原作者：Yeray Pachon 译者：Willow Wu
近年来，由于电子游戏变得越来越流行，玩家的数量也在成倍增长，因此，开发商的多数作品都是面向于广泛玩家群体的游戏体验，这个现象就是所谓的“休闲化” (Sarazin, 2011)，由于玩家之间的差异愈发明显，难度偏好有所不同，休闲化趋势就愈演愈烈了。最典型的例子之一就是《古惑狼4：时机已到》 (Toys for Bob, 2020)的难度选择分成了Modern和Retro，让玩家选择适合他们的模式——Modern是针对新玩家和休闲玩家设计的，Retro则保留了之前的生命系统，让人回想起街机时代。
荷兰哲学家和历史学家Johan Huizinga在他的著作《游戏的人》（Homo Ludens ，1938）中将力量剥夺的幻想定义为游戏幻想（game fantasies）。在这种幻想中，用户自愿将自己的能力以一种安全的方式限制起来，目的就是获得娱乐。
你能在很多独立游戏和3A游戏中看到这些限制。力量剥夺通常会出现在恐怖游戏中，尤其是生存恐怖游戏，但这并不是它们的专属。很多备受赞誉的电子游戏，比如《死亡搁浅》（Kojima Productions，2019）《异形：隔离》（世嘉，2014）或者《暗黑地牢》（Red Hook, 2015）都把玩家置于劣势境地，要跟强大的游戏世界对抗。这些游戏使用了各种不同设计方法来实现力量剥夺，例如限制玩家的生存资源、让他们看到自身角色与敌人之间的力量差距，或者面对恶劣的情况所带来的糟糕结果。
很多时候，这类游戏会让玩家处于压力之下，很多行为在道德上是灰色的，所以我们自己所决定的结果源于我们的良知。就比如说，《冰汽时代》（游戏邦注11 Bit Studios, 2018）的玩家需要在极寒环境下管理一座城市，他们要做出很多选择，涉及到如何处理市民的尸体、雇佣童工、食物药物等其它资源的分配……
当我们在谈论游戏为什么是一种艺术时，我们会将这些体验的交互性和沉浸感视为区别于其他文化产品的界定性元素。Nicole Lazzaro在她的学术论文《为什么我们玩游戏——无叙事条件下增加情感的四个关键元素》（Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion Without Story）中分析道：电子游戏的沉浸感是由其内部的即刻体验创造的，只有当玩家理解了可执行的行动（机制）、目标、能力和限制才能达到沉浸状态。
此时就轮到电子游戏设计师发挥作用了，因为他们的职责就是探索、创造所谓的“有意义的玩法”。David Kirschner和J.Patrick Williams在论文《通过游戏视频录制评估玩家沉浸度》（Measuring Video Game Engagement Through Gameplay Review）中定义了这一技术，解释了它是如何以尽可能逼真的方式帮助玩家化身为他们的角色。为了创造出这种理想的体验，游戏必须具备以下五个元素：
接着，当玩家和游戏之间的联系是积极状态时，由于已经完全沉浸在游戏玩法中，他们就会愿意花时间、有动力去理解剩余的游戏元素。进入了心流状态，游戏化身的行为和关系对我们来说就像是真实的一样。正如Harrison Pink在他的GDC 2017演讲“通过叙事建立牢固的玩家情感纽带”（Snap to Character: Building Strong Player Attachment Through Narrative）中所谈到的：随着玩家和他们的化身一同进步，与同一游戏世界的其他角色共度时光，用户就会开始跟他们建立情感纽带。
Karen和Simon Tanenbaum在他们的论文《意义的诠释：对游戏中影响力的重新思考》（Commitment to Meaning: A Reframing of Agency in Games）把玩家影响力（Player Agency）定义为能够做出重要决定并看到行动结果的满足感。
正如我们之前说过的，利用玩家情感来实现沉浸状态是一个很典型的例子，说明这种体验对他们而言是有意义的，所以情感惯性是设计师们所期望看到的现象。为了强化这些情感纽带，我们知道玩家需要一段适应时间，但正如Meg Jayanath在GDC 2016演讲“忘记主角——以80 days等为例谈创造有影响力的NPC”（Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days and Beyond）中所解释的那样，玩家的同理心不仅会在角色拥有与我们相同目标时产生，当他们表现出人类的特征、让我们感觉到真实时也会产生。这是通过共同经历，让我们看到这些角色是如何受到游戏积极、消极部分的影响、促使我们去留意糟糕的部分而实现的。这些角色的努力和所受的苦难让我们把他们视为真正的伙伴。
这种行为就是情感参与（emotional engagement），Kiel Mark Gilleade和Jen Allanson在学术论文《电子游戏和它的情感影响模式:协助、挑战&情感表达》（Videogames and Modes of Affective Gaming:Assist Me, Challenge Me, Emote Me，2005）中提到这种设计方法就是将玩家的情感视为一个可以影响行动的元素，而沉浸、影响力和同理心是设计情感参与的基本构成。
使用此设计方法的典型例子就是那些玩法、进阶是基于玩家与游戏世界中的角色（他们将帮助玩家进阶、升级城镇）如何发展关系的游戏。这些游戏的自由度一般都非常高。比如《集合啦！动物森友会》（任天堂，2020）《模拟人生》（Maxis, 2000）《星露谷物语》（Eric Barone, 2016），这些游戏都具备上述提到的特征，也就是游戏中的目标会受玩家跟其他角色关系状况的影响。
设计师Valentina Tamer在她的书《力量剥夺幻想：单人游戏中自愿丧失力量的诱惑和价值》（Fantasies of Disempowerment: The Lure and Value of Voluntary Power Loss in Single-Player Video Games，Bhatty, 2016）中说道，在游戏语境中，力量剥夺就是玩家自愿加上限制，目的就是为了娱乐或者其它精神上的享受。这种现象并不限于电子游戏，其他娱乐活动也有——比如恐怖片、主题游乐设施、密室逃脱或BDSM（绑缚与调教、支配与臣服、施虐与受虐）这样的性活动。
力量剥夺体验是通过让角色受难，促使玩家了解在这些世界中存活或进阶所需付出的努力和代价。比如小岛秀夫为《死亡搁浅》（Kojima Productions，2019）设计的体验：玩家角色是一个孤独的快递员，在运送包裹的同时要连接剩余的人类文明，从而缓解末世中的孤立感。在《瘟疫2》(Ice-Pick Lodge, 2019)中，开发者提供的是时间的挑战，玩家在一开始的时候就知道他们无法治愈所有人，只能在有限的时间内把尽可能多人从黑死病的地狱中拉回来。
- 丰富经验理论：渴望的情绪会造成对无聊的易感性。根据哲学家René Dubos的科学研究，人们倾向于喜欢可以产生任何情绪的体验，无聊是人们所排斥的——即使它意味着忍受痛苦。
为了更好地理解力量剥夺是如何运作的，我们应该了解游戏现实（game reality）的3个基本层， Valentina Tamer定义了3个不同的层面：
- 游戏世界(core diagesis)：游戏的互动空间，有限制和机制，我们能够基于它与世界互动。
- 游戏化身(avatar diagesis)：对自己角色的感知。
- 玩家(player diagesis)：对玩家的感知，通过控制和输入具象化游戏角色。
- 视听上的扭曲和限制，在这种情况下，游戏化身的感知是扭曲的，这反映在游戏的表现方式上。一般来说，我们看到这些变化是因为我们的化身遭受了神经、身体或超自然的变化（外伤、药物、心智丧失……）。通过改变游戏世界，玩家可以缓解角色扭曲的现实。最常见的应用实例之一就是固定位置镜头角度的改变，比如《生化危机》（Capcom, 1996）中的视角，它不仅能够营造氛围，还很好地限制玩家所能看到的内容。
- 空间扭曲和限制是指游戏世界在的机制互动和能力上所做的那些修改。空间限制剥夺了游戏角色在这个地方的移动自由。在《寂静岭2》（Konami, 2001）中，玩家探索的地方会不断发生变化，可行走的道路和限制都不是固定的，导致玩家很容易在游戏中迷失。
- 限制资源，设计师意在通过限制可用的重要物品，阻碍玩家的进阶。这些资源可能是对玩家极为关键的，如健康或耐力，或其他物体——如弹药或工具。在World of Horror（Pawel Kozminski，2019）中，玩家必须得注意化身角色的健康和理智数值不要低于0，要恢复其中任何一项数值是非常困难的，因为能够起到帮助作用的物品或行动屈指可数。
- 游戏角色和敌人之间的实力不平衡将我们的角色置于明显的劣势中，这拔高了玩家所感知的挑战的难度。这些遭遇战的特点是敌人更厉害、防御力更强，或者数量更多。在某些游戏中，我们的角色无法避免死亡，因为TA已经到达了冒险的终点，或者游戏想要让玩家看到死亡之后有什么。例如，在《血源诅咒》（From Software, 2016）中，当玩家第一次操控游戏化身时，因为没有任何武器，你肯定会被首次遇到的敌人杀死。这将把我们传送到猎人的梦境中，这是游戏的中心枢纽，也是一个安全的地方，我们的角色可以在这里升级、购买东西。
- 不完整的叙事或错误的信息，知识的缺乏促使我们更难理解我们在做什么或我们将要面对什么。与此相关的是，如果化身角色对游戏世界情节没有任何影响，也会让我们感到无助。在《心跳文学部》（Team Salvato, 2017）中，玩家角色无法避免其中一位主角的自杀结局——即使我们已经预感到了可能会有不好的事情发生并尝试提供帮助。
- 道德决定让玩家不得不忍受并承认他们的行为可能带来的后果，以及他们可能对其他角色、情节或游戏世界产生的影响。尽管可以选择自己的剧情线会让人感到有主宰权，但当我们对自己的行为产生负罪感时，这种感觉就会反转。在《行尸走肉》（Telltale，2012 ）中，玩家的游戏角色李是一群幸存者的领导者，这个复杂人群的命运将取决于我们的行动。
- 丰富体验理论：Smuts在论文《艺术和负面影响》（Art and Negative Affect，2009）的调查研究中解释了艺术是怎么为玩家创造有价值的体验，让他们摆脱无聊的。基于此，我们可以推断出电子游戏具有相同的效果。该理论提出，力量剥夺给一般的体验带来了更多价值，以至于它需要玩家付出更多努力，让他们觉得所面对的挑战是更棘手的，获得的奖励是更令人兴奋的。
- 刺激理论：在Apter & Kerr所著的Adult Play（Garland Science, 1991）一书中，他们提出了逆转理论（Reversal Theory），解释了我们人类是如何寻找会引发我们身体和情感反应(脉搏增加，肾上腺素……)的体验。通常，当行动中存在真正的危险时才会引发这些反应，但电子游戏能够让我们在一个安全的环境中体验这些感觉。
- 弱者理论：Tamer解释说，电子游戏中的力量剥夺往往被视为对玩家有吸引力的东西，因为它迫使玩家面对各种困境，让他们处于劣势，克服这些挑战所需的努力会促成一种个人认可。这个理论是建立在论文“Contrast and the Justification of Effort”（Klein, Bhatt & Zentall，2005）中所定义“正当性”（justification）概念基础上，用户在克服障碍方面付出的努力越多，在他们看来胜利就越重要、意义深刻。
- 退行理论（Regression theory）：在精神分析研究中，弗洛伊德将退行定义为一种防御机制，让玩家回到较早年龄阶段的活动水平，没有任何责任或必须被视为成年人。由于允许玩家失败且不会产生任何不良后果，电子游戏就可以成为一种抗压力剂。退行可以让我们产生一种愉快的感觉，因为它可以把我们从试图控制一切的持续压力中解放出来。
Disempowering fantasies in videogames
With the launch of the new console generation, Sony has decided to make Demon Souls (remake of an original title of the same name made in 2009 for the PS3) one of the most important releases for the PS5. For any veteran to the medium, the soulslike genre may not be the best decision in terms of accessibility for casual players.
Convoluted plot, rough gameplay demanding of reflexes and patience, and many deaths ensured to those who try to progress on enigmatic history are the main ingredients of Demon Souls, a game globally known for its difficulty. In which moment have the harshness and difficult comprehension of a game turn into unique selling points? What kind of player is attracted to titles with these characteristics?
The number of players has exponentially grown in recent times thanks to the uprising popularity of videogames, so developers have been preparing themselves to create a broad number of experiences enjoyable for the bast majority of players. This phenomenon known as casualization (Sarazin, 2011), has been enhanced due to the increasing division between players and how they choose the difficulty of their experiences. One clear example of this trend is the difficulty options Modern and Retro in the new Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time (Toys for Bob, 2020) (Fig.1), that let the player choose between two gameplay configurations: Modern, a more casual approach to the game made for new and casual players; and Retro, which maintains the old life system reminiscent from the arcade era.
Fig 1. The different playstyles available to choose in the last entry of the Crash Bandicoot franchise are one of the latest examples of how games are adapted to different audiences.
When players perceived how the medium was changing towards the game experiences more accessible demanded by the masses, they began searching for different approaches to games. Indie games had just recently begun selling in the most important platforms, so the new potential buyers got there what they wanted, games not made for the typical player. Titles in which the metaphor or the mechanics are usually related to the phenomenon known as disempowerment.
Johan Huizinga, Dutch philosopher and historian, defines disempowering fantasies in his book Homo Ludens (1938) as game fantasies in which, voluntarily, the user has his power restricted in a safe and limited place with the objective of being entertained.
These restrictions are typical components found in a lot of indie and AAA titles. Disempowerment elements are usually seen in horror games, particularly in the Survival Horror genre, though it isn’t exclusive for them. Different videogames acclaimed for the critics such as Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, 2019), Alien Isolation (Sega, 2014) or Darkest Dungeon (Red Hook, 2015) have all in common their try to make the player feel vulnerable or weak against the game world that defies the user. These titles use various design tools in order to create the disempowerment, such as having limited survival resources for the player, making him or her see the power disbalance between their avatar and the enemies, or face harsh situations with bad outcomes.
Many times, game metaphors from this type of titles put the player under pressure in situations where our acts are morally grey, so the outcome of our own decisions falls under our own conscience. For example, Frostpunk (11 Bit Studios, 2018) (Fig.2) is a videogame where the player has to manage a small village in extreme winter conditions, having to choose many times about the disposal of villager’s corpses, child labor, food rationing, medicine and other resources.
Fig 2. Frostpunk faces the player with different extreme situations where the survival of the group is more important that the morality of our acts.
Now that we understand how the market has adapted to offer this type of experiences, and that there is a audience large enough to maintain them we should ask, What is about these games that make them enjoyable for the player, even if they are defined by design to make us feel bad?
Defining the player: empathy and agency
When we talk about how games are an art form, we defend the interactivity and immersion of these experiences as the defining element that distinguish themselves from other cultural products. Nicole Lazzaro explains in her academic paper Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion Without Story that the immersion component seen in videogames is created by the moment-to-moment experiences inside them, only when the player comprehends the available actions (mechanics), objectives, capacities and limitations of the title.
It’s here where the role of the videogame designer comes in place, being his duty to search and create the phenomenon known as meaningful play. Defined by David Kirschner y J. Patrick Williams in Measuring Video Game Engagement Through Gameplay Reviews, the research explains how this technic helps the player incarnate their avatar with the most fidelity possible. To help create the desired experience, a game has to offer these 5 components:
- Challenge: knowledge and abilities necessary to accomplish our objectives.
- Control: different stages of decision making and impact over our surroundings
- Immersion: different grades in which the player is absorbed by the activity
- Interest: level of desire that the player has in order to do something
- Motive: perceived value of the activity, which requires effort.
Among these 5 elements, challenge and control are the most important of the list, because those two generate the immersion, interest, and motive in the player. About how challenge works, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes his famous flow theory, which not only applies to videogames. Flow is defined as a state of concentration or complete abstraction produced by the activity that is taking place. The most efficient way of creating this effect on the player is introducing a challenge that grows in difficulty at the same time as the player skills do.
Fig 3. This chart from “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” shows how the Flow channel works. If the challenge is much bigger for the player, we will generate anxiety on him/her. But if it is perceived as simple for the user skills, he/her will get bored.
Then, when the connection between player and game is positive, the subject will have the time and motivation needed to understand the remaining game elements, thanks to him/her being fully immersed in the gameplay. When we are in the flow channel, the actions and relations of our avatars feel like if they were real to us. As Harrison Pink says in his GDC 2017 talk called Snap to Character: Building Strong Player Attachment Through Narrative: as the player and his/her avatar progress together and spend time with other characters of the same game world, the user will start to create emotional bonds with them.
Those emotional bonds can’t be imposed to the player, because they require time and adaptation to the game universe, including all the presented characters. Empathy and other emotions that the user may feel can affect how him/her faces different game situations, because the human factor can make us act different towards situations where our friends/foes are involved. This phenomenon is called Emotional Inertia, and it is one of the most valuable signs that show a high level of immersion.
At the same time, a player that feels empathy for the other characters trigger’s that all our actions regarding their future or wellness are transformed into moral decisions, due to the moral implications that they have on the user. We feel then that our actions and abilities have consequences that can influence the game world and plot, creating the sense of agency.
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 context, disempowerment 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.
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.
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.
(source: game career guide )