Video games change your sense of the world – and yourself

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

I remember the moment when it all fell into place and I no longer saw the person as a character, but someone who was going through the same emotional struggles as me. I had a feeling like the game was holding a mirror and it fundamentally changed the way I experienced myself. I nurtured that constant need for social validation and a desire to find meaning when sometimes it just doesn’t exist. I didn’t mean to enter the game that I would come shaken or with the lessons I still carry with me today – but I did.

Even before the experience with the Beginner’s Guide, I was fascinated by games that strive to create challenging experiences. I don’t mean challenging in terms of logical puzzles or twitch reflexes, but experiences that question how 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 in which you play as a fire guard, and Papers Please, a game in which you are an immigration officer for an authoritarian government that decides who can enter. Each offers extremely different experiences that challenge perspective through player input and mechanics (in-game rule systems), enabling experiences that are unique to games.

We know that games can create stimulating or reflective experiences thanks to the work of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) researchers Tom Cole and Marc Gillies. While gambling academics Julia Bopp, Elisa Mekler and Klaus Opwis have discovered how gambling can evoke negative emotions, such as guilt or sadness, but somehow still result in an overall positive but emotionally challenging experience.

To get to the heart of what makes the perspective of these experiences challenging, from the everyday to breaking the horizon, I have given players to write down, report and unpack their experiences down to the smallest detail. My first research identified small eureka-type moments that change the way players interact with the game. I labeled these examples of “micro-transformative reflection” – micro in the sense that they don’t ruin someone’s view of the world, but they are transformative nonetheless as they change the way players act. An example of this is a player who felt the ultimate guilt after killing an innocent person, and the rest of the game avoided killing anyone.

Many participants began to philosophize on topics of morality, predestination, free will, justice, and truth. For example, one participant noted that Stanley’s parable, which shatters the “fourth wall” by forcing players to struggle with the narrator, forced them to face how much control they have over the choices they make in their lives. That, the player said, was completely inspired by how the narrator noticed his choices in the game.

Discovering how they challenge us

I am currently recruiting for the largest survey I have conducted so far. I posted an ad on the Reddit forum dedicated to playing games in search of participants who will play a potentially challenging game and keep a diary for two weeks. I was expecting a medium response, with five to 10 willing participants, but I woke up the next morning to 500+ votes (basically likes that improve the visibility of the post), 126 comments and a massive influx of new participants. This is further evidence of how common these experiences are and why they are worth further study.

The comments were full of discussions about a wide range of games that challenged the players in some way. One user left the following comment about his experience with the dark fantasy game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice:

No game has ever left me with the feeling that game had. I was literally just sitting speechless for a few minutes when the credits started rolling. It is impossible to describe the kind of cathartic feeling that overwhelmed me when I began to understand the symbolism of the final corner of the scene [(a video shown on completion that concludes the game’s narrative)]. It was as if all the tension I had felt until then had simply disappeared and I started crying because it was so wonderful and indescribable.

The game, designed to reflect the experience of living with psychosis, has clearly provided an emotionally challenging experience, evoking heavy feelings that potentially fall to the end of a life-changing spectrum.

I went through more than half of my study, I gathered 11 participants who will talk in detail about their experiences. Throughout my research, it is clear how influential games can be and I hope that my research will continue to reveal the powerful ways in which games can evoke people’s thoughts and feelings.Conversation

This article by Matthew Whitby, a doctoral student at IGGI, York University, was published in The Conversation magazine under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.