Humanities Remediated: Digital Games Criticism in Academic Discourse

Master's Thesis, 2010

86 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents

Part 1: Digital Games in Academic Discourse
I. Digital Games: The State of Play
II. Digital Games Criticism: Theories and Contexts
A. Game Studies
B. Digital Game Theory
III. The Concepts of Play and Game
IV. Digital Games in the Reality of Culture and Society

Part 2: Digital Games Research and Criticism
V. Research and Criticism of Violence in Digital Games
A. Cultural Differences in the Meaning of Violence
B. Summary and Criticism of Current Violence and Risk Research
B1. Active Media vs. Active User Perspective
B2. Studies on Effects and Representations of Violence in Digital Games
VI. Digital Games and Gender Studies
A. Female Characters-Female Players: The Role of Women in Digital Games
B. Summary and Criticism of Current Gender Game Studies
C. Gender Representation in Digital Games: Tendencies and Perspectives

VII. Game Studies in the Humanities



Part 1: Digital Games in Academic Discourse


Digital games1 are products of contemporary popular culture and indicators of social and cultural processes in modern computerized information societies. In recent years digital games asserted their status not only as a popular form of entertainment but also as virtual spaces for social interaction, escapism from reality, electronic sports2 and digital art. The first scientific studies of digital games date back to the late 1970s but recent debates about violence and addiction revived the interest in game research. The field of academic game studies describes the social, cultural, political, ideological, philosophical and psychological dimensions of digital games and their effects and influence on players. This paper presents an outline of game studies as academic school of thought and their role in scientific, public and political debates. The first chapter briefly situates digital games in the context of modern entertainment media and provides basic figures indicating their significant role in contemporary popular culture. In the second chapter the fundamentals of digital game criticism and the most influential authors are introduced in order to provide the reader with a theoretical frame of understanding and describing the characteristics of digital games. Above that, a comparison of different theories and approaches will allow a deeper analysis of the internal issues in game studies and consequences for their reputation as aspiring academic discipline. A discussion of the contradicting theories about the potentials and risks of digital games and resulting conflicts within the academic field, especially between traditional and modern theorists, will be initiated here and resumed in the following chapters. The third chapter is concerned with the concepts of play and game and will provide a better understanding of narrative and action as the core mechanics of gameplay. Chapter four illustrates the cultural and social, or real-world implications of digital games. A discussion on the perception of games and the interpretation of meanings emanating from virtual environments is presented in that chapter as well. The second part of the assignment is dedicated to a deeper analysis of game studies in practice. In chapter five a few preliminary considerations about cultural and historical aspects of violence in media are necessary in order to discuss the current research later in this chapter. The criticism of studies on violence is followed by a similar analysis of gender game studies in chapter six. Violence or risk research and gender studies on digital games will serve as examples for the necessity to include game studies in the humanities. Accordingly a detailed description and critical discussion of current research will demonstrate how traditional research in the humanities can profit from game studies. By comparing studies on violence and gender representation, it will become apparent to what extent public and political discourses are able to influence the academic world and how this influence can be harmful to game research. The last chapter summarizes the current state of game research and indicates the preconditions for game studies to become integrated in academic humanistic research as a permanent and institutionalized discipline.

The ambition of this paper is to demonstrate that game studies are a resourceful field of work and can be beneficial to the humanities. More importantly this work states that it is necessary to form an institutionalized frame of academic game research in order to retain the ability to describe and analyze a growing cultural and social phenomenon of unprecedented proportions. Without game studies, whole sectors of youth culture and virtual social networks will barely be accessible to academic research. Above that, the ability of digital games to imitate, explain and even influence real-world social systems is only a small part of the potential that will remain unexplored.

I. Digital Games: The State of Play

It may seem unusual for a qualitative approach to quote statistical data, but it seems necessary to emphasize the role digital games play in today's society. In 2004 the US digital game industry exceeded the revenues of the US film industry for the first time.3 Global sales already amounted to an estimated $21 billion in 2003.4 In 2008 the US industry's earnings alone amounted to nearly $12 billion.5 Digital games already exist for nearly half a century6 but in recent years they assured their position as one of the fastest growing entertainment markets. As with many other entertainment products this popularity translates into high profits and the very size of the digital game industry justifies academic attention.7 Digital games are in direct competition with other products of popular culture, like film and music, and the figures above indicate that games are asserting a dominant position. Aside from financial aspects a fast growing popularity can be detected in recent years. In 2000 Donald F. Roberts found that an estimated 70% of children in the US have access to video consoles or personal computers at home.8 US Studies published by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) show that today 68% of American households play computer or video games. They also found that the average player is 35 years old, 40% of all players are female and 25 % are over the age of 50.9 A study conducted in Germany in 2006 found that 22% of the total population bought and used digital games on a regular basis.10 Another and maybe the most reliable indicator of the growing popularity of digital games are the numbers of subscribers to online games. The most popular online game World of Warcraft11 has currently 11.5 million subscribers worldwide12 and the overall number of subscribers to Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG)13 amounted to 16 million in 2008.14 Today digital games are installed on most portable electronic devices (laptop, cell phone, ipod®) even though they were not specifically designed for playing. Internet advertising uses browser games15 to attract attention, numerous forms of modern art and performance are inspired by games and even many pedagogues consider educational games a useful complement to school curricula.16 Digital games are an active part of our everyday life. Active because games require our full attention and cannot be perceived casually and passively like television or radio. The fact that one actively choose to play is one significant aspect distinguishing digital games from most other media. Consequently academic research needs to define a new frame of theories for digital games analysis. In the following a description of this frame of so called game studies is introduced.

II. Digital Games Criticism: Theories and Contexts

Game studies are not yet an independent academic discipline like literary or film studies but the development of the field indicates that it is only a matter of time until game research will find its way into long- established sciences. In the past, other cultural products like film, comics and popular music demonstrated that their growing cultural relevance and impact on society, especially when causing controversies, consequentially aroused the interest of academic research. Today countless studies from a large variety of disciplines, concerned with aspects like e.g. the literariness of film, the history of popular music and reading habits of comic enthusiasts are available. Game studies on the other hand are still comparable to early European cultural studies, a mind-set or network of different theoretical approaches, without a central position in humanistic departments or a long scholastic tradition. Nevertheless there are innumerable publications on the basic functions, history, culture, art and industry of digital games. More importantly there are global networks of researchers entirely committed to game studies, who organize regular conferences to exchange their findings and theories. In the 1990s many researchers interested in the upcoming media form of digital games realized that it was not enough to observe and describe games, but to initiate an academic discourse to explain their cultural, social, psychological and economic impact. With the dawn of the internet age, online gaming and communities started to evolve around digital games and researchers as well as society in general were confronted with a new form of digital game culture. Today it seems that academic research still has not caught up with a culture that developed so rapidly and in the process raised many questions that demand answers. Especially the public discourse concerning the ongoing controversy of violence in digital games, exemplifies the importance of game research and its ability to mediate in public and political debates. The current situation concerning game studies on violence and risks will be discussed in detail in one of the following chapters. First, it is necessary to provide a general idea of digital games as medium and cultural artifacts and to clarify why they are a unique phenomenon and hardly comparable with earlier media. Theories on digital games from the field of game studies already provide us with a basic scientific vocabulary to describe and analyze games. However, the field of game studies is still in its early phase of construction and scholars approach the field from many different paradigms what makes it difficult to present a comprehensive picture of the current status of research.17 Nielsen et al. emphasize that "[t]he rules are still being formed; the orthodoxies have not yet been established."18 Based on the fact that there is still no integrative science of digital games, one can only attempt to describe the field of game studies by focusing on points of contact between different theories. Certainly, there are controversies and disputes as well and, especially in the chapters on violence and gender this will become apparent. But first and foremost it seems important to accentuate the need for consensus within the field. The following chapter will introduce a few preconditions for the analysis of digital games and summarizes some of the most influential ideas from the field of game studies.

A. Game Studies

Researchers in the field of game studies struggle for academic acceptance and credibility simply because digital games do not represent highbrow cultural expression for the majority of scholars and in public opinion. As a countermeasure against this perception Nielsen et al. suggest to raise the internal standards of game studies:19

If we are not specific, we run the risk of using terminology and models inappropriate to our discussion, or we risk blindness to the bias of our perspective.[...] The challenge here is not so much to find the correct perspective but more to be aware and explicit about the assumptions we make.20

In a discipline that does not exactly regard itself as a hard science, it is all the more important to find a consistent terminology and to be specific about assumed preconditions in order to describe a complex phenomenon like digital games. Another consequence that has to be considered at this point is that defining digital games in the frame of academic research is a highly political project. Nielsen et al. emphasize the risks of classifying digital games in their characteristics as medium, genre or text. Digital games defined as, for example, narratives are likely to vanish in departments for film or literary studies instead of being attributed to game studies.21 Interpreting game narratives is a legitimate approach to a single aspect of digital games, but still far away from a comprehensive theory of understanding. According to King and Krzywinska this is an important distinction. They argue, that games are not primarily defined by meanings and cannot be reduced to the results of narrative interpretation. In their opinion, games are playable texts and require analyses that go beyond the interpretation of meanings and take contextual factors into account as well.22 A problem that emanates from inside the field is the aforementioned biased perspective. Nielsen et al. point out that "[...] when studying video games, it is important not to fall into the trap of idealization [...]" a recurring problem in public and academic debates about digital games. The necessity of playing games in order to understand and describe them is a belief shared by most game researchers. Similar to other disciplines there is nothing to say against enthusiasm for the subject-matter, since no one would criticize a literary scholar with an affinity for literature. But in the case of digital games one has to consider the fact that they are not yet accepted as art form, important cultural products or, in more general terms, objects worthy of intellectual engagement. A biased or idealizing perspective can be harmful to game studies because it gives the false impression that game research is conducted mostly by players not capable of objective criticism. In a few cases this might be true, but the majority of the game research review for this paper is highly scientific, credible and objective. Nevertheless there is a slight tendency in game studies to defend digital games from criticism which is a result of early game studies conducted in the 1980s. At that time, according to King and Krzywinska, many studies failed to address the unique characteristics of digital games as a medium:

Early studies of games were dominated by quite different agendas, often hostile, sometimes as part of a wider'moral panic'about videogames and their alleged influences or 'effects', especially on children.23

Today this kind of risk research can still be found in psychological and empirical research but game studies, as described here, act as a counterbalance, intent on describing the medium and its characteristics. Still the early division of game research led to disagreements and preconceptions which now stand in the way of collaborative efforts. It seems that many researchers from game studies are preoccupied with refuting criticism from other disciplines rather than focusing on their own research. Apart from that, the field of game studies is capable of "[...] systematic, rigorous and self-critical production of knowledge [...]", accordingly Nielsen et al. argue that "[...] game research can and should be a scientific discipline."24 In outlines a discipline of game studies already exists and emerged roughly around the year 2001 from the first international scholarly conference on computer games: The Computer Games and Digital Textualities conference in Copenhagen. Espen Aarseth, one of the early theorists in games studies and digital culture, describes the conference as a turning point for the discipline:

2001 can be seen as the Year One of Computer Game Studies as an emerging, viable, international, academic field. [...] And it might be the first time scholars and academics take computer games seriously, as a cultural field whose value is hard to overestimate.25

The current game studies community evolves around the Digital Game Research Association (DIGRA), the largest central institution for exchange of game research and a platform for discussion, holding numerous conferences every year. The journals Game Studies and Games and Culture have to be mentioned as well, since they also represent a large part of the game studies community.26 In the following part an outline of different scientific paradigms and approaches to digital games including criticism on the current status from within the discipline is presented.

B. Digital Game Theory

Nielsen et al. identify two general directions of research within the game studies community. They describe game studies as being divided into a formalist group and a situationist group. The formalist group approaches digital games from an ontological point of view and focuses on philosophical questions about games as a medium, thus following traditional humanistic disciplines. Within the group of formalists a subdivision can be detected between narratologists and ludologists. The former analyzes the narrative and textual aspects of digital games and focuses especially on forms of representation. The latter understands digital games as actions and formal rule systems, which they regard as the main criteria distinguishing games from other media. In the past years this division caused some of the most intense disputes and conflicts within the field of game studies. The second general group Nielsen et al. identified is the situationist group. Their approach is interested in the analysis of players and culture of digital games. They observe the contexts of playing, apart from general assumptions and focus on specific events of play and resulting social practices.27 Situationist research originates from cultural studies and gained increasing recognition in recent years what may be indicative of a future predominance of situationist approaches in game studies. A prevalent criticism on formalist approaches in current discourses around digital game studies supports this idea. King and Krzywinska, for example, criticize the polemic arguments in disputes between two positions as constructed and unfounded as ludology and narratology. In their opinion, gameplay and meanings resulting from it can incorporate both theories of games as formal rule systems and theories of games as narratives or texts.28 According to Constance Steinkuehler rules and stories are only a small, even though important, part of digital games research. To her, the dichotomy between ludology and narratology appears to be out-dated since neither of the two perspectives offers a theory sufficient for a comprehensive analysis of digital games. If anything, they should be regarded as two out of many possible analytical tools applied in game studies. Steinkuehler argues that only with a multitude of theories at our disposal we are able to describe the characteristics of digital games as design objects and emergent culture.29 However, the critique on approaches, influenced by traditional theories from the humanities, extends even further. Authors like Geoffrey Rockwell argue, that traditional disciplines in general failed to realize that games are a form of human expression worthy of study. His harsh criticism is qualified by the fact that he argues from a Hypertext30 perspective, a field of research originating from literary studies. In his further elaborations, he adopts a more conciliatory tone and argues that traditional academic disciplines should be able to provide current game studies with a literary theoretical structure for a critical reception and analysis of digital games. Rockwell introduces a hypermedia theory of digital games that he considers to be a challenge for interdisciplinary openness31:

Theories of hypermedia should take into account literary, aesthetic, performative, and architectural theories. The probability that few, including myself, well be able to span the breadth of media theories is an indication of the challenge before us and, more importantly, a call for interdisciplinary dialogue.32

Hefner et al. support this idea and argue that theories on interactive media entertainment "[...] provide rich possibilities for interdisciplinary connections between the computer sciences and the social sciences."33 Interdisciplinary openness and exchange between traditional sciences and younger fields of research are recurring themes in game studies, especially in the cultural studies based situationist branch. But, interdisciplinary research creates problems as well and many theorists are still skeptical of integrative efforts. They are afraid that a future discipline of game studies could be restricted by depending too much on research guidelines from the humanities, associated with the risk of game studies being incorporated into humanistic departments. Espen Aarseth is one of the authors who initiated the process of abandoning traditional literary studies in an attempt to find a unique theoretical frame for game studies. He believes that literary studies follow an ideology of subordination, meaning that all other forms of media and cultural products can be explained by literary theory. In Cybertext (1997), his most prominent publication, he argues:

I wish to challenge the recurrent practice of applying the theories of literary criticism to a new empirical field, seemingly without any reassessment of the terms and concepts involved.34

Aarseth introduced a radical perspective that still has many followers today and could lead to further divisions within the field. In 2006 Ian Bogost criticizes the "digital humanities" projects for being instrumental and merely providing instructional tools for traditional humanistic research. More importantly, he explains Aarseth's radical perspective as a result of the insufficiency of early hypertext theory.35 Bogost points out that even though early hypertext theory "[...] must be praised for helping to welcome technology applications in literary studies, they proved unable to grow and evolve with the technologies they purported to celebrate."36 On the other hand he holds Aarseth responsible for starting a process that led to a division of ludologists and narratologists in current game studies. According to Bogost this kind of functionalist separatism is carried on by Hard Core 37 ludologists inside the Digital Game Research Association (DiGRA)38. Bogost, who argues from a comparative perspective, criticizes Hard Core game studies "[...] to be essentialist and doctrinaire, its theorists hoping to reinvent a different kind of isolationist techno-textual criticism that privileges the ludic over the literary."39 A valid point considering that large parts of current game research are based on methodologies and theories borrowed from the traditional humanities. Bogost suggests a comparative digital game criticism, an intersection of criticism and production, including comparative literary theory as well as functionalist approaches.40 Clearly his criticism is not able to reconcile the separated community of game studies but it shows us quite plainly how fragile the theoretical framework of game studies currently is. The separation of ludology and narratology is only a small part of the persistent efforts of many scholars to find one unique aspect of games that separates them from other media in order to justify a dedicated science. In Beyond Play Thomas M. Malaby provides an insight into this process and critically reviews the isolationist tendencies in current game research. He argues that ludologists "[...] fell into the trap of formalism [...]"41 when they tried to define games as activities completely different from everyday life, thus excluding all previous findings, based on other social and cultural disciplines, from the discussion. Narratologists interpret the representations and meanings in digital games which, for Malaby, do not fully embrace the characteristics of games as human practice and are inadequate to describe playing games as "mode of human experience"42. He admits that critical reception is an important part of game scholarship but the limited scope of these interpretations ultimately loses sight of the larger implications of digital games for cultural and social processes in real life. Malaby emphasizes that in recent years academic research began to accept an interrelation of real and virtual spheres. Accordingly game studies should renegotiate the distinctions of game and play as separate categories of research as well. If digital games are categorized as play or even as potential utopias, with the ability to transform society, they are kept at a distance from real life experience and thus from academic reality and acceptance in the academic world. Malaby considers the use of limited meta-categories like play to be the reason for a sustained dismissive treatment of digital games at universities. He indicates that the struggle for academic acceptance contrasts largely with the imperative role of game studies in explaining digital games to society.43 Concluding, Malaby suggests a more general perspective to describe digital games on the meta-level of social experience:

We can now develop an empirically informed account of what games are as a form of universal human activity, but one that is not assumed to be essentially separate. [We] must neither romanticize games nor dismiss them and instead must see them as socially created artifacts with certain common features and allow for the way they inhabit, reflect, and constitute the processes of everyday experience.44

According to Malaby, the experience of digital games is one of multilayered contingencies that enable them to both mimic and constitute experiences from everyday life. He regards games as dynamic and recursive processes able to produce new and unpredictable interpretations out of predictable cultural references. This kind of approach suggests a desistance from categorizations and emphasizes, that actual experience is necessary in order to understand and describe games in a broader context.45 Admittedly this perspective is a very general approach to digital games, maybe too general for many game researchers, but it represents the most comprehensive of all perspectives, mentioned so far. The idea not to exclude other theoretical approaches, but rather acknowledge their right to exist and maybe even include them in contextual analyses seems to be a more constructive attempt to define game studies. The institutionalization of game studies as a scientific discipline can only be achieved if game scholars settle the disputes that consistently drain resources and delay progress in the field. Finding a definition of digital games as the subject matter, observed and analyzed in game studies, is similarly difficult to describing the discipline itself. Theories and perspectives on the medium and its assumed implications for reality differ considerably as well. Nielsen et al. present a rudimentary classification of 4 perspectives, by means of which one could start a definition and analysis of digital games. The perspectives on games subdivide into the domains of "the game", "the player", "the culture" and the "ontology" of digital games. Analyses of "the game" focus on the textual characteristics of digital games, for example, design choices or imparted meanings. "Player" research, on the other hand, observes the use of games and conducts interviews and surveys in order to describe developments and changes in game communities. The "Culture" approach uses interviews and textual analyses in an attempt to define games as cultural objects and as part of the media economy. Finally "Ontology" studies can be described as more philosophical and logical approaches to the basic functions of game and play.46 This kind of classification helps us, to get an idea of the different approaches to digital games, however to describe current theories and debates I chose a slightly different set of categories. So far this paper focused on observations about the current status of academic research in the field of game studies. Accordingly, the following chapters will focus on different aspects of current research and theories concerning the concepts of play and game and the interrelations between digital game culture, reality and virtuality and resulting implications for society. Certainly, this paper cannot provide a detailed summary and explanation of all developmental and historical aspects of the field, neither can it present all theoretical approaches or definitions of digital games. The ambition here, is to present the current situation and areas of conflict in game studies in order to determine, how a future discipline of game studies could be shaped.

III. The Concepts of Play and Game

Two of the most influential sources for our understanding of the concepts of play and game are the publications of the cultural theorists Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens, 1944) and Roger Caillois (Man, Play and Games, 1958). Long before digital games were discussed in academic studies, they defined the fundamental characteristics of games as activity innate to human interaction.47 Their theories were adopted by theorists from game studies and have been refined over years to meet the requirements of modern game research. The original concepts and ideas of Huizinga and Caillois on the other hand are not contemporary or appropriate anymore, since they do not account for the unique characteristics of digital games. Accordingly the focus here lies on more recent research, since many authors cited in this paper already included Huizinga's and Caillois' findings in their theories.

The concepts of play and game are a result of the different approaches of ludology and narratology described above. The combined results of both subsections are able to establish a more nuanced understanding of the characteristics of digital games, as actions and cultural artifacts even though we found, that the division between the two can be described as out-dated and constructed. Again a more integrative and comprehensive perspective of game studies seems to be a suitable alternative to academic separation within the discipline. Following Espen Aarseth48, Alexander R. Galloway describes games as both, objects and processes. For him, games are defined by actions and digital game media can be described as being both action-based (not interactive) mass media and algorithmic cultural objects. Similar to other authors from the field of game studies he emphasizes that, due to their processual nature, games must be played in order to be understood.49 Galloway presents a comprehensive and systematic definition of gamic action, by correlating the category of diegesis with operator (player) actions and machine (software) actions. In order to explain this concept, I adopted the schematic50 below (see table 1) from Galloway, in a slightly changed manner. With additional axes and simplified examples for actions the schematic and the concept behind it should become more accessible.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Galloway describes 4 distinct categories of gamic action and, by including machine actions he extends the traditional concept of play to a perspective that accounts for the technological side of digital games as well. The first category is nondiegetic machine acts, describing actions performed by the machine (software) and essential to the experience of playing but perceived outside the frame of narrative. For instance the Heads Up Display (HUD)51 gives information about the player's avatar or current status, but as a non-narrative representation it exists in an interval perceived as separate from the world of gameplay.52 The second category of diegetic machine acts on the other hand represents actions, deeply embedded into the narrative of digital games. These acts become visible when the machine influences the interactions of the player with Non-Player-Characters (NPC)53, and triggers events or cutscenes54 during gameplay.55 Another occurrence of diegetic machine acts are ambience acts, a state of gameplay, where the operator gives no controller input but the game world is still processed by the machine. Micro-movements in the 3D environment, NPCs acting according to programmed routines and, even though the narrative is on hold and nothing of relevance for the player happens, the game continues to play itself.56 Unlike Galloway I would suggest to include ambience acts in the category of nondiegetic machine acts as well, simply because routines and patterns in the programming and even errors can become apparent in ambience acts. In these moments the contingency of the game world is disrupted and machinic processes become visible. The third category consists of diegetic operator acts, like controller input from the player to move inside the game world or change the camera perspective.57 The fourth and final category are nondiegetic operator acts, describing acts of configuration, which allow the player to change the parameters of gameplay, for example changing the difficulty settings or remapping the controls.58 The concept Galloway introduces is very systematic and too complex to be described here in its full scope. However, the theoretical approach to gamic action presented here indicates "[...] that games are complex, active media that involve both humans and computers and may transpire both inside diegetic space and outside diegetic space."59 Accordingly, digital games can be approached as processes emerging from an interrelation between technology or programmed software and human interpretations and actions. The duality of text and reader/critic established in literary criticism does not apply to the characteristics of digital games. Gameplay, and the entirety of interpretations connected to it, is defined by actions and thus subsumed within the agent or player and his polyvalent doing.60 One important conclusion that can be derived from Galloway's findings is that we, as agents or players are not in absolute control of these processes. The unpredictability of vast virtual environments and their countless possibilities for action and interaction is what Nielsen et al. specify as emergence. Interactions within the basic rule system of digital games create complex results on the higher level of gameplay. In this case unpredicted dynamics arise, that were not intended or planned by the developers. These dynamics emerge from individual gameplay and enable the player to transgress and extend the boundaries and rules originally intended by the author. Especially in open world 3D games61 players tend to constantly repurpose the given set of rules and artifacts, in order to create new ways of playing and interacting within the virtual environment unforeseen by the developers.

