Possible Dissertation Snippets

After my talk with Lynn today, I’m going to rework my contextual review as I was focusing too much on the output of my research rather than explaining the area. I have some things in it that may be useful for the dissertation however. Writing these up has been really useful in discovering what my research areas are and what they mean. I’d like to try doing research like this in the future – a little properly contextualized research is way more useful than pages and pages of quotes.

Emotional Experiences in Video Games

Computer games are capable of provoking strong emotions in those that play them. Richard Lemachand, designer of the critically acclaimed Uncharted series, states that “games are a very ancient form of culture and they produce many powerful experiences for us. Experiences of emotion, intellect, experiences of self-discovery and discovery of others.” Grant Tavinor, a games theorist, proposes that the emotions a player feels can be split into two distinct categories: Higher Cognition Emotions (HCE) and Automatic Appraisal Mechanisms (AAM). At a base level, HCE are an imagined emotional reaction to an event taking place in an imaginary world that the player puts themselves in, whereas AAM are real gut reactions to what the game is doing to the player as a real person.(Tavinor, 2009) Examples of these would be the sadness felt at a beloved characters death, in comparison to the frustration of losing the game and the feeling of failure.

Jenova Chen, designer of “Flow”, “Flower” and “Jouney”, games noted for their use of emotion, states that “..there are actually a whole spectrum of feeling that games are capable of creating, but not a lot of them are on the market.” (Ohannessian,2012) This is generally portrayed as a lack of diversity in HCE offerings, “Right now there are a lot of action games, there are a lot of horror games, sports games…but where are the dramas? Where are the documentaries? The romance?” (Ohannessian,2012)  Chen compares the interactive medium to film here, using common cinema genres to depict the lack of variation in emotional gaming content. Another way of looking at the problem however, is to look at what a game can offer that a film cannot, and these are AAM experiences. A reaction felt as a player, rather than on behalf of a player character, need not be constrained to frustration and elation. Despite his wording, this is actually exemplified in Chen’s “Flower”. ““Flower” presents an entirely new kind of physical and virtual choreography unfolding in real time, one that invites participants to weave aural, visual and tactile sensations into an emotional arc rather than a narrative one.”(Smithsonian, 2013) This emotional arc that a player feels on a personal level, without characters to interact with, has the possibility to create unique, personal, emotional experiences that push the boundaries of games as an art form.

Virtual Reality as a Means for Meditation and Artistic Experiences

Alternative methods of presentation for games may allow for a greater sense of emotion and introspection. When talking about virtual reality technologies, Richard Lemarchand states that “It might just come to pass that a whole popular new genre of game emerges because of virtual reality that is about reflection, exploration and meditation, which might perhaps bring the world of games into new bounds as an art form. Work like thatgamecompany’s Journey and Flower, have already shown how popular that kind of game can be.” (Lemarchand, 2014)

The reflective, meditative state may come from the sensory deprivation experienced whist using these technologies. As the real world is shut out, the player can focus singularly on the game world, becoming fully involved in the work. “But the Oculus Rift also isolates the player. This isolation has been used to create asymmetrical co-op experiences, where one player uses the Oculus Rift while the other players(s) use another way of interaction.”(Guitierrez, Trullemans, De Troyer, 2014) This has been used previously to create distance between players, but it could also be used to create distance between a single player and the real world, allowing them to abandon their worries and focus on the moment, much in the way a practitioner of meditation would. This allows the player to enter a meditative state. Lemarchand emphasises this when comparing 21st century art and interactive art today. “Just as the surrealists of the 21st century, like the great Salvaor Dali, were fascinated with dreams and their connection to our secret selves, I think we see virtual reality as a gateway to our inner landscapes… New kinds of artistic experience that help us expose the workings of our hidden conciousness”(Lemarchand, 2014)

This idea shown in other forms of alt games technology. Gallery spaces, comes back to point about games being seen as an art.

An Aesthetics Driven Process

A way to convey emotion in computer games is through the use of game aesthetics, a part of the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) design methodology. This framework breaks games into three distinct components. Mechanics, being the features and components that the game includes on a programming level, dynamics being the actions that happen within the game at run-time, including desired and emergent gameplay, and aesthetics being the anticipated emotions that the player expresses in response to the game.( Hunike, LeBlanc, Zubeck, 2004) “Fundamental to this framework is the idea that games are more like artefacts than media. By this we mean that the content of a game is its behaviour, not the media that streams out of it towards the player.”(Hunike, LeBlanc, Zubeck, 2004)

Robin Hunike, producer of Journey, suggests that using this backwards creates successful, emotion driven games. “Think of the aesthetics first…think of the feelings you want to bring to players. I believe that if you start with the aesthetics and move backwards towards the mechanics though the dynamics, you can create successful games.” (Gamasutra, 2013) A Light In Chorus, Elliott Johnson and Matthew Warshaw’s highy anticipated indie title (Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 2014), uses this emotion first principal. “One of the feelings I’d like to evoke is that calm you might get from walking around a small town or suburb at night. It’s the familiar made strange by emptiness and quiet. Suddenly what’s mundane is full of mystery and possibility, the smallest light or sound takes on new significance, it clears a way to think about things differently.” (Johnson, E. 2014. pers. comm., 2 October)

When designing with emotion in mind, the formal elements, as applied in traditional art, are a good frame of reference, as traditionally art is heavily associated with emotions. “Video games rely on the same design principals – perspective, form, value etc – which classical artists employed to create the illusion that the television or canvas is a window to an imagined world. These design techniques also serve a second purpose equally applicable to games design, which is their aesthetic value, and application in visual narratives.” (Gamasutra, 2013) Classic art relied heavily on visual psychology and recognition of subjects to create meaning within their works that everyone could share.(Beazley, 2000) This project aims to apply these practices to computer games as an emerging artistic medium.

