The Beginner’s Guide is a narrative video game with no goals. Instead, it tells the story of a person whose psyche is slowly dissolving. Along the way, topics such as depression, loneliness, and self-doubt are addressed.
I remember the moment when it all fell apart and I no longer saw the person as a character, but as someone who was going through the same emotional struggles as me. It felt like the game was holding up a mirror and completely changing my perception. I had this constant need for social approval and a desire to find meaning when sometimes there just isn’t. I didn’t think I’d come into play shaken or with lessons I still have with me to this day – but I did.
Even before my experience with The Beginner’s Guide, I was fascinated by games that wanted to have challenging experiences. I don’t mean challenging in terms of logical puzzles or twitching 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 get similar reactions are Firewatch, a running simulator in which you play as a fire station, and Papers Please, a game in which you, as an immigration officer for an authoritarian government, decide who can participate. Each offers very different perspectively challenging experiences through player input and mechanics (the rule systems in the game) and enables experiences that only apply to games.
We know that thanks to the work of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) researchers Tom Cole and Marco Gillies, games can be thought-provoking or reflective. While gaming academics Julia Bopp, Elisa Mekler and Klaus Opwis discovered how a game can evoke negative emotions such as feelings of guilt or sadness, but still lead to an overall positive, but emotionally challenging experience.
To find out what makes the perspectives of these experiences challenging, from the everyday to the horizon, I had the players record, report and unpack their experiences down to the smallest detail. My first study identified little Eureka-type moments that change how players interact with a game. I called these examples “micro-transformative reflection” – micro in the sense that they do not destroy a person’s worldview, but are still transformative as they change the behavior of the players. An example of this is a player who felt extremely guilty after killing an innocent person and avoided killing anyone for the rest of the game.
Many participants became philosophical about issues such as 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, makes them face how much control they have over the decisions they make meet in their own life. This, the player said, was completely inspired by the way the narrator commented on their decisions in the game.
Find out how they challenge us
I’m currently recruiting for the largest study I’ve done to date. I posted an ad on a Reddit forum dedicated to finding participants to play a potentially challenging game and keep a diary for over two weeks. I expected a mediocre response with five to ten willing participants, but woke up the next morning with over 500 upvotes (essentially likes that improve the visibility of a 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 investigating further.
The comments were filled with discussion of a variety of games that challenged the players in some way. A user left the following comment about their experience with the dark fantasy game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice:
I’ve never had a game that left me feeling like this game did. I literally sat speechless for minutes when the credits started rolling. It’s impossible to describe the kind of cathartic feeling that flooded me as I began to see the symbolism of the final cutscene [(a video shown on completion that concludes the game’s narrative)]. It was as if all the tension I had felt up to that point just went away and I started crying because it was just so wonderful and indescribable.
The game, which is meant to mirror the experience of living with psychosis, clearly presented an emotionally challenging experience and provoked difficult emotions that may fall on the life-changing end of the spectrum.
I’m more than in the middle of my studies and have gathered 11 participants to talk in depth about their experiences. In all of my research, it is clear how powerful games can be, and I hope that my research continues to uncover the powerful ways that games can challenge people’s thoughts and feelings.
This article by Matthew Whitby, IGGI PhD student at the University of York, has been republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.