The phenomenon of emergence is a crucial element in our observations of how player interaction and gaming communities operate. Above that, it proves that digital games are able to create meanings that transcend the level of narrative and design and demand adaptable theories that account for the processual and shifting nature of digital games.

Early games were based on very linear designs, demanded only rudimentary input and allowed movement in only very restricted virtual environments. But during the last decades digital games evolved into playgrounds that allow the player to explore their possibilities, to detect rules and boundaries and even to transgress and circumvent them in order to create new gameplay experiences.

One experience that defines digital games is what King and Krzywinska call immersion or presence. In their attempt to approximate reality, many digital games offer a life-like recreation of real environments or at least simulated contingent fantasy spaces that are perceived as believable and realistic by the player. It seems problematic to differentiate immersion and presence since both terms are often used synonymous, a result of inconsistent terminology within the discipline; therefore King and Krzywinska suggest a distinction between perceptual immersion and psychological immersion. The former can be described as immersion in the game-world while the latter denotes an absorption in the game itself.62 Perceptual aspects are defined by the technology used to play digital games and include the representation of images on the display, the audible representation via sound devices and tactile input via controlling device. Modern technologies like surround sound63, high definition displays and controller devices, able to emit haptic feedback64, enhance the perceptual immersion of current digital games. At present, developers are working on input devices that require the player to use movements of the body as input for the avatar65 on screen. Nintendo®'s Wii® already allows the player to perform natural movements or at least partial imitations, in order to translate them into actions inside the game-world. The upcoming Microsoft® project called "Natal" goes even further by abandoning separate controller devices entirely. The "Natal" device scans the whole body and recognizes every movement and even facial expressions, thus enabling the player to see every action directly applied onto the virtual avatar. These technological advancements might be the final step necessary to penetrate the screen barrier, preventing a deeper immersion in the game-world. Many casual or non-players still have problems with identifying themselves with representations on screen. They are unable to block out the display as visual mediator and become irritated or confused by the arbitrary nature of controller input and its realization on screen. In 2006 King and Krzywinska still criticized this limited ability of digital games, to create a comprehensive sense of agency in a virtual environment but with the technologies mentioned here, their concept of embodied presence66 might literally become a reality.

