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More Pixels, More Pleasure?

Joanna Cuttell, Department of Sociology

Published March 2014

The arrival of the latest batch of next generation games consoles (Nintendo’s Wii U, Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One) reignited several debates within the gaming community and one hotly contested discussion centres around whether or not a higher resolution, made possible by advances in technology, necessarily equals greater pleasure for the gamer? Delving into the phenomenon of immersion, Joanna Cuttell, Department of Sociology, explores the possibility that graphical superiority might not be the only factor in reaching the gaming holy grail of 'deep immersion'.


Jodie, played by Ellen Page, in Beyond: Two Souls/Sony

The release of Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One stirred up a lot of debate within the gaming community. With every element of the new consoles being compared and debated, discussions about the advances in graphics have raised some interesting questions. The resolution capability of each console is given in p (where p stands for progressive scan and indicates how many vertical lines are scanned onto the screen). The PlayStation 4 can run at 1080p versus the Xbox One’s 760p. The difference in resolution, dubbed by some as “resolution-gate”, is just the latest battle in the console war for graphical superiority. Many argue that better resolution and more realistic displays are better able to immerse the player in the action and, in turn, create a greater sense of emotional investment in the game. A good example would be Quantic Dream’s PlayStation 3 tech demo, Kara (see video below), which used motion capture to show their avatar’s advanced movements and realistic facial expressions.

However, looking at how people engage with and discuss games, it seems there is more to immersion than just having more pixels or a realistic avatar:

“Most people tend to think swords, guns and big explosions when they think of video games. The Harvest Moon games are the complete opposite, however, proving that even simple, slice-of-life titles have the potential to completely immerse and engross gamers. The charming visuals and entertaining townsfolk create a small town farming experience that, as oddly as it sounds is immersive as hell.”[Source]

Recently, there has been a rise in artistic indie games such as The Unfinished Swan (see video below), where you chase a swan that has escaped a painting) and Limbo (where you guide a boy through puzzles and traps as he searches for his sister). Games such as these have led several members of the gaming community to question whether more pixels necessarily means greater immersion.

One difficulty when discussing immersion is that there is not an agreed upon definition. Many scholars use Janet Murray’s argument that immersion is the feeling of being transported to a fictional world, akin to being submerged in water. Words such as “transformed”, “enveloped” and “being there” are often used. Yet grasping and defining such an experienced-based and subjective concept is challenging. Game designer and blogger Ernest Adams identified three different types of immersion in games. Firstly, tactical immersion is created when the game holds the attention of the player such that flow (the feeling of being “in the zone”) is generated. Tactical immersion can be generated by even the most basic of games such as Tetris or Pong and requires a functioning and responsive interface which does not hinder interaction. Secondly, strategic immersion is created when the player is concentrating on the strategy of their play and can be generated by anything from turn-based strategy sims to fighting games. Strategic immersion requires that the game’s mechanics be logical and internally consistent. The final type of immersion is one which developers have begun to focus on over the past decade as a means of engaging the player; narrative immersion. Chasing emotional plots and sympathetic characters in games requires several things, including a certain degree of input on the part of the player to “commit” themselves, but realistic graphics are not necessary (as games such as Legend of Zelda: Windwaker and ICO prove). From these requirements for immersion, we can see high-end graphics are not required, only consistency within the game world and mechanics, and a well-crafted and believable story.

The question then remains; why do we seek better and more realistic graphics if not for immersion, as so many developers and critics claim? Perhaps it is because a greater level of realism contributes to a greater degree of spectacle. Recognising the effort, energy, and processing which has been put into generating the breath-taking vistas of Skyrim or the minute facial movements of Jodie in Beyond: Two Souls (see video below) makes the player experience what media psychologist Ed S. Tan calls “artefact” emotion.

This emotion is elicited through sensory pleasure; when the player is aware of a media as an artefact. It can be induced by particularly notable acting or spectacular special effects. However, artefact emotion still requires that the game be judged on its aesthetic merit rather than its graphical capabilities. The new consoles’ superior graphics are therefore a means to an end; a tool which developers can utilise in order to create artistic or spectacular games which evoke artefact emotion. So, even if the PlayStation 4 runs at 1080p versus the Xbox One’s 760p, in the end, how much difference can 320p make anyway?

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 "Immersive Gender: Narrative, Projection and Iteration in Gaming" and is supervised by Prof. Deborah L. Steinberg and Dr Amy Hinterberger.

As well as being a "gamer," Joanna spends her free time singing opera, flamenco dancing, practising Chinese and Japanese, cooking vegan food, dress-making, watching Ghibli films and caring for her guinea pigs.