Video games are challenging how we think

The right game might be able to shift your worldview
22 December 2020

Interview with 

Matthew Whitby, University of York


View of a person's head from behind with headphones on playing a video game.


There’s a lot more a game can do to get into your head than just playing with your senses, the right game can change your whole worldview as Adam Murphy found out from Matthew Whitby at the University of York...

Adam - Games are often challenging, but not in the way you might think. Sure, they can be hard, as anyone who's almost broken a controller in frustration can attest to, but certain games can get into your head and challenge the way that you think. Matthew Whitby from the University of York, has been studying which moments in which games can do that.

Matthew - The type of work that I do is very much focused onto studying how games can challenge the way people think or feel. And the way I've kind of, gone about it is by asking people. I've done my first study, which I managed to get published out there, was asking people to report moments in games. And we ended up with something like, I think it was 132 different moments from 100 different participants all across, you know, the genre of games saying that, yeah, I've had a moment in a video game that has challenged me either emotionally, like philosophical considerations, or even, you know, how they hold themselves on a day to day balance. And so my research has kind of been developing from that moment of saying, you know, that there's a lot going on with games, games are a powerful medium, but what can we do to try and as best as we can, capture the lived experience. So as someone encounters one of these moments where you know, their perspective is being challenged, what's actually going on there. And that's what my recent up-to-date research has been trying to capture.

Adam - That is a lot of different moments from a lot of different people. So what causes that kind of thing?

Matthew - That tends to need to be some level of, at least emotional connection in some way. One participant kind of expressed how one mini game, it kind of made them reflect on their relationship. Unfortunately, you can't design a game with the assumption that everyone is in a relationship or vice versa, but being aware of the possible life experiences, people maybe having, as they enter. Alternatively raising topics that players just would never have considered. Papers Please is a really interesting example.

Adam - Papers Please has you take on the role of a border guard in a dystopian regime. You check people’s papers against an increasingly long and arbitrary list of rules. But then desperate people come begging you to do the right thing and let them. But if you do, you’ll be putting your family, who rely on your salary, in danger. It’s monotonous, tense, and incredibly compelling.

Matthew - It is rare that anyone on a day-to-day basis had to balance; Should I break the rules of my work in order to essentially make someone's life better? Or am I willing to do something morally questionable to save my family? It's these weird things that, you know, on a day-to-day basis, most people would probably never experience that. You'd hope not anyway. And by leaning into them and including mechanics, because that's an important part giving the player agency to willingly put themselves in the shoes of whatever thought game situation you're presenting. Yes, it seems to be one of the most important things.

Adam - It's not just massive moral thoughts that can be brought about. The changes can be simpler, more introspective, but just as important.

Matthew - This person was going through the motions, playing through this sort of repetitive mini game, which had themselves cleaning around the house. And they realised that this loop within the game of cleaning the house, speaking with someone, cleaning the house, is in its own way, weirdly representative of life, that the cleaning is never done. And those sort of, rare moments in between all the chores where you'd call and connect with your partner or family or loved ones, you can sort of relish those moments. And again, it was weird that this was something that this person had been doing passively. And it's not until this game asked the question that they hadn't really considered, that it recontextualised a good chunk of their day-to-day life.

Adam - At the end of the day, why does all this matter?

Matthew - There are so many questions about video games and the potential harm that they can do. But I think as gamers and people who play are living, I'm sure they can attest that a thousand times over, all the good that gaming can do and games offer an experience that other mediums can't necessarily compare with.


Add a comment