Gaming Horizons Final event – videos online

Videos from the final project gathering in Breda last month are now available on You Tube. The event was recorded and the various sessions are below. Each session covers a topic, ranging from an introductory talk describing the objectives and the general context in which the project exists, to more specific presentations about our key outputs, such as the scenarios and the manifesto. The videos are a great opportunity to get to know Gaming Horizons and familiarise with the work that we have done over the past 14 months.

Don’t forget to click on the Playlist icon to browse the videos






Gaming Horizons’ data released as Open Access

Gaming Horizons participated in the Open Research Data pilot, which is an important aspect of Horizon 2020. Anonymised data from our interviews and our discourse analysis has been deposited on the Zenodo Repository. Discovery metadata in the form of keywords has been incorporated. The datasets have been assigned unique digital object identifiers (DOI) which will act as persistent and unique identifiers.

Links and DOIa are as follows:

Interview transcripts

Corpus dataset


Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice ‘not a psychosis simulator – but the story of a person’

By Viola Nicolucci 


Hellblade is an adventure game set in Scotland in 800 AD, during the Viking invasion. The main character, Senua, is a Celtic warrior belonging to the Picts, a tribal people that lived in Northern Scotland during the Iron Age and the early middle ages. However, what sets her apart is that she suffers with psychosis, which manifests itself through symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions.

The game was developed by Ninja Theory, an indie game development studio from Cambridge (UK).

From the start, the developers’ objectives was to illustrate how the mind works and how reality is the final result of an active and creative process of assembling information. The studio thought a videogame could be a useful tool to illustrate mental illness and immediately realised that mental illness impacts everyone, not only sufferers but also those around them.

‘Research is underrated’ Ninja Theory tackles mental illness both with sensitivity and realism: this being grounded in considerable research from the outset. The team found mental health experts from the University of Cambridge and got in touch with Professor Paul Fletcher – a psychiatrist and a Professor of Health Neuroscience. Fletcher introduced Ninja Theory to the Wellcome Trust, one of the most important research charities involved in awareness programs aimed at improving mental health. The Wellcome Trust awarded Ninja Theory two grants.

The representation of mental health in the media is not always accurate or helpful, and engaging people with this subject can be a challenge. The Wellcome Trust believed a videogame could give a fresh perspective on the condition.

Committed to depicting mental illness in an informed and credible way, and encouraged by the support from the Wellcome Trust, Ninja Theory involved several external individuals as consultants. Of course, mental health professionals provided valuable advice, but the developers also spent time with service users and ‘voice hearers’, in what turned out to be an enriching experience for Ninja Theory and a validating experience for those who experience some form of different mental state, which may cause distress when it becomes the target of prejudice. In fact, the involvement of the service users in the project revealed that the pain often doesn’t derive from the symptoms but from the stigma, isolation and mistreatment of society.

The goal of Ninja Theory with this project was to avoid a stereotyped portrayal of mental illness, as psychiatric madness or ‘folly’, to describe it instead as a different representation of reality. Senua feels rational in an irrational world that she does not understand, and this triggers her disorientation, confusion and fear. Senua is not presented as a victim of mental illness but as an experienced warrior, vulnerable but not weak. When Senua returns home from exile, she finds her partner brutally sacrificed to the Norse gods and she is dragged even deeper into her symptoms.

Symbols and Metaphors are common ground both in the videogame industry and in psychology, which makes the game a useful projection tool for the latter. Symbols may be interpreted and experienced in subjective ways. Symbols and stories are a tool, not only to experience personal emotions from other people’s perspective, but with a final understanding as an outcome.

Symptoms are also a game element for immersing gamers deep into Senua’s experience of psychosis. Gamers will feel as confused, frightened and anxious as Senua, and this facilitates empathy.

Fun vs Engagement. Can a game tackling psychosis be considered fun? Ninja Theory prefers defining the game as engaging and compelling. There’s still confusion and taboo around what is fun. Learning and experience are a core element in fun and they are a primary goal in the game. According to Nicole Lazzaro’s 4 Keys to Fun, Hellblade could be an example of what’s called Serious Fun, where gamers are driven by meaningful content and purpose with meaning as a core motivational drive force.

Gamers Motivation and beyond. Nick Yee, co-founder of the Quantic Foundry, developed a Gamer Motivational Profile, detecting six core motivational profiles. Hellblade players may supposedly be driven by ‘Immersion’ and ‘Creativity’. In his research, Yee also found correlations between motivations and personality traits. Immersion and Creativity do correlate with Openness to Experience as a personality trait. This profile could therefore be drawn to a game like Hellblade, but the focus of attention, when it comes to personality profile, is always on the gamers. For a change, it would be interesting to investigate motivational and personality profiles in the development teams, to see if and how they impact the creative part of the process.

