The Force Is Strong with This One (but Not That One): What Makes a Successful Star Wars Video Game Adaptation?

Reproduced from Arts 2020, 9(4), 131; https://doi.org/10.3390/arts9040131

Abstract

The Star Wars films have probably spawned more video game adaptations than any other franchise. From the 1982 release of The Empire Strikes Back on the Atari 2600 to 2019’s Jedi: Fallen Order, around one hundred officially licensed Star Wars games have been published to date. Inevitably, the quality of these adaptations has varied, ranging from timeless classics such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, to such lamentable cash grabs as the Attack of the Clones movie tie-in. But what makes certain ludic adaptations of George Lucas’ space opera more successful than others? To answer this question, the critical response to some of the best-reviewed Star Wars games is analysed here, revealing a number of potential factors to consider, including the audio-visual quality of the games, the attendant story, and aspects of the gameplay. The tension between what constitutes a good game and what makes for a good Star Wars adaptation is also discussed. It is concluded that, while many well-received adaptations share certain characteristics—such as John Williams’ iconic score, a high degree of visual fidelity, and certain mythic story elements—the very best Star Wars games are those which advance the state of the art in video games, while simultaneously evoking something of Lucas’ cinematic saga.

1. Introduction

For this Star Wars fan, Atari’s 1983 Star Wars arcade machine, replete with its cutting-edge vector graphics and digitised movie sounds effects, remains a formative experience. Alongside certain later adaptations—Super Star Wars (Sculptured Software, Inc., and LucasArts Entertainment Company LLC 1992), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare Corporation 2003), and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (Factor 5 GmbH 1998)—the original arcade game represents a high-water mark for gaming in a galaxy far, far away. These are personal favourites, of course, dictated by circumstance and tinged with nostalgia. For others of my generation, perhaps Star Wars: X-Wing (LucasArts Entertainment Company LLC 1993) and its sequels are the pinnacle of the films’ numerous video game renditions. The Maker only knows what Millennials, raised on the turgid cinematic prequels, might consider the quintessential Star Wars game: perhaps Star Wars Episode I: Racer (LucasArts Entertainment Company LLC 1999) is their equivalent of the Star Wars arcade cabinet. But what do these lauded adaptations of the filmic saga have in common? With around one hundred officially licensed Star Wars video game titles released to date1, and many of these already consigned to memory’s garbage compactor, why do some ludic adaptations of Lucas’s space opera stand the test of time? In short: what makes a good Star Wars video game?

Star Wars arcade game 1983
The 1983 arcade version of Star Wars

The late and much lauded American film critic, Pauline Kael, famously stated that “movies are good at action; they’re not good at reflective thought or conceptual thinking” (Naremore 2000, p. 59). While the assertion that film cannot portray or inspire reflection is dubious, the implication here is that something is lost in the adaptation of a literary text to film. Video games, on the other hand, embody action; this is a medium often marked by its active (and interactive) nature. Thus, it might be expected that a video game adaptation of an action-heavy movie franchise such as Star Wars has the potential for excellence, to capture the essence of the original material. Indeed, Kael went on to say of movies that, “they’re good at immediate stimulus”; likewise, video games are frequently described—and sometimes derided—as providing short-term stimulation and little else. This is nonsense, of course: games, like film, are an affective medium (see Ramsay 2020, for example), capable of transcending such ill-informed characterisations. But perhaps the undeniable synergies between the two media might render the process of adaptation from movie to game more straightforward than, say, adapting literature to film. As noted by Hutton and Barr (2019), video game adaptations of great literary works are relatively scarce, for example, despite the increasing visibility of games in the study of adaptation.

Perhaps the relative abundance of movie adaptations is a consequence of the characteristics they share with video games, as distinctly audio-visual forms. Or, maybe, there is simply little commercial imperative to develop video game adaptations of literary works, with no suitably lucrative opportunities for cross-promotion. In fact, direct adaptations of the Star Wars movies have typically fared less well with critics than more original titles, falling foul of the rule that dictates that movie tie-ins must exist only to satisfy capitalist desires, and not to enlighten or entertain. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones for the Game Boy Advance (David A. Palmer Productions 2002) effectively illustrates this point, with Electronic Gaming Monthly’s exasperated reviewer describing the movie tie-in as “one of the worst games I’ve ever played” (Electronic Gaming Monthly 2002). A grievous sin, indeed, for a game based on such a revered action movie franchise.

While Attack of the Clones may represent something of a nadir for Star Wars video games, the question of what makes a good adaptation may be explored by examining the better reviewed games to be released under the Star Wars moniker. To this end, we can look to the review aggregator website, Metacritic, which has conveniently compiled a list of the most critically lauded Star Wars titles for the 20 years to 20172. For the purposes of this work, we will consider the top five entries on this list, as reproduced in Table 1.

RankTitleYearMetascore
1Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic200394
2Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II199791
3Star Wars Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron II200190
4Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast200289
5Angry Birds Star Wars201288
Table 1. The top five Star Wars games for the 20 year to 2017, according to Metacritic and ranked by ‘metascore’.

Metacritic scores are an imperfect approach to determining quality, of course, not least because the nuances of the text that accompanies each review are lost. Furthermore, the published scores are not straightforward mean values; the review aggregator employs an opaque weighting algorithm to calculate the Metacritic score based on an assessment of each reviewers’ critical clout. Given its web-based origins, Metacritic also tends to represent older titles—those which were reviewed predominantly in print—less comprehensively. Millennials may well express affection for Star Wars Episode I: Racer, released to coincide with the arrival of The Phantom Menace (Lucas 1999) and, indeed, the venerable Nintendo Power magazine awarded the game a robust 8/10 score in its original review. However, despite falling within the timeframe for inclusion in Metacritic’s report, the paucity of Episode I: Racer reviews—at least as far as the review aggregator is concerned—means that the game falls beneath the threshold for calculating a Metacritic score at all.

It is worth noting, too, that the Metacritic report was published in 2017. Nevertheless, the only significant Star Wars game released since then is Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (Respawn Entertainment LLC 2019), which currently enjoys a Metacritic score of 81 on Xbox One and PC. Star Wars Battlefront II, released in 2017, languishes a few parsecs behind with a mean Metacritic score of 66 across the three platforms on which it was released. For context, the remainder of Metacritic’s top ten includes several series that already feature in the top five: Star Wars: The Old Republic (BioWare Austin, LLC 2011) [Metacritic score 85], Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (Obsidian Entertainment, Inc. 2004) [86], and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (Factor 5 GmbH 1998) [85]. Somewhat unexpectedly, the top ten also includes two Episode 1 spin-offs: Star Wars: Episode I Battle for Naboo (LucasArts Entertainment Company LLC 2000) [84] and Star Wars: Starfighter (LucasArts Entertainment Company LLC 2001) [84]. It is fair to say, however, that the design of these latter titles is firmly rooted in the conventions laid down by the Rogue Squadron games, already accounted for in the top five.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

The focus of this paper, then, is on the critical response to apparently successful Star Wars adaptations. As such, the analysis must be considered within the wider context of games journalism, a vocation that, according to Foxman and Nieborg, lacks a “common set of shared professional values”, with game critics relying instead on their “personal background” to inform their criticism (Foxman and Nieborg 2016). More problematic is Nieborg and Sihvonen’s suggestion that games journalists act as little more than an extension of game publishers’ marketing departments; this despite individual journalists’ anxieties about their symbiotic relationship with the industry they purportedly exist to critique (Nieborg and Sihvonen 2009). Consalvo presented an equally denigratory view of games publications, noting that “many have been derided as nothing more that either public relations rags for the game industry or fanboy publications that lack serious journalism” Nieborg and Sihvonen (2009, p. 37).

However, while scholars may question the integrity of games criticism, it is clear that not every release is greeted with slavish enthusiasm; certainly, those Attack of the Clones reviews will have shifted very few units for the publisher. Furthermore, it is entirely possible to discern which aspects of the games reviewers felt warranted praise. This is useful in itself, as we attempt to determine what makes these Star Wars adaptations better than others, even if the reviews are unduly effusive. So, what follows is a broad thematic analysis of the reviews for each of the five games named above. Based on these reviews, a number of themes are identified in relation to the qualities of each adaptation, including the games’ visuals, audio, gameplay, and story.

2. Who’s Scruffy Looking?

Reading through the reviews of each of these adaptations, it is difficult not to be struck by the emphasis critics place on the visual qualities of the games. Perhaps adding grist to Pauline Kael’s mill, the impressive nature of the original movie’s visual effects was similarly emphasised in the reviews of the time, with legendary Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel stating in his 1977 review of the film that “Star Wars is not a great movie in the sense that it describes the human condition. […] What places it a sizable cut above the routine is its spectacular visual effects” (Siskel 1977). It is reasonable to assert, then, that dazzling visuals and technically impressive effects have always been a part of what defines Star Wars.

The games are no exception, with many reviews praising the visual fidelity on display: “Graphically, Jedi Outcast is fantastic” (Butts 2002); “From a graphics perspective the game is gorgeous” (Stevenson 2003); “It goes without saying that the first thing you’ll notice about Rogue Leader is the game’s amazing graphics” (Bedigian 2001); “the game’s graphics are stupendous, amazing, superb, and outstanding—choose your favorite” (Casamassina 2001).

This critical praise generally falls into one of two categories: admiration for the underlying technical achievements or delight at the degree to which the look of the movies has been recreated. The discussion of the former quickly, and perhaps inevitably, descends into hyperbole-inflected technical jargon. In the GameSpot review of Rogue Leader, for example, Ricardo Torres framed the developers’ visual achievements in terms of their mastery of the hardware on which the game runs:

“Making use of nearly every bell and whistle that the GameCube hardware has to offer, Rogue Leader is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous game. All craft in the game feature extremely generous polygon counts that are enhanced by special effects such as bump mapping, self-shadowing, and high-resolution textures.” (Torres 2001)

The IGN review of the same game also beheld beauty in the developers’ technical prowess, again expressed in terms of polygon count and computationally expensive visual effects:

“Polygons are pushed well into the millions to form some of the most detailed ship and character models, and everything is exquisitely lit and shadowed by the artists. But there are also crazy real-time lighting effects, casting shadows and self-shadowing objects. And every texture seems to be bump-mapped, or dirt-mapped, or reflection-mapped—or whatever.” (Casamassina 2001)

Noting with excitement that “blaster explosions are all light-sourced”, the Adrenaline Vault review of Dark Forces suggested that the game demands to be played using the latest hardware technology:

“It seems obvious that the graphics in this game are exceptional. Although a 3D-accelerated card is not necessary for playing Jedi Knight, the full effect cannot be appreciated without such technology. Even so, the graphics in this game will probably be the best you have ever seen displayed on your system.” (Brumbaugh 1997)

While it is clear that games may be appreciated simply for their capacity to harness technology in the service of art, there is an additional dimension to consider where the object is to recreate another visual form. As the reviews analysed here demonstrate, the effectiveness with which video game adaptations can reconstruct the visual flavour of the movies is an important factor to consider.

As Keiron Gillen remarked in his Eurogamer review of Rogue Leader, “visually this is Star Wars as you saw it on the big screen”. Describing that game as “one of the most visually impressive videogames ever created”, the Cinescape review of the GameCube classic also alluded to a film-like visual experience:

“Factor 5 has managed to faithfully recreate the movies. They’ve provided hundreds of TIEs on screen with no slowdown, lighting effects to the maximum, and some visuals that are so reminiscent of the films that you’ll do a double take. Rogue Leader is a sensory barrage.” (Stevenson 2001)

Writing for GameZone, Louis Bedigian was equally effusive about developer Factor 5’s ability to capture the visual flair of the movies: “The Star Wars universe is represented with startling near perfection to the movies we all know and love so much.” (Bedigian 2001).

Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader
Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader

Rogue Squadron is far from the only game considered here to have been acclaimed for its graphical fidelity to the movies. The Gaming Age review of Dark Forces, for example, remarked that our favourite characters were rendered and animated in such detail that they “look like their movie counterparts”. The GamePro review of Jedi Outcast (Raven Software Corporation 2002) also conveyed the aesthetic pleasures of seeing the familiar elements of the original trilogy rendered in such recognisable detail:

“Visually, Jedi Outcast looks amazing. Everything is as Star Wars as it should be; droids shamble and shine, stormtroopers flip and dance when they get shot, and blasters spurt color-coded beams across the battlefield. You’ll recognize TIE fighters in their hangar and grin with satisfaction as a realistic-looking Lando Calrissian greets you from his prison cell.” (Darth Destroyer 2002)

As noted, several of these reviews alluded to the significance of the hardware on which the games run, in relation to that hardware’s graphical capabilities. In referring to Rogue Leader’s use of the GameCube’s “every bell and whistle”, Torres, for example, was gesturing towards that game’s status as a launch title—and graphical showcase—for the new Nintendo console. Others referred directly to the ever-evolving specifications of PC graphics cards. This paper is not positioned within the recent tradition of platform studies, as set out by Bogost and Montford (2007) and expanded upon by scholars including Apperley and Jayemane (2012). However, a more holistic view of these games’ critical reception would necessarily include some consideration of the cultural and technological context in which they were released. Apperley and Parikka’s (2015) discussion of platform studies and media archaeology asked whether the significance of a gaming platform may be fully understood without taking into account the success of its launch titles. By corollary, might it not also be the case that the circumstances of a game’s critical and commercial reception may only be understood in relation to the platform on which it is released?

3. Will You Shut Up and Listen to Me?

As the Cinescape review of Rogue Leader noted, audio plays arguably just as important a role in evoking Star Wars as the visuals might, “besides killer gameplay and graphics, what else can you expect from a Star Wars game? Killer music and sound effects” (Stevenson 2001). Apparently, the sounds and visuals are indelibly linked in many critics’ minds, as the Eurogamer review illustrates:

“Scenes from the films are remodelled in the crisp game engine and look almost perfect, accompanied by John Williams’ inimitable score and virtually any of the films’ sound effects you might care to mention.”

Both John Williams’ iconic score and the instantly recognisable sound effects created by Ben Burtt and the team at Industrial Light and Magic seem integral to any successful video game adaptation of Star Wars. As the GameZone review of Jedi Outcast put it, “The music just never gets old. The crackling slash of sabers just never gets tired” (RGerbino 2002). Meanwhile another critic made clear their expectations when it comes to the aural quality of a Star Wars title, “Of course, Jedi Outcast’s sound is perfect, but, with this being a Star Wars game, you knew that already” (Darth Destroyer 2002). The GameZone review of Jedi Outcast, however, provided a more nuanced justification for these high expectations:

“The sounds within the game put you right into Kyle’s shoes. Once you hear the familiar sound of your saber you will fall in love. John Williams’ music once again consumes every ounce of emotion whether you are sneaking around trying to evade your enemies or if it’s full pitched battle.” (RGerbino 2002)

The authenticity of the sound effects has been commented upon by many critics, “Appropriately, the lightsabers, doors, guns and ships all make convincing vwings, shhps, fahtows and chughghs” (Butts 2002); “Every blaster shot, chirp, and squeak in the game is as authentic as it gets” (Torres 2001); “All the typical blaster sounds, ion engine whines and explosions that you are used to hearing have been included. Rogue Leader sounds great” (Stevenson 2001); “The sound effects are equally impressive, with each weapon sounding exactly like they should” (Majaski 1997).

Where relevant, the quality of the voice acting has also been praised, especially where the original actors have been coaxed back to lend their vocal talents, “Factor 5 actually rustled up actor Denis Lawson, who played Wedge in the movies, to provide in-game voice” (Torres 2001). Yet, the presence of the actors featured in the films is not a prerequisite; rather, superior voice acting, as with any game, helps ensure that the corresponding characters are believable and engaging, “Hours of expertly done voice-over help make character interaction incredibly engaging throughout Knights of the Old Republic” (Kasavin 2003); “In fact, all of the voice acting is top notch—even the throwaway lines and little conversations within the missions are delivered well” (Butts 2002); “Voice actors do the entirety of the dialog in the game, and the voice acting is top-notch” (Stevenson 2003).

Inevitably, John Williams’ score has received particular attention—and lavish praise—from critics, underlining the role these compositions play in ensuring the games feel like authentic Star Wars experiences, “One of the best parts of Jedi Knight is the music. It’s spooled directly off the CD and is straight from the movies” (Majaski 1997). A pair of Dark Forces reviews further illustrate the reverence for Williams’ score:

“The music is unbelievably good, having been composed by John Williams and drawn exclusively from 20 years’ worth of commissioned work for the Star Wars trilogy. The result is a score that succeeds at covering the entire spectrum of a grand adventure story; it is a lush, suspenseful and heroic body of work.” (Campbell 1999)

The Adrenaline Vault review, in which the author suggested that “if I could give the Musical Score category more than 5 Stars, I would”, describes how the familiar musical motifs enhanced their gameplay experience:

“The first thing the devoted Star Wars fan will notice regarding the music is that the actual John Williams score is used throughout the game. There were times that the “Imperial March” theme would begin playing as I entered a new area, and I became worried that something was hanging around the next corner for which I might not be prepared!” (Brumbaugh 1997)

Star Wars: Dark Forces
Star Wars: Dark Forces

This near-Pavlovian response to the games’ musical cues is further explained by Josh Campbell, writing for Gamezilla:

“I suppose it should be pointed out that to some people, especially those who are roughly my age and have had this music burned into their gray matter since their formative years, it simply means adventure the same way a red light means Stop.” (Campbell 1999)

Several titles have successfully supplemented Williams’ work with original compositions:“During [Rogue Squadron II], the soundtrack alternates between known pieces of music from the films, as well as original music from the game, adapting and blending on the fly” (Torres 2001). However, it is notable that reviews for the venerable Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) have contained certain heretical statements, which imply Williams’ compositions are not an essential feature of a Star Wars adaptation:

“Some of the audio is what you’d expect from a Star Wars game, though Knights deserves credit for featuring a mostly original (yet very subdued) soundtrack, which is a nice change of pace from the ubiquitous John Williams score.” (Kasavin 2003)

And, indeed:

“While all the Star Wars-related sound effects are here, Bioware chose not to use the John Williams score. This is a good thing, because very little of this game has anything to do with the movies. The score is absolutely excellent, and is perfect in the game.” (Stevenson 2003)

KOTOR is not entirely bereft of Williams’ motifs—the opening crawl, featuring the classic fanfare is present and correct—but the game was almost wholly scored by The Elder Scrolls composer, Jeremy Soule. Thus, the best-reviewed Star Wars game considered here is that which features the lowest proportion of the film composer’s seminal score. That said, KOTOR is noteworthy for its length: players can expect to spend perhaps 40 hours completing BioWare’s opus, while a title such as Rogue Squadron II may be completed in less than a quarter of that time. KOTOR is also the least direct adaptation of the movies considered here: as the Cinescape review pointed out, the game has little to do with any of the films and the inclusion of themes associated with particular characters (Leia’s Theme, Yoda’s Theme, the Imperial March) would be nonsensical. With nearly two days’ worth of action to score, and a story that predates the events of the original movies by at least a couple of millennia, it is clear why BioWare looked beyond Williams’ body of work in this instance. Perhaps KOTOR is the exception which proves the rule that a good Star Wars game must make liberal use of John Williams’ orchestrations.

4. Control, Control! You Must Learn Control!

Gameplay is a broad and somewhat elusive term, for which there are no convenient analogues in cinema: while the audio-visual qualities of both video game and film may be assessed using somewhat congruent terminology, the interactive nature of the former medium requires an alternative vocabulary. Gameplay may comprise everything from the nature of player interactions to the design of the challenges that players will face, including the underlying rules and systems. It may also refer to the feel of the game in the player’s hands, and it is this aspect—how the games are controlled—that we examine next. Consider the following excerpt from the Cinescape review of Rogue Leader:

“What better way to toss gamers into the action than to start you off on the attack on the first Death Star? You could, of course, take a training run in a T-16 Skyhopper, but what’s the fun in that? Actually, the trial run isn’t really necessary; the controls are top-notch.” (Stevenson 2001)

Some discussion of the games’ controls—here described as “top-notch”—is present in many of the reviews. But what constitutes a “top-notch” control scheme? The GameZone review of Rogue Leader related the quality of the controls to the feel of the movements they elicit:

“The controls are excellent. All of the movements feel just right—you never feel like something is out of place or that it doesn’t belong. When you hop into an X-Wing, you’re really hopping into an X-Wing!” (Bedigian 2001)

Eurogamer found the Rogue Leader controllers “over-responsive”, suggesting that the “feel of the system conflicts with the game’s principle virtue: its authenticity”. However, IGN’s analysis of the same game’s controls was similarly based on the feel of the movement, and was entirely positive in its appraisal of how the ships handle:

“Flight control has overall seen significant improvements. The sway and reaction of ships is tighter and consequently more in tune with the movement of the crafts from the movies. Overall, ships handle fast and furious and the level of control is consistently tight and responsive.” (Casamassina 2001)

Meanwhile, the GamePro review of Jedi Outcast identified lightsaber control—surely a fundamental feature of such a game—as the only weak spot in an otherwise satisfactory control scheme:

“You haven’t done it all until you’ve fought two ‘saber-wielding evil Jedi and defeated one with sheer skill before choking the other to death with the Force. Unbelievable. And… surprise! It all controls rather well with only the chaos of the lightsaber duels to detract from a feeling of total control.” (Darth Destroyer 2002)

While a game’s controls can initially appear to be a mundane concern, it is apparent that this is an important factor to consider in relation to video game adaptations of Star Wars. The controls are the player’s conduit, the means by which they may demonstrate mastery of the ships and weapons that are such essential features of Lucas’ galaxy. If the handling of an X-Wing feels inauthentic, or the control of a lightsaber is clumsy in its implementation, the player experience is compromised.

Angry Birds Star Wars
Angry Birds Star Wars

As noted above, gameplay can encompass a great deal more than the control scheme offered by a game. It can also refer to the game mechanics, and this is where the reviews of Angry Birds Star Wars (Rovio Entertainment Oy 2012)—largely absent from the preceding analysis of the best Star Wars games’ audio-visual accomplishments—offer some relevant insight. The gameplay mechanics on which the Angry Birds franchise is built are well-established: a series of deceptively simple challenges, wherein the player must fling ill-tempered birds at the blocky structures erected by their mortal enemies, in order to destroy them. These mortal enemies are pigs, for… reasons. Easily dismissed as a mere “casual” game, Angry Birds has not only proven popular enough to spawn its own spin-offs, movies, and merchandise, it has also garnered praise for its surprisingly deep and engaging gameplay. It is on these foundations that the Star Wars iteration of the franchise built and, according to the critics, it does so admirably. Indeed, the critical consensus is that the addition of characters and weapons inspired (however loosely) by the Star Wars movies only enhances the series’ winning gameplay—as exemplified by the Game Informer review of the game:

“Gravity remains the weapon of choice to crush the evil Pig Empire, but the birds can also tap into the Force to magically move objects, swing lightsabers to cut through debris, and volley laser fire to take out multiple pigs at once. These new mechanics fit nicely with the series’ well-established slingshot gameplay, and are tapped to create a variety of strategy-intensive levels that are among the most challenging and rewarding I’ve seen in an Angry Birds game.” (Reiner 2012)

Writing in The Guardian, Stuart Dredge agreed, suggesting that the addition of the space saga’s tropes “moves the Angry Birds gameplay on a notch, particularly when lasers are involved” (Dredge 2012). Likewise, the Polygon review described how the judicious incorporation of the Force—a concept so quintessentially Star Wars—creates further bird-based gameplay possibilities:

“The Force also serves the enemy pigs. Darth Vader-pig levitates platforms in certain stages, and taking him out releases the objects, raining down on helpless Empire-pigs. The Force isn’t just a gimmick in Angry Birds Star Wars, it’s a layer of strategy.” (Plante 2012)

In much the same way that the Angry Birds adaptation of Star Wars advanced an existing gaming franchise, there are further indications that the best Star Wars games can further refine and expand upon established gaming genres. Praising the “ingeniously designed” levels, the Gaming Age review of Jedi Knight labelled the game “one of the greatest first-person action/adventure games ever made”, before concluding that “this game redefines the genre” (Majaski 1997). Describing the gameplay as Jedi Outcast’s “real star”, the GamePro review of that game suggested that “adding Jedi powers to an already-great FPS [first-person shooter] engine is a stroke of genius” (Darth Destroyer 2002). In doing so, the developers opened up new game design possibilities that enliven the already crowded FPS genre:

“Playing Jedi Outcast is a pleasure in and of itself. Raven has displayed great creativity in this title, especially in level layout and puzzles. The Force powers gave the developers a lot of leeway in what they could do with puzzles, and by and large, the challenges you’ll face are more than your average push-box-jump-over-chasm FPS puzzles.” (Darth Destroyer 2002)

Other innovations identified in the very best Star Wars games include KOTOR being bestowed the title of “the first successful Western-style console Role-Playing Game [RPG] of the modern age” by Eurogamer, on the basis that it “takes the design beliefs of the Western RPG form and then works out how to present them best for playing whilst sprawled on a sofa in your living room” (Gillen 2003). KOTOR, with its novel dark side/light side mechanic, also paved the way for so-called ‘karma’ systems in subsequent video game blockbusters, such as Mass Effect (BioWare 2007):

“Knights lets you play as a really nasty character if you so choose, and that’s certainly part of the fun. It’s also an interesting aspect of gameplay, considering a big part of the theme is how Jedi constantly run the risk of falling to the dark side—indeed, you’ll probably often be tempted to see what happens if you pick the evil dialogue options rather than the good ones, if only because most RPGs simply don’t let you make these types of decisions. Certain key points in the game will play out very differently depending on the decisions you make, creating lots of replay value.” (Kasavin 2003)

5. You Have No Place in This Story. You Come from Nothing. You Are Nothing. But Not to Me

While, in some instances, video games may be bereft of any meaningful story, narrative is an important aspect of many titles. A compelling plot might serve to enrich the player experience through the Aristotelian complications, reversals, and revelations that may underpin any dramatic narrative. Or a story may serve simply as a means of tying together the action, a narrative justification for the next round of puzzle solving or wanton destruction.

When it comes to video game adaptations of another narrative form, however, perhaps it is especially important to consider the qualities of the story. Certainly, this is an aspect that many of the reviews of these games have touched upon, to varying degrees. The GameZone review of Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, for example, merely noted that “the storyline is gripping” (RGerbino 2002). Reviewing that same game, the IGN review was more specific in its praise:

“Everything is tied together with a tightly written, mature plot. Kyle’s motivations and the progression of the story are all handled with a touch that is at once both subtle and unrelenting. There’s a nice balance and sense of pace here.” (Butts 2002)

Meanwhile, several critics have remarked upon the perfunctory but perfectly adequate nature of the games’ attendant story. In the Gamezilla review of Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (LucasArts Entertainment Company LLC 1997), for example, Josh Campbell described the tale of vengeance that drives the game’s narrative, noting that such a tale is “not exactly complex or intriguing on its own, but suitable enough to frame a video game around” (Campbell 1999). Similarly, the Gamespot review of Dark Forces II was somewhat critical of the “cliched” storyline but conceded that “it does a fine job of providing links between the levels” (Dulin 1997). Elsewhere, another Gamespot review—concerning Rogue Squadron II—offered nothing but praise for the “much more tightly focused” story that connects each of that game’s levels, noting that “the tighter narrative complements the missions and makes for an extremely cohesive and satisfying experience, as every mission flows very naturally into the next” (Torres 2001).

Other critics, however, waxed lyrical about the narrative elements of the game in question. In Craig Majaski’s review of Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, for example, the game’s storytelling was described in revered, overtly cinematic terms:

“One of the crucial elements that separate Jedi Knight from the rest of the overcrowded PC gaming market is its story. At the beginning of the game and between each level you’ll be treated to cinema scenes. These mini-movies are extraordinarily done and help propel the story along through its twists and turns.” (Majaski 1997)

Meanwhile, the Gamespot review of Knights of the Old Republic suggested that tales of the conflict between the light side and the dark—as captured in that game’s unique mechanics—are intrinsic to the franchise:

“The game’s greatest accomplishment is its focused yet open-ended plot progression, which gives you the freedom to play as either a morally good or evil character, or shades in between. The struggle between good and evil is of course central to Star Wars and manifests itself extremely well throughout this outstanding game.” (Kasavin 2003)

This perceived freedom is limited in nature, usually reducing the player’s options to one of two binary choices or a single, middling option; in truth, player agency is restricted by the algorithmic constraints of the game’s programming. MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler (2007) termed this figment of freedom “illusory agency”, noting that game designers “can seek to grant as much freedom as they can or they can seek to disguise the fact that possible actions are limited”, in order to convince the player that their choices matter. Wardrip-Fruin et al. (2009) further refined the notion of agency in games “as a phenomenon, involving both the game and the player, that occurs when the actions players desire are among those they can take as supported by an underlying computational model”. This definition perhaps better accounts for the perceived open-endedness of KOTOR’s plot: the narrative choices offered to players are constrained by the game’s “computational model”, but such constraints are of little consequence when they align sufficiently with the player’s intentions for their character.

Knights of the Old Republic (Switch version)
Knights of the Old Republic (Switch version)

An important component of any story is the characters that bring it to life, and this holds true for the Star Wars adaptations considered here. Writing for Eurogamer, Kieron Gillen noted the care with which the (nonplayer) characters in Knights of the Old Republic have been developed:

“Far more interesting is how these characters are turned into actual characters—an all the more powerful blow aimed at the heart. Beautifully written, carefully defined and memorable, this is a cast who engender sympathy and empathy. Everyone in the world will fall in love with Assassin/Translator droid HK-47 (In short: Imagine if C-3P0 was a misanthrope who wanted to kill everyone), but you’ll all find personal favourites.” (Gillen 2003)

In his Gamespot review of the same game, Greg Kasavin suggested that “character interaction really is the best thing about Knights of the Old Republic”, while “the game’s main storyline isn’t remarkable and eventually boils down to squaring off against your standard bad guy”3. Nonetheless, according to Kasavin, the player will “encounter so many great little subplots and characters along the way that this really won’t matter” (Kasavin 2003). Expanding on the importance of well-developed characters, Kasavin also described how meaningful character interaction elevates the experience: “

You’ll always be an active participant in the storyline, rather than a passive observer. You don’t just read, watch, and listen to a lot of text, cutscenes, and dialogue—your character is constantly invited and required to make difficult decisions, and that’s ultimately the most entertaining, impressive, and rewarding aspect of the game.” (Kasavin 2003)

Star Wars, as a franchise, has a long association with transmedial storytelling (see Guynes and Hassler-Forest 2018) with video games playing a significant role in expanding the Star Wars storyworld, or the larger “narrative universe” (Mejeur 2018). All of these stories take place within a shared world, although Ryan—citing Star Wars as an example—suggested there is a distinction to be made between cases in which “they represent the same world and in which cases they project related but distinct worlds” Ryan (2014, p. 42). Regardless of whether the storyworld presented in a Star Wars game might be considered part of the same canonical universe as the movies4, players nonetheless benefit from what Jenkins has termed “additive comprehension” Jenkins (2006, p. 123). That is, players’ enjoyment of these games is enhanced by their prior knowledge of the Star Wars storyworld.

6. It Will Be Just Like Beggar’s Canyon Back Home

As we have seen, much of the commentary on the games’ audio-visual qualities has related to the degree to which the games look and sound “just like the movies”. Some of the more enthusiastic comments include GameZone’s Louis Bedigian, who said of Rogue Leader, “Enter the battlefield (or should I say ‘enter the movie’?) and prepare to be blown away again” (Bedigian 2001). The Eurogamer review of that game was similarly effusive (“Rogue Leader is Star Wars the way you remember it”) while the IGN review noted, “Rogue Leader sounds like Star Wars. Perfectly” (Casamassina 2001).

Indeed, discussion of the games’ faithful reproduction of the movies has often been intertwined with admiration for the technical adroitness on display:

“The game plays out like the movie, with Luke running interference over the Death Star and eventually flying down the trench. There’s no slowdown, tons of fighters on screen, and an incredible sense of speed.” (Stevenson 2001)

The GameZone review of Jedi Outcast also praised the technical artistry that brings the game’s characters to life with greater fidelity than was, at that time, previously possible to achieve:

“I have never seen the Star Wars universe recreated with such attention to detail. This game is the closest thing we have to actually living inside the film. Each character model is so well done and I even found the cut scenes interesting.” (RGerbino 2002)

Noting that Rogue Leader “represents the closest recreation of the Star Wars universe that we have yet to see”, however, the IGN review of that game acknowledged that the technology was simply a means to an end:

“But none of these tech feats mean anything to the end player. What matters is that all of these effects come together to quite realistically mimic the real thing—and that’s an accomplishment that is close to monstrous.” (Casamassina 2001)

Frequently alluded to by critics is the idea that the best Star Wars adaptation are capable of immersing the player in this familiar but fantastic world, “The way it submerges you in George Lucas’ universe and takes you on a wild ride is unmatched” (Stevenson 2001). For Gamespot’s Greg Kasavin, this sense of immersion extended to feeling as though the player is a part of this world:

“It’s one of the only Star Wars games to truly make you feel at times as though you’re a key player in and a part of this unique and beloved sci-fi setting. You’ll get to do all the sorts of stuff that you’ve seen and enjoyed in the Star Wars movies, and you’ll get to emulate any of your favorite characters’ personalities and actions over the course of the game.” (Kasavin 2003)

The concept of immersion has proven surprisingly slippery in game studies. In the seminal Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray referred to immersion as “the experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place”, comparing this experience to “a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool” Murray (1997, p. 98). However, McMahan usefully differentiated between the frequently conflated terms immersion and presence, the latter being defined as “the feeling of being there” McMahan (2003, p. 68). While care must be taken not to ascribe unintended meaning to reviewers’ words, it seems reasonable to assume that it is the feeling of being in the Star Wars universe—the feeling of presence—that underpins much of the appeal of these adaptations. Indeed, each of the dimensions of presence in video games conceptualised by Tamborini and Bowman (spatial presence, social presence, and self-presence) may be identified in the reviews considered here Tamborini and Bowman (2010, pp. 88–89).

Several reviews have alluded to the joy of the familiar, as we have already seen in the discussion of the games’ audio and video. The game designers were, of course, leveraging players’ familiarity with the characters, ships, and locations to ensure that the games feel like Star Wars, a point not lost on Craig Majaski in his review of Dark Forces II:

“If the familiar locales aren’t enough to get you into the Star Wars universe, the different enemies from the movies are here in full force to remind you. You’ll recognize many of the characters and vehicles. From Stormtroopers and R2 Units to the AT-ST and Tuskens, you’ll be pleased to know they’re all in here.” (Majaski 1997)

The IGN review of Rogue Leader made a similar point, but also offered praise for the noncanonical scenarios created specifically for the game:

“Each scenario is overflowing with Star Wars character. The Attack on the Death Star, which we mentioned above, is somewhat of a dream come true for many fans as it perfectly re-creates the experience from the film. But there are of course many other areas to explore and battle through, each just as appealing.” (Casamassina 2001)

Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II - Rogue Leader - Death Star trench run
Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II – Rogue Leader

This suggests that successful Star Wars adaptations are not necessarily constrained by the movies and, as noted above, arguably the best-regarded video game adaptation of the saga, Knights of the Old Republic, largely eschewed its celluloid progenitors. Reviewing KOTOR for Gamespot, Greg Kasavin was keenly aware of the advantages of doing so, “Knights arguably lives up to the Star Wars name better than any other Star Wars property in years, including the last two theatrical films” (Kasavin 2003). Kieron Gillen’s Eurogamer review neatly summarised how KOTOR succeeds while maintaining a studied distance from the movies, touching upon the idea that the mythic structure of the story is sufficiently familiar to conjure up the feel of Star Wars:

“It feels more like Star Wars than anything else has in living memory, and does so by moving the focus back four thousand years. And—would you believe it—things are very much as they are in the “contemporary” Star Wars universe. This gives the game the strength of familiarity of theme, a mythic arc as you realise you’re rooting around in the prehistory of the world and due to distance from the actual films, freedom to create a plot as galaxy-spanning as anything that was committed to celluloid.” (Gillen 2003)

In many cases, critics directly commented on the quality of the adaptation, as in the IGN review of Rogue Leader, “It’s taken more than 20 years, but a development studio has finally captured the spirit and beauty of the Star Wars trilogy movies and crammed it all into one action-packed game” (Casamassina 2001). The relationship between the game and the original source material was also considered in the Eurogamer review of Rogue Leader:

“We often compare games to movies, but from the archetypal star screen introduction right the way through to the game’s monumental climax, this is the ultimate accompaniment and tribute to those three original Star Wars movies we all cherish.” (Bramwell 2002)

Meanwhile, the GameSpot review of Dark Forces II rather downplayed the challenge of adapting the beloved franchise into a video game:

“Designing a game set in the Star Wars universe seems like a no-brainer. The look and sounds of the game—from the Imperial gray of walls, to the elephantine squeal of a TIE Fighter engine, to the squeaky “pew, pew” of a blaster shot—are already set in stone, so designers just need to think of a genre and use the existing elements to build a game.” (Dulin 1997)

Still, as the swathes of substandard movie tie-ins clearly demonstrate, creating a good game based on a movie is not so straightforward. As alluded to in the GamePro review of Jedi Outcast, a glut of relatively poor Star Wars games were released around the turn of the century, from Masters of Teräs Käsi (LucasArts 1997) to Flight of the Falcon (Pocket Studios 2003):

“Bucking recent trends in Star Wars gaming, Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast is good. Really good. It’s a balance of license and gameplay that brings honor to the Star Wars name and real Jedi action to your PC.” (Darth Destroyer 2002)

Certainly, the presence of the Star Wars license alone is no guarantee of quality, as unfortunate owners of the blatant cash grab known as Attack of the Clones for the Gameboy Advance will attest. Thus, as the Polygon review of Angry Birds Star Wars made clear, expectations were not generally high when news of this unholy alliance emerged:

“Such a high-profile combo may trigger a gag reflex in the throats of gamers and Jedi alike, and understandably so. Both have been thoroughly spurned by insipid tie-ins and cash grabs. But Rovio’s latest flies to the tender core of such cynicism and blasts it to stardust, with a payload of creativity, playfulness and reverence for the beloved sci-fi classic.” (Plante 2012)

The Guardian review of the Angry Birds spin-off expressed similar reservations, before concluding that Angry Birds Star Wars is simultaneously the best entry in the Angry Birds franchise, and the best Star Wars adaptation in some time:

“…Scepticism about such a partnership is understandable: when the world’s biggest entertainment brand ever meets the most popular brand of the mobile apps era, the danger is compromise: a game so hemmed in by brand guidelines that it forgets to be fun.” (Dredge 2012)

As many of the critics cited here have implied, a good Star Wars adaptation must first and foremost be a good game. For example, the IGN review of Jedi Outcast suggested that “not only is this one of the greatest Star Wars games I’ve ever played, it’s one of the best action games period” (Butts 2002), meanwhile, the Gamespot review of KOTOR made a similar point, “Knights is both an outstanding RPG in its own right and an excellent tribute to the Star Wars source material” (Kasavin 2003). Referring to LucasArts’ early 1990s heyday, when Lucasfilm’s games studio offshoot was casually churning out classics such as The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games 1990), Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (LucasArts 1992), and, of course, Star Wars: X-Wing (LucasArts Entertainment Company LLC 1993), Keiron Gillen had this to say in his KOTOR review:

“The irony is before LucasArts lost anyone with a designer’s brain in the company, they made some frankly astonishing videogames […] Because I love videogames, I love the great Star Wars games that came from this period, because they’re great videogames—not because they’re from that Galaxy a Long, Long way away.” (Gillen 2003)

Stating that “some games don’t need a license to be good”, the Eurogamer review of Rogue Leader emphatically refuted the idea that players are blinded by the application of a veneer of Lucas’ magic to an otherwise unremarkable game:

“Some have said that it wouldn’t be as good without the Star Wars aspect, that it’s a fairly mediocre space combat game, but to me that’s a ridiculous argument. Rogue Leader is the embodiment of Star Wars in a videogame. That is the point.” (Bramwell 2002)

The Game Informer review of Angry Birds Star Wars made a similar claim, suggesting that the spin-off is the series’ best, “and that’s not just because it’s Star Wars” (Reiner 2012). According to Reiner, the introduction of elements lifted from the movies has enhanced the game, resulting in “the series’ most creative levels to date”. The flip side of this argument is that the (over)use of familiar Star Wars tropes can actually harm a game, as illustrated by this excerpt from IGN review of Jedi Outcast:“

The game’s actually prompted a few discussions around the office about the use of licenses within games. […] the game uses a lot of the conventions (clichés if you’re on the other side of the argument) of the movies. I tend to think you’re sort of expected to know that going in. I mean, what’s a Star Wars game without a garbage masher level?” (Butts 2002)

7. Wars Not Make One Great!

So, what does make a Star Wars video game adaptation truly great? There is little doubt that the aesthetic qualities of a Star Wars game are an important consideration: in keeping with the movies on which they are based, the video game adaptations are generally expected to provide audio-visual spectacle. But, more than this, the sounds and images serve to conjure up memories of the films, as so many of the reviews considered here have suggested. Music, in particular, is known to evoke strong emotions, and strong emotional responses are apt to form into powerful memories. Humans also have an innate capacity to mentally encode images and recall memories associated with imagery much more efficiently than those encoded as text. This is unsurprising, since we have used pictures to convey meaning for many millennia longer than we have used the written word to capture our thoughts. The deployment of familiar sounds and imagery, then, is undoubtedly vital to any video game adaptation that seeks to evoke our memories of the movies on which they are based.

However, while there is evidence here to support Brown and Krzywinska’s assertion that critics place the greatest emphasis on games’ audio-visual qualities Brown and Krzywinska (2009, p. 92), it is also apparent that many critics consider story to be an important aspect of any Star Wars adaptation. Somewhat unexpectedly, adherence to the plot of the original movies is identified as a positive in several reviews of Angry Birds Star Wars, for example, with the Game Informer review noting that “the biggest surprise in Angry Birds Star Wars is its faithfulness to Star Wars’ story. The game follows A New Hope’s arc surprisingly well” (Reiner 2012). That the story elements of these adaptations should be privileged in this way this should not come as a surprise, however. The original movie’s arc (and, to some degree the overall structure of the original trilogy) was very deliberately modelled on the hero’s journey, as identified by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell 1949). In fact, Lucas has often referred to Campbell’s influence on the development of his space saga, describing the academic’s 1949 book as having a “wonderful life force” (Lucas, quoted in Henderson 1997, p. 7). However, in defining the structure of the journey undertaken by the archetypal hero in myth, Campbell’s work is not only ingrained in Star Wars, but also in how video games tell stories. The hero’s journey, or monomyth, is a well-worn template for game writers and, while such a formulaic approach to the creative process has its detractors, some version of Campbell’s monomyth continues to be taught to aspiring game designers. In Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design (Rollings and Adams 2003), for example, the authors distil Campbell’s original 17-step journey down to a more manageable and generalisable nine. There is the call to adventure, the meeting with a mentor, and an assortment of “test, allies and enemies”, culminating in a final ordeal: all of the key elements of Campbell’s journey are present in, and readily applied to, the narrative structure of a game. George Lucas’ galaxy is also populated by archetypes other than the hero. Like Campbell, Lucas has drawn heavily on the works of analytical psychologist Carl Jung, who identified a number of archetypal forms that he claimed were embedded in our collective unconscious. This shared understanding, buried in humans’ unconscious mind, is also where Campbell’s notion of the monomyth is also said to reside. It is possible, then, for the Star Wars movies and their ludic offspring to share a mythical ancestry, where the family resemblances are not merely aesthetic but, instead, relate to the underlying nature of the story being told. This may partially explain how a game such as Knights of the Old Republic, set thousands of years prior or the original film, can feel like Star Wars without slavishly recreating every celluloid story beat. Clearly, not every game that borrows from Campbell’s monomyth is related to Star Wars—far from it. However, a Star Wars adaptation that draws upon the same archetypal themes as the films seems more likely to evoke the essential qualities of the source material.

The question then arises of whether direct adaptations (including Angry Birds and portions of the Rogue Squadron games) or titles that merely take inspiration from the films (such as Knights of the Old Republic) fare best. Brown and Krzywinska, for example, confidently stated that “the best movie-games are able to communicate something new about their parent texts on a thematic level, rather than simply parroting the events of the film” Brown and Krzywinska (2009, p. 93). And yet, with so many well-received Star Wars games featuring a recreation of the famous Death Star trench sequence from the original movie, including the 1983 arcade cabinet, Super Star Wars, and Rogue Squadron II, one could be forgiven for thinking that this scene alone was essential to the Star Wars video game experience. Indeed, Morton (2018) used the many ludic recreations of the trench run scene to examine the possibilities for transmedia play in Star Wars adaptations, arguing that “transcribing the Death Star trench run from A New Hope to one of the many video games it appears in changes its meaning: the importance of the event is gleaned from one’s knowledge of the film” Morton (2018, p. 106). Thus, even this most direct adaptation of one of the most recognizable scenes from the movie is altered in its translation to video games form. Indeed, as Sommerfeld (2012) noted, many of the “direct” adaptations—such as the Super Star Wars titles that corresponded to each of the original trilogy films—take serious liberties with the source material. Can a title in which Luke single-handedly takes down a Sarlacc pit monster even be considered a direct adaptation of the original film?

Meanwhile, Angry Birds Star Wars arguably hews closer to the source material, at least in terms of story structure, than many other adaptations—but is it adherence to the template Lucas laid down in the 1977 movie that sets this small screen blockbuster apart? Probably not, given critics’ insistence that the Star Wars license alone is no guarantee of quality. Certainly, games that aim to recreate specific films—the much-maligned movie tie-ins—are amongst the worst reviewed titles of all. Meanwhile, the very best Star Wars games appear to be those that advance the state of the art, be it in redefining the Western RPG, as in the case of KOTOR, or elevating a previously successful genre to new heights, as with Angry Birds Star Wars. Perhaps this is why a game like Fallen Order fails to make the critical cut: with gameplay borrowed directly from other game franchises (Uncharted, Dark Souls), maybe Electronic Arts’ most recent adaptation is simply too derivative to be distinctively Star Wars. But this is where the delineation between an excellent game and a superior adaptation becomes problematic: is a faithful reproduction of the Star Wars universe more important than engaging gameplay or novel game mechanics?

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones on Gameboy Advance
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Perhaps, given the critical failure of the final entry in the cinematic Skywalker saga, it is fitting that now, at the very end, we return to the dismally received Game Boy Advance adaptation of Attack of the Clones. What this game demonstrates—perhaps more so than any other in the Star Wars (ion) canon—is that the ability to use the license is insignificant next to the power of good gameplay when it comes to adapting Star Wars. The truth is, the qualities of a great Star Wars game are largely the same as those of any great video game.

To cite this article: Barr M. The Force Is Strong with This One (but Not That One): What Makes a Successful Star Wars Video Game Adaptation? Arts. 2020; 9(4):131. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts9040131

Notes

1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Star_Wars_video_games.
2https://www.metacritic.com/pictures/best-star-wars-video-games-ranked/.
3One could argue, of course, that the Star Wars movies frequently boil down to confronting a “standard bad guy”, as is befitting of a story inspired directly by myths that typically culminate in such a confrontation.
4This is a question made all the more complicated by the transmedial strategy embarked upon by Disney following their acquisition of the Star Wars property—see (Brown 2019).

References

How video games have improved players’ well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic

The following is an excerpt from a new paper, Playing Video Games During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Effects on Players’ Well-Being, published in Games and Culture. In the paper, we identify seven ways that video games have helped players cope with lockdown during the pandemic, three of which are discussed below: agency, normalisation, and socialisation.


Agency

“It is a welcome distraction from the news, there’s a feeling of control within the context and confines of the game.”

This theme brings together responses relating to feelings of competence and achievement: “It gives me a sense of purpose. Something to work towards and a sense of achievement” (P394); productivity: “The reward system gives the illusion of productivity” (P115); and, fulfillment: “It’s been a very stabilising influence – having a hobby where I can practice and improve is very fulfilling, and having something satisfying to work towards has been important” (P26). As noted elsewhere, games are here compared favourably with social media: “It’s something ‘productive’, in that I have missions that unfold into more objectives. It’s like a fun check list to do and it makes me feel like I’m doing more than just scrolling mindlessly on social media or something” (P624); and more passive entertainment: “ feels far more fulfilling than just watching something on Netflix” (P399). Players also gain an otherwise lacking feeling of being in control from playing games: “It’s helped provide a weird sense of accomplishment and control” (P196); “I feel a better sense of control” (P250).

Player agency is widely considered to be a significant property of video games, and an intrinsic aspect of their appeal (Frasca, 2001; Domsch, 2013). This appeal is rooted in the feelings of competence (or efficacy) and autonomy (or personal agency) that games are apt to produce. According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT), competence and autonomy are, along with relatedness, the three basic psychological needs that humans must have satisfied to ensure well-being (Ryan and Deci, 2000). SDT is frequently used to understand motivations for playing video games (Ryan et al., 2006) and to help explain some of the positive outcomes associated with well-being (Jackson et al., 2012; Adachi and Willoughby, 2017; Reer and Kramer, 2018). Certainly, the theory provides a useful means of understanding why participants here connect playing games with improved well-being: games are addressing basic needs that are otherwise not being satisfied under lockdown conditions.

Normalisation

Participants noted that continuing to play video games gave them a sense of normality: “Playing video games has brought a sense of normality to everything” (P18); “…being able to play them like normal with more time a day for them just lets me maintain a comfortable sense of normalcy” (P599). Players report that games provide structure and routine, too: “Animal Crossing gave me a sense of routine; a world to go to at particular times every day”; “The routine in [Stardew Valley] helped fill in where my personal routine was gone” (P224). Including games in the daily routine also helps demarcate work life from home life, in the absence of a normal routine or commute: “I play at the end of the working day, it helps separate work time from non-work, a separation that used to be marked by commuting home” (P219); “A different stimulus from the working from home routines” (P222).

The routine in Stardew Valley helped fill in where my personal routine was gone
“The routine in Stardew Valley helped fill in where my personal routine was gone”. Image: stardewvalley.net

In their guidance for coping with coverage of the coronavirus, the American Psychological Association suggests that “maintaining social networks can foster a sense of normality” (APA, 2020). Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that citizens should “try to do enjoyable activities and return to normal life as much as possible” during a crisis (CDC, 2020). The social aspects of gaming are discussed below, but the emphasis on maintaining a sense of normality is clear in both pieces of advice. As well as providing a means of socialising, it is apparent that players also see playing games as a continuation of their normal lives, and an enjoyable experience, too.

Socialisation

“It has helped to keep me in touch with friends who I can’t see in person, and has kept me from being completely isolated at home. Some friends have started to play video games with our gaming group when they had not expressed an interest before. This has been very positive – it’s good to be able to share your hobby with people!”

Finally, the social nature of video games pervades the data relating to well-being: “…allows me to socialise with friends nearly every day” (P60); “It’s made it easier for me as I live alone. I can enjoy playing games online with family/friends and it’s a good way to stay social” (P200); “I’ve also been playing a lot of multiplayer games with friends […] and it’s helping everyone combat loneliness and isolation” (P18). Players also feel connected, or part of a community, e.g., “I felt connected to a community of people who I could talk to” (P21). Family cohesion is also enhanced: “Video games have had a really positive impact on our family relationships as we are playing a lot of games together” (P218); “I’ve also been gaming with my sibling, which we did not previously do regularly, and that weekly social contact has been very valuable for us.” (P29).

The social aspects of playing video games, while not always at the forefront of the public consciousness, are well documented in the literature. The social capital (Bourdieu, 1986; Putnam et al., 2000 accumulated through online multiplayer gaming, for example, has been associated with improved well-being, health, and happiness (Reer and Quandt, 2019). Game-based socialisation has also been found to be associated with reduced feelings of loneliness, as expressed by participants here (Kaye et al., 2017). Of particular relevance here is the finding that playing games online can provide both online and offline social support (Trepte et al., 2012).

Barr, M., & Copeland-Stewart, A. (2021). Playing Video Games During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Effects on Players’ Well-Being. Games and Culture. https://doi.org/10.1177/15554120211017036


Works Cited

Adachi, P. J. C., & Willoughby, T. (2017). The Link Between Playing Video Games and Positive Youth Outcomes. Child Development Perspectives, 11(3), 202–206. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12232

APA. (2020, March). Five Ways to View Coverage of the Coronavirus. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/pandemics

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. In John Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241–258). Greenwood Press.

CDC. (2020, July 6). Coping with a Disaster or Traumatic Event. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://emergency.cdc.gov/coping/selfcare.asp

Domsch, S. (2013). Storyplaying: Agency and Narrative in Video Games. De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110272451

Frasca, G. (2001). Rethinking agency and immersion: Video games as a means of consciousness-raising. Digital Creativity, 12(3), 167–174. https://doi.org/10.1076/digc.12.3.167.3225

Jackson, L. A., Witt, E. A., Games, A. I., Fitzgerald, H. E., von Eye, A., & Zhao, Y. (2012). Information technology use and creativity: Findings from the Children and Technology Project. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(2), 370–376. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2011.10.006

Kaye, L. K., Kowert, R., & Quinn, S. (2017). The role of social identity and online social capital on psychosocial outcomes in MMO players. Computers in Human Behavior, 74, 215–223. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.04.030

Putnam, R. D., & Putnam, P. and I. M. P. of P. P. R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon and Schuster.

Reer, F., & Krämer, N. C. (2018). Psychological need satisfaction and well-being in first-person shooter clans: Investigating underlying factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 84, 383–391. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.03.010

Reer, F., & Quandt, T. (2019). Digital Games and Well-Being: An Overview. In R. Kowert (Ed.), Video Games and Well-being: Press Start (pp. 1–21). Springer Nature.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54–67. https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

Ryan, R. M., Rigby, C. S., & Przybylski, A. (2006). The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach. Motivation and Emotion, 30(4), 344–360. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-006-9051-8

Trepte, S., Reinecke, L., & Juechems, K. (2012). The social side of gaming: How playing online computer games creates online and offline social support. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(3), 832–839. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2011.12.003

The Educator Perspective

Video games are not widely used to develop graduate skills, but they are utilised by some educators to support the teaching of subject material. Using games in such a manner does not preclude skills development, however, and those educators who leverage games to develop students’ disciplinary knowledge understand this potential, as the examples in the following excerpt from Chapter 6 illustrate.

The practice of game-based learning

Steve Connelly is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Connelly delivers a module entitled ‘Sustainable Development: A Critical Perspective’ to an increasingly international cohort of students. Remarking that he has “never been one for standing up in front of the class and lecturing for two hours”, Connelly describes how his approach to teaching the module incorporated short lectures augmented by student exercises and discussion, with students presenting material based on, for example, their home town. However, despite this enlightened approach to delivering the module, Connelly began to observe a fall in student participation. Furthermore, students were struggling to understand sustainable development as “a political and very contested idea” with complicated underlying policy processes. And so, drawing on his knowledge of problem-based and experiential learning, Connelly decided to try something different:

I took the crazy idea of seeing whether getting people to do something that was supposed to be sustainable, in real time in the class, would actually be a better way of doing these things. The idea of using Cities: Skylines was born, which to me was insane, because I don’t do computer games.

Acknowledging this dearth of gaming experience, Connelly approached learning technologist Bryony Olney for support. Now Higher Education Training Consultant for Pearson Education, Olney immediately thought of the SimCity series (Maxis 1989-), which might offer opportunities to examine sustainability as applied in a city context. However, after some investigation, it emerged that Cities: Skylines (Colossal Order 2015) had been used by urban planners in the US for consultation exercises and planning competitions. So, as Olney puts it, “if it was favoured amongst the urban planning and design fraternity, I thought that was probably quite a good place to start”. With no previous experience of playing Cities: Skylines, the learning technologist was forced to spend many long hours with the game: “a hardship, as you can imagine”. Olney’s goal was to determine if Cities could be used to illustrate the model underpinning Connelly’s module: the ‘Connelly Triangle’, which considers sustainability in terms of economic, environmental, and social concerns (Connelly 2007). And, while certain social factors were absent – the game lacks any representation of religion or ethnicity, for example – the financial and environmental aspects of the Connelly Triangle were better served by the game’s mechanics. Olney and Connelly remained concerned, however, about “what black box coding, what assumptions the game had made”; for example, the assumption that renewable energy sources, while ecologically clean, are always very expensive. A great many more such assumptions are built into the game’s logic, and often not made explicit to the player. Furthermore, aside from the absence of religion and ethnicity, the game necessarily eschews numerous other factors and processes that influence the planning and sustainability of a city, such as gentrification.

Steve Connelly at the University of Sheffield uses Cities: Skylines to teach his ‘Sustainable Development: A Critical Perspective’ module. Source: paradoxplaza.com

However, the limitations of the game as a system – echoing Kurt Squire’s early experiences with Civilization III (Firaxis Games 2001) – became a focus of the learning. Instead of accepting the version of the world that Cities: Skylines presented, the students were encouraged to critically reflect on and discuss how the game differed from reality. Olney summarises the role of the game as follows:

So, really, the use of the game was a lever, it wasn’t the be all and end all, it wasn’t the thing that everything hinged on, it was kind of a pivot point for them to reflect on some of the theoretical concepts that they were exploring in the sessions.

What is interesting to note here is that while Cities: Skylines enhanced the students’ understanding of subject-specific material, the game also allowed them to exercise their critical thinking and reflective learning. This was exactly what Connelly had hoped to achieve: in addition to the “substantive content” he also intended that students developed “the political and the critical understanding of how contested the concept was”.

While Connelly and Olney found Cities: Skylines better suited to their needs, the venerable SimCity continues to enjoy widespread use in education. Vanessa Haddad, Assistant Professor and chair of Liberal Arts, General Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) Erie in New York, US, has used the game to teach an introductory sociology course, for example. While her experience was marred somewhat by technical challenges – discussed below – Haddad describes the exercise as “semi-successful”. With the aim of helping students understand how factors including law, healthcare, economics, and politics intersect in relation to sociological theory, Haddad observed that students did gain something from playing the game:

Students were able to make connections between very basic functional perspectives – conflict theory, that kind of thing – and seeing what the interplay between social structure looked like in a stimulated environment. And then they had to make decisions about those things. So, it was a good starting exercise.

Heinrich Söbke, of Bauhaus-Universität Weimar in Germany, uses SimCity 4 (Maxis 2003) in delivering a technical infrastructure management course. Just as Haddad’s goal was to illuminate the intersections between myriad factors, the aim here is to help students understand the many interdependencies in a complex system. Using the game, Söbke can demonstrate that controlling technical infrastructure systems “requires the observation of the effects of these interdependencies and immediate reaction to system changes”. Students play the game in groups, with each group’s screen projected on to the wall, allowing everyone in the room to monitor everyone else’s progress. Söbke runs three supervised sessions: an introductory play session, intended to familiarise students with the game; a session based on a given scenario, where the city zones are already laid out; and, a free play session where students must develop their own scenario from scratch, according to a given specification and assessment scheme. At the end of this session, students are debriefed, and the game status assessed. Söbke is satisfied that the students come away with an understanding of infrastructure planning and the need to “react immediately to an imbalanced development”.

Söbke highlights the time pressure under which the students must operate – simulating real-world conditions – while emphasising that teamwork is essential to achieving a positive outcome. One member of the group might deal with the moment-to-moment micromanagement of the city, while another identifies the measures required to keep the system in balance, while still another monitors and reports back on the other groups’ progress. Thus, playing the ostensibly single-player SimCity in this configuration exercises collaborative and communicative skills in addition to the critical thinking and reflection that playing the game normally demands.

Aside from SimCity, Vanessa Haddad uses a number of indie games in her teaching, including Two Interviewees (Mauro Vanetti 2016) and Every Day the Same Dream (Paolo Pedercini 2009). Two Interviewees is intended to expose the often-hidden gender bias that is embedded in the recruitment process, as Haddad explains:

It shows gender bias in interviewing a male and a female character. You have to make the same decisions for both of them and it shows through empirical research what the outcomes of those decisions would be for both the male and the female character. It’s a really great discussion point for students, for showing what they might be up against in the future and of thinking about how they present themselves in the marketplace.

Haddad has used the game to teach rhetoric, for example, in relation to existentialism. As part of her sociology class, she also uses Two Interviewees to help students develop an “empathetic understanding” of concepts such as labour alienation. She believes that in higher education, much of our time is spent talking about terms and concepts, as presented in books, and that students want something more:

Often, I have found students are looking for more of a connection beyond just what’s in our books and what we are trying to present in a lecture. So, I bridge the gap with that game into an emotional understanding of something that’s very Marxist but also a reality that students might themselves face, should they not make decisions that are in line with who they are and their identity.

Every Day the Same Dream - molleindustria.org
Vanessa Haddad’s use of Every Day the Same Dream is documented in 100 Games
to Use in the Classroom & Beyond
(2019), edited by Karen Schrier. Source: molleindustria.org

Sherry Jones is a subject matter expert and instructor at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, Colorado, US, who has utilised everything from MOOCs to escape rooms in her teaching and has made extensive use of games. Back in 2013, Jones obtained a grant to develop and deliver a MOOC that taught rhetoric and composition. What was different about her approach was that, while there was a supplementary textbook for the course, it was not required reading. Instead, Jones suggested over 50 games from which students should choose to play in order to learn about rhetoric and composition. Each week, students were asked a series of questions about their selected game, related to how the rhetoric of the game was expressed. The approach builds upon Ian Bogost’s work on the procedural rhetoric of games (Bogost 2010):

We put [Bogost’s procedural rhetoric] into action but we made it full-scale, so we said, ‘if you examine what this game is doing, considering what the narrative is doing and concerning the specific mechanics that are implemented, what kind of political message is this game expressing, what kind of social message is this game expressing?’

Jones now uses games to teach moral philosophy and cites Fallout Shelter (Bethesda Game Studios 2015) as an example of one of the many games she incorporates into her classes. Inspired by the McCarthyism of 1950s US politics, and the anti-Communist paranoia that fuelled fears of nuclear Armageddon, Fallout Shelter provided Jones’ students with an opportunity to study the theory of egoism, which suggests any action is morally justified if it serves self-interest. In the world presented by the Fallout series, egoism – and its capitalist and corporatist manifestations – has apparently led to the destruction of civilization and, yet, still governs the actions of the surviving few.

Sherry Jones uses Fallout Shelter in her Moral Philosophy classes. Source: falloutshelter.com

Over time, Jones’ approach has evolved from treating games as texts to be studied, to using them as a form of assessment. As Jones remarks, “no teacher should think, yes, I’ll just give a game to a student and they’ll just learn something. Well, they play games on their own, they don’t learn anything”. Instead, Jones teaches her students the relevant theory in a more conventional manner, through lectures, readings, and discussion, then asks the students to play a particular game without any specific direction. The students make notes and take screenshots as they play, assembling a corpus of data about the game. Then, Jones asks the students to identify which of the taught theories is manifested in the game, using the materials they have gathered to produce a report that demonstrates how, for example, the game illustrated a specific virtue. Jones elaborates:

So, we do very deep analysis of the game, but the point of this exercise is that the students were already taught theory before they were getting to play the game. I never tell the students, ‘hey this is a theory you’re supposed to get from the game’. I just tell them, you need to play the game, with a scholarly mind.

Nudging her students towards the upper reaches of Bloom’s taxonomy, Jones finally asks them to redesign their game so that it either represents an alternative philosophical position, or reinforces the philosophy already present in the game by incorporating additional elements. Such elements might include a new narrative, additional characters, or modified game mechanics.

This post originally appeared on Stanford University’s Tomorrow’s Professor.

Barr, M. (2019). The Educator Perspective. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 157–180. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_6

The Games Industry Perspective

Through interviews with the developers behind commercial titles including Borderlands, Portal and Lara Croft, Chapter 7 explores how such games are designed to exercise certain skills and competencies in players, which may also be valuable beyond the games. Here’s an excerpt…

Do commercial game developers think of their games as having the capacity to develop useful skills in those who play them? Or, do they believe video games present players with opportunities to learn something about the world, or about themselves? Might developers consciously include such opportunities in their games, despite their remit to entertain and – in most cases – generate revenue? To explore some of these questions, games industry personnel responsible for developing the games used in the previously described study were interviewed. The interviews began by asking developers if they had considered that their respective games might develop useful skills or experience in players.

Paul Hellquist, Creative Director and Lead Designer on Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software 2012), is clear that the development of such skills was not a goal on that game. However, in retrospect, Hellquist identifies how the player’s application of critical thinking is embedded in the game’s design:

That was certainly not a goal, to make a game that encourages people and helps them learn how to collaborate or whatever. But I definitely can see how the game could help with that. Certainly, critical thinking was important to me. My goal wasn’t to teach or to train, but from my game design standpoint, critical thinking was important to me.

Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source: http://gearboxsoftware.com
Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source: http://gearboxsoftware.com

Hellquist describes how forcing the player to think critically about the weapons and other loot that they obtain in the game is actually part of the fun. During the development of Borderlands 2, this philosophy led to an internal debate about just how much information players should be given about each item they encounter. For weapons, in particular, there was an argument in favour of reducing their on-screen statistics to a single ‘damage per second’ figure, in a manner similar to Diablo (Blizzard North 1996). Hellquist resisted such a move, explaining that because attacks on an enemy in Diablo requires nothing more than a click of a mouse, it makes sense to reduce such a transaction down to a simple ‘damage per second’ calculation. In a shooter like Borderlands 2, the outcome of an enemy encounter is affected not only by weapon statistics but also by factors related to player skill. So, from a game design perspective, reducing weapon statistics down to a single ‘damage per second’ stat made little sense. Instead, players were to be presented with a number of different stats for each weapon, requiring a degree of critical judgment to determine their relative merits:

What I thought was a really important and core element of the fun of looting in Borderlands was forcing the players to actually look at two weapons and say, ‘Hmm, is it more important for me to have a faster reload time or a higher rate of fire? How do I compare those two things? Which one do I think, as a player, will result in a higher damage per second?’ I wanted those questions to be unknown, so that players could do that critical thinking and make their own decisions.

One of the intended side effects of obfuscating the absolute merits of in-game items was to encourage online debate within the player community, which Hellquist feels paid off. Certainly, the game has inspired innumerable online forum posts, player guides, and wiki entries which address – in significant detail – the strengths, weaknesses, and strategies associated with the weapons, characters, enemies, and maps featured in the game. Such collaborative efforts are not uncommon in online gaming communities, of course, and discussion around the more opaque titles is particularly lively.

Karla Zimonja, Director on Gone Home (The Fullbright Company 2013), also connects that game with critical thinking. Here, players are provided with incomplete – and perhaps conflicting – information, which also forces them to think critically:

I feel as if there should be a certain amount of critical thinking that Gone Home could help develop, sure. We definitely tried to not fill in all the blanks, fictionally, but instead to allow room for the player to make the mental leaps themselves. This investment of mental work is much more enjoyable and interesting than just giving the information would have been. Learning is fun and working to understand a thing is super rewarding and satisfying when you succeed.

For Matt Charles, Producer on Borderlands 2, having players develop new skills was a personal goal, although, like his colleague Hellquist, this goal was closely coupled with a desire to make the best possible game.

I believed that I had noticed that really great games challenge you in a new way, and a challenge is really just an opportunity to learn something new. Or, it’s a mechanic presented in a new way or maybe it’s a recurring mechanic from another game presented in a creative way, in an unexpected way. But either way you’re learning, right? You’re being challenged by it; it feels fresh and new.

So, for Charles – echoing a sentiment expressed by the likes of James Paul Gee and Raph Koster – part of what makes a game fun is the learning it is designed to elicit. This also chimes with what Zimonja says above in relation to Gone Home: learning is fun. As Charles goes on to suggest, if a game feels stale, “that probably means that, well, we’re not really engaging the player, they’re not having fun, they’re not learning anything new”. In line with Hellquist’s comments above, Charles acknowledges that teaching players anything that might be applicable beyond the game was not the objective on Borderlands 2:

The mission for Borderlands 2 was pretty much more, better Borderlands. We’re trying to expand the audience, we’re trying to gratify more people to a greater degree than we did with the first one, and we’re going to do that by refining the things that worked, adding new things to keep people entertained and maybe grow the audience a little bit, and honestly cut the stuff that doesn’t work.

However, Charles is optimistic that some of the design decisions made on Borderlands 2 might have facilitated personal growth in those who played the game:

Maybe they related to a particular character that had a struggle that was represented in a light that they had never considered before. You know, some way of empathising with somebody struggling with something that had never really occurred to them. That’s what I’d consider a useful experience, that they might take with them out of the game.

The empathetic learning potential of games to which Charles alludes here is a phenomenon that has already generated interest amongst academics and is touched on elsewhere in this book. In Chapter 4, for example, participants involved in the study on which this book is based discussed how playing games such as Gone Home had presented opportunities to explore new perspectives. Gee’s Identity Principle, which states that “learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones” (Gee 2007 p. 67) is also relevant here, as is the growing body of research on games’ potential to develop empathy (Bachen et al. 2012; Belman and Flanagan 2010; Harrington and O’Connell 2016). What is interesting to note here is that game developers are aware of such potential.

Mike Ambinder is Principal Experimental Psychologist at Valve, creators of both Portal 2 (Valve Corporation 2011) and Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation 2007). Ambinder’s role involves applying knowledge and methods drawn from the discipline of Psychology to game design; for example, “to foster cooperation or communication among players or to manipulate visual attention on screen or to design experiments for in-game economy”. However, like Hellquist and Charles, Ambinder’s focus is entirely on making the best possible game, rather than creating an experience that will develop skills:

The underlying goal is always to make something that is entertaining to our customers. Make something they enjoy playing. And that’s a nebulous description, but it ends up being something that players will come back to and continue to play over time.

That said, Ambinder can also see potential for exercising skills such as cooperation in Valve’s games, citing the acclaimed zombie-themed multiplayer titles in the Left 4 Dead series (Valve Corporation 2008-):

Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 were specifically designed to enforce cooperation. That was a very specific part of the game design where we did not want to encourage players to go off on their own, so there are consequences for doing that. And we wanted to encourage players to work together, so there are game mechanics that are implemented that directly work to that end. So, when a player is incapacitated, some other player has to save them. You get higher bonuses for getting your entire team to the end of the level as opposed to just one person surviving, for example.

The Left 4 Dead games are designed to encourage cooperation. Source: http://steampowered.com
The Left 4 Dead games are designed to encourage cooperation. Source: http://steampowered.com

So, for Ambinder, it comes down to “what kind of game we’re making and what kind of behaviours we want to foster”, citing a King of the Hill type scenario as an example where encouraging cooperative behaviours would be counter to the goals of the game: “your game mechanics would not encourage that and then you wouldn’t get to see those benefits”. In general, though, Ambinder suggests it may be possible for games to develop useful behaviours in players:

But I think that with games, they are interactive and dynamic and adaptive and constantly changing. So, you do have the ability to elicit certain forms of behaviour that are ancillary to playing the game, but actually end up having better benefits outside the game.

However, Ambinder is very clear that neither he nor Valve would make any such claims about their games’ potential to develop useful player behaviours without investigating them thoroughly, citing an “innate scepticism about claims I haven’t directly investigated”.

Speaking to Daniel Bryner and Jeff Wajcs, level designers on Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Crystal Dynamics 2010), a similar picture emerges: while the game was not designed with the intention of developing useful skills in players, the application of certain skills is central to the game’s design. Bryner explains that the game was built “from the ground up for couch co-op“, meaning that players must communicate constantly in order to succeed – as was observed and commented upon by participants in the experimental study. Wajcs also highlights the cooperative nature of the game:

The Guardian of Light is a cooperative game that encourages players to work together to solve its puzzles and working cooperatively is another valuable skill in the real world.

Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source: http://laracroftandtheguardianoflight.com
Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source: http://laracroftandtheguardianoflight.com

Wajcs is clear that The Guardian of Light was not intended to develop attributes like communication skill, resourcefulness, or adaptability, expressing surprise that this may be the case. He can, however, see the potential for the transfer of related skills, such as problem-solving:

Certainly, using a bomb to knock a boulder onto a pressure plate is not a skill that has many real-world applications, but problem-solving and ‘thinking outside the box’ are two very valuable skills in a wide range of fields. Perhaps in solving these puzzles, the players are waking up and exercising specific problem-solving muscles in their brains that they could then apply in other contexts.

However, while the developers “worked very hard to add plenty of moments of player cooperation“ to the game, Wajcs notes that the potential to subvert this spirit of cooperation might result in a life lesson of a rather different sort:

At the same time, The Guardian of Light also encouraged players to ‘grief‘ each other relentlessly. My favorite moments in that game have been using bombs to knock my partner into a pit of spikes or letting go of the rope and letting my partner fall into lava. Hopefully, learning to never trust another human being ever again was not a lesson that players were taking away from our game!

This post originally appeared at Gamasutra.

Barr, M. (2019). The Games Industry Perspective. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 181–204. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_7

Reflections on Game-Based Learning

In Chapter 5, the empirical data presented in previous chapters are discussed, exploring how this work aligns with established theories of game-based learning. A range of graduate attributes are considered in turn, and ancillary benefits such as stress relief are also discussed. In this excerpt, the relationship between video games and the development of the ‘Ethically and Socially Aware’ attribute is examined.

The attainment of this attribute is particularly difficult to evidence. The qualitative data, however, suggest that students see the potential for games to increase their ethical and social awareness via two means: by experiencing alternative perspectives through the games and by interacting with players from different backgrounds in the context of playing games together. There are clear connections with several of Gee’s principles here, including the Cultural Models about the World Principle’ and the Identity Principle. Participants’ comments also recall points made in The Civic Potential of Video Games (Kahne et al. 2009 pp. 51-53) wherein the authors call for educators to help young people “reflectively engage with video games” to increase civic and political awareness. They also note that educational games such as Real Lives (Educational Simulations 2001) can “help foster empathy and understanding of the lives of others and teach about dynamics associated with different political systems, economic structures, cultural beliefs, and religions”. This idea very closely mirrors what George Eliot had to say about novels, which she believed could offer an excellent understanding of moral sentiment: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies” (Eliot 1881). Eliot suggested that a good novel could provide insight into the true social, moral, and political beliefs of the “social classes”, noting that we “want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness” [1]. In assuming the role of, for example, the border official in Papers, Please (3909 LLC), video games might well be considered “a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”, as Eliot says of art more generally. There is also a potential connection with Francis Bacon’s belief that “Reading maketh a full man, conference [discussion] a ready man, and writing an exact man” (1625). Games, as evidenced here, can certainly form the basis of useful discussion, so perhaps ‘playing’ could be substituted for ‘reading’ in Bacon’s aphorism: playing maketh a full person.

Kahne et al. also cite the commercial title Democracy (Positech Games 2005) as an example of a game that might be of interest to educators tasked with developing students’ social awareness. Rusnak (2015) has shown that a purpose-built serious game can be used to support affective learning and change students’ attitudes to social issues (in that case, homelessness). Based on interview responses given here and bearing in mind that the proportion of games selected for this study that were intended to relate directly to this attribute was small (two of eight), it may be that there is still untapped potential for commercial games to be used in this capacity.

However, it is important to recall the participant who rightfully decried the heteronormative homogeneity of game protagonists: diversity of representation is generally lacking in contemporary commercial video games. Female protagonists are seriously under-represented in mainstream video games and people of colour or those from the LGBTQ community are even less common as playable characters (Jayanth 2014). The study here did include games with female protagonists (Borderlands 2, Portal 2, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light) and depictions of LGBTQ characters (Gone Home) but it is notable that titles such as Team Fortress 2 don’t, by default, include any female player characters.

Napstablook
Undertale (Toby Fox 2015) features a number of LGBTQ and non-binary characters. Source: lgbtqgamearchive.com

This is a potential issue to explore in any future work and it is likely that greater emphasis should be placed on games that represent more diverse characters, cultures, and identities. In order to avoid excluding or discouraging students for whom the stereotypical straight, male protagonist is not relevant or appealing, it would be important to include more diverse options in the games used in a higher education context. Furthermore, including such diversity can only help expose students to alternative perspectives and cultures where they might ordinarily choose to accept stereotypical player characters. This was the reasoning behind including a game such as Gone Home, and the comments of Participant N (“I’m not a lesbian, so…”) suggest that there is certainly potential for an exercise such as that described here to provide new perspectives for students to consider and new identities to explore. And, while mainstream games featuring LGBTQ characters are few – notable exceptions include Dragon Age: Inquisition (BioWare 2014) and The Last of Us (Naughty Dog 2013) – there are numerous smaller budget ‘indie’ games besides Gone Home that offer greater diversity, including Undertale (Toby Fox 2015) and Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall 2017). Indeed, while video games are not celebrated for their rich tapestry of representation, recent work by Adrienne Shaw has revealed LGBTQ game content exists in games various forms (Shaw & Friesem 2016). Shaw’s LGBTQ Video Game Archive includes hundreds of examples of “non-normative” content in video games and work such as this may help reveal potential for games to help educate and inform players about LGBTQ culture. As noted by Participant O in Chapter 4, LGBTQ – or even female – characters rarely feature as the playable protagonist in mainstream games, but Shaw’s work suggests that greater diversity may lie below the surface. The widespread occurrence of homophobia and transphobia (not to mention racism) in game culture is worrying but, if presented in suitable terms, such content might aid discussion and understanding of these problematic points of view – not least because, given the right game, players may experience the negative consequences of regressive attitudes for themselves.

Altmer in Skyrim often make racist remarks.
The Altmer, or High Elves, of Skyrim may be heard making overtly racist comments throughout the game, primarily in relation to the supposed ‘supremacy’ of their own race. Source: elderscrolls.fandom.com.

Such opportunities may, indeed, extend to issues such as racism: in common with good science fiction, games can use allegory to tackle weightier issues such as race. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios 2011) is one example of a mainstream game that permits the player to observe the effects of racial discrimination ‘firsthand’, albeit in a limited sense (Simpson 2015). It may sound facile to suggest that a player may learn something by encountering tensions between fictional races in a game such as Skyrim. However, games not only offer the obvious benefit of an immersive and interactive environment where the player’s actions can have consequences; when played collectively as a group, the shared nature of the experience can also provide an opportunity to discuss the issues encountered and to reflect on different players’ actions and the consequences thereof.

[1] Dr Steve Draper, whom the author must thank for making this connection between games and Eliot’s remarks, maintains a set of notes and links to further reading at http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/localed/eliot.html

Barr, M. (2019). Reflections on Game-Based Learning. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 127–155. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_5

The Student Perspective

In Chapter 4, interviews with students involved in the game-based intervention are summarized. Each participating student was first asked if they felt that playing the selected video games over the course of the semester had helped develop any useful skills or provided useful experience. Following this open question, each of the graduate attributes under examination was considered in turn. The participants were able to articulate, to varying degrees, how playing the games had exercised all of the attributes, including communication skill, adaptability and resourcefulness, but also their ethical and social awareness, critical thinking and investigate skills. In the excerpt below, the degree to which playing the games improved the students’ confidence is considered.

Based on the university definition, several themes were coded as being related to the Confident attribute, including leadership and social skill. When these aspects of the definition are considered, participants had a substantial amount to say about games and confidence, most of it positive (“Yes, definitely in my case, I was beginning to gain more confidence over time” – Participant S). One participant, responding by email, was effusive about the confidence-enhancing properties of video games, especially where playing with other people was involved:

Definitely in the times in which there were others in the video game lab and we had to work together, confidence was really tested as these could be people I’d never met before. (Participant F)

The same participant went on to relate his previous game-playing experience to his real-world confidence, citing Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA), League of Legends (Riot Games 2009) as an example:

I know for a fact that a lot of the confidence I have today has been built by talking and working together in chat rooms when teaming in online games such as League of Legends et cetera. Mainly because you don’t just have to be a nice person, but you need to prove to the group that you are competent, sharp, and good at what you do. (Participant F)

League of Legends - Ocean Rift
Participating in online multiplayer games such as League of Legends was an opportunity to develop confidence, according to some students. Source: leagueoflegends.com

For Participant H, confidence was gained from the sense of achievement that video games can produce in the player:

I feel like, after I play, I feel more confident.

Interviewer: Really?

Yes, I don’t know, maybe it’s because they give you achievements to complete. So definitely that.

Relating confidence to the aspect of the university’s Experienced Collaborators attribute which states that graduates should “contribute positively when working in a team”, Participant H explains:

Mainly, the confidence comes from being able to see that I was able to complete a task on my own but also to know that I wasn’t a burden to the people I was in co-op with. I actually had the drive to do my best, so I was really satisfied after I completed a game and I see that I haven’t done a bad job. It makes me feel a lot better. I’m a lot more convinced about what I can do.

Interpersonal and social skills improving over the course of the lab sessions was a feature of several other participants’ responses, including Participant L “…definitely as I went along, I got a lot more confident, a lot more comfortable just going in and playing a game with a few people”. Other participants elaborated:

Yeah… obviously it kind of ties in because [I’m] a first year student coming to uni, and with the video game study – I’ve become much more confident, just talking to people, and not being afraid to just start conversations and just ask people stuff. (Participant M)

I guess it was good practice for, like, being in a social area, talking to people, like ‘oh, can you help me with this?’ In the multiplayer games, if I needed help, I’d just be like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ and somebody would help me. (Participant O)

Another participant, who stated “when I play video games I tend to just play with my friends”, connected developing the confidence to speak to others with the ability to lead, noting that the labs required him to play with those outside his existing circle of friends:

So, when you open it up to people you don’t know very well at all, it sort of gives you that nudge […] to go for it, to be the first person to speak, to be the first person to take leadership of the team and devise a strategy, devise a plan. […] It gives that sort of… it gave me the confidence to be the first person to speak anyway. (Participant K)

Leadership was mentioned specifically by several participants. One participant recounted how she assumed the role of leader after the previous de facto leader left during a Borderlands 2 session:

…suddenly I was the only person playing who had actually been in that part before and suddenly I had to take up the mantle, as it were, and be like ‘well, I think it’s over there because we’ve done that and X, Y, Z, and that’s where the map is pointing. So, you kind of have to step up and say, ‘well, this is the knowledge I have and be willing to share so that we as a team can not die’. (Participant J)

Borderlands 2 co-op
Assuming a leadership role while playing games such as Borderlands 2 was said by several participants to develop confidence. Source: kotaku.com

This need for somebody to be confident enough to assume the role of leader was identified by other participants, too:

The confidence to be the first person to say something and be the person to say ‘oh, you do this’. Like, the leadership, throwing yourself into it, especially when everyone else was not speaking, to be the first person to go ‘OK, so, maybe we should have a plan, have a strategy?’ I sort of found that a lot easier as the weeks went on, to be the first person to say, ‘look guys, this is what we need to do, this is where we need to be headed’. (Participant R)

Another participant describes how the unexpected opportunity to lead was a boost to her confidence:

When you figure out the bits, like when you can actually do something, and you can, like, tell other people what to do, that’s quite good because you feel like you can lead a bit. (Participant D)

There were few instances of participants rejecting the idea of a link between confidence and game play altogether, but there was some scepticism about the usefulness of any such link. While Participant Q offered only a flat “No” when asked if such a link existed, Participant B was noncommittal (“Yeah, maybe”). Participant I, meanwhile, was unconvinced of the transferable benefits: “Well, I’m more confident talking about games! [laughs] I don’t really think that it impacted on my confidence as a person.” Participant E noted that they felt their confidence improved as they played the game, but suggested that this was true of any activity that may be practiced:

I don’t think it’s the game itself that helps you gain confidence but the more you play it, the more confident you feel […], it’s just like you improving when you play it more and more and more, so that’s just like it comes from you… so it’s just practice.

Barr, M. (2019). The Student Perspective. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 99–125. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_4

Playing Games at University

In Chapter 3, an experimental study is described, in which students were randomly assigned to either a game-playing intervention group or a control group. The intervention group were asked to play selected video games over the course of a semester, while the control group were not. The students’ communication skill, resourcefulness and adaptability were measured at the beginning and the end of the semester, and differences in attainment between the two groups compared. As described in the chapter, the gains in skills attainment for the game-playing intervention group were significantly greater than those for the control group. These data are analysed in detail in the chapter, but the excerpt below details the games selected for use in the study.

Selected games

Games were selected with input from colleagues in the games industry and academia, who were presented with a list of graduate attributes and asked to suggest commercial titles that might exercise each. This list of games was then filtered through practical concerns including cost, compatibility with available hardware, and quality. A poor-quality game is of little utility here: well-received titles are more likely to be representative of those that players would choose to play on their own time, and a particularly poor game is likely to impact negatively on the participants’ willingness to engage in the study. While game quality is somewhat subjective, aggregated review scores published on sites such as Metacritic are used by industry and consumers alike to determine a game’s excellence (Graft 2011). Metacritic scores – which convert the scores awarded by critics to games, films and music into a convenient, if opaquely calculated, percentage value – are not without their critics (Dring 2010) but they undoubtedly provide an easily quantifiable means of determining the relative merits of a game. For the purposes of this study, no game with a Metacritic score of less than 80 was considered, with scores ranging from 82 to 95. A brief description of each of the selected games is provided below.

Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software 2012) is a cooperative role-playing first-person shooter game, which allows up to four players to “team up with other players for online co-op goodness”. Importantly, the game also allows for LAN (Local Area Network) multiplayer, meaning the cooperative elements function without an internet connection where institutional firewalls prohibit access to games servers. The game also permits players to drop in and drop out as required. This allowed participants who arrived after others had already embarked on a mission to join the team without being forced to wait for the beginning of the next mission or requiring the others to start again from the beginning. One player, however, must host the game, to which the other players then connect.

Borderlands 2
Figure 3.1: Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source: http://gearboxsoftware.com

Borderlands 2 players work together to obtain loot and weaponry while battling a range of foes against a colourful cartoonish backdrop and attendant story. A variety of play styles are supported through the choice of character classes presented to the player, ranging from a tank-like “Gunzerker” to a stealthier assassin. The emphasis is very much on cooperation and, as such, there are no overtly competitive elements, although players receive points for completing missions that they may use to ‘level up’ their character.

Minecraft

Minecraft (Mojang 2011) is a procedurally generated sandbox game with construction, exploration, and survival elements. In single player mode, players are free to explore the world and collect (‘mine’) resources such as stone, wood, and metal to create (‘craft’) a virtually limitless range of buildings, tools, and weapons. Multiplayer mode is similarly non-prescriptive in terms of what it permits (or requires) players to do: the main difference is that the world is shared, so players may choose to work together, often on very large collaborative projects (see ‘All of Denmark virtually recreated’ 2014). Here, a Minecraft server was created to facilitate player cooperation in a persistent world that permitted all participants to share the same space and did not require an individual player to host the game.

Minecraft
Figure 3.2: Players cooperate on some construction work in Minecraft. Source: http://minecraft.gamepedia.com.

The game server was left running indefinitely, with participants logging in from their individual workstations as and when they arrived in the lab. The persistent game world meant that structures constructed by players, along the lines of that seen in Figure 3.2, could be used and extended (or, indeed, destroyed) by anyone, and returning players were not required to start from scratch each time. The persistent, shared nature of the world also provided greater scope for more ambitious collaborative efforts, given the larger pool of collaborators and increased cumulative duration of play.

Portal 2

Valve’s Portal 2 (Valve Corporation 2011) is described by the developer as “a hilariously mind-bending adventure that challenges you to use wits over weaponry in a funhouse of diabolical science”. The game features a particularly robust and inventive cooperative mode, which requires two players to work together to traverse a series of challenging virtual spaces. Both players may create a pair of joined portals, through which either player may pass, thus opening up possibilities for reaching new areas and creating opportunities for physics-based interactions with the environment. For example, in order to advance through one cooperative level, the first player must create a pair of portals for the second player to continually fall through in order to gain momentum until they exit the portal with sufficient velocity to reach a raised platform. Cooperating players are afforded their individual views of the action via a split screen, such that a player may observe what their partner is doing while controlling their own on-screen avatar. In order to aid collaboration, players are also granted the ability to ‘point’ to important aspects of the game world, for example, to indicate where they believe their partner should go next.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

The cooperative, isometrically presented Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Crystal Dynamics 2010) also places emphasis on cooperation to solve puzzles and progress. The game is something of a departure from previous titles featuring the eponymous heroine, which are traditionally branded as Tomb Raider games and typically feature a third-person perspective and single-player gameplay. For the Lara Croft titles, a fixed isometric view of the world is presented, and the game is intended to be played with a friend. One player assumes the role of the gun-toting Lara while the other plays as Totec, a Mayan warrior who comes equipped with a spear that is useful for creating impromptu ladders and bridges.

Lara Croft
Figure 3.3: Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source: http://laracroftandtheguardianoflight.com

Cooperative players share the same screen (although online co-op is an option in most versions of the game) and for this study both players were provided with a game console-style controller. This arrangement was intended to provide a more convenient means of cooperative play than crowding two players around a shared keyboard. The game’s design clearly encourages verbal communication between players, often taking the form of one player solving the puzzle at hand and explaining to the other player what is required of them. Of course, if the solution to the puzzle is plain to both players it is still beneficial, and usually essential, for the players to communicate their intentions. Figure 3.3 provides a simple example of the cooperative nature of the gameplay, where Lara has used her rope to create a precarious-looking bridge for Totec to cross the spike-filled pit below. Once Totec has crossed, he will be required to create a bridge for Lara to follow him by throwing his spear into the wooden planks that adorn the wall behind the pit. Only Lara possesses a rope and only Totec can throw spears – spears too weak to support the weight of the hulking warrior himself – meaning that this and numerous other obstacles may only be traversed by means of carefully planned teamwork. While the demise of a player’s on-screen avatar results in little more than a brief inconvenience, there is an element of competition introduced by a points system that rewards players for their individual success in collecting artefacts and dispatching enemies. This dynamic does not lessen the fundamentally cooperative nature of the game, but it does add some small significance to the quick-fire negotiations that mediate the allocation of spoils such as health.

Warcraft III

Released in 2002, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (Blizzard Entertainment 2002) was the oldest game used in the study. The rationale for its inclusion was based on its strategic multiplayer mode, which may be played over a local network without an internet connection. While Warcraft III was not mentioned specifically by the panel of experts involved in selecting the games, a number of its derivatives were, namely: the ubiquitous World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment 2004) and Dota 2 (Valve Corporation 2013).These are quite different games, belonging to different genres: Warcraft III is a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game whereas WoW is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) based on the lore of the RTS series which preceded it; Dota 2 is a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game and sequel to a mod (‘modification’) of Warcraft III. However, certain shared elements – the online cooperation of WoW and the strategic combat of Dota 2 – made Warcraft III an interesting candidate for inclusion in the study.

Warcraft III is played on a pseudo three-dimensional map with up to four races (Orcs, Humans, Night Elves, and Undead) vying for domination. Each player controls one of these races and must collect resources – gold and lumber – to develop and construct buildings, units, and weaponry with the ultimate aim of obliterating their opponents from the map. The game’s multiplayer mode supports team play, meaning that participants in the study could work together (even as different races) to defeat a computer-controlled adversary. Unlike Lara Croft, many different multiplayer configurations are supported, from the previously described two-versus-one scenario through to any combination of human and computer teams.

Warcraft III
Figure 3.4: A Night Elf (turquoise) encampment comes under Human (blue) attack in Warcraft III. Source: http://us.blizzard.com/en-us/games/war3

Participants were instructed to play cooperatively (i.e. on the same team) in pairs or groups. If sufficient participants were available, competitive play was permitted (for example a team of two participants against another two) but cooperation was encouraged.

Team Fortress 2

Valve’s Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation 2007) is the multiplayer-only sequel to a popular mod of the 1996 first-person shooter, Quake (id Software 1996). While it does feature in-game purchases – players may opt to buy particular upgrades and other content – the core game is free-to-play, making it an attractive option where budgets are limited. The free-to-play tag is often synonymous with lower quality titles; however, the game was also critically well received, with a Metacritic score of 92. Crucially, multiplayer games may be hosted on a local server, again avoiding the need for an internet connection to facilitate matchmaking.

Gameplay in Team Fortress 2 is, as one might expect, team based. Players may join the game at any time by dropping into the current match and choosing to side with either the RED (‘Reliable Excavation & Demolition’) team or the BLU (‘Builders League United’) team. Similar to Borderlands 2, players may select from a range of character classes that allow for experimentation with different play styles, ranging from the slow but formidable Heavy to the elusive Spy.

Team Fortress 2
Figure 3.5: BLU versus RED combat during a Capture the Flag game in Team Fortress 2. Source: http://wiki.teamfortress.com

The structure of the game sees competing teams thrown into conflict on a time-limited or objective-based map. When a team meets the victory conditions – or time runs out – the next map is loaded, and a new objective pursued. Each map operates in a pre-determined game mode, such as Capture the Flag, Payload, or King of the Hill, with the objective of each mode explained by means of a short video shown at the beginning of play. In Capture the Flag mode, for example, both teams are tasked with stealing a briefcase of intelligence from the depths of the opposing team‘s base and transporting it back to their own, with the briefcase standing in for the titular flag. Players must therefore decide how much emphasis to place on defence of their own intelligence versus making an offensive move to capture the enemy’s briefcase.

Regardless of game mode, the team-based gameplay means that communication is critically important. At a basic level, communication may comprise little more than desperate pleas for assistance when an enemy agent gains the upper hand. However, a successful team will communicate in a more sophisticated manner to convey strategies and status updates, often under the direction of a de facto leader.

Papers, Please and Gone Home

Described by its developer as a “dystopian document thriller”, Papers, Please (3909 LLC 2013) is a BAFTA-winning game in which the player is cast as an immigration officer, deciding whom to let in and whom to turn away from the border of the fictional former communist state of Arstotzka. The player performs this role by critically (and increasingly quickly) assessing the documentation presented by each potential immigrant in light of the ever-changing rules and regulations imposed by the state. As well as exercising critical judgement and dealing with change, the player is presented with an opportunity to reflect on the ethical and social consequences of their in-game actions. A player may reflect on how their actions impact the lives of the fictional immigrants and citizens of Arstotzka (terrorist attacks are a distinct possibility, should the wrong person be permitted access to the country) and also on the personal price to be paid by the family of the player’s character. Failure to meet state-imposed quotas for processing immigrants results in reduced pay and, ultimately, a choice to be made between paying fuel bills or buying life-saving medicine for a family member.

Papers, Please
Figure 3.6: Players must analyse evidence presented in Papers, Please and respond accordingly. Source: http://papersplea.se

Fullbright’s Gone Home (The Fullbright Company 2013) might be described as a first-person interactive story or adventure (the designers term it a “story exploration video game”) wherein the player, assuming the role of a young woman returning to her family home after a yearlong absence, explores an apparently abandoned house. In doing so, the player may uncover a number of storylines, the most significant of which relates to the protagonist’s younger sister. There are no explicit goals and interaction is relatively limited – such games are occasionally, and somewhat derogatorily, referred to as “walking simulators” – with plot developments uncovered by reading discarded letters and examining ephemera such as concert ticket stubs and television viewing guides.

These two single player games differed in nature from the majority of the titles used in the study, which emphasised cooperation and communication in a multiplayer environment. However, both games may be viewed as requiring the player to exercise critical thinking, and to demonstrate resourcefulness and adaptability. While these latter attributes were measured here by quantitative means, it was thought useful to discuss the possibility of these games being used to develop less tangible attributes – such as ethical and social awareness – with participants in the interviews that followed.

Barr, M. (2019). Playing Games at University. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 65–73. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_3

Graduate Attributes and Games

In this chapter, I explore the ideas that underpin so-called ‘graduate attributes’ – the skills and competencies that students are said to develop at university. In the short excerpt below, I begin to examine the links between video games and the development of such attributes.

Despite the challenges associated with embedding graduate attribute development, de Corte (1996) argues that the best learning environments exhibit many features that relate directly to the development of generic attributes – features that higher education institutions can, and in many cases do, encourage. According to de Corte, such environments should provide a “good balance between discovery learning and personal exploration, on the one hand, and systematic instruction and guidance, on the other” while “allowing for the flexible adaptation of the instructional support to accommodate individual differences and stages of learning” and for “social interaction and collaboration”.

A further issue to consider is the usefulness of the term “graduate attributes”, especially when applied across multiple subjects or disciplines. The definition of such an idiom can be somewhat ambiguous, and prone to change over time. Haigh and Clifford (2011), for example, state that graduate attributes might be at the heart of what they perceive as a necessary shift to “focus on an agenda of personal responsibility, on individual and social interior attributes and to move away from [education’s] present focus on exterior systems”. In other words, they see a move towards attributes that relate to graduates’ moral and social consciousness rather than skills that have traditionally appealed to employers.

So, what have video games got to do with graduate attributes and learning? Quite a lot, it may be argued. Take, for example, the characteristics of a life-long learner, as identified in the Candy report: are not explorers of game-based worlds driven by a “sense of curiosity”? Many players relish the opportunity to uncover secrets and solve puzzles in intricate open worlds such as those offered by games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD 2017) and No Man’s Sky (Hello Games 2016) or series including The Elder Scrolls (Bethesda Softworks 1994-) or The Witcher (CD Projekt Red 2007-). Other parallels between these characteristics of life-long learning and the capabilities exercised by playing video games may be observed in titles that are built upon the need to decode and critically evaluate information. In games such as Tacoma (Fullbright 2017), Observation (No Code 2019), and Her Story (Sam Barlow 2015), for example, the player is fundamentally tasked with assembling a narrative from disparate and often inconsistent pieces of information.

Observation (No Code 2019). Source: nocodestudio.com

The language used by de Corte to describe an optimal learning scenario, wherein opportunities for graduate attribute development are embedded, is directly relatable to the design of the best video games. Many commercial games rely on just this sort of balanced approach to learning by exploration and systematic guidance to lead players of differing experience and ability through the game. The aforementioned Breath of the Wild, for example, encourages the player to experiment with the complement of special powers bestowed upon the game’s hero, Link, in order to learn how they might be used to solve environmental puzzles. Countless multiplayer games from Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation 2007) through to the Save the World component of Fortnite (Epic Games 2017) are fuelled by the “social interaction and collaboration” espoused by de Corte. To a person familiar with games and their design, it seems clear that there is an argument to be made in favour of using video games as a means of helping to develop graduate attributes. Furthermore, if games are already capable of developing such attributes in players, they could be used to facilitate relatively low-cost, student-centred graduate attribute ‘courses’, sidestepping the operational difficulties identified by Drummond et al.

Barr, M. (2019). Graduate Attributes and Games. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 35–37. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_2

Video Games and Learning

In Chapter 1 of my book, Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, I explore how a range of established theories of learning relate to video games, including experiential learning, social learning and mastery learning. In the following extract, I look at how constructivism manifests in games.

Constructivism refers to the active process through which learners may themselves construct new knowledge, by applying existing knowledge to new problems. Describing what he terms “radical constructivism”, Glasersfeld (1995 p. 18) states that “knowledge, no matter how it be defined, is in the heads of persons […] the thinking subject has no alternative but to construct what he or she knows on the basis of his or her own experience”. Bruner (1960 p. 17) states that prior learning “renders later performance more efficient” through “what is conveniently called nonspecific transfer or, more accurately, the transfer of principles and attitudes”. In this way, Bruner argues, such learning “consists of learning initially not a skill but a general idea, which can then be used as a basis for recognizing subsequent problems as special cases of the idea originally mastered”.

Savery and Duffy (1995) offer a number of instructional principles that support what they term the “philosophy” of constructivism:

1. Understanding is in our interactions with the environment

2. Cognitive conflict or puzzlement is the stimulus for learning and determines the organization and nature of what is learned

3. Knowledge evolves through social negotiation and through the evaluation of the viability of individual understandings

Savery and Duffy consider the first of these propositions to be the core concept of constructivism (their emphasis on the ‘in’). Indeed, this this seems a neat summation of the idea, but the second and third components are also useful, and serve to illustrate constructivism’s close coupling with the sort of learning games can stimulate. What is a game without some “cognitive conflict or puzzlement”, after all? Related to this point, Savery and Duffy also note that “it is the goal of the learner that is central in considering what is learned”, which aligns with another aspect of video games: that they – to varying degrees – often permit the player to set their own goals or, at least, attempt to tackle the game’s challenges at their own pace. In their third proposition, it is interesting to note the importance that the authors place on social aspects of learning – these are discussed in relation to games below.

As noted, ‘constructivism’ is not a clearly delineated concept, and nor can it be attributed to a single scholar. Alongside Dewey (1938) and Montessori (1949), Piaget (1956) and Papert (1980) are two of the names most closely associated with constructivism in the literature. However, their ideas about constructivism are not identical. Papert suggests the modified term ‘constructionism‘ which, like the constructivism described by Piaget, characterises the concept of learning as “building knowledge structures” while also adding “the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe” (Papert and Harel 1991). Piaget and Papert are both constructivists, then, but Papert is also something else and it might be problematic to assume that ‘constructivism’ carries the same meaning for all when applying it to video games, or any other pursuit. A further issue associated with some of the seminal work produced on constructivism – especially that described by Piaget and Papert – is its focus on children; it is mostly applied to adults only by extrapolation. This book is concerned primarily with video games’ effects on adult learners, and so it should also be noted that Piaget’s theories have been successfully adapted and applied to tertiary level education (for example, see Wankat and Oreovicz 1993).

In gaming terms, one could see constructivism taking on multiple meanings. First, it might refer to the learning that occurs as a player turns their attention to the process of developing their own game, or perhaps more commonly, creating their own modification or extension of a game, or using built-in tools to construct new levels or in-game items. While the player here is undoubtedly drawing on their existing experience of playing video games – they must possess some understanding of the form and conventions associated with games before they may construct their own – this is a highly literal application of the constructivist concept, more akin to Papert‘s notion of constructionism. A stronger interpretation might acknowledge the process of learning to play a game based on previous gaming experience, and on real world experience: games are conceived and designed in the real world, even if their settings or themes are otherworldly. Thus, our understanding of the world around us may also be used to inform our play. This idea may be taken further, and reversed: in learning about the world around us, may we not, in constructivist terms, draw upon experiences gained through video games? Interactions with other players, for example, may serve as an analogue for effective communication in the real world.

If learning through constructivist means relies upon prior experience, then the recollection, or retrieval, of memories associated with such experience is an important factor. Karpicke and Blunt (2011) state that “because each act of retrieval changes the memory, the act of reconstructing knowledge must be considered essential to the process of learning”, demonstrating that “retrieval practice is a powerful way to promote meaningful learning of complex concepts”. In showing that practicing retrieval is as effective, or more so, than elaborative learning techniques (such as the drawing of concept maps while studying source material) Karpicke and Blunt’s work suggests that the act of recalling what we have learned is as important as how we store this information in the first place. It is conceivable that, at a low level, video games may also excel at providing players with reason to practice such retrieval, leveraging the same effects that Karpicke and Blunt elucidate, in order to teach players how to play. When a new game concept is introduced – for example, a new skill or ability that one’s player character obtains – this new knowledge is not typically intended to be stored away for later use, to be examined by means of an in-game test at some point in the possibly distant future. Instead, the player is usually expected to start retrieving this knowledge almost immediately, and often repeatedly, until it becomes second nature. The player may have constructed their own knowledge by observing the mechanics of the new game concept – it is not necessarily spelled out for them – but it is in the repeated act of retrieval that they truly understand how to apply it.

Barr, M. (2019). Video Games and Learning. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 13–16. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_1

Oscillate Wildly: Teaching Physics with Portal 2

While I’m more interested in incidental learning from video games, as opposed to teaching with them in more formal ways, I recently had the opportunity to go into a local school (through the STEM Ambassador programme) and try using Valve’s Portal 2 to teach Physics to a group of secondary school students.

The students were in year S2 (around 14 years old in Scottish schools) and were all girls: this was part of a ‘Girls into Physics’ event co-ordinated by the Institute of Physics. Such events are intended to help address the gender imbalance in Physics at all levels, from school through to university and into industry. The girls here were approaching the point where they must decide which subjects to pursue, and the event was designed to help ensure Physics is on that list of subjects.

Teaching Physics with Portal 2

My Portal 2 set-up. The projector would not have looked out of place in the game’s Aperture Laboratories.

The way the event ran was as follows. The students moved between demonstrators in groups of around 12 at 20 minute intervals. Aside from my own Portal set-up the event featured all sorts of interesting experiments and displays, each manned by suitably knowledgeable and enthusiastic demonstrators from the Institute of Physics and the STEM Ambassadors programme. I came prepared with an educational copy of Portal 2 already installed on my laptop and a lesson plan adapted from those offered by US-based Physics teacher Cameron Pittman on collisions, momentum, and oscillations (see http://physicswithportals.com). My laptop was plugged into an impressive-looking projector and I awaited my first group of students.

While I had prepared the exercise, built a custom ‘test chamber’ in which to conduct experiments, and become familiar with the editing tools that ship with the educational version of the game, I was nervous about my lack of a Physics background. When I say I lack a background in Physics, I mean to say I haven’t studied it for nearly 20 years and even then it was competing with Chemistry and Maths for the coveted title of My Most Hated Subject. These fears were not entirely unfounded.

Portal 2 Companion Cube

A Portal 2 Companion Cube

Overall, the experience was fairly positive. Feedback from the students was good (they seemed to have fun, at least) but I have doubts about what the teachers thought of the endeavour. While I had crammed just enough Physics theory to get through the exercises, I feel I could have done more with a proper command of the subject. While 20 minutes seemed like a short amount of time to play with, both of my groups finished working through the lesson plan before time was up: a real Physics teacher could have used the few minutes that remained to ad lib a little, while I had essentially reached the limit of my knowledge of Science. As with most teaching, too, I think that I could have conveyed what little I did attempt to cover rather better if I had a deeper understanding of the material. You can almost always tell when a teacher is slightly winging it.

Another observation I would make is that my laptop and projector set-up was not ideal for a group activity of this sort. While the students for the most part were quite engaged with what was happening on screen, it was inevitable that those furthest from the keyboard and mouse would eventually feel somewhat disconnected. The more confident students were also able to dominate to some degree. We changed up who was ‘in the driving seat’ a number of times per session but in 20 minutes it is impossible to allow 12 people to get some hands-on time – especially when factoring in some time for each student to master the game’s controls. A better approach, hardware availability permitting, might be to have the students work on their own machines, probably in pairs. If I did something like this again, I’d probably also try and learn some more Physics in advance of the class or, better still, run it in collaboration with an actual physicist. Finally, while I did make the point that it took somebody with a grasp of STEM subjects like Physics and Maths to make a game like Portal 2 happen, I think I could make this point all the more convincingly if I allocated some time to talk about how these subjects relate to work in the video games industry. For example, a few words about the success of Kim Swift, lead designer on the original Portal, might be of particular interest to secondary school girls thinking about their subject choices.

The Smiths

The Smiths: not relevant to 14 year old girls in 2013?

An aside: my Portal 2 test chamber was entitled ‘Oscillate Wildly’. Turns out 2013’s 14 year old girls don’t pick up on references to The Smiths.