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  • Vlada Zapesotsky

Video games, from entertainment to meaningful experience. Challenge or impossible task?

In the modern world of constantly developing technology and a desperate human need for real connection based on alive, emotional experience, the correlation between the virtual world of video games and real-world experiences needs to be observed. This connection is already presented in the modern video games such as Human Pacman and Touch, developed by Mixed Reality Lab in Singapore:

"Our systems connect the real world and physical interaction between players to the computer world (virtual world) through the game space. The players can have social interaction with each other and physical movements like traditional games and at the same time they will enjoy interacting with virtual objects (e.g. monsters, witches, ...) in both real and virtual environment. All the players’ movements in real world are tracked by the game system to update their virtual world in real time" (Cheok et al., 2004, p. 46).

There have been some studies that explore the various play elements that make video games a unique media genre: game rules that make computer games interactive (Eskelinen, 2001), virtual world settings that separate video game experiences from ordinary life (Juul, 2005), and the uncertainty of video game outcomes that encourages players to finish a game (Aarseth et al., 2003). Other studies conceptualize video games as environmental storytelling mediums (Jenkins, 2004), where players adopt other identities and inhabit other worlds (Murray, 1997), and suggest that the narrative elements in video games (e.g., characters and game world settings) are determinants of the consumers’ enjoyment of video games (Krzywinska, 2006), demonstrating how the computer game World of Warcraft has successfully deployed mythic themes in creating a fantasy game world.

It seems essential that the world of video games needs to expand its horizons and incorporate in its products such important human needs as self-discovery, emotional intelligence, creativity and self-awareness. The correlation between the experiential spaces for personal transformation and self-discovery in real life (such as workshops and trainings in the fields of psychotherapy, acting, art, personal development and more) and in the realm of video games is stronger than it might seem. If virtual reality is seen as a special realm where everything is possible (Jenkins, 2004), then it can be compared to the surplus reality, a therapeutic concept that was coined by the psychiatrist and creator of psychodrama Yaacov Moreno (1934). This freedom from ordinary conventions is what Moreno called surplus reality, and is one of the most vital, curative, and mysterious elements of psychodrama:

"Everything is brought into an encounter with someone or something else, or with parts of the self, all of which relate. This world without limits, where the person is liberated from the real world, is what Moreno called 'surplus reality" (Moreno et al., 2000, p. 22).

Surplus reality is a vital healing instrument for the group as well as for the individual because sessions take place in this almost mystical and alchemical realm: “Moreno believed psyche and materia are not necessarily separated. Therefore, he regarded the distinction between conscious and unconscious as superficial and not functional on the psychodrama stage since surplus reality dissolves that distinction” (Moreno et al., 2000, p. 22).

It is important to clarify the common elements that make a psychodrama session an empowering and transformational experience for the person, elements which can be also found in the world of video games. These common elements can be compared and explored in the further research, expanding this specific topic. One of the crucial elements that can be found in the therapeutic realm of psychodrama and video game world is playfulness. Playfulness activates a person’s spontaneity and creativity and help him/her to connect to the specific role (in this case, a hero) and experience his/her own heroic potential and resources: “There is a wide variety of games ranging from improvisation and character play to collective creation” (Rojas-Bermúdez, 1997, p. 113). Monteiro (1998) also discussed this: “The main objective is to provide an opportunity to freely express the inner world and externalize a fantasy through the representation of a role, or bodily activity” (p. 67).

Next, there is an element of embodied experience where the person is not just describing and analyzing one’s life story but connecting it to embodied knowledge and is able to reach a more deep and profound level of self-discovery: “There is only the protagonist with his or her story which through the unique psychodramatic techniques expands into a full play, be it tragedy, satire or comedy” (Moreno at al., 2000, p. 22). This experiential element is essential for video games too: “Educators (especially curriculum designers) ought to pay closer attention to videogames because they offer designed experiences, in which participants learn through a grammar of doing and being” (Kurt Squire, 2006, p.20).

Another important common element is the ability to observe the action/drama and reflect on it, without being fully integrated into the story. In psychodrama, the protagonist of the story can always step out of the scene and observe it from the side, using the technique called aside (Moreno, 1934). This state of observation allows the person to reflect on his/her life experiences and recognize the narrative of his/her story: “Spontaneous and socially demanded emotional involvement often align in gameplay, at the same time, it lacks the effortful self-monitoring and self-regulation of conduct and emotion typical for everyday life” (Deterding, 2015, p. 147). Perhaps, the main benefit of further future research would be the incorporation of the external observer/supervisor who would make sure that the player not only experiences him/herself as a hero, combining the playful experience and the real-life events and reflecting on it, but also benefits from this transformational journey and becomes conscious about his/her own heroic potential and life story. In the setting of a psychodrama session, this kind of facilitator/therapist (called “director” in psychodrama) is responsible for ensuring that the experience safe and well-structured and sees the whole picture of the session. Although in psychodrama sessions, the protagonist/client has a lot of freedom to create and even direct the session, the director’s role is still crucial:

"The purpose of the director is to assist that process as spontaneously as possible. This moment between one's ideas and one's action we may refer to as 'the surreal experience', a moment of not knowing; here enters the concept of mastering these surprises with spontaneity, on the part of the actor, the co-actors and the director" (Moreno et al., 2000, p. 25).

The questions that can be asked here is whether the creators and developers of modern video games ready to take upon the challenge and bring the depth of human nature into their work? Are they brave enough to go further and use the resources of virtual reality for making a difference in human development? Can they collaborate with the professionals from such fields as psychology, psychotherapy, education, personal growth in order to create a content that’s not only entertaining but also transformational and meaningful? Only time will tell, but there is no doubt that those who dare to take these steps will have an audience that will not only be emotionally engaged in the game, but will also experience the game as a real part of their life.

Vlada Zapesotsky, PhD student, PAT, Al-TSI

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