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:

News Update: Gamergate, Hospital Play, VR Experiences, Neoliberal Narrative, Player Diversity, Funding, Digital Culture and Comics.

Welcome to another post that rounds up some recent new stories and journal articles that deal with issues relevant to Gaming Horizon’s focus on gaming, education, culture and society.

In a recent Guardian article, Anita Sarkessian reflects on her role in the Gamergate episode and the ongoing harassment and abuse faced by those who challenge dominant narratives in video games, and the video game industry as a whole. Whilst Sarkessian notes that change has happened in some aspects relating to gaming, there is still clearly a ‘toxic’ atmosphere around discussions of gender that manifest on social media and, therefore, still much work to be done.

An article by Dylan Yamada Rice considers the value of gameplay in the lives of hospitalised children. The article describes a multi-disciplinary project that brought together hospital play specialists, academics and representatives from the digital games industry to co-produce knowledge that could be used in the future production of a video game designed for children in hospital.

A new virtual reality ‘experience’ has highlighted issues around the use of digital technologies that deal with contentious, sensitive or serious  issues. Here, Alpha ask ‘Does a VR Auschwitz simulator cross an ethical line?’ They report on how a design studio ‘believe virtual reality has untapped potential to immerse and educate the world on the most important parts of human history’. However, they also draw attention to the ‘ethical minefield’ that such a virtual environment presents.

A new article in Games and Culture considers the way in which video games portray narrative, exploring specifically how the game Bioshock Infinite potentially serves to reinforce ‘neoliberal values’. This helps to emphasise one of our project’s dimensions, relating to the cultural impact of videogames. Also in Games and culture, a paper entitled ‘Friends with Benefits’,  challenges the notion of ‘hard core gamers’ being predominantly ‘straight, cis-gendered, White, adolescent men’, seeking to explore the diversity of players who actually engage regularly in video game play.

An article by Patrick Klepek on Waypoint considers issues around game design relating to the financial viability of particular games, taking aim at games that include microtransactions that form part of the game’s mechanics. There is a concern raised here that complex, single player, narrative based games could be at risk in an environment where the development of such titles is dictated by the fact that ‘publishers want to make as much money as possible—at whatever cost.’

Meanwhile, Rob Gallagher suggests in the Guardian that video games would be a good place to start if politicians are seeking to develop their understanding of digital culture.

Finally, a new collaborative comic seeks to represent the complex social effects of videogame play. According to the website: ‘Video Games For Good’ is a multi-artist collaboration that focusses on the positive outcomes of video games be they strengthened family bonds, stress relief and escapism, new friendships or simple nostalgia. The project also aims to tackle negative stereotypes that video games are only enjoyed by certain types of people or that the hobby only has detrimental effects.’



Gaming Horizons workshop at ICEM 2017 Conference in Naples Italy

The first in a round of Gaming Horizons workshops will be taking place at the ICEM 2017 Conference in Naples Italy on Wednesday, September 20. The workshops form part of the second phase of project initiatives dedicated to cultural expansion, namely direct interaction with gaming and gamification stakeholders on the issues that have arisen from project analysis of the gaming landscape.
The workshop will take a participatory, hands-on approach to examine current project findings on games and learning that have been gleaned from various sources. These findings will be examined from diverse perspectives, including pedagogy and education, psychology and health, and ethical concerns. Ultimately, the outcomes from this and the other workshops in the series will inform and shape a set of scenarios sketching out possible future directions for gaming and gamification.

More information available here.

News Update: gamification, government investment, time wasting, hospital play, autism and sexism.

Welcome to another roundup of recent gaming news that is relevant to the Gaming Horizon project’s focus gaming, culture and society.

A new article in The Sociological Review by Woodcock and Johnson takes a critical approach towards the concept of gamification. Suggesting that ‘gamification is not a neutral tool’ they differentiate between ‘gamification-from-above’ and ‘gamification-from-below’, positioning the former approach as ‘a terminological foreclosing of alternate possibilities’, as a ‘reinforcement of work’ rather than the ‘subversion of work’ offered by the latter approach.

