A cringe-worthy a display of calculated contrarianism perhaps, but there’s no doubt that the writer of Edge’s April 1997 review of DOOM was onto something when they wrote: “If only you could talk to these creatures, then perhaps you could try and make friends with them, form alliances… Now that would be interesting.”
Those much-memed closing remarks speak to the fact that even as early as the 1990s, players were forming (or at least had the desire to form) deep, meaningful and personal relationships with digital characters – ones that could be as just as important to them as their real world relationships.
The connections players make with videogame characters are of great interest to Gabriel Elvery, an LKAS PhD funded researcher at the University of Glasgow. Elvery, who will be delivering a workshop at the upcoming PlayAway Festival, is exploring how and why we become so attached to virtual worlds and their residents, and what we can learn from these interactions.
In particular, Elvery is concerned with how Fantasy (the genre) and the fantastic (a literary theory proposed by Bulgarian scholar Tzvetan Todorov) influence our emotional responses to the games we play.
“My project is looking at the fantastic in video games and thinking about what the Fantasy worlds that we become immersed in say about the world in general and about us, ” Elvery told us.
“I first thought I was studying Fantasy video games. You know, like stuff with dragons and all that, which is really cool. But then I realised actually what I was looking at was the relationship between the player and the game – whatever the content of the game is.”
The difference between Fantasy and fantastic has to do with this relationship. While “Fantasy” tells us about the genre of a game (think elves and magic), the “fantastic” has to do with the kind of experience we have while playing it.
“The moments I focus on – which are fantastic, rather than Fantasy – are the moments when you’re so immersed in a game that just for a minute, maybe you forget that it’s a game. And you’re maybe treating the characters as if they were people.”
Elvery believes that videogames’ ability to trick us into suspending our disbelief is one of the reasons that they can affect us so deeply.
“It’s because you feel something for those little pixels, it makes you feel like it’s real. It makes you feel like it’s important. And that’s the bit that I’m interested in. Because I also think that it touches on our relationship with technology anyway, and the place of technology becoming so enmeshed in our lives. It’s a mutually reinforcing relationship. It’s not something we have to be afraid of. It can facilitate emotion, it can facilitate connection. And I think that’s what I’m really excited about.”
The Secret Social Lives of Players
Given the increasing prevalence technology has in our lives, Elvery thinks it’s important that we reconsider how we perceive our relationships with technology and try to better understand the value and emotional impact that technologically-driven experiences can have on us.
“If you’re kind sitting holed up in your room playing a videogame, it looks like you’re being antisocial. But actually there’s so much going on,” they explain.
“When you play a game and you get really immersed in it, it’s not the case that you’re opting out of life and you’re not doing something. You’re experiencing another mode of being through the technology. And as technology becomes more and more developed, that will be something that becomes more prominent for us in the future.”
Indeed, the kind of player experience Elvery is researching couldn’t be further from antisocial. On the contrary, Elvery believes that many players enjoy games specifically because of the opportunities for social interaction they provide.
“What I’m looking at is a term called parasocial relationships or parasocial interaction. That’s something that’s come out of media studies in the 50s, and what that’s about is how we interact with characters on a screen.”
The term was developed when researchers noticed that television viewers were forming personal attachments to the new talk show hosts of the day. Speaking from a box in the corner of their living rooms, these hosts addressed their viewers directly and casually, like they might a real life friend.
Of course, the interactive nature of video games takes these kinds of relationships with on screen personalities to a new level.
“With video games, this is maybe even beyond that because the characters can actually answer you back depending on how they’ve been programmed to do so. So we can almost use these kinds of games, not to replace social interaction, but as a supplement to it.”
“When you talk about these characters, it’s a really safe way of talking about what you think about things and other people in general because you can’t hurt them. It looks like you can upset the characters, but you can reload, you can start again. So they’re a nice kind of proxy for thinking about how we interact with each other and what kind of social exchanges mean to us in a wider context.”
Games Studies Now
We’re sure you’ll agree that this is fascinating stuff, as is all the research being carried at the Games and Gaming Lab at the University of Glasgow. Established in 2019, the Lab represents a coming together of academics from various disciplines, each bringing their own expertise to the study of games. The Lab has hosted a mixture of online and in-person events, including a guest lecture from Glasgow-based developers NoCode about space in games and a workshop on the literary history of Dungeons and Dragons.St
As well as more communication between academic disciplines with regard to video games, Elvery hopes to see a more fluid relationship develop between game makers and game researchers in the future. Rather than just collecting feedback from academics after a game has been released, Elvery believes developers could benefit from involving academics in the production stage due to the different set of skills they can bring to the table.
“What would be really cool would be to think about the skillset of the academic as well as the content. So when you do criticism and analysis, it doesn’t just need to be in the form of a review or an article after the game has come out.”
“I’m sure all the developers do get nervous about what critics have to say about their games. What are their games saying about things? These digital fantasy worlds that we construct; what is that saying about our world in general?”
“If they brought researchers in, maybe to consult and to look at the games as they came along and say ‘oh this bit I’d change’ or ‘that bit could use some adjusting’ that could be a really interesting relationship. Because it’s a different skillset perhaps to what their narrative writers have. It’s about looking at the thing and thinking about what it’s doing and maybe what could be changed.”
Gabriel Elvery will be speaking in more detail about parasocial relationships in games, as well conducting a live playthrough of Speed Dating with Ghosts, in their workshop Beyond Parasocial Interaction as part of the PlayAway Festival on Thu 25th Feb 20:00-21:00.
The Games and Gaming Lab also has a series of events lined up for the festival that will offer a primer on what games research is all about. They will also take place on Thu 25th Feb between 11:30 and 15:15.
To read more about Elvery’s research and their related discussions around mental health, check out their blog Digital Fanastic.