Present Feedback. Hellblade players overwhelmed Ninja Theory with feedback. Some of the gamers were suffering with mental illness, and the game was a chance to realise that they were not alone in dealing with emotional pain. Some other players were able to show their loved ones what they go through in their everyday life. The studio collected the feedback and published it in an ‘Accolades’ video on the studio’s YouTube channel.

Future Potential. Hellblade is certainly a project worth the attention for the way it was curated, so that it’s worth wondering what its potential is, beyond being a great game. Could it be a tool to engage the audience in mental health awareness programs (e.g. events, schools)? Could it be used for mental health purposes (e.g. psychotherapy settings)? Could it be used as a tool for empowerment (as it is the story of a cathartic experience)? The success of this game also relies on the fact that it is now worth asking all these questions.





Gaming Horizons scenarios

The scenarios are a key deliverable of the Gaming Horizons project. They are the culmination of a programme of work that started in December 2016. Over a period of 14 months, the Gaming Horizons team reviewed the current state of the art in game studies, game-based learning and gamification research, carried out primary research through interviews with 73 informants, and engaged with stakeholders from five stakeholder groups, i.e. categories representing specific interests and goals associated with the development, the study and the use of video games. The stakeholder groups are: educators, researchers, policy makers, young people/players, and developers.

The scenarios are the result of an explicit objective: to present policy recommendations and practical guidelines based on evidence and an intense consultation process, which nonetheless are accessible and articulated in an engaging, non-specialist language. The use of story vignettes ad comics is informed by a clear communicative principle: visual, narrative and artistic methods open up possibilities for thinking about and representing complex topics. The scenarios should therefore be considered as ‘hybrid texts’ consisting of written language and other graphic content as a means of exploring theory, evidence and representing recommendations and advice not in abstract, but as a form of ‘lived experience’. Moreover, the scenarios should be considered as ‘live outputs’ which will be updated and expanded over the coming months with additional resources, links and through the continuation of Gaming Horizons’ dissemination and stakeholder engagement through social media.

The scenarios were developed through an iterative process involved the entire Gaming Horizons team, striking a careful balance between primary evidence, research literature and a degree of creativity. During the design phase, the team found that the use of narratives and comics greatly enhanced the scenario’s ability to convey opportunities, risks, recommendations and practical advice. Each scenario follows a similar, rather self-explanatory, template. The online format affords a ‘non-linear’ reading through the use of taxonomies, where keywords and audience types act like tags and categories respectively. These will display lists of scenarios which are relevant to a particular audience, or which have been tagged with a particular keyword.

Gaming Horizons final event

Gaming Horizons is coming to an end! A final event to discuss our outputs and impacts will take place in Breda (Netherlands) on 29th January 2018. This is the official agenda. The agenda can also be downloaded here: Agenda


AGENDA of the GAMING HORIZONS final event

All sessions will be recorded and made available through the Gaming Horizons website at:


Time Presenters Title
11:00- 11:15 Carlo Perrotta, Leeds university, Project coordinator Introduction to the Gaming Horizons project
11:15- 11:35 Marcello Passarelli, Francesca Dagnino, Jeffrey Earp, CNR-ITD Literature review on the role of digital games in society
11:35-12:00 Donatella Persico, CNR-ITD;  Mata Haggis, NHTV; Carlo Perrotta, Univ. of Leeds Interviews with experts and informants
12:00-14:00 Game Jam and lunch
14:00-14:15 Mata Haggis, NHTV Manifesto for European Video Games: Foundational Statements
14:15-14:30 Mata Haggis, NHTV Manifesto for European Video Games: Manifesto: Actions
14-30-14:45 Chris Bailey, univ. of Leeds. Scenarios for the cultural expansion of games
14:45- 15:00 Mata Haggis, NHTV, chair;

Thomas Buijtenweg, NHTV; Donatella Persico, CNR-ITD;

Carlo Perrotta, univ. of Leeds;

Rosa Bottino, CNR-ITD

Round table – Project Impacts: policies and outcomes for stakeholder groups
15:00- 15:30 Closing session Discussion



Date: 29/1/2018

Time: 11:00- 15:30

Location: NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences

Monseigneur Hopmansstraat 1, 4817 JT Breda, The Netherlands


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:

A research project to explore and expand the role of gaming in society

Who really understands video games?

Is it the overworked video game developers in the mainstream industry toiling over very specific sub-components of large AAA projects (so-called because they have expensive high standards of ‘Art Audio and Animation’), which involve hundreds of individuals and several interlocking systems and mechanics?

Is it the committees of marketing executives and production managers of those AAA projects, who are responsible for budgets often in excess of $60mil and, understandably, worry about profitability, monetisation and player retention?  

Is the bright ‘reserve army‘ of young aspiring developers who spend their waking hours, in some cases even dropping out of school, modifying (‘modding’) games to add new visuals or play activities? Or the ones learning to make their own games in an effort to work at their dream AAA studio?

Or is it the idealistic independent game developer, effectively portrayed in the documentary ‘Indie Game: The Movie‘? Someone fiercely committed to her, his, or their creative vision and integrity, pursuing ideals of authorship, originality, and art?

Is it the ‘gamification’ advocates who, a few years ago, told the world that ‘there is something about games deeply tied to motivation‘, and then tried to turn this and other ‘ground-breaking’ insights into practical advice for business and education, somewhat underestimating the costs and the ingenuity required to make good games, regardless of their purpose?

Is it the critics and commentators, writing and talking about games in growing numbers, concerned with cultural validation and critical analysis, some of them trying to ‘elevate games writing to something more erudite and worthy’, and others building on the tradition of progressive, liberal arts academia?

Is it the ‘gamers’ – an amorphous social category comprising several identities and values that could, figuratively and perhaps even literally, be mapped on a very broad and not necessarily coherent landscape? This landscape would include, in no particular order, subjectivity-defining things such as gender, consumerism, emotional investment in technological artefacts, and embraced or resisted notions of distinctiveness (being a ‘nerd’ or a ‘geek’).

Is it the researchers and scholars trying to figure out the ‘effects’ of games on behaviour, educational performance and cognition, publishing their studies in peer-reviewed journals and fuelling debates which, for the most part, won’t go beyond the confines of academia, but when they do get picked up by mainstream media, often getting trivialised in the process, inevitably lead to periodic ‘scares’?  

In fact, each of the above provides an important perspective from which we can begin to make sense of this hypermodern expressive medium. The Gaming Horizons project was borne out of a simple, if ambitious, idea: to open up the dialogue between those voices and perspectives, mapping out the rather confused epistemic landscape of contemporary gaming: the different things people know and prioritise, the implicit and explicit understandings and viewpoints, the discourses currently unfolding.

We have our own loose interpretation of gaming, not a particularly innovative one and by no means a fully-fledged definition – mainly a synthesis of existing themes and features. Our intention is to use this as a platform to engage with a range of experts and informants:

Gaming , as a broad phenomenon, recalls an assemblage of technical features, people, professional practices, consumption and culture – some of these aspects are deeply characteristic, such as the technologies and design conventions that have become associated with games: computation, consoles and gaming rigs, controllers, screens (including VR which, for now at least, is largely an evolution of screen technology), graphical fidelity and so on. In addition to these ‘constants’ there are a vast collection of features which, depending on how they are organised together and realised through design and artistic prowess, provide originality and, sometimes, commercial success. These aspects are much harder to categorise but they may include things such as: highly distinctive mechanics (e.g. combat, exploration, progression, competitive or cooperative social interactions), an authorial focus, an interest in representation and responsible characterisation, or a quest for cultural and educational relevance.

Our ultimate objective is to unpack, challenge and ‘expand’ this interpretation considerably, to try and inform how gaming is framed as a topic of economic, social, cultural, or educational interest.

The project is coordinated by the University of Leeds, with partners from Italy (ITD /CNR) and the Netherlands (NHTV Breda). We are supported by the European Commission through Horizon 2020: a progressive funding programme that aims to ignite ‘socially responsible’ research and innovation by establishing a productive dialogue between science and technology on one side, and the social sciences and the humanities on the other.

During the course of the project (which will last approximately a year) we will examine the contradictions and tensions that surround gaming, but also the growing interest in cultural relevance, social inclusion, and the rise of experimental design approaches at the fringes of mainstream video-game development – approaches that straddle traditional boundaries between entertainment, the arts and the humanities. The methodology will involve data collection activities and consultations with experts, developers, educators, and gamers. Ultimately, we aim to identify future directions at the intersection of ethics, social research, and both the digital entertainment and ‘serious’ games industries, potentially revealing the entertainment games address many themes of social consequence in ways that are more engaging than their deliberately educational and serious siblings.