A recent article published by Nesta seeks to explain ‘Why governments should invest in video games’. The article itself attempts to debunk a number of ‘myths’ around gaming, and the lives of gamers, by drawing on recent research by Borowiecki and Bakhshi. They suggest that ‘Gamers tend to be more educated and more likely than non-games players to participate in other forms of culture, especially through active participation’, also revealing the average age of a gamer to be 43.2 years.

There is a call for papers from the Game Studies, Culture, Play, and Practice Area of the 39th Annual Southwest Popular / American Culture Association (SWPACA) Conference February to be held 7-10, 2018 at Hyatt Regency Hotel & Conference Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico. The call requests ‘papers, panels, and other proposals on games (digital and otherwise) and their study and development. Unusual formats, technologies, and the like are encouraged’. The submission deadline is October 22, 2017.

In the light of ‘economic research in the US [that] suggests that young men are dropping out of work to play games more’ a recent show on BBC world service posed the question ‘Are Videogames a waste of time?’ Here they draw on comments from four different ‘expert witnesses’ to offer insight into the issue, ultimately leading to a conclusion that we should not treat work and play as binary opposites but that there is potentially rich insight and experience that can stem from the practice of video game play.

An article explains how the Gamers Outreach foundation provides video games to children’s hospitals to help children who are undergoing long term treatment. The accompanying video demonstrates how the non profit organisation, founded in 2009, aims to use video games as a way of supporting children through treatment by providing them with the opportunity to play but also to socialise with others (adults and children) in response to their interest in games. 

An article reflecting on recent research by Englehart and Mazurek  considers the benefit of video game play for children with autism. Whilst they note that there are fears, often from parents, around addiction, specific games have demonstrated specific benefits, particularly those that support children with issues around socialisation.

Finally, The Guardian describes how Australia’s gaming industry is ‘leading the way in fighting sexism’, thought the use of initiative intended to level the gender imbalance in the gaming industry. Setting out one particular vision for the future, Ally McLean, project lead at Sydney independent game development studio Robot House, suggests that:

“The more women making games, the better representation will be both industry-wise and in the content we’re producing: more games with relatable and complex female protagonists, games that tell women’s stories, that provide role models, and that can excite and inspire them to create their own.”

News Update: cultural significance, eSports, philosophy, games studies, serious play and social awareness

Welcome to another roundup of gaming news, where we draw together some recent stories from the media and elsewhere relevant to the Gaming Horizons project vision.

The Guardian continues to provide insightful and thought provoking writing in relation to gaming, with an article by Keith Stuart that reflects on the cultural significance of video games, considering how this impacts on the ways in which we think about them. Meanwhile, Tauriq Moosa suggests that there should be place in the Olympics for competitive eSports video gaming.  Jordan Erica Webber writes, also for the Guardian, on the ethics and philosophy of gaming in advance of a new book on the subject: ‘Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us: (about life, philosophy and everything)’

September sees a new edition of the Games and Culture journal, looking specifically at the field of games studies. This includes articles considering the concept of the game, the history and future of the discipline and the possibility of shifting focus towards player experience. They have also issued a call for papers for articles for a future edition on ‘Queerness and Video Games: New Critical Perspectives on LGBTQ Issues, Sexuality, Games, and Play’.

A new book entitled ‘Serious Play, Literacy, Learning and Digital Games’ by Beavis, Dezuanni and O’Mara explores ‘digital games’ capacity to engage and challenge, present complex representations and experiences, foster collaborative and deep learning and enable curricula that connect with young people today’.  

Researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University are looking for participants to help them to explore the complex relationship between player and avatar, particularly focussing on avatars that resemble the player themselves. A call for papers has been issued for a forthcoming McFarland published book relating to ‘women, video games and modding’.

Polygon report on a new game that seeks to combat the sex trafficking trade. Missing: The Complete Saga depicts the life of Champa, an ‘Indian village girl’, who is targeted by sex traffickers, as a means of raising awareness of the issues involved. Meanwhile, Mashable write about a game called Little Red Lie that seeks to tackle the ‘harsh reality of modern day poverty’.

Are games more like artichokes or like cherries?

One of the first outputs of Gaming Horizons is a literature review on games and gamification. As reviews go, this one is a bit unconventional, in that it draws both on academic sources and on gaming community contributions gleaned from authoritative developer expertise. Given the broad scope of the project, we were not surprised to find that a very large body of games-related knowledge has been produced by researchers studying the educational, psychological and ethical dimension of games (the three disciplinary lenses we adopted). We are talking about over 10,000 journal papers listed on two databases alone!

Luckily, this hoard included a number of literature reviews and meta-analysis, which provided us with a comprehensive picture of the state of the art.  This allowed us to concentrate on a reasonably selective sample of representative papers for analysis.

The report we produced (Gaming Horizons D2.1) is pretty large, so I won’t even attempt to summarize it here. If you want to get an idea, take a look at the executive summary and then check the table of contents for themes of interest.

However, there are a few thoughts I’d like to share at this point.

Firstly, terminology about gaming and gamification is still far from being consolidated and agreed upon in research circles. Different and sometimes contradictory definitions can be found for gamification, game mechanics, serious games – even for games themselves! Take a look at appendix 7.1 and you’ll see what I mean. This, of course, did make life rather difficult while analysing the papers, but what’s worse, it hinders communication among researchers.

Secondly, it’s interesting to see what topics and issues attract researchers’ attention. The ones that emerged most prominently in the review were the relationship between games and the psychological development of individuals, including the influence of violent games on aggressive behaviour; the relationship between immersion, motivation and engagement, and the potential of games for learning; the risk of addiction, on one side, and positive impacts on health, on the other; and the way different games lend themselves to learning different disciplines and skills. Finally, a less thoroughly explored area, yet one extremely important for a project investigating the potential of gaming for societal change – is the intertwining of game research and development with ethical issues and values concerning identity (gender, race, inclusion of individuals with special needs, etc.).

Individual studies and significant research results abound, yet it appears that research in this area is still not mature enough to yield conclusive answers to some of the questions addressed, such as “do games have a potential for learning?” or even to some of the more specific ones, such as “does playing violent games increase aggressive behaviour?”. As a matter of fact, it appears that the landscape of gaming and gamification is so broad and dynamic that such questions will probably never be answered by any single research study, simply because they are ill-defined.

So, you might ask, what does this all have to do with the cherries and artichokes mentioned in the title? Well, before I explain the metaphor, let me first say that I love both cherries and artichokes.  Actually, cherries are what gets me through the gastronomical crisis that besets me when the artichoke season finishes.

But let’s start with games as cherries. First, the fruit:

  • cherries are soft, sweet, and juicy;
  • once you start eating them, it can be very hard to stop;
  • they contain vitamins, but they’re not nutritious enough to be a meal in themselves;
  • they have a hard kernel that shouldn’t be swallowed, and certainly not chomped on – that could be hard on the teeth;
  • the kernel that remains can originate a whole new tree;
  • eating cherries in good company is even more pleasant than eating them alone, but you have to be ready to share;
  • too many cherries can, alas, have undesirable effects!

Games can be seen in a similar way:

  • they can be appealing, , challenging, and even moving;
  • games are often engaging – the more you play, the more you want to carry on;
  • they can nurture positive values, behaviours and skills but more is generally needed – especially in education, where teacher support and guidance is crucial;
  • There’s often something ‘hard’ inside that you’d best look out for, like, say, in-game purchases or less-than-ethical content;
  • however, what remains of a game after you have played it is often enough to make you feel like playing another game;
  • playing with friends is often more enjoyable than playing alone, as long as you’re prepared to share the fun;
  • If you overdo it, game play can have some nasty side effects, such as addiction.

