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  • Difficulty And Disempowerment In A Casualized Market

    [07.06.21]
    - Yeray Pachon

  • Disempowering elements

    Due to the described disempowering experiences, and also though the fact that we can't help making a subjective interpretation of the game, comparing the previous experiences the player has met,  we question our powers and abilities.

    To better understand how disempowerment works, we should know about the 3 basic layers of the Game reality, for which information flows and is transmitted between the user and the videogame. (Fig.6) Valentina Tamer defines 3 different layers:

    - Game World (core diagesis): the interactive space of the game, with its limits and mechanics, that let us interact with the world.

    - Avatar (avatar diagesis): the perception of our own avatar.

    - Player (player diagesis): the perception of the player, with the controls and inputs that let us incarnate the avatar.


    Fig 6. Scheme of the 3 layers of Game Reality and how they relate. Valentina Tamer 2016

    When the communication between all those different layers change, distort or is restricted, we generate in the player feelings of disempowerment. According to Tamer's investigation, changes in mechanics or other game elements that create this phenomenon are:

    - Audio-visual distortions and restrictions, in which the perception of our avatar is distorted, and this is reflected in how the game shows it. Generally, we see those shifts because our avatar has suffered neurological, physical or supernatural changes (wounds, drugs, sanity loss...). Through these modifications on the core diegesis, the player relieves the distorted reality of our avatar. An example of this phenomenon is easy to see in games that change camera perspective for a fixed position, such as the one in Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996) which not only gives ambience, but also restricts very well what the player can see and what not.

    - Spatial distortions and restrictions are those modifications in which the Game World generate changes on the interaction of mechanics and abilities between the game and the player. Within the same type of distortions, spatial restrictions takes away the  avatar's freedom to move through the place. In Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) the place which the player explores is constantly changing its limits and available roads in order to make us loose ourselves in the town.

    - Restricted resources, managed by designers that intent to limit the available important items, to hindering the player progress. Those resources can be vital components for our character, such as health or stamina, or other objects such as ammo or tools. In Word of Horror (Pawel Kozminski, 2019) the player has to worry not to let his/her avatar health and sanity doesn't drop below 0, but trying to restore any of those values is very hard because items or actions that help us are rare.

    - Power imbalance between our avatar and our enemies gives our playable character a clear disadvantage, which increases the perceived challenge. Those encounters distinguish themselves of having stronger foes, invulnerable, or in more numbers. In some titles our avatar can't scape from his death, due to have reached the end of the adventure or cause the game wants to let the player see what is beyond death. For example, in Bloodborne (From Software, 2016), when the user gets the control of his/her avatar for the first time, because we don't have any weapons, the first enemy is going to kill us for sure. This will send us to the dream of the hunter, the central HUB of the game and a safe place for out avatar to level up and buy things.

    - Incomplete narrative or wrong information, which creates disempowerment in the user because the lack of knowledge makes us harder to get a grasp of what are we doing or what are we going to face. Related to this category, avatars that don't have any impact over the plot of the game world make us feel helpless. In Doki Doki Literature Club (Team Salvato, 2017), our avatar can't avoid the suicide of one of the main characters, even though we can foresee it and try to help.

    - Moral decisions put the player in a place where he/her has to endure and acknowledge the weight of the possible outcomes for their actions, with the influence that they may have in other characters, plot, or the game world. Even though normally choosing our own path is something empowering, it is the reverse when we create the feeling of guilt towards our behavior. In The Walking Dead (Tell Tale, 2012), our avatar Lee is the leader of a group of survivors, represented as complex human beings which fate will depend in our actions.

    Enjoying pain

    In order to understand the reason behind why we enjoy these experiences, continuing with the work of Valentina Tamer in her book Fantasies of Disempowerment: The Lure and Value of Voluntary Power Loss in Single-Player Video Games (2016) she explains different motives for this. It is important to say that, even if all these theories can't apply to all players and videogames, but they can lean on each other and give perspective about what do we see on those titles. These are:

    - Rich experience theory: starting with the investigation of Smuts in his paper Art and Negative Affect (2009), where he explains how art can generate valuable experiences for the player that get him/her out of boredom, we can extrapolate the same effect on videogames. This theory proposes that disempowerment brings more value to the general experience, so much so that it requires more effort from the player, making the perceived challenge feel higher, and its reward sweeter

    - Thrill theory: studying the book from Apter & Kerr Adult Play (Garland Science, 1991), they present the Reversal Theory, which explains how us humans search for experiences that generate in us physical and emotional reactions (increased pulse, adrenaline...). Usually, those reactions are born when there is a real danger in those actions, but videogames let us experience those feelings in a secure environment.

    - Underdog theory: Tamer explains how disempowering in videogames is often perceived as something attractive for the player because it lets the player face difficult situations where he/her is the underdog, in a way that the effort needed to overcome those challenges produces personal recognition for them. This theory is strongly grounded in the phenomenon known as justification, defined by Klein, Bhatt y Zentall in the paper Contrast and the justification of effort. (2005). Here they explain that the more effort putted by the user in overcoming an obstacle, the more important and significative will the victory be seem by the player.

    - Regression theory: in psychoanalysis studies, Freud defines Regression as a defense mechanism that lets the player go back to a more childish status, where they didn't have any responsibilities or the necessity to be seen as adults. This makes videogames work as an anti-stressant, thanks to permitting the player fail without any bad consequences. Regression can produce in us a pleasant sensation as it liberates us from the continuous pression of trying to have always control over all situations.

    - Reframing theory: following the investigation of Tamer, it explains that disempowering in videogames forces players to search for creative solutions to those hard challenges, which makes them aware of other perspectives regarding their context and objective. According to Csikszentmihalyi: the more severe the restriction, the more creativity and determination will be required.

    Now that you know about how emotional engagement functions and why there are players craving for disempowering fantasies, I encourage you to read my full analysis about how Darkest Dungeon uses these tools in its favor to tell through gameplay mechanics a great history with a very harsh meaning.

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