers can change your life for the better” (Levy 2010, p. 34).

The hacker ethic listed above cites according to which a “true” hacker should
act, from creatively using computers beyond their intended context to producing
art and beauty to manipulating computers so that they can improve peoples’
lives. This ethic is not, however, tied exclusively to those who hack computers.
Media theoretician and historian Pias (2002) places hacking in a broader phil-
osophical and art historical context. According to Pias (2002), computers are di-
rectly linked to hackers and the act of hacking. Hackers owe their existence to
computer technology. The hacker’s “historical condition of possibility is the dig-
ital data processor as universal machine for play” (Pias 2002a, p. 254, translated
from the German). He is also comparing hacking to appropriation art in that
both rely heavily on recontextualisation. The best known representative of this
art form is Marcel Duchamp, who first gained fame for his readymade Fountain
(1917), a common urinal installed in an exhibition space in clear breach of the
rules governing traditional museum etiquette. Pias (2013) also cites Guy Debord’s
concept of détournement as relevant to the discussion of hacker culture along
with the notion of umwidmung as employed by Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benja-
min (Pias 2013, p. 2).


In this section, the four design methods and/or elements such as addition, ap-
propriation, expansion and disruption discovered in the historical examination
of hacking will be listed, explained, defined and discussed.
Hacking as a playful strategy for designing artistic games 315


Hackers and computers are linked historically with games and play. The first
programs written by hackers at MIT in the early 1960s for machines like the
TX-0 or the DEC PDP-1 were games. These games – which their creators re-
ferred to as hacks – were developed by playfully designing code. From the very
start, hackers were users who began to “tinker, ( do with multi-million dol-
lar equipment precisely what you weren’t supposed to do with it: create starry
skies and calculators, typewriters and lighting consoles, flyers and musical in-
struments” (Pias 2013, p. 1, translated from the German). Hacking is “technical
virtuosity and informatical elegance” (Pias 2002b, p. 80, translated from the Ger-
man). The original hackers became interested in this so called “expensive type-
writer” without any knowledge of how to use it; this was the hour of birth of the
“digital” hacker. “The students were no longer part of that war generation of
mathematicians, physicists and electrical engineers who had built the computer
as a ‘tool,’ but were rather, in a literal sense, ‘users’ of an existing hardware” (Pias
2002b, p. 80, translated from the German). This shift in use and context opened
up a whole new playground for the hackers, who were deeply excited by the tech-
nology. As early innovators they started working and experimenting and playing
around with code on this machines and went on to develop stunning programs
and games like Spacewar! (Steve Russel et. al 1962).
Before hackers gained access to the TX-0 or the DEC PDP-1 computer, the
hackers as part of the TMRC were concerned mostly with the technological im-
provement of model railroads, their primary interest and passion. By adding
parts gleaned from different technologies, they were essentially hacking the ex-
isting technological base. This type of behaviour constitutes the first design strat-
egy employed by the MIT hackers of the late 1950s and will from here on out be
referred to as addition. When they got in touch with the first programmable com-
puters these early hackers transformed their enthusiasm for improving model
railroads into a playful design strategy. Because they did not understand comput-
ers as military machines as the inventors did, they started to play around with
them and, in the process, discover their other powers and potential uses. Ever
since the first hackers got in touch with programmable computers, hacking has
referred to the act of playfully designing code. When this code is run, it’s called a
program, so that the program itself is called a hack. The implicit rules of pro-
gramming hacks were set to paper in the hacker ethic described by Levy (2010).
Designing the hacks – mostly games like the famous Spacewar! (Steve Russel et.
al 1962) – was a “wild pleasure” (Levy 1984, p. 10) for those who did it. The com-
puter changed the lives of the TMRC hackers at MIT; the sixth and last tenet of
the hacker ethic is based on the belief that computers can also change the lives of
others. Accordingly, Levy (2010) compares the computer to a mythical object
316 Jens M Stober, Steffen P Walz, Jussi Holopainen

that can fulfil virtually all desires: “like Aladdin’s lamp, you could get it to do your
bidding” (Levy 2010, p. 34). Using the power of the computer as their tool, hack-
ers have also the ability to enhance and improve life.


Spacewar! (Steve Russel et. al 1962) was first presented to the public at the an-
nual MIT Open House in May 1962, when the TMRC hackers set up a display to
exhibit their work on an oscilloscope. The hackers were successful in their efforts
to expand the function of computers into the entertainment sphere (cf. Pias
(2002)). As a result, they were able to present the technology of digital comput-
ers to the public in a different, non-military context. From that time on, the com-
puter was no longer perceived as an indefinable technological oddity. The recon-
textualisation of the technology transformed the computer from a war machine
into an entertainment machine. The hacks of the MIT students provided the ma-
chine with new content, and this content, in turn, drove the development of the
machine. Inspired by the pleasure of playing with a new technology, the hackers
built programs that helped that technology evolve. Over time, they grew more
and more aware of how important their work was becoming. Pias (2013) com-
pares their act of recontextualisation with appropriation art. It is precisely this
act of recontextualisation that constitutes hacking’s second design strategy: ap-
Pias (2013) also discusses the evolution of computer games since the 1970s in
relation to the mainstream perception of hacking. “Computer games first had to
be professionalised and commercialised, commodified and protected, so that
they could be appropriated” (Pias 2013, p. 2, translated from the German). He
goes on to compare commercialised (modern) games to the original hardware
available to MIT hackers, both of which were borne of enormous effort. Because
in both cases the user knows exactly what to do with what’s in front of him, Pias
(2013) considers both game and hardware as an “offer for misapplication” (Pias
2013, p. 2, translated from the German). Pias’ (2013) regard to Guy Debord’s dé-
tournement in thoughts of hackers is not unique; Morgana (2010) asserts that
“détournement is also central to hacker culture; taking stuff and making stuff do
things it wasn't meant to do. By modding, hacking, exploiting and other strate-
gies of intervention, artists, game designers and players have responded to the
preset game limits and other practical and creative boundaries” (Morgana 2010,
p. 7-8). As these examples demonstrate and Erickson (1977) explains, the early
hackers understood their actions in relation to art: “the original hackers found
splendor [sic] and elegance in the conventionally dry sciences of math and elec-
tronics. They saw programming as a form of artistic expression and the computer
as an instrument of that art” (Erickson 1977, p. 2).
Hacking as a playful strategy for designing artistic games 317


Though the spirit of the hacker ethic may hold true in non-technological con-
texts, the ethic as outlined by Levy (2010) refers very explicitly to computers as
the hacker’s tool. Pias (2002) presents a broader technological classification of
hackers. “The hacker is not a trained technician or programmer, but someone
who gathers his own knowledge. He is disrespectful towards arbitrary rules and
programs, system administrators and contexts of use” (Pias 2002a, p. 254, trans-
lated from the German). In his eyes, a hacker is limited not by his actions, but by
the boundaries established by the technology he uses – that is, by an “absolute
frontier” (Pias 2002a, p. 254, translated from the German). He goes on to assert
that in his “innermost impulse, [a hacker] is a player” (Pias 2002a, p. 254, trans-
lated from the German).
By their actions, hackers were able to expand their field of operation to sys-
tems with new layers of possibilities. By competing with computer systems and
its boundaries, they were able to create tools and open up new dimensions of in-
teraction. At the same time they were forced to confront ever tightening bound-
aries as the software security industry became larger and stronger. But it was not
just the software security industry. Many other intervening forces influenced the
evolution of the hacker. As Pias (2002) explains, the boundaries that hackers
come up against – and, when successful, transgress – are often created by hackers
themselves (Pias 2002a, p. 262). The demands of ongoing invention and confron-
tation require hackers to expand their field of operation. They must find new
ways of interacting with the boundaries they are constantly pushing. To confront
these boundaries, they must expand their current sphere of activity. This third
design strategy of hacking will be referred as expansion. By devising and employ-
ing an expanded toolset, a hacker is able to think in several dimensions and there-
by playfully challenge existing barriers.
The act of expansion can be found during the development of the game Space-
ware! (Steve Russel et. al 1962). “The advantage that a world created by a com-
puter program had over the real world was that you could fix a dire problem like
faulty torpedoes just by changing a few instructions” (Levy 2010, p. 52). The re-
sult was a game made possible by the extended boundaries achieved by the hack-
ers of the DEC PDP-1.


One possible way to overcome boundaries is to commit an illicit act. In the

modern imagination, the hacker is usually a malicious genius who illegally infil-
trates a digital system in order to steal information, manipulate the system, do
damage or even commit an act of war. According to Raymond (2013) this type of
318 Jens M Stober, Steffen P Walz, Jussi Holopainen

person is more accurately described as a cracker, not a hacker. There is no easy

way to differentiate between the two unless the person in question is clearly fol-
lowing the hacker ethic defined by Levy (2010). In any case, Raymond (2013)
goes on to say, “cracking for fun and exploration is ethically OK as long as the
cracker commits no theft, vandalism, or breach of confidentiality” (The Jargon
File 4.4.8).
An illicit act is an act of rule-breaking conducted in the spirit of the spoil-sport
as described by Huizinga (1950). Thus if one player acts beyond the rules of play
in order to gain an advantage over other players acting within the rules of play,
that person collapses the play-world. Huizinga (1950) sees this as a more destruc-
tive way than cheating: “The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores
them is a ‘spoil-sport.’ The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player, the
cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still ac-
knowledges the magic circle. Cheats can appear in different ways, but they are al-
ways bound by the rules of the game. A cheater can gain an advantage within
these rules but not overwrite or manipulate them. To gain advantages like those
gained by Huizinga’s (1950) spoil-sport, the player must hack the game using aux-
iliary tools that make it possible to manipulate the game itself by expanding or
nullifying its rules.
The ongoing challenge of overcoming the boundaries of a system forces hack-
ers to break rules in either an ethical or an unethical way. According to Huizinga’s
(1950) spoil-sport, that means hackers are able to transgress the defined rules of
a given system in a way that directly initiates its collapse (Huizinga 1950, p. 11).
Taking a step across a boundary within or beyond a system context provides
hackers with different points of view, thereby opening up countless hitherto un-
imaginable possibilities. Often, there is no need to collapse the system in order to
overcome a boundary, only to disturb it. This type of disruption is comparable to
the artistic strategies described by Schwingeler (2012) – that is, those strategies
that manipulate the “material of computer games” (Schwingeler 2012, p. 61,
translated from the German). Disruption, in other words, is an artistic strategy
that can be used to approach digital games. A strategy for hackers to continually
plumb their alternating boundaries they are constantly pushing. Thus the fourth
strategic design element of hacking will be referred to as disruption.
Figure (6) illustrates as a summary the four extracted strategic design ele-
ments from hacking.
Hacking as a playful strategy for designing artistic games 319

Figure 6 – Extracted Strategic Design Elements of Hacking


The original hackers used computers as their technology and programming as

their tool to create new content for the new machines. Thereby hackers effect a
context shift from military to creative usage. The technology developed by these
early hackers smoothed the way for digital games as we know today. The original
hackers understood the computer not as a calculator to assist in military opera-
tions, but as a machine that could be used to make their dreams come true – a
technological means through which to channel their creativity, whether in the
form of innovative programs or a new form of art.
Hackers created their own content by playfully editing and writing code. This
content consisted either of tools to support the creation process or playable ma-
terial that could be exploited by all users, even those not capable of programming
computers. They created this content by exhausting the limits of technology by
trying to plumb the boundaries dictated by the technology. As a result of discus-
sion and extraction of strategic design elements from hacking we can define in
total four of them. The first element is addition which means the addition of in-
gredients from other technologies. As second one appropriation is defined as
playing technology in a different usage context. The third one is expansion, by
which the expansion of systems with new layers of possibilities is meant. The last
strategic design element of hacking is disruption as an act of breaking defined
rules in an ethical or unethical way.
In his hacker ethic, Levy held that “you can create art and beauty on a com-
puter” (Levy 2010, p. 31) and that “computers can change your life for the better”
(Levy 2010, p. 34). It is precisely this type of thinking that has fired the growing
awareness of the possibilities presented by digital games.
320 Jens M Stober, Steffen P Walz, Jussi Holopainen