Now let’s move on to (not onto!) artichokes:

  • to the uninitiated they can seem like a pretty tough and threatening proposition, with all those aggressive-looking spikes and thorns. But when the layers are peeled back, they usually win you over with their unique savoury flavour;
  • there are many different varieties of artichoke but fresh, locally-grown ones can be the very best of all, and certainly the most nutritious;
  • you can eat them raw or cook them in a variety of ways. However, fresh top-quality artichokes are best eaten raw, simply dressed with a little olive oil and salt;
  • finally, despite my passion for them, I have to admit that I’ve had some really bad ones in my time – practically inedible – so I understand why some people who’ve not managed to try a decent one would turn up their noses.


  • some people, especially adults and educators, are not particularly attracted to games, they are very cautious and hesitate before they make up their mind to use them, fearing that their mechanics and engaging dynamics can distract them from their priorities or even harm their students;
  • there is a whole wide range of video games, all quite different from one another and with special qualities that meet the preferences of different gamers. When it comes to ‘nutritional value’, however, some see game making (home-grown gaming, if you like) as the richest avenue of all;
  • you can play in myriad ways – indoors or out, at home, out and about, in cyberspace, by yourself, together with friends, online with anyone at all. What counts most, in the end, is the quality of the game play itself, not how it’s ‘served up’;
  • finally, while it is true that games are, in general, entertaining, there are some boring ones, and some people do not engage with games just because they never tried a good one.

In conclusion, the literature review of gaming and gamification carried out at the outset of Gaming Horizons has revealed the different veins of research in this area: the psychological dimension, mostly concerned with the effects of games on the development, psychological and physical health of the individuals; the educational dimension, focusing on the potential for learning and how this can best be put to use, and the ethical dimension, concerned with social equity and ethical game development. All of these themes can be seen and are approached by researchers under one of the two lights: games like cherries or games like artichokes. In both cases, there are benefits and downsides of games and the former often outweigh the latter, while the latter can be contained, especially thanks to the awareness that research can promote. And it is precisely for this reason that our literature review devotes special attention to the concrete recommendations that can be distilled from the large body of knowledge available. In its subsequent activities, Gaming Horizons will strive to build on these recommendations in a participatory effort involving and addressing different project stakeholder groups.

Call for Educator Interviewees

Teachers! Want to add your voice – and the educator’s view – to European research on games and gamification?

Gaming Horizons is looking for educators in Europe with solid Game Based Learning experience to share their thoughts and ideas on games in education and beyond. Over the coming months we’ll be holding a round of individual online interviews, via Skype, lasting about 45 mins. Teachers who are interviewed will receive an official project certificate acknowledging their participation in Gaming Horizons activities. All interview output will be anonymous.

Interested, or know someone who might be? Then send an email to Jeffrey Earp (jeff – at –, who is with project partner ITD-CNR.

Gaming Horizons is co-funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 program. The project is led by the University of Leeds (UK) in collaboration with NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences (NL) and the Institute for Educational Technology, CNR (IT).

Looking forward to hearing from you!

News Update: Now Play This, Characters and Franchises, Religion, DiGRA UK, Identity and Game On

In our fortnightly news update we seek to draw together some recent stories from a range of sources that reflect our project’s vision around video games and culture.

The Guardian recently presented a roundup of the Now Play This Festival. Billed as ‘a festival of experimental game design’ the examples explored here demonstrate the varied ways in which those exhibiting at the festival have approached the concept of gaming, generating gaming experiences that take place both on- and off-screen.

Two recent publications seek to explore the relationship between games, gaming and religion. Religion in Games by Oliver Steffen  provides ‘a methodological framework for the study of religious contents in games, combining religious studies and game studies methods’. Meanwhile, ‘Gamen Mit Gott’, also by Steffen, discusses ‘religion in games, religious games, religious gamers and religious answers to games’.  

Rowman and Littlefield have announced two new volumes that relate to gaming, both edited by Banks, Meija and Adams. The first volume,
‘100 Greatest Video Game Characters’, explores the cultural significance of video game characters across a range of games,  considering what each tells us about the ways in which we relate to games and the experiences they provide. Meanwhile, ‘100 Greatest Video Game Franchises’ considers the influence and impact of what could be considered the most significant game franchises.

The DiGRA (Digital International Games Research Association) UK 2017 Conference is to be held on 5th May, 2017, at the MediaCityUK in Salford, hosted by University of Salford. DiGRA is the international association for academics and professionals who research digital games and associated phenomena. It encourages high-quality research on games, and promotes collaboration and dissemination of work by its members. For this conference they welcome submissions on a range of topics, including: game cultures, gaming in non-leisure settings and gender and games.

A recent paper from the Television and New Media Journal, ‘What Does a Gamer Look Like? Video
Games, Advertising, and Diversity’
by Chess, Evans and Baines, explores media perceptions of gamer identity. Performing a content analysis on a number of video game commercials, they consider ‘how the gamer is represented in terms of physical and behavioural attributes’.

There is a call for papers for the 18th annual Simulation and AI in Games Conference,  GAME-ON 2017, to be held at the Institute of Technology, Carlow in Ireland from September 6-8, 2017. They are seeking papers on a range of game related topics, including Gamification and Social Game Mechanics; Learning and Adaptation; Games Applications in education, government, health and corporate contexts.

News Update: Brexit, Hall of Fame, Tetris, Digital Storytelling, Ludified Cinema

Welcome to the latest update where we draw attention to some recent gaming news relevant to our project’s focus.

With the triggering of Article 50 signalling the beginning negotiations for Britain’s exit from the EU, The Guardian reported on the impact on the gaming industry in the UK. They suggest that 40% of the gaming industry are considering moving their business from the UK as a result of Brexit, due to the uncertainties that Britain leaving the EU brings in relation to European workers. 🙁

The Register reported on a recent study that explored the use of Tetris in response to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They suggest that, as a form of ‘mild brain stimulus… playing a game of Tetris in the aftermath of a traumatic event can help alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.’

NME reported on the nominees for induction into the Video Game Hall of Fame at The Strong – National Museum of Play. The 2017 Finalists represent what could be considered a classic selection of video games, perhaps reflecting a desire to establish practices resembling curatorship around digital artifacts. In terms of more contemporary games, The Guardian also report on Rezzed 2017, outlining what they considered the ’12 most interesting games’ on show from the indie games festival.

The International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling (ICIDS​ ​2017) have issued a call for papers. The event will take place in Funchal, Madeira Islands, Portugal and be hosted by the​ ​Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute. They are seeking proposals that investigate interactive digital storytelling, including interactive narratives in digital games,  and its possible applications in different domains.

A new article by Lasse Juel Larsen in the Games and Culture Journal exemplifies the concept of ‘ludification’, in the context of cinema. Larsen explores five traits of computer game influences on contemporary cinema such as play worlds, ludified quests, controller and interfaces, play experience and game structure. A special edition of Games and Culture also examines applications of serious games in relation to training. This set of paper stem from The SIRIUS project, described as ‘a 4-year, multiteam experimental research program designed to study the effectiveness of games as a training tool for teaching about and mitigating cognitive bias’. Papers cover serious games and decision making, design and development of serious games for training purposes.

Studying the value of games at GDC 2017

Over the next year, the Gaming Horizons project will be releasing the results of new research into the value of video games, and a big step forwards was taken at GDC 2017.

Academia and games have a rough relationship. At GDC 2017, Thomas Buijtenweg and I conducted interviews with a variety of figures from across a spectrum of the games industry to find out how developers feel about topics that commonly occupy researchers looking at video games.

Ten developers kindly spared their time to be involved in the interviews, ranging from indies to AAA, and from industry veterans to people with under a year of hands-on development time. In the half-hour conversations, each developer shared some of their personal experiences and the ethos that drives them to create games in the ways that they do.


What drives a creator?

The Gaming Horizons project has a broad remit, but one of the goals is to understand the interests that build games developer’s relationship between their work and society. Do developers think games have an impact on players? Do developers design with these kinds of impacts in mind? To what extent to developers think about audience reception when they release a game, and how much does this affect the way that they shape the experience?

A final, and crucially important question for the researchers, was also asked:

Has your professional working career been influenced by (academic or non-academic) research?


No, games developers do not interact with academic theories. This was the resounding agreement between nearly all of the developers. Only those developers with past or present links to academia said there had been academic research that helped them develop as a creator.

It was expected that this would be the result (both Thomas and myself have experience with games development), but many of our purely-academic colleagues will be surprised to hear the certainty of the response from professionals.

Why don’t games developers commonly work with academics or read the results of studies? There will be many answers to this, and we will be sharing more of the results over the course of the year, but for many it stems from two directions: accessibility and relevance.

Research doesn’t end up in front of games developers

Many universities are judged based on the publication history of their researchers, fitting into systems such as the UK’s ‘REF’ (Research Excellence Framework). These systems evaluate a piece of academic output and score them based on several criteria, such as number of times it has been cited by other academics in their work. In this kind of system, an open information sharing website such as Gamasutra will not commonly score highly, but in our research Gamasutra was one of the few sources of research information cited by more than one person. Unfortunately, because it scores low in academic status, researchers are discouraged from sharing their work there and instead focus their efforts on academic peer-reviewed journals. These journals typically score highly, but games developers don’t buy them.

Some developers may have heard of the Bartle Test, or know about the MDA model. Others might know about The Big Five and its applications to understanding player choice… But how many can remember reading these, or took further time to read more, or even apply them in their work? Our sample of interviewees was small, but we suspect that we would have found similarly small results from a larger study.

Research isn’t seen as relevant to developers

Among academics this will be a controversial statement, but the view of games developers (both those we interviewed and from informal and off-the-record conversations) was that the quality and relevance of academic research to everyday games development was very low.

The market driven nature of most games development (with the possible exception of auteur indies) is that at some point a game or interactive experience needs to be released. All activities along the way are either beneficial for that process (by making development faster, higher quality, or more efficient) or are a distraction (slowing development in one way or another).

Do in-depth studies of player violence (or the lack thereof) help developers of entertainment-focused games create better experiences? Or do the studies into the educational benefits of playing games help developers work more effectively? ‘No,’ was the answer from the interviewees.

These are among the most popular topics for academic studies, but they rarely contain insights that will assist the average games development company in maintaining profitability in a huge and highly competitive industry.

The future: taking the results to research funders…

The Gaming Horizons project is funded by the Horizon 2020 EU program and brings together researchers from the UK, Italy, and ourselves from the Netherlands. The EU is funding the research to critique its own research grants systems, to make sure that it matches the needs of the industry.

The outcomes of the research will help shape future EU funding calls, to make them more relevant to the needs of the video game industry. The research interviews from GDC 2017 will be part of the larger Gaming Horizons study that places entertainment-focused games into the wider social context that the EU already supports with research funding, and that it wishes to grow.

The results will also be here, for you.

We will create short videos to make sure you get to see the best bits of the interviews, so that you can see some of the ways that entertainment is being framed by researchers, hopefully in a way that is both accessible and relevant.

We want the games industry to succeed for players, for the developers, and for the researchers that study it. If research is going to support the industry more in the future than it does now, this year’s work will be a part of laying the foundation for that.

Keep checking on here for more updates about the Gaming Horizons project, where we will share the short videos from the interviews and articles about our work. Thanks for reading!

About the author: Mata Haggis is the Professor of Creative and Entertainment Games at NHTV University in the Netherlands, and the game & narrative designer on Fragments of Him, which released last year on Steam and Xbox One, and will be coming to PlayStation 4 this year.

Alongside his professorship, he is the owner of Copper Stone Sea where he provides consultancy and training in narrative design and game design for development teams.

NHTV University’s game development course ‘IGAD’ is highly rated and taught entirely in English. If you are looking for an intense and practical Bachelor- or Master-level study then take a look:

The Gaming Horizons research project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program. You can read more about it here, where will be regularly updating with new articles throughout 2017: