Calleja’s Theory of Affective Involvement Part 1: Escapism

Macro Phase: Escapism and Affect

One reason for the intensely absorbing nature of digital game is the potential they have to affect players emotionally. Although other media also achieve this, an important difference with digital games is the way they place the player in a cybernetic feedback loop between human mind and machine. The player’s active input creates the potential for a more intense emotional experience, whether satisfying or frustrating, that non-ergodic media provide. The cognitive, emotional, and kinesthetic feedback loop that is formed between the game and the player makes digital games a particularly powerful medium for affecting players’ moods and emotional states (Bryant and Davies, 2006; Grodal, 2000).’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 135.

It could be argued, from that which is explored above, that the significant difference between digital games and their counterparts of a similar genre in another medium, for example film, is the active involvement of a player, in the form of a ‘feedback loop’ that connects them both physically, through their involvement in a control method, and also mentally and emotionally through the active thought processes undertaken to make decisions, and the outcomes presented to the player.

This idea can be also found in the theories relating to intermediality:

Feedback Loop. The term feedback originated in the early 20th century to refer to the mechanical-electrical phenomenon produced when an output signal (from a loudspeaker) returns to affect its input signal (the sound into the microphone). The effect of the input signal tends to change or distort the original signal, causing the screech or hum associated with amplification. In everyday language, feedback refers to information in response to something produced, such as a merchandise or a person’s performance, which can be used as a basis for improvement. In theatