Wednesday, 29 June 2016

In the Virtual 'Field': Researching Video Games


The opening scene of Dear Esther, perhaps the 'original' walking simulator game

Now that all the coursework for my Masters is finished, I’ve been engrossed in independent research for my dissertation, which is due at the end of August.
My research is about video games.
Video games are increasingly popular and influential cultural products. The video game industry is now worth $99.6 billion globally – which is more than books, music and cinema respectively – and is growing at 8.5% each year. The diversity and innovation that this industry is now producing has rightfully bolstered the status of games as ‘art’. More than ever, they are deserving of in-depth research. But compared to other cultural products, research is significantly lacking.
My dissertation is looking at the environments of video games. In particular, I’m focusing on a type called ‘walking simulator’ or ‘exploration’ games. What sets these titles apart is how players interact with the game, where many traditional game mechanics are avoided (e.g. shooting/fighting, counting scores, winning/losing, player death, character customisation). Instead, these games engage players and tell stories mainly by providing a rich environment for the player to explore.
Like in real places, these virtual environments have a rich sense of place because they are the setting for a body of information and meanings – sights, sounds, memories, emotions, histories, symbols, and so on – that are unique to that site. Unlike in many traditional games, in which their setting is simply a backdrop for the actions the game wants you to perform, walking simulators are based on the idea that the stories and emotional power present in well-designed, immersive game environments alone can give the player a (potentially more) engaging experience.
What fascinates me is the way that virtual environments can enable such deeply affecting experiences, given that they are literally made up of computer code, manipulated through the minds and actions of their designers and players.
To understand how this happens, my research has three main questions at its core:

- What spatial techniques do designers use to construct a sense of place in video games?
- What agency do players have in the designed game world? What is the power relationship between designers and players in experiences of the game world?
- How is the player’s own identity brought into the world of the video game?

Like all geographers undertaking primary research, I’m doing fieldwork to find the answer to these questions. Though, as you might imagine with a topic like video games, my ‘field’ isn’t the traditional grassy wetland on a rainy day. It is more of a virtual one.
In three posts over the next three days, I’ll be talking about the methods I’ve used to gather data in this unconventional ‘field’. These include laying the groundwork for my research by attending game events, listening to talks by game designers, and making contact with people in the industry; interviewing award-winning, internationally-recognised game developers; and, perhaps most excitingly, a novel technique of playing video games and recording my experiences.
I’m ultimately hoping that my research can break new ground in the knowledge and study of video games, and give rise to some new threads of thinking within geography and other humanities/social sciences.
Over the next three days I’ll explain how.

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You can read the research proposal I wrote for my dissertation here.

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