Consalvo, M. (2007) Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
Erickson, J. (2008) Hacking: The Art of Exploration. Second Edition ed. San Francisco, CA: No
Starch Press, Introduction
Fullerton, T. (2012). Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games.
2nd ed. CRC Press
Huizinga, J. (1955) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press
ikeahackers (2013) Available at: [Accessed: 26 March 2013]
Levy, S. (2010) Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. First Edition ed. Sebastapol, CA:
Morgana, C. (2010) "Introduction" Artists Re:thinking Games, Ed. Catlow, R., Garret, M., Morgana,
C. Liverpool: FACT / Frutherfield, p. 7-14.
Pias, C. (a) (2002) "Der Hacker.” Grenzverletzer. Ed. Horn E., Kaufmann S., Bröckling, U. Berlin:
Kulturverlag Kadmos
Pias, C. (b) (2002) Computer Spiel Welten. München: sequenzia
Pias, C. (2013) Appropriation Art & Games. Spiele der Verschwendung und der Langeweile. Available
at: [Accessed: 26 March 2013]
Rajagopal, A. (2011) Hacking Design. DesignFile
Raymond, E.S. (2013) The Jargon File 4.4.8. Available at: [Accessed:
26 March 2013]
Schmidt, S.M. (2011) Hacking the City: Interventionen in öffentlichen und kommunikativen Räume.
Göttingen: Edition Folkwang/Steidl
Schwingeler, S. (2012) Störung als künstlerische Strategie: Kunst mit Computerspielen zwischen
Transparenz und Opazität. In: I am Error: Störungen des Computerspiels. Ed. Beil, B., Bojahr, P.,
Hensel, T., Rautzenberg, M., Schwingeler, S., Wolfsteiner, A. Siegen: univseri - Universitätsver-
lag Siegen, p. 61-72.
Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
TATE, Glossary: Appropriation (2013) Available at:
[Accessed: 07 April 2013]
Walz, S.P. (2013) Welcome To My Playce. Available at: [Accessed: 13 April


Figure 1 – Arsdoom (1995):
Figure 2 – Super Mario Clouds (2002):
Figure 3 – Velvet-Strike (2001):
Figure 4 – SOD (1999):
Figure 5 – Munching Squares (1962):
Figure 6 – Extracted Strategic Design Elements
Hacking as a playful strategy for designing artistic games 321

Games cited

Spacewar! (Steve Russel et. al 1962)

DOOM (iD Software 1995)
Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo 1985)
Counter-Strike (Planet Half-Life 1999)
Wolfenstein 3D (iD Software 1992)

Ilaria De Lorenzo
Milan, Italy

The game of dancing a fairy tale


The dancing a fairy tale is an imaginative exercise through the language of

dance. It’s a game of mimicry. It’s an improvisation. In many ways improvisation
by a dancer is very similar to the definition of the playing. Starting from this state-
ment I will go through what these disciplines have or don’t have in common, fo-
cusing on what type of play context is experienced in dancing, which features of
the game become key starting points for the scenes and the physical training of
the dancer as much as the relationship between the player and the dancer.
Through images and words I will explain how the context of playing, with its lan-
guage, rules and meanings, approaches the context of dance and how both of
them catch, within their magic circle, those who experience them, transforming


The game, like dance, collects and passes ineffable and irreducible meanings
of the experience: it is a primary experience, with complete autonomy.
I will go through what dance and play have or don’t have in common, focusing
on what type of play context is experienced in dancing, which features of the
game become key starting points for the scenes and the physical training of the
dancer as much as the relationship between the player and the dancer. I will ex-
plain how the context of playing, with its language, rules and meanings, ap-
proaches the context of dance and how both of them catch, within their magic
circle, those who experience them, transforming them.
The context of game preserves a symbolically separated place, in this place all
the conditions of possibilities unfold and there is a potential opening to the new
and to the change. The condition of separation and isolation to which the context
of the game leads is ensured by a state of not ordinary. In this way the game estab-
lishes itself like a separate place. Hence the comparison with the context of the
dance, the magic circle of the theater scene, meant as a special place and time
The game of dancing a fairy tale 323

which institutes a different quality of presence and which is the same experi-
enced in the game.


Dancing a fairy tale is an imaginative exercise through the language of dance.

It’s a game of mimicry (Caillois, 2000, p.55). It’s an improvisation. It’s also an ex-
perimental exercise of symbolic expressiveness which is usually proposed to
classes of contemporary dance as an activity of guided improvisation. I will refer
to it in order to describe and relate two activities dance and play.
Roger Caillois has divided the world’s games (using that word in its broadest
sense to include every form of pleasurable activity) into four broad classes, de-
pending on the kind of experiences they provide. Agon includes games that have
competition as their main feature, such as most sports and athletic events; Alea is
the class that includes all games of chance, from dice to bingo; Ilinx, or vertigo, is
the name he gives to activities that alter consciousness by scrambling ordinary
perception, such as riding a merry-go-round or skydiving; and Mimicry is the
group of activities in which alternative realities are created, such as dance, the-
atre and the arts in general.
The dancing of a fairy tale is a game with mimicry as its principal component
(Caillois, 2000, p.55): during this playful activity, players transforms themselves
and create a scene.
Mimicry makes us feel as though we are more than what we actually are
through fantasy, pretense and disguise. Our ancestors, as they danced wearing
the masks of their gods, felt a sense of powerful identification with the forces
that ruled the universe. By dressing like a deer, the Yaqui Indian dancers felt at
one with the spirit of the animal they impersonated. Through this exercise of
improvisation dancers try to set up a system to conform with the rules and the
sense they have to experience, out of the ordinary experience. Through danc-
ing a fairy tales dancers want to exert energy, such as muscle strength and
nerve, and try to learn how to change and shape the force. It is important to
point out how the kinesthetic process of the living matter becomes thinking.
The rules are: do not talk, use the language of dance to narrate and follow the
directions of the narrator and music. The choreographer chooses the place and
characters to begin the narration, turns on the music as the lights turn off: now
the play can start.
The narrator-choreographer begins to tell a tale. It starts with an image that
helps dancers to get into the narrative framework. The image, evocative and full
of symbols, creates a world inhabited by dancing bodies; improvisation becomes
the place where symbols, spirits and music come to life in the image. Dance as the
game picks up and hands down ineffable meanings and irreducible experience.
324 Ilaria De Lorenzo

Both dance and play use symbols and fiction. In dance we discover the character-
istics of childhood, play and adventure.
The space-time created while dancing is similar to the one of a game: in the
liminal phase (Turner, 2003, p.105) defined as a magic circle (Huizinga, 2001,
p.204), every performing act happens through the creation of special events, the
experience is condensed and shown in a distilled form. Nothing that happens in
this space looks ordinary. Everything conveyed by the body-mind of the dancer
deserves attention. Also in the game we are illuminated by a special attention, we
are called to a state of tension and excitement that brings the players to a quality
of presence which does not distinguish the thought from the body, the will from
the action. The context of the game keeps us alert and present here and now.
Talking about dance, its symbolic power and its performance aspect, allows
me to think and look at it within the playful aspect and to make connections be-
tween its knowledge and a sort of experience which can be understood through
the body. The time of the dance, as in a game, is the present, the time of the
here and now, with its uniqueness and rituality. Some features of the game be-
come key starting points for the scenes and the physical training of the dancer.
Improvising for a dancer means “promoting the ability to project their exis-
tence within their limits and the bounds of the context”. In many ways impro-
visation by a dancer is very similar to the definition of the playing “playing a
game is voluntarily committing to facing unnecessary obstacles” (Suits, 2005,
p.40). The concrete, imaginative and playful aspects of dance, as well as its own
expressiveness, is displayed through exercises of guided improvisation that in-
clude daily actions. Through improvisation it is possible to learn to think with-
out thinking: one tries to create a coherent program with rules but also with
the sense that one needs to experiment (Graham, 1991, p.25). The creative
thought flows through a sudden disorientation that obliges dancers to reorga-
nize themselves, abandoning what is safe and ordered: that’s what happens
during improvisation exercises.
The game is a free activity, i.e. it is freely decided by the players because it is
not necessary for the fulfillment of basic needs, so it can be selected or omitted.
It’s an activity circumscribed by rules that determine objectives, goals and condi-
tions of possibility of the game itself. The game looks like the realm of fiction and
representation – a simulation activity in which it is allowed to pretend, to dress
up in a protected environment, with time and space separate from ordinary life.
The character of the game and its context is defined by its delimitation in space
and time, as well as by a number of precise explicit and showed rules which can-
not be broken if players don’t want the game to be over or be transformed in
something else. This aspect differentiates the game from the ambivalent and con-
tradictory chaos of life: in its ordered structure is simple settle any dispute be-
cause, in that context, each event is understandable, universally decidable, in-
controvertibly given.
The game of dancing a fairy tale 325

The game is something that happens when a person joins a vitality, a desire to
have fun, to be carefree in a search for order, discipline, control, and can be sup-
ported by one or more of the competition, the randomness , camouflage, the ver-
tigo. It is an activity that engages the man in the sphere of competition and chal-
lenge, and that rule, norm and circumscribes the ground voltage agonal. In dance
there isn’t the ground voltage agonal but there is the same flow. Concentration is
so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant,
or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of
time be- comes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so grati-
fying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what
they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.
What makes these activities conducive to flow is that they were designed to
make optimal experience easier to achieve.
Dancing, like playing, gathers and bequeaths the ineffable and irreducible sig-
nificances of experience. Both dance and games share the use of symbolism and
The world of dance, its context , is similar to the space created in a game where
ordinary life cedes to a system of another order.They have rules that require the
learning of skills, they set up goals, they provide feedback, they make control
possible. They facilitate concentration and involvement by making the activity as
distinct as possible from the so- called “paramount reality” of everyday existence.
The context created by the dance, as week ad the one created by the games, com-
bines spontaneity and planning, seriousness and fun, solitude and togetherness,
freedom and rules. These paradoxes, while one dances, are performed in a well-
defined space-time, experimenting with elements of ourselves and of our rela-
tionship with others, rigorously following rules and styles, proceeding indirectly
towards the unknown.
The same thing is experienced by players during games. Every time a perfor-
mance of dance improvisation comes to life it is like research that breathes (Pina
Bausch, in Wim Wenders, 2011) in the scenic space. A person who plays starts a
simultaneous research to complete what is required to finish what the game re-
quires, this research captures us in its network of rules and constraints. Much as
the enchanted gaze gives sincerity to the playful action, the energy of the per-
former brings authenticity to the scene, making it real to the spectator. (An-
tonacci, 2012a, p.35). Past behaviors of the player are re-awakened, the dancer
immerses himself in the creativity and the performance as much as the player
does while playing: with the qualities of an ecstatic and dreamy child.
The context of playing, with its language, rules and meanings, approaches that
of dance and both of them catch, within their magic circle, those who experience
them, transforming them. Dance is an Optimal Experience. People describe the
common characteristics of optimal experience in this way: a sense that one’s
skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-
326 Ilaria De Lorenzo

bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing.
Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about any-
thing irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and
the sense of time be- comes distorted. An activity that produces such experienc-
es is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little con-
cern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous (Csik-
sezentmihalyi, 2008, p.71).
To describe an optimal experience, we give as examples such activities as
making music, rock climbing, dancing, sailing, chess, and so forth. What makes
these activities conducive to flow is that they were designed to make optimal ex-
perience easier to achieve. They have rules that require the learning of skills, they
set up goals, they provide feedback, they make control possible. They facilitate
concentration and involvement by making the activity as distinct as possible
from the so- called “paramount reality” of everyday existence. For example for
the duration of the event, players and spectators cease to act in terms of common
sense, and concentrate instead on the peculiar reality of the game. Such flow ac-
tivities have as their primary function the provision of enjoyable experiences.
Play, art, ritual, and sports are some examples. Because of the way they are con-
structed, they help participants and spectators achieve an ordered state of mind
that is highly enjoyable (Csiksezentmihalyi, 2008, P. 72). The flow activities pro-
vided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a
new reality. They pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to
previously undreamed of states of consciousness. In short, they transformed the
self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow ac-
tivities such as game and dance (Csiksezentmihalyi,2008,p.73).


Game and dance catch, within their magic circle, those who experience them,
transforming them. The game, like the dance, creates a completely artificial envi-
ronment that may cause real effects. The expressive, communicative and ritual
quality of the context of the game emphasizes its completeness and delimitation:
this makes the game an extraordinary event. To draw common lines between
dancing and playing helped me to tell the multifaceted and complex nature of the
context where the experience of the game takes place. The game is a vital experi-
ence and just like the dance it refers to an area of experience. The game with its
wisdom and its unpredictable metamorphosis is a profound experience of free-
dom. Such as art and dance, the game is the theater of the imagination. The con-
text of the game becomes a space of utopia where there is a time of enchantment,
evasion, gratuity, pleasure and invention. The game is an end in itself, it misleads,
seduces, deceives, leads to a place/context, in which enjoying and having fun.
The game of dancing a fairy tale 327


Antonacci F. (2012a) Puer Ludens, Antimanuale per poeti, funamboli, guerrieri, Angeli, Milano.
Antonacci F. (2012b) a cura di, Corpi radiosi, segnati, sottili. Ultimatum a una pedagogia dal “culo di
pietra”, Angeli, Milano.
Caillois R. (2000) Les Jeux et les Hommes. Le Masque et le vertige (1967), tr. It. I giochi e gli uomini.
La maschera e la vertigine , Bompiani, Milano.
Csikszentmihalyi M. (2008) Flow. The Psycology of Optimal Experience, HarperCollins Publishers
De Lorenzo I. (2012b) Il corpo dell’ombra. La danza come Arte dell’indicibile, in Antonacci F.
(2012b), a cura di, Corpi radiosi, segnati, sottili. Ultimatum a una pedagogia dal “culo di pietra”,
Angeli, Milano.
Giambrone R. (2008) Pina Baush. Le coreografie del viaggio, Ephemeria editrice, Macerata.
Graham M. (1991) Bloody memory, Doubleday, New York.
Huizinga J. (2001) Homo ludens, (1946), Einaudi, Torino.
Suits B. (2005) The Grasshopper: Games, life and Utopia. (1978), Peterborough: Broadview press.
Turner V. (2003) From ritual to theatre. The Human Seriousness of Play, (1982), Dal rito al
teatro, Il Mulino, Bologna.


Pina, director Wim Wenders, 2011


Vienna games conference poster presentation:


Gamers as an postmodern subculture

Bártek, Tomáš
Brno, Czech Republic

This ethnographic study aims at describing the subculture of computer gam-

ing through the observation of participants of an e-sport tournament. I have de-
cided to take a different point of view than TL Taylor’s influential monograph
Raising the Stakes. My point of interest is value system of gamers, therefore theo-
retical framework used to describe the gamers subculture is post-subcuturalism
and posmodern authenticity by British sociologist David Muggleton (who im-
proves the concept of subcultures by Dick Hebdidge). According to this observa-
tion, gamers are apolitical, individualistic and gamers often do not consider
themselves to be gamers at all

Game development in the new brazilian educational context:

A case study on the NAVE project

Ferreira, Emmanoel; Carvalho, Louise; Oliveira, Thaiane

Fluminense, Brazil

Health games often are reduced to present information or changing behaviors,

without considering the contexts that surround their deployment and use. Stud-
ies about teenagers’ reception of information about sexual health in Rio de Janei-
ro revealed their complaints about the dry style of health communication, focus-
ing on clinical issues, disconnected from other parts of life (love, friends, social
status, etc.), which often made them disregard the risk of Aids and STDs.
We are now in the early steps of creating a game about sexual health for poor
teenagers in Rio de Janeiro and based our concept on the Symbolic Market Mod-
el (a communication model). We defined four contexts in game communication:
Vienna games conference poster presentation: Abstracts 329

intertextual refers to other texts/cultural artifacts related with the game; situa-
tional refers to where and how public will use the game; existential refers to per-
sonal characteristics that influence personal approaches to the game and techno-
logical refers to the ability and infrastructure for using digital games.
Interviews with teenagers, teachers, health communication researchers and
professionals provided guidelines for design, grouped in contexts. Technologi-
cal: many teenagers do not own a computer, so a game for health must be play-
able in browser in internet cafes, avoiding installation procedures. Intertextual:
teenagers’ daily life will provide in-game references like school, sports, beach
(important in Rio) and music (even the infamous funk carioca / baile funk genre).
Situational: the game cannot have a normative approach, avoiding clinical and
scientific jargon. Existential: avatar customization will allow players to put them-
selves in the game and humor will balance the seriousness of some issues pre-
sented. These first findings will guide our next steps in the project.

Somebody save me: Evaluating self-sacrifice in digital games

Grande, Kasper; Tamsen, Danny and Jespersen, Lars H.

Copenhagen, Denmark

In popular movie culture, the act of self-sacrifice is not uncommon. Such mo-
ments can help prove the validity of the protagonist’s goal and give the audience
a feeling of identification with or idolization of the protagonist and his/her strug-
gle. Yet, such options are rarely available to playable characters in digital games,
therefore, it is interesting to investigate the difficulties involved with self-sacrifice
in digital games and its effects on player experience and social bonding.
A first-person action game was developed and tested on 16 BSc and MSc stu-
dents. Data was gathered using in-game logs and questionnaires. Results from
the test indicate that perceived difficulty has a significant impact on players’ ex-
perience of the need to self-sacrifice. Participants’ view of the need to self-sacri-
fice varied greatly. This observation indicates that difficulty in a game should be
matched continuously to any players’ skill level. Furthermore, results show that
the formation of a social bond between players was not achieved during the test
period. This could possibly be remedied by longer play sessions and improved
modes of communication between players.
Finally, implementing self-sacrifice becomes problematic because the only
‘true’ sacrifice in a game is the sacrifice of game time spent (or time going to be
spent) playing the game. This could be time spent gathering powerful artifacts or
developing relations with game characters. Such valuable sacrifices would most
likely upset the player. The difficulty lies in ensuring that the positive feeling of

sacrificing something for a person, a cause or ideal would always surpass the neg-
ative feelings of the value lost.

Play versus procedures

Hammar, Emil
Copenhagen, Denmark

Through the theories of play by Gadamer and Henricks, I will show how the
relationship between play and game can be understood as dialectic and disrup-
tive, thus challenging understandings of how the procedures of games determine
player activity and vice versa. As such, I posit some analytical consequences for
understandings of digital games as procedurally fixed. That is, if digital games are
argued to be procedurally fixed and if play is an appropriative and dialectic activ-
ity, then it could be argued that the latter affects and alters the former, and vice
Consequently, if the appointed procedures of a game are no longer fixed and
rigid in their conveyance of meaning, qua the appropriative and dissolving na-
ture of play, then understandings of games as conveying a fixed meaning through
their procedures are inadequate in capturing the complexity of how games con-
vey their meaning to the player and how players interpret and configure this

Ecological concepts in a board game. How to discuss serious

causes using ludic interfaces?

Mastrocola, Vincente Martin

São Paulo, Brazil

In this presentation we seek to analyze the use of game mechanics for serious
causes. We discuss, using a brazilian board game named Climate Game, how we
can use a playful and ludic interface to cast a message for a serious cause and how
a game could work with ideas about global warming in a fun/educational way. In
this context, we use the idea of magic circle proposed by Johan Huizinga, author
of the book Homo Ludens, in which the author explains how a physical space
could be a place for playing, meaning and experience. In this presentation we
also discuss the impact of a ludic interface in the mediatic scenario, the gaming
culture and how important it can be for the contemporary world.
Vienna games conference poster presentation: Abstracts 331

Between seriousness and play: A playful paradigm for

the labs safety

Mocchetti, Alessandro

The project I'm introducing here is part of my thesis at Politecnico di Milano

for the master degree at the school of design. Supervised by Maresa Bertolo (As-
sistant Professor, Design Department, Politecnico di Milano) and Ilaria Mariani
(PhD Student, Design Department, Politecnico di Milano), The Unprepared
project aims to help all the novice students that are trying get the mandatory
qualification to work in an instrumental lab of the university campus.
As a communication designer, the main goal I want to achieve with this proj-
ect is building a tool that can spread the safety culture among the students in an
effective and contemporary way.
To do that, i've designed a Serious Game in which the player must act as the
caring angel of an unvary stickman that approaches an hypothetical design lab
for the first time.I have used as a metaphor the concept of helping an unexperi-
enced character, putting in this category of people all the students that, with un-
safety habits and behaviours, risk to become victims of injuries or dangerous situ-
The game structure consists in two parts. In the first part the player has to lead
the stickman trough a 3D world to find quests related to the labs activities.
The second part is composed by the quests themselves: they are tasks that the
stickman has to solve. By working, the stickman adopts all the possible bad atti-
tudes connected to a workplace.
The student/player has to help the character avoiding him to get hurt, and in-
teracting with him in order to stop his bad habits and choose the right way to do
that specific job.Artistically, the mood of the game opposes a credible and realis-
tic environment to a cartoon-style stickman.I've chosen this solution to avoid the
simulation look and to maintain the player interest focused on the game.

For a journalism of simulation: A study on Brazilian newsgames

da Mota e Silva, Tiago

São Paulo, Brazil

Using the typology of play elaborated by Gonzalo Frasca, the presentation fo-
cuses on a brief analysis of two Brazilian newsgames: Filosofighters (2011) and

Jogo da Máfia (2009), or “Mafia Game”. At first, the system of rules of each game
(goal rules, model rules and meta rules) will be presented, and also how these
systems encourage certain performances and constructions of meanings. The
“playworld”, or the representative universe in the games, is also object of review
in order to investigate the meanings it cultivates. The presentation explores as
well the ways through which the game logic and the game language influence
structural aspects of the newsmaking, of the newsroom and of the way we under-
stand and produce journalistic narratives for this environment – meditating spe-
cifically in how these processes occurs in the brazilian culture and media.

Episodic memory interactive learning (EMIL)

Pfeiffer, Alexander; Traunwieser, Thomas

Krems, Austria

The goal of project EMIL is to invent a neuropsychological training, which

goes beyond short time memory learning and is trying to train episodic memory
functions instead. These memory functions are especially relevant for day-to-day
activities and are known to be impaired in paediatric brain tumour patients and
similar neurological diseases.
To achieve this goal, findings from memory research were embedded in the
game design of EMIL. Besides that, it was also kept in mind to present the con-
tent age-specific. The game is therefore presented with an entertaining back-
ground story. The pink rabbit character and mascot Emil has stolen the children’s
memories and hid them in his rabbit hole. The patients collaborate with the ther-
apist, who also takes over the role of the narrator, to try and get these memories
back. The memories are presented as story cards, which have to be memorized.
The goal of this game design concept is to train various relevant memory func-
tions, like the ability to suppress irrelevant information.
With project EMIL, it is possible for the first time to help children with epi-
sodic memory deficits, to train their memory functions and improve their mem-
ory skills. This is not achieved through mere learning by heart, but, in terms of
gamification, through gaming like mechanisms. At this point a board game pro-
totype was crafted, whose game design implements state-of-the-art findings of
memory sciences and is also entertaining and simply fun to use. This board game,
which was supported through the impulse aws XS sponsorship, is a great basis for
a further development of the game concept as a video game.
Vienna games conference poster presentation: Abstracts 333

Playing with gender. Strategies to raise public awareness about

gender problems through critical games

Prosperi, Valeria
Florence, Italy

This is a consideration about gender stereotypes in culture and games, fo-

cused on ways to insert subversive elements in games: I illustrate my game design
process and strategies used to make players have fun and meditate. It’s a MSc the-
sis project developed at Design School of Milano Politecnico in 2011 (under su-
pervision of professor M. Bertolo and researcher V. De Luca): a theoretical and
practical work concluded designing Rigenerati! (“Re-gender yourself!”) a board
game with the aim of raising public awareness about gender problems.
Because every game carries its own authors vision of the world and ideolo-
gies, games can communicate dissonant messages, stimulating the players to
think with other points of view, simulating complex reality or forcing them into
non pleasant roles.
In Rigenerati! players are committed to climb up a job career, facing the differ-
ent reaction of the game system to men and women while they randomly change
their gender. A different score is required to advance to higher career levels,
there’s a different family area (the card “Unexpected wish to motherhood/father-
hood” makes a woman to stop 2 turns, but men can continue normally), cards
with events have different consequences for man and woman: for example “Good
appearance” card, that a woman can use to automatically pass the interview mo-
ment, “Sweet eyes” card (man can’t use it), “Sexual harassment” card penalize
only women and not men. Adding fun and dilemmas to game play strategical
choises are influenced by the possibility of Gender Exchange occurring in each
Experiencing different treatment and discriminations is a very effective way
to foster empathy (Flanagan, 2009). Game testing sessions highlighted that this
game entertains players and develops their awareness of these issues.

New design strategies for gamification and behavior change:

A framework proposal"

Rao, Valentina
Amsterdam, Netherlands

With the ubiquitous diffusion of gamification systems for behavior change,

persuasive games are taken to a new level. Existing theoretical frameworks based
on the notion of procedural rhetoric don’t consider behavior change dynamics
that are not based on representative systems like gamification, that usually facili-
tates a real life action rather than offering a representation (simulation) of it. This
poster proposes an alternative framework that distinguishes between persuasive
games that employ rhetoric in a representative context, functioning as computer
mediated communication, and games in which instead human computer interac-
tion is direct, to understand the full spectrum of design options in games for be-
havior change.

Möge die Macht mit „Queer“ sein. Gleichgeschlechtliche

Beziehungen in Onlinerollenspielen betrachtet am Beispiel
„Star Wars: The Old Republic“.

Schütz, Elke
Vienna, Austria

Mit Veröffentlichung der Erweiterung „Rise of the Hutt Cartel“ hat der
Spieleentwickler Bioware im Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game
(MMORPG) „Star Wars the Old Republic“ für Spielende die Möglichkeit der
„same sex romance“ geschaffen. Seit dem Frühjahr 2013 haben Spielende auf dem
Planeten „Makeb“ die Möglichkeit, mit ihren Avataren gleichgeschlechtliche
Beziehungen einzugehen. Doch die Möglichkeit der „same sex romance“ auf
„Makeb“ erfuhr lautstarke homophobe Kritik. Das virtuelle Star Wars Imperium,
welches von Diversität geprägt ist, in dem sowohl unterschiedliche Kulturen wie
auch unterschiedliche Geschlechter und Spezien aufeinander treffen, ist somit,
ebenso wie die reale Welt, nicht vor homophoben Äußerungen und homosexuel-
ler Diskriminierung gefeit. Aber gerade der virtuelle Raum könnte Spielende mit
unterschiedlichen Beziehungsformen konfrontieren und dadurch möglicher-
weise homophobe Ansichten dekonstruieren. Weil dort Spielenden der „Raum“
gegeben wird, vielfältigen Beziehungsformen zu begegnen und ebenso unter-
schiedliche Beziehungsformen auszuleben. In diesem Beitrag wird der Versuch
Vienna games conference poster presentation: Abstracts 335

gestartet, die Hintergründe dieser homophoben Äußerungen freizulegen, sowie

die Entstehung von virtueller Diskriminierung gegenüber gleichgeschlechtli-
chen Beziehungen in Onlinerollenspielen mittels der Methode der kritischen
Diskursanalyse darzustellen.

Gaming and three moments: Semiotics, structure and function

of the video game.

Song, Gongpu
Trier, Germany

The hypothesis claims that Rules of Play respectively the Setting can be per-
ceived as a language system. Accordingly every single game in a fictional world as
a discourse and the Player as combiner, speaker and user of symbols.
Video Games are conceived as a system of code with a dual communicative
function, or channels between gamer and system, symbol and action. Every inter-
action constitutes a fulfilling sense (sentence/segment): the gamer as subject, a
fictional world as object and the choice/decision as verb. All playing actions trans-
form themselves in two axes: choice and decision. Like in a language system, the
axis “choice” relates to the paradigmatic relation; and the “decision” relates to the
syntagmatic relation. A situation is the smallest meaning-element in video games,
for example Tetris: Every new building block that appears on the screen challeng-
es the gamer to find an appropriate strategy. Such a situation is the basis of deci-
sion, not only rules nor a fictional world are determining strategies.

The use of myths and archetypes as cultural context for gameplay

Valé, Beatrice
Milano, Italy

My work starts as a research for my Master Degree thesis in Communication

Design, at Politecnico di Milano. I made a comparison between elements that
come from the two fields of studies of Game and Narrative. In particular I fo-
cused my attention on mythical narrations and archetypes, deepening the anal-
ysis of authors such as Joseph Campbell and Chris Vogler about the monomyth
and the “journey of the Hero”; and the Marie-Louise von Franz's Jungian ar-
chetypal theories.
The relation I established between game topics and mythical content becomes

the context for a game that want to stimulate a reflection about the role of multi-
culturalism in our society: myths can be seen and used as a gate to relate our-
selves to different cultures, and the same happens speaking about play, as a social
property shared by cultures all over the world.
The boardgame I've designed is also a tool that want to give players the oppor-
tunity to explore archetypal peculiarities that are unfamiliar to them: the devel-
opment of all the archetypes makes each human being a more complete person.
This could increase flexibility about how to relate with other people, keeping
in exercise social skills, with different approaches to ordinary interpersonal rela-
tionships. In particular the game is designed for situations like those of high
school students, that have to share the same class- room several hours a day.
The game follows the “journey of the Hero”: the Hero here is a NPC, and the
players are separated in two teams: Helpers (Mentor, Ally, Herald) and Adversar-
ies (Guardian, Shapeshifter, Trickster). The first team had to give his support to
the Hero, the latter must obstacle him from reaching the battle with his final op-
ponent. If the Hero succeeds, the World is saved, and the team of the Helpers win.

Vienna games conference game presentation:


The man and the rules

Agosta, Marco
Milano, Italy

Human society is strongly based upon rules, which are directed to regulate the
individual and collective lives of the members of a particular society. Rules are
present in everyday life in many ways. One of these are the conventions, rules
that regulate interpersonal relationships. These rules are arbitrary and implicit,
because they are not transcribed in any institutional document, so they can be
modified, deleted or replaced as time passes by. Even if conventions usually come
as solutions they may create problems; one of these is that the routine of follow-
ing the convention can cause automatism.
I designed for my Msc thesis in Communication Design, (Politecnico di Mila-
no), Sopravvissuti (Survivors) a board game whose aim is to investigate the use of
conventions and the automatism in order to encourage the player to reflect on
the use of rules in everyday life.
The game takes place on a deserted island where a plane crashed, and the goal
is to survive in the best possible way until the arrival of the rescues: this is
achieved through two types of score: on the one hand the well-being level, which
depends on human basic needs; on the other hand, the sociality score, which de-
pends on the respect of social conventions.
To achieve the sociality score players need to follow, in addition to an explicit
and implicit set of rules, an amount of conventions established by the same play-
For a thorough description of the game's mechanics in Frog proceedings in
this contribution: Bertolo M., Mariani I., Meaning ful play: learning, best practi-
ces, reflections through games.
Playtests demonstrate that the narrative setting and the mechanics of the
game can incite the players to think about real conventions in a different way.

Mobile games as a bridge back to the real world

Evan Samek, Harald Eckmüller

New York, USA; Vienna, Austria

Most mobile gaming experiences are limited to manipulating digital pictures

under a pane of glass. This ignores the importances of kinesthetic experience, a
critical component to learning. ChallengeBox delivers educational adventures to
inspire 8-12 year old children to explore real challenges (off-screen, DIY building
projects) until they find their own moments of triumph and rediscover the joy of
learning. We then use data analytics to help them continue their real-world ex-
ploration from their back yard to museums and other places of adventure.

Conflict in play

Angelico, Elisa
Milano, Italy

This project has been proposed as a Master Degree thesis in Communication

Design at Politecnico of Milano and its aim is to improve the collaboration
among working groups. Individuals often compete one against the other even
when they belong to the same organization; the purpose of the project is to in-
vite players to use dialogue and negotiation strategies and to reflect upon the ne-
cessity to rely on others to solve common problems. The project is a multiplayer
game, designed for 12-20 casual players, to be conducted with groups during
working hours, for a five-day week. If they agree to take part in the game, they
will be requested to carry out short games sessions called dialogic battles. Only
through these battles the will be able to achieve useful resources in order to win
the game. The game embraces the working environment and creates a new set
of values which are important into the magic circle of the game. The play experi-
ence might promote socialisation experimenting conflict freely into a fictional
world. Finally, my project includes a narrative format, that is a standard plot to
which different narrative worlds could be applied in order to be reproposed
with different stories. The narration allows to create antagonist groups, which
try to reach the aim before the others. Game mechanics, however encourages
players to come to an agreement, to manage to win the game. The game has
been playtested several times in a day, a short period of time compared to the
predetermined in the standard rules of the game, that is one week. The player
experience has been meaningful and engaging for players.
Vienna games conference game presentation: Abstracts 339

Flugilon – a serious game concerning multilingualism

Christoph Brussmann, Peter Fürst, Milan Orszagh & Eva Mandl

Vienna, Austria

This Serious Game-Concept is the output of a project elaborated at the Dan-

ube-University Krems. The reason for the creation of this game idea is the social
and political debate about the language skills of children and juveniles with a mi-
gration background. Their multilingualism is often not sufficiently supported in
monolingual education, nor recognized as a social resource.
Therefore we want this game, which is designed as a platformer with five lev-
els and a playing time of about 20 minutes, to show the value of languages. We are
using the classic elements of the genre to symbolize the process of learning. The
game could be used in class (i.e. secondary schools) to spark interest in multilin-
gualism, and should help raise awareness for the languages and the diversity in
schools and our society. It is meant to be used in secondary schools, but also in
the education and

A hostile world

Ierardi, Lavinia
Milano, Italy

A hostile world is the output of my M Sc thesis in Communication Design,

School of Design, Politecnico di Milano, supervisors M. Bertolo and I. Mariani.
The ludic activity is a tool able to give to the users a meaningful experience and
to stimulate a critical reflection on defined problems. Th is project aims to sensi-
tise players on the problems of foreign people (coming from different socio - cul-
tural context) who live in our multicultural cities, highlight ing their difficulties.
It fo cuses on the communication difficulties due to the difference of spoken lan-
guages: the goal is to make clear to players what means dealing with simple ac-
tions of everyday life in a foreign language context. The experience allows a self
identification for p layers: A hostile world aims to be a disarming and difficult
game that really leads to experiment the difficulties of being foreigners. P layers
have to interact with actors who play the role of the citizen of a fictional world
and speak an unknown language, the Esperanto, and thus have to obtain some
correct Item Cards. It is a pervasive game, designed to be declined and applied in
various contexts to suit the needs of organizations that want to implement it: it
can be played both in public or private places. The setting in public areas pro-

vides different implications than private spaces ones: such as, the involvement of
non – playing people in an indirect way, which brings greater visibility and great-
er impact of the game. Playtests showed that many players felt a great sense of
awkwardness, although almost all of the players declared that the experience was
fun and exciting. Moreover almost all players confirmed to have better under-
stood the difficulties due to language of foreign people

Implications of involving context in game design,

the case of BraheaMyst

Islas Sedano, Carolina and Vinni, Mikko

Joensuu, Finland

Educational institutions are exploring methods to overcome the distraction of

students with mobile devices and digital games during class. At the central school
in Lieksa, history teachers organized a storytelling workshop utilizing mobile
devices. The storytellers were the pupils and the stories were based on local his-
tory. The purpose of this study is to analyze how fantasy and historical facts are
interwoven in the pupils' stories. Based on a qualitative analysis we observe that
the local context serves as cohesion in the stories, historical facts are proof of the
learning experience, and fantasy promotes the vivid message for the reader.

Choice: Texas

Kocurek, Carly and Whipple, Allyson

Illinois, USA

Choice: Texas is an interactive fiction game based on abortion access in the state
of Texas. Players engage as one of several fictional Texas women as they work to ne-
gotiate the very real legal, geographic, and financial barriers to abortion access. Al-
though the game characters are fictional, both they and the situations they encoun-
ter are based on the state’s actual legislation, demographics, and availability of ser-
vices. The prototype will allow players to engage as one of two characters: Latrice,
a 35-year-old lawyer who lives in Houston with her long-term boyfriend, or Krista,
a high school junior who lives in the Dallas suburbs. In the prototype, players will
follow their character from the point she realizes she is pregnant, through her deci-
sion making process, and her efforts to access an abortion. Choice: Texas is built
using Twine and will be published as a free to play web game.
Vienna games conference game presentation: Abstracts 341

Ein 2D Adventuregame für den Zweitspracherwerb bei


Kruse, Linda
Cologne, Germany

SQUIRREL&BÄR is a 2D adventure game for 3-6-year-old children for touch

devices. Its aim is to playful teach a first foreign language through the means of
digital game-based learning. The game is not your average interactive vocabulary
trainer. It will provide a long lasting jo