Psychological immersion on the other hand describes how the player socially interacts with the game (narrative, characters) on an emotional level. Apart from visual representation games are able to create a sensation of psychological presence, as long as narrative and social elements are believable and contingent. For instance they confront the player with moral decisions and resulting consequences throughout the game, or use a strong narrative to cause the player to feel compassion for the characters in the game. However, this kind of emotional engagement has its limits and generally the player is still able to distinguish real humans from virtual characters. Psychological immersion is only possible, if players are willing to overcome their skepticism and accept the illusion in its artificial nature.67

But immersion requires a certain scope for development, a blank space that can be filled by the player's actions and interpretations. The protagonists of digital games, controlled by the player, are mostly underdeveloped in terms of character, abilities and appearance.68 In their function as avatar they are often designed in a more neutral way to leave room for the player to identify with or step into the character. Again, traditional film and literary theory are unable to grasp this concept of processual narrative and character development, since digital game avatars only become characters in a story through action and interpretation exercised by the player. Current digital games allow the narrative and the characters to develop in multiple directions, thus creating a unique playing experience based on different choices and styles of playing.


1 Digital game here is used as a collective term for electronic games played on personal computers, video consoles, portable game systems and mobile phones.

2 see glossary Electronic Sports

3 Matthew Yi (2004)

4 Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 14.

5 Entertainment Software Association. 2009 <>

6 The first video games were developed in the 1950s and 60s, in computer laboratories at MIT and Cambridge see Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 248.

7 see Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 7.

8 Donald F. Roberts. (2000): 9.

9 Entertainment Software Association. 2009 <

10 Martin Lorber. (2006): 6.

11 World of Warcraft, Blizzard, 2004.

12 Mike Schramm. 7 May 2009. < activision-conference-call-wow-still-at-11-5-million-subscriber/>

13 see glossary Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game

14 Bruce Sterling Woodcock. 9 Apr. 2008 <>

15 see glossary Browser Games

16 see Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 205-22.

17 see Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 2.

18 Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 5.

19 see Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 7-8.

20 Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 23.

21 see Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 23.

22 see Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska (2006): 65.

23 King and Krzywinska (2006): 3.

24 Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 7.

25 Espen j. Aarseth (2001)

26 Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 11.

27 see Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 11.

28 see King and Krzywinska (2006): 64-67.

29 Constance A. Steinkuehler (2006): 97.

30 see glossary Hypertext

31 see Geoffrey Rockwell (2002): 346-54.

32 Rockwell (2002): 354.

33 Dorothée Hefner et al. (2007): 41.

34 Espen J. Aarseth (1997): 14.

35 see Ian Bogost (2006): 41-46.

36 Bogost (2006): 43.

37 Hard Core is a forum for researchers who believe that game studies should be a dedicated academic discipline and should focus on the ludic aspects of digital games.

38 see glossary Digital Games Research Association

39 Bogost (2006): 45.

40 see Bogost (2006): 41-46.

41 Thomas M. Malaby (2007): 101.

42 see Malaby (2007): 100.

43 see Malaby (2007): 97.

44 Malaby (2007): 102.

45 see Malaby (2007): 102-110.

46 see Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. (2008): 10.

47 see King and Krzywinska (2006): 9.

48 see Aarseth (2001)

49 see Alexander R. Galloway (2006): 2-6.

50 see Galloway (2006): 37.

51 see glossary Heads Up Display

52 see Galloway (2006): 28.

53 see glossary Non-Player Character

54 see glossary Cutscenes

55 see Galloway (2006): 12.

56 see Galloway (2006): 10.

57 see Galloway (2006): 22.

58 see Galloway (2006): 12.

59 Galloway (2006): 37.

60 see Galloway (2006): 104-5.

61 see glossary Open World Games

62 see King and Krzywinska (2006): 118.

63 see glossary Sourround Sound

64 see glossary Haptic Feedback

65 see glossary Avatar

66 see King and Krzywinska (2006): 119.

67 see King and Krzywinska (2006): 118-19.

68 see King and Krzywinska (2006): 108.

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Humanities Remediated: Digital Games Criticism in Academic Discourse
University of Münster  (English Department)
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humanities, remediated, digital, games, criticism, academic, discourse
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M.A. Robert Kampf (Author), 2010, Humanities Remediated: Digital Games Criticism in Academic Discourse, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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