Meditation and Relaxation in Computer Games

Non-representative art uses the formal elements to encourage the viewer to be introspective, and create their own meaning. “It seems that abstract motion pictures are often about the need to expand our ability to see, experience and comprehend things in day to day life. For that reason, they challenge the viewer to participate in the process of creating meaning.” (Furniss, 2007) Furniss suggests that abstract animation creates a personal relationship with the viewer. “The kinds of work relies heavily on personal interactions (or the process or viewing)” (Furniss ,2007) This suggests that games may be a suitable medium in which to experience abstract animation, as the interactive element involves the player in the work. The aesthetic of the piece should reflect this abstract, idea focused meaning. “works of this sort tend to be developed around an aesthetic of thematic stasis or cycles.” (Furniss, 2007) When a piece like this is designed, meaning should be kept at the forefront of all practice, and each element should be created purposefully.

Furniss states that abstract animation creates feelings of euphoria and timelessness, due to its activation of the right side of the brain. (Furniss, 2007) Meditation, an act which also activates the right side of the brain, has been an influence on the work of many abstract animators. They use symbols from this practice to enhance the emotional impact and meaning of their pieces.Mandalas, symmetrical images that have significance within Hindu and Buddhist religious practices, are often used. They are circular, square or lotus shaped, and represent the cosmos, deities, knowledge or magic. Mandalas are used to aid concentration within meditation, as fixing the eyes on one stabilises it in the retina, making it disappear and be replaced with colours and forms that result from a physiological reaction to the lack of sensory stimuli.

The mandala in an animated state is slightly different. “When viewing a meditational film, an individual does not experience visual deprivation and the resultant stabilized retinal image because the mandala is constantly in motion. Nonetheless, he or she can become entranced by the light in combination with the rhythmic, hypnotic imagery projected on the screen.”(Furniss, 2007) William Moritz believed that animated mandalas are “meant to be looked at with a centered gaze, where you are actually looking at the center of the screen…They are designed for concentration, which is different from a lot of ordinary cinema, where the eye is meant to wander around and pick our details and have its own discourse with the film.”(REFERENCE) This method of concentration fixing is utilised in modern computer games to aid visual clarity, with the lighting for “Diablo III” being designed around it. A bright light is placed in the centre of the screen, to help the player orient their character in an isometric landscape full of enemy figures. (Lichtner, 2012)

In many abstract films, a poetic structure is used in place of a narrative. One example of this is Oskar Fischinger’s “An Optical Poem”. The piece has a theme of relationships and a structure and set of moods based on the soundtrack, but no overarching story or set of characters. “An Optical Poem is an instrument for meditation – microscopic, universal, personal.”(Moritz, 2004) This is echoed in computer games like “PixelJunk: Eden.”“In one sense the game can be said not to have a story. The central idea of the game is that there is a formidable challenge for the player to surmount. It is reflected by the way the colours of the background and the tone of the music changes as you progress. In this sense, the act of planning the story was not far from, say, determining the order of songs in a DJ performance or music album.”(Siliconera, 2008) Both of these works use colour and audio to determine progression in place of a real narrative and it is evident that this loose structure can create a meditative feeling. “Zen gaming is the category I’d toss Eden in…enter a state of bliss. Ending a session of Eden — breaking the spell — feels like stepping back into reality.”(Destructoid, 2012)

James Whitney uses visual strategies to encourage the viewer to fix their vision on the images in his animation, “Lapis”. As the images get smaller they “pull the spectator’s vision in with them”, much like in Robin Arnott’s “Soundself”, a meditation game where the player ventures into the centre of the mandala-like shapes. “This design technique is used at other points in the film, along with a widening of a black circle within a circles, which also tends to pull in the viewer’s focus”(Furniss, 2007) Whitney also uses light and colour to entrance the viewer, as images “transform fluidly from dark to light, or strobe effects send out a shock pulse of white light”. Brightness increases the ability to absorb sensory information (Furniss, 2007) and creates a natural attraction to the eye, as used in Johnson and Warsaw’s “A Light In Chorus”. ”There’s something enticing and hypnotic about bright coloured glowing lights. It’s not something I’m qualified to explain but if I had to guess I’d say that it’s something to do with perceived warmth and how the eye is drawn to areas of high contrast (we’ve certainly got plenty of those) It’s almost sickening how attractive it can be” (Johnson, E. 2014. pers. comm., 2 October)

There is debate over the effectiveness of games as a meditational device, particularly those that offer strong visual stimuli, like Ed Key and David Kanaga’s “Proteus”. “Yet as interesting as some of these games may be, trying to force introspection through an environment is not too different from sitting on a different pillow when giving traditional meditation a shot. They don’t succeed well in creating meditative states because their meditative style, focused introspection, is foiled by what they actually are: active stimuli. Even if not much is happening in-game, the player can still navigate and explore, and the curiosity to see what’s next thwarts any sense of true reflection. Since the benefits of true meditation come by closing every source of stimuli, using this approach doesn’t usually meet with success.” (Gamasutra, 2013) However, Guardian writer Keith Stuart disagrees, stating that the very use of the location is what contributes to the success of “Proteus”. “And partly Proteus is about its location. Throughout the history of literature the island has been used as a liminal zone between reality and the imagination; a place of mystery and isolation, where the rules of society no longer apply, and where stranded travellers can truly discover themselves. Proteus toys with these familiar elements.” (Stuart 2013) Despite what critics may say, these experiences are clearly valuable to players. “Like a snowy mountain ridge or a tranquil river valley, Flower invites introspection and inner calm, and that kind of interactive experience is almost as rare now as it was when I first surfed these winds.”(Gamespot, 2013)

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