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09 January 2005

Embodied interaction and seduction

Andrew Losowsky has written a fantastic article about embodied interaction in games. In it, he quotes Gonzalo Frasca on the attractions of the EyeToy:

"There are two main reasons why it works so well," says Gonzalo Frasca, researcher in computer games at the IT University of Copenhagen. "The first and obvious reason is that it is extremely easy to learn and it involves a very natural interface: body movements. But the most important reason for its popularity is that it is also a fun game to watch. People make a lot of goofy movements while playing it, so it is very enjoyable for non-participants...

"With these games, players can use their bodies to communicate, to express themselves," says Frasca. "In addition to your play style, you also have your body language style. For example, some EyeToy players will try to make minimal movements, while others enjoy doing more grotesque ones. Lots of people also enjoy doing movements that are not functional to the game itself, like spinning or jumping, just because it's a cool thing to do and they are aware that they have an audience."

This is something I've certainly noticed myself. One of my most enjoyable EyeToy moments was during my hen weekend, when the girls (who were most definitely not 'gamers', in the main) starting 'hacking' the boxing game by picking up objects lying around my livingroom - like a handbag - to increase the size and impact of their hits. It didn't exactly help them score higher but it was bloody funny so they kept doing it.

All of this makes me think of an ethnographic study of the game playing practices of girls, by Angela Thomas and Valerie Walkerdine of the University of Western Sydney. I'm going to quote extensively from this paper because there is so much of interest. (It is important to note that the girls in this study were playing more traditional videogames and also that the camera the researchers refer to is the camera recording the girls' play behaviour for the study.) The key insight from the researchers was that girls seemed to use games primarily as a medium or vehicle for social interaction:

Although girls enjoyed game playing as an experience equally to boys, and were quite adept at playing the games... the excitement and intensity for the girls seemed to revolve around the overall embodied and physical experience, rather than from the focused attention to a particular game, character, or screen event. The girls were quite ambivalent about gaining any mastery over the technical skills required of them in the game, and would play (albeit with a good degree of skill) with much less intensity and involvement in the game.

They found that girls' talk around the game would stray to discussions about what happened at school that day, or what they'd watched on the TV the night before, and that on some occasions the game was little more than background activity:

In one instance for example, a group of three girls were playing a game together. They deliberately chose a one player game, and while each girl would have her turn at the controls, the other two girls would sit and watch, whilst chatting about all manner of other topics, and, most interestingly, doing their French knitting!

Another noted behaviour among the girls was related to their awareness of the gaze:

Younger girls had a tendency to be more overt by waving to the camera, smiling at it, jumping up and getting out of the camera’s line of vision to cough. These actions were not just present at the beginning of the filming sessions, but often occurred throughout filming, at unexpected moments. For example, the girls would be deeply involved in playing, so much so that one girl would say or do something with quite a bit of emotion (such as using an expletive, thumping the table top in exasperation). Immediately either the same girl or their partner would make mention or reminder of the camera, as if it were wrong and concerning not only to behave in such a manner, but to have it caught on film.

Older girls would occasionally wave and make faces at the camera, but were more likely to whisper to each other when they did not want something caught on tape. They were also more concerned with their appearance on filming days. One girl in particular brought in eye shadow on her filming days...

Another question the researchers contemplated was that of 'gender performance':

Some girls loved it when a game would get them ‘scared’, for example when their character was being chased by a dinosaur and they would become quite theatrical with emotion. They said things like: ‘Ohhh I can’t watch this bit’ and cover their eyes, ‘Ohhh this game shouldn’t be suitable for girls, it’s too scary’, they would laugh and giggle profusely, scrunch up their body, swing their legs in a rather extreme embodiment of their emotions, and even scream. When faced with this same game, boys were more likely to hold their breath and play with a quiet, concentrated fierceness, close up to the screen. They seemed deadly serious about mastering the game as a means to prove their skills and gain success. Girls were more ambivalent about succeeding, seeming to simply enjoy the emotional and social experience of playing.

This study is fascinating on its own terms, but also as an illustration of the way value is assigned to gaming practices. As Anne Galloway wrote recently, "In the attempt to reposition play as something not wasteful or frivolous, to establish it as a viable and valuable activity, theorists like Huizinga and Caillois turned play into something productive and functional - but not particularly playful or full of fun."

The researchers here are disappointed by the girls' lack of focused, functional play:

Despite our hopes and expectations that girls who saw themselves as a part of the gaming culture would be able to showcase their keen intellect and skills when game-playing, this was rarely the case. With great disappointment... the observations, field notes and video data all pointed to traditional female stereotypes and a ‘lacking’ of something that the boys did have but the girls did not. With frustration, Angela Thomas, who collected the data, felt that the girls were not delivering ‘good or valid’ data and oft-times preferred watching the boys at play in preference to the girls. Many girls even irritated her to the point that she would rotate groups and work with other groups! Why?

To answer this we must first discuss what the boys were doing that was so exciting to Angela. Boys would totally immerse themselves in a game... To boys, games were skills to be mastered, challenges to be conquered. Angela saw this as valid, intellectual and educational and considered the skills these boys were developing in such play as significantly beneficial.

In other words, the boys playing games were enjoying a flow experience. To quote Anne quoting Torill quoting Csikszentmihalyi, "the flow experience... is one of achievement, not interaction, an achievement that is rewarding in itself, not through the rewards from others."

In a paper presented at the Other Players conference last month, Player Transformation of Educational Multiplayer Games, Rikke Magnussen and Morten Misfeldt (from the Learning Lab Denmark) looked at some social hacking of a mathematics game by a group of girls. The girls managed to avoid doing difficult calculations and still get the highest scores, by selectively losing rounds on purpose and shouting instructions and directions to each other:

In considering why the girls transformed the game in this way, the researchers didn't feel it was adequate to say it was to avoid doing math. This does not fully answer why the players in this case transformed the game in the complex manner they did. If they only wanted to avoid the educational part, they could just spend time running around in the 3D game world chatting with other players or lose Matematris on purpose to waste time until class was over. They players were obviously caught up in the game, they were competing and were eager to get on the high score list...

The transformed game structure has some interesting aspects that the original game does not have. In the transformed game, the players have included an element of conscious choice in the rules by including an action where they have to choose whether it is profitable to do calculations to make a piece. Making the right choice depends on cooperation and interaction between group members in the physical space... This has expanded a rather automatic game with little need for player reflection, to one with a social aspect where team members have to work together, make choices, cooperate and communicate possible solutions to problems in order to win the game... They showed creativity and developed strong cooperative skills in learning how to manipulate the game structure to accommodate the social actions.

The girls seem to have transformed a flow-directed game to a more seductive one; one that's social, interactive and flexible. In considering both embodied interaction and girls' game-playing practices, it seems necessary to take Torill Mortensen's lead and consider Baudrillard's theory of seduction at least as much as Csikszentmihalyi's theory of flow.

See also:

  • Matt Webb on Nokia's wave messaging active cover
  • Matt Jones' Design Engaged presentation on the mass-market fun of embodied interaction (pdf)
  • Update: These late-night ramblings have been referred to in a couple of places and the summaries have made me realise that I wasn't clear enough about a couple of things ("disjointed", me?). Firstly, while I started off talking about the EyeToy, the gaming studies I went on to quote from aren't about the EyeToy; they're about girls playing more traditional computer games. They're only relevant to a discussion about embodied interaction because of the way the girls transform the games. I guess my point (if there was one!) is that the way girls play any game is very similar to the play style encouraged by gaming peripherals like the EyeToy, so embodied interaction in gaming is going to suit girls very nicely. And that, from a more theoretical point of view, 'flow' is probably an inadequate framework for understanding this kind of play. (Note to self, everything I said above could have been expressed in 2 sentences.)

    Another update: Torrill Mortensen has provided a link to download the pdf of her paper, Flow, Seduction and Mutual Pleasures, so I've updated all of the links.

    Posted at 07:54 PM in Games | Permalink


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    Tracked on 10 Jan 2005 01:52:45


    Just in case you'd like to quote directly from the article Anne Galloway quotes, rather than the roundabout line, there's the URL to the PDF.

    Posted by: torill at 13 May 2005 07:57:56

    There are a couple of follow-up papers related to the ethnographic study you mentioned here, at my publications page:

    The one about Dangerous pleasures is at:

    Kind Regards,

    Posted by: Angela Thomas at 24 May 2005 17:08:44