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Don't Hate the Player, Don't Hate the Game

Joanna Cuttell, Sociology

Published July 2013

“It's easy to lose sight of things in a world as wide as this one, but if you keep going you are sure to find what you are looking for sooner or later.” To many, gaming evokes an emotional experience akin to that gained from a great movie or novel and this line from Final Fantasy XIII sums up how far game scripts have come from the days of "All your base are belong to us." Joanna Cuttell explains her passion for gaming and her research into immersive playing and gender.

g_lightning-from-final-fantasy-xiii.pngWhy do people play video games? It is the subject of much debate by gamers, critics, developers and also scholars of the emergent field of games studies. Several answers have been posited by the community: we play in order to immerse ourselves in a separate environment—one beyond the cares and stresses of our own lives; we play in order to marvel at the technological spectacle of the latest hardware as presented to us via the ‘gameworld’; we play as a social activity; we play to win.

Some have suggested, however, that people choose to play games not merely as a method of escapism or to view the spectacle of technology, but also because of the emotions video games are able to elicit in the player. Video games, it would seem, are emotionally engaging and relevant in hitherto unexamined ways. A brief examination of websites for gamers clearly reveals the emotion-laden language employed within the community in order to describe the experience of gaming:

“Doing that aerial ballet in Sonic has nothing to do with reaction time, or decision-making or even anticipation. It's pure rhythm, nailing the notes like hitting keys on a piano. And when you do it just right, when you fly through the level and nail all the jumps and boosts and kills, it has to feel like the first time somebody learning an instrument plays a familiar song and makes it sound like the actual song, the beautiful contours of perfection at the command of your own fingers.”

“So when Kai Leng beat me to the punch, when the dawning realization came that they did everything they could to help me and yet I still failed, it broke my heart and my ego... They placed their faith in you and despite the chances of them dying they still went on ahead and got your back. And in the end you failed them all. It really hurt.”
[via geekynikki]

This emotional element of gaming is an under-examined aspect of games studies but it ought to be central. And when you add in recent technological developments, such as Microsoft’s movement-sensing Kinect, the sense in which a gamer might come to be even more emotionally involved in a video game has increased still further. This continual advancement in technology arguably allows the player to become immersed in the game world to an extent previously unattainable. The line between reality and the virtual is becoming increasingly blurred.

The bulk of emotion-based video game research to date has focused on concerns that the public, the government and the media have voiced about gaming. Chief among these concerns is the notion that violent video games might increase player aggression. Psycho-physiological testing—such as skin conductance, facial electromyography, and measuring heart rate—has been used as an indicator of players’ level of arousal. Through measurement of these variables, studies have been able to draw conclusions linking the playing of certain games to a heightened level of aggression. They have also been a means of identifying the occurrence of ‘basic’ emotions such as fear and sadness. Such testing, however, can only reveal a limited view of the spectrum of emotions felt by a player.

Problematically, in the early noughties, the game studies world was split by something that has come to be known as the “narratology-ludology divide.” This debate centred on whether the study of a game’s narrative elements (the story arc, the character development, the visual appearance of the worlds, etc) can reveal anything meaningful without also studying what Jesper Juul termed “gameness;” that which makes a game a game (an interface, rules, rewards, difficulty and the game’s artificial intelligence).

This debate, though seemingly resolved through an understanding of the need to assess all areas of a game (both mechanic and narrative), is still worth bearing in mind when we come to assess the emotions which can be elicited by a game. It is clear that the narrative and visual elements of a game are able to produce affects and emotions as with a novel, a film or other types of media. Yet in order to assess what a game can do for a player which a novel cannot do for a reader, we have to turn to other areas of examination—namely, the game mechanics. In short, it is insufficient to treat a video game as though it is merely a composite of other, better-understood forms of media.

Studies which seek to include an examination of game mechanics have sought to provide discrete categorisation of emotions based around gameplay; that is, they assess game events, objects, and agents in order to identify which emotions necessary to the playing experience are specifically evoked. This has proved to be a useful tool for game designers and developers who wish to imbue their games with an emotional experience. However, the explanation of exactly why and how these emotions are elicited has yet to be provided, and studying the nuanced relationship that exists between the interactivity of the game and the feelings of the player is not only an interesting project, but will prove to be central to an understanding of the way in which humans interact with technology.

Interested in sociology? Find out about studying sociology at Warwick.

Joanna CuttellJoanna Cuttell is a second year Women and Gender PhD student with the Sociology Department at the University of Warwick. Her research interests are centred on immersion and affect in video games.

Graduating from The University of Manchester with a BA in Chinese Studies in 2010, Joanna went on to complete an MA in Contemporary China, also at Manchester, in 2011. Whilst pondering where to take her studies next, she "had an epiphany" and realised that she could study anything that interested her. Following this, she moved into the field of games studies. Her thesis is titled "(re)Immersive Gender: The Affective Power of Video Games" and is supervised by Dr Deborah L. Steinberg.

Creative Commons LicenceDon’t hate the player, Don’t hate the game by Joanna Cuttell, University of Warwick is avilable for others to publish and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Image: Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII