Neoformalist Game Analysis A methodological exploration of single-player game violence
Van Vught, J. F. (2016). Neoformalist Game Analysis A methodological exploration of single-player game violence (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/10696
Permanent Research Commons link: https://hdl.handle.net/10289/10696
This thesis positions itself within the scholarly debate around videogame violence. However, other than focussing on the effects of game violence which dominates much of this debate, this thesis focuses on the formal characteristics of the game and asks: how does violence in single-player videogames work? This means that this thesis explores the different rules, style elements, and narrative components that make up and surround violent encounters in games and that structure our in-game behaviours and our perceptions of these violent actions. When seeking an approach to study these formal components, currently available ‘formalisms’ in game studies are found to be lacking. Ludology’s focus on rule systems in detriment of the game’s semantic layer does not allow for an adequate analysis of game violence since game violence is largely shaped by audiovisual cues. Furthermore, proceduralism’s focus on finding meaning becomes problematic since it does not account for the ludic function that components making up the game violence may (also) have. For a balanced analysis of rules, stylistic and narrative components, this thesis therefore borrows from, adapts, and expands on a neoformalist approach to films, and proposes a neoformalist approach to games as an alternative to both ludology and proceduralism. With a focus on the way that different devices function to structure a player’s response, this approach does not only prove helpful for an equal consideration of different formal game components but also helps to consider the player’s inherent role in actualising the perceptual, cognitive, emotional and behavioural effects. In fact, this approach functions as a poetics of game violence that takes player responses as departure points and asks which combination of devices are at work in cueing these responses. In exploring a range of different single-player videogames with a neoformalist approach to games, this thesis first shows how different components surrounding game violence can be there for ludic reasons (facilitating configurative behaviour), compositional reasons (creating narrative), realistic reasons (appealing to notions of the real world), transtextual reasons (appealing to knowledge of other works), and artistic reasons (contributing to the game’s abstract shape). Furthermore this thesis explores how these different reasons suggest different play responses by elaborating on the role of the player as both agent and spectator. The player as spectator is then triggered to evaluate the aesthetic or realistic quality of the violence, its relationship to other works, or the way the violence affects the wellbeing of an in-game character. The player as agent, on the other hand, is cued to focus on those elements that are facilitating the progress towards the game’s goal thereby also cognitively evaluating and emotionally responding to the violence in the context of game progress. These very different perceptual, cognitive and emotional focus points can thus have a significant impact on the experience of game violence. The neoformalist approach proposed in this thesis allows for some generalizable claims about the way players are cued to experience in-game violence by analysing the workings of the formal components that make up and contextualize that violence. This also means that asking how violence in videogames works is asking how violence works in relationship with the player. In response to the question of this thesis we can state that every violent encounter in single-player games works differently according to the different combinations of formal components that function together to cue certain play responses. Acknowledging this is important when one is trying to understand the experience of game violence and subsequently any potential after-effects. As this thesis suggests, such an analysis should start with a focus on the formal components of the violence to account for the many variations of that violence which will eventually help to specify any further player studies.
University of Waikato
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