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Video games change the way you feel about the world – and yourself



The Beginner’s Guide is a narrative video game with no goals or objectives. Instead, it tells the story of a person whose psyche slowly unleashes. Along the way, it touches on issues of depression, loneliness and self-doubt.

I remember the moment when it all fell into place and I no longer looked at the person as a character, but someone who went through the same emotional struggles as me. It felt like the game held a mirror and fundamentally shifted how I perceived myself. I had this constant need for social validation and the desire to find meaning when there is sometimes none. I did not think going into the game that I would get away shaken or with lessons that I still carry with me to this day ̵

1; but I did.

Even before my experience with The Beginner’s Guide, I had been fascinated by games that try to create challenging experiences. I do not mean to challenge when it comes to logical puzzles or jerk reflexes, but experiences that question the way I see, think or feel the world, the game or even myself.

Games challenge us

Some of my favorite games that elicit similar responses are Firewatch, a walking simulator where you play as a lookout for fire, and Papers Please, a game where you are an immigration officer for an authoritarian government that decides who can participate. Each offers vastly different perspective-challenging experiences through player input and mechanics (the system’s rules in the game), which allows for experiences that are unique to games.

We know that games can create thought-provoking or reflective experiences thanks to the work of researchers Tom-Cole and Marco Gillies from Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). While game academics Julia Bopp, Elisa Mekler and Klaus Opwis discovered how a game can cause negative emotions, such as guilt or sadness, but still somehow results in a generally positive but emotionally challenging experience.

To get to the heart of what makes the perspectives of these experiences challenging, from the mundane to the horizon-breaking, I got the players to record, report and unpack their experiences in detail. My first study identified small Eureka-type moments that change how players interact with a game. I noticed these examples of “microtransformative reflection” – micro in the sense that they do not shatter anyone’s worldview, but are still transformative given that they change how players act. An example of this is a player who felt extreme guilt after killing an innocent person and avoided killing someone for the rest of the game.

Many participants began to become philosophical about topics of morality, predestination, free will, justice and truth. For example, one participant noted how The Stanley Parable, which breaks the “fourth wall” by getting players to fight a narrator, made them confront how much control they have over the choices they make in their own lives. This, said the player, was entirely inspired by how the narrator noted his choices in the game.

Find out how they challenge us

I am currently recruiting for the largest study I have completed to date. I posted an ad on a Reddit forum dedicated to games looking for participants to play a potentially challenging game over two weeks and keep a diary. I had expected a mediocre response, with five to ten willing participants, but woke up the next morning to 500+ oppvoter (essentially like what improves the visibility of a post), 126 comments and a massive influx of new participants. This is further proof of how common these experiences are and why they are worth studying further.

The comments were full of discussions regarding a large selection of games that had challenged the players in one way or another. One user left the following comment about his experience with the dark fantasy game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice:

I’ve never had a game that gives me the feeling that the game did. I literally sat speechless for minutes as the credits began to roll. It is impossible to describe the kind of cathartic feeling that washed over me when I began to realize the symbolism of the final scene [(a video shown on completion that concludes the game’s narrative)]. It was as if all the excitement I had felt until that moment just disappeared, and I started crying because it was just so wonderful and indescribable.

The game, which is designed to reflect the experience of living with psychosis, clearly provided an emotionally challenging experience, provoking difficult emotions that potentially fall at the life-changing end of the spectrum.

I am more than halfway through the study, and have gathered 11 participants to talk in detail about their experiences. Across all my research, it is clear how influential games can be, and I hope that my research continues to uncover the powerful ways games can challenge people’s thoughts and feelings.The conversation

This article by Matthew Whitby, IGGI PhD Student, University of York has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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