Gaming Horizons Unpacked

This is a cross-post with the Institute of Play Blog

Working for an organization like the Institute of Play, it’s easy to forget that this field is still relatively new. But the fact is that game-based-anything is a young, continually-evolving field. As it grows, it’s important to stay abreast of the organizations and individuals who are asking the questions and conducting the research that pushed this field forward. As such, we’re happy to participate in spreading the word about the work of Gaming Horizons, a research initiative based out of the University of Leeds.

Gaming Horizons is funded by the EU Research and Innovation program, Horizon 2020.Their goal is to drill down into gaming from a critical perspective and gather evidence that will inform decision making during the next wave of Horizon 2020 funding.

Earlier this year, Carlo Perrotta and his team interviewed Institute of Play staff as part of an effort to collect qualitative data from stakeholders across the multi-faceted games industry, including representatives from AAA gaming studios, educators, parents, and organizations that use applied game design for social good, education or innovation. They have since released a research publication summarizing their findings, and in an interest to unpack the research and make it more accessible to our audience, I interviewed Carlo about what he saw as the key takeaways.

What follows is an interview that took place over phone and email. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Carlo and his team plan to present these findings to Horizon 2020 later this year.

Dalton Gray: You mentioned that your research has uncovered that gaming holds a very unique place in our culture and society. Can you share an overview or some examples that illuminate this role? 


Carlo Perrotta: Our research simply documents the richness and complexity of perspectives, hopes, fears and sometimes biases in the contemporary ‘gaming discourse’. Our study represents, to use a game development term, a vertical slice of the current gaming universe: a cross-sectional snapshot which, while not representative of the entire landscape, provides a glimpse into the main concerns shared in various layers of such landscape by key stakeholders (educators, players, researchers, policy makers and, of course, developers). Broadly speaking, we found that games are still trying to overcome some prejudices, but their cultural and economic role is increasingly prominent. It’s not just the much-vaunted magnitude of the gaming industry compared with other entertainment sectors, but the fact that the gaming world has seen important cultural debates (some decidedly unsavoury) unfold over the past years, which have ‘overflowed’ in other areas of culture, academia and business. I am referring to things such as gender and race relations in the media, the use of digital means and data to engineer intense engagement, usually for commercial reasons, the emergence of new forms of labour where corporations rely on users’ passion and commitment to create value – take the long tradition of game modding, or the way a platform like Steam automates and distributes curation responsibilities across its community.

In our research, we also noted signs of a growing ‘ethical sensibility’: an acknowledgement that gaming has great potential for cultural expression and for those seeking to encourage positive, progressive changes in society. In this regard, the notion of ‘narrative-based design’ was often used by our interviewees as synonymous with a more responsible and ethically sensitive approach to the medium. This interest in narrative is mirrored in debates in the mainstream and independent gaming industry, and narrative-oriented games like That  Dragon, Cancer  and Virginia (1.)  are expressions of a design movement that seems to point to an alternative approach to gaming. This approach does not shy away from sensitive, ‘serious’ issues and is often fueled by an ethical worldview.

Our study also highlighted a growing awareness of gaming’s ‘darker’ side, illustrated by recent trends in the mainstream industry in which game design is blurring the boundaries between leisure and gambling, in an effort to create ever more engaging, even addictive, experiences.

DG: Knowing this, what should stakeholders such as designers, developers, funders and educators be doing? 

CP: Our findings suggest that the ‘instrumental’ view of games – as tools used to elicit interest, motivation etc. – is often called out for being blunt, ineffective and, at worst, manipulative. Traditionally, institutional interest in games has revolved around the idea of games ‘for x’: for learning, for motivation, for identity development, for social cohesion etc. This has led to a situation where the sort of games developed under institutional conditions (e.g., those funded by the European Commission through H2020, which is our frame of reference) are overwhelmed by arbitrary constraints and accountability criteria, which undermine the creative process. In many ways this is a self-defeating move. Our main message is that we should probably question whether an excessive emphasis on accountability is compatible with the nature of this medium.

“Our main message is that we should probably question whether an excessive emphasis on accountability is compatible with the nature of this medium.”

DG: You had mentioned that part of the efficacy of games as tools for social change, or education is related to the quality of the game and the artistry of the piece itself. What data points to that as an imperative for applied gaming studios? 

CP: Following on from the previous question… we talked to people in the gaming industry, in policy, in education and research. We did 87 interviews and collected more than 100 hours of recorded materials, which was coded by a team of eight researchers in three European countries.  Our method was qualitative and based on an in-depth approach in which we asked critical questions, and then probed and reflected on what was being said in the moment to moment flow of the interview. In addition, we looked closely at how funding calls in H2020 are put together, analysing the language used by policy makers and unpacking the biases and the ‘unsaid’ assumptions.

I wouldn’t call our results ‘imperatives’, but surely a number of recurring themes and concerns kept popping up during the fieldwork: people were very sceptical of serious games, i.e. those bluntly and perhaps too explicitly devoted to pro-social or educational outcomes, and instead kept coming back to the notion of games as complex experiences which demand, as you said, artistry and creativity alongside technical ingenuity. We found that when games transition from the entertainment domain to other ‘institutional’ domains (education above all), something gets lost. The anxiety for measurable outcomes and accountability that permeates these institutional domains dampens the actual potential of games to ‘do good’, in what is a rather self-defeating move. While this is something othersnoted in relation to serious gaming, we also found that games’ potential is no longer exclusively associated with ‘fun’. For example, the idea of using games to make learning and instruction ‘more fun’ is something that no longer resonates with many people in education. While fun is a notion inextricably tied with games. Going beyond fun means accepting that games, as experiences, rather than ‘hooks’ to elicit some other socially accepted outcome, can make people uncomfortable, raise their awareness, highlight their own biases, move or upset – and all of these scenarios can have great cultural and educational value, but they rely heavily on things like artistic and creative integrity.

DG: Finally, what’s the message for foundations and funders of applied gaming initiatives?


CP: Gaming is a complex cultural medium, not just a collection of technical tools and design principles that can be mobilized at will to achieve applied outcomes. We should keep pursuing ways in which games can be used for the ‘greater good’, but this noble intent must find a way to engage meaningfully with criteria of cultural and artistic value. Notions of cultural value are never fixed – they are always contested and negotiated. Nonetheless, funders cannot escape them if they are truly committed to unlocking the social potential of this medium.

We should keep pursuing ways in which games can be used for the ‘greater good’, but this noble intent must find a way to engage meaningfully with criteria of cultural and artistic value.

DG: Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on this fascinating work! Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

CP: Here is a taster of what people told us at last year’s GDC: