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  • Difficulty And Disempowerment In A Casualized Market

    [07.06.21]
    - Yeray Pachon

  • Making an impact in a fictitious world

    The Player Agency, defined by Karen and Simon Tanenbaum in their paper Commitment to Meaning: A Reframing of Agency in Games as the satisfactory sensation of being able to take important decisions and see the results of their actions.

    As we commented before, immersion through the use of player emotions is a clear example of how significative this experience is for him/her, so emotional inertia is a phenomenon that designers look forward to. In order to improve those emotional bindings we know that the player needs an adaption time, but as Meg Jayanath explains in her GDC 2016 talk Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days and Beyond, that empathy flourishes in the player not only when the characters have the same objectives as we do, but when they show human traits that makes them feel real. It is accomplished by letting us share moments with them where we see how these characters are affected by the positive and negative parts of the adventure, remarking the bad side of it. That's because the effort and loss suffered from those characters makes us see them as our true companions.

    Immersion, agency and empathy are fundamental components for the design tool responsible for this behaviour, known as emotional engagement, defined by Kiel Mark Gilleade and Jen Allanson in their academic paper Affective Videogames and Modes of Affective Gaming: Assist Me, Challenge Me, Emote Me (2005) as using player emotions as an element that is going to influence his/her actions.

    A clear example of the use of this design tool can be seen in titles that build their gameplay and progress around how the player connects with characters from the game world, who will help us progress and upgrade our town. Those kinds of games offer almost complete freedom to the player. Animal crossing: New horizons (Nintendo, 2020), The Sims (Maxis, 2000) or Stardew Valley (Eric Barone, 2016) are examples that have the mentioned characteristics in which the objectives in our gameplay are influenced by the relations with other characters (Fig.4).


    Fig 4. In Animal crossing: New Horizons, our relations with our neighbors will be upgraded if we accomplish some missions or tasks for them, such as bringing them gifts based on their likes, asking them about their day, or bringing them their lost objects.

    So, when a videogame fulfills all the basic requisites (challenge, control, immersion, interest, and motive) needed for it to create a significant experience in the player, he/her will be more inclined to generate emotional bonds with the game world and their characters. Then, designers use the emotional engagement created in the users to create significative experiences that resonates with them.

    We know that the affective gaming toolset usually works in a positive context where players want their companions to be happy and accomplish their missions, while their enemies to suffer and fail. But... What about if our friendly characters attack each other? And if our enemies always have advantage? What is the main motive behind those design decisions that provoke situations where the player doesn't have any positive outcomes?

    Painful art and disempowering fantasies

    According to the work of the designer Valentina Tamer in her book Fantasies of Disempowerment: The Lure and Value of Voluntary Power Loss in Single-Player Video Games (Bhatty, 2016), she says that, in game contextdisempowerment is the voluntary restriction of the player with the objective of entertainment or other psychological gains. This phenomenon isn't exclusive to videogames, and can be seen in other entertainment activities such as horror films, thematic fun rides, scape rooms or sexual activities such as BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism)

    Disempowering experiences aim to make the player understand, through suffering or pain that afflicts our avatars, the effort and price needed to live or progress on those worlds. For example, Hideo Kojima designs for Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, 2019) an experience in which the players relieves the isolation of a decimated world through the eyes of a lonely carrier in his way to connect the remaining human civilization while delivering packages. In Pathologic 2 (Ice-Pick Lodge, 2019) (Fig. 5), the developers challenge the player with limited time for him/her to save few people from the Black Death, knowing from the beginning that you are not going to be able to cure everyone.


    Fig 5. With only 12 days of real time, in Pathologic 2 the player incarnates the only doctor in a town destinated to be destroyed by a near war and the Black Death. It's in your hands who are you going to cure and which methods are you going to use, because usually saving a life means ending others.

    These types of fantasies are now more common, thanks both the market growth and the audience search for new and exciting experiences. Those have allowed developers from around the world to design titles with metaphors not aimed to the general public

    Value of the experience 

    In order to understand the motives behind this desire within the players to feel vulnerable or powerless, Valentina Tamer in her book Fantasies of Disempowerment: The Lure and Value of Voluntary Power Loss in Single-Player Video Games (Bhatty, 2016) explains how this experiences fall into the artistic category known as Painful Art. According to Tamer, we define Painful Art as those artistic works that generate pleasure and pain in the user.

    There are several theories regarding why we enjoy this phenomenon:

    - Control theory: users are able to endure content that is not pleasant in disempowering experiences because we are aware of having the control over them, so they can be finished whenever we want.

    - Compensation theory: our human mind allows itself to feel negative emotions if it knows that they can be followed by positive emotions. That catharsis is the compensation that we humans want from the experience. Furthermore, Painful Art is a crucial element for maintaining a healthy emotional state in a balanced mind.

    - Conversion theory: the experience isn't only of pain, Unpleasant sensations turn into pleasant ones thanks to the influence of other motivations more prominent.

    - Rich experience theory: the idea of the susceptibility towards boredom can be produced by craving emotions. Based on the scientific investigation of the philosopher René Dubos, he explains that people tend to prefer experiences that produce any emotions rather than feeling boredom, even if it means enduring pain.

    - Mood control theory: all users use different kinds of methods in order to influence and change their mood. This concept explains why people enjoy comedy to raise their spirits or listen to sad music to collect in pain.

    - Meta experience theory: people can feel various emotions at the same time, including emotions towards our own emotions (meta-emotions). Feelings of fear, empathy, loss or concern make us feel human, and Painful Art is a simple answer that can make us react to those situations.

    - Power Theory: control doesn't influence the emotional impact of the experience, rather is the main attraction of the activity. Players enjoy seeing and testing how much pain are they able to endure, which brings them feelings of power, strength, and pride.

    Painful Art creates a rich experience full of emotions to fight against boredom, but it can be also used to control our own mood. The meta-response of the audience towards these art works and feelings produced are answered with feelings of curiosity, satisfaction and pride.

    All these theories can be merged between them as motives to test this kind of experiences, but there isn't for sure an exact motive about why we as humans search for these fantasies in our entertainment. This is because not all people enjoy horror or tragedy stories in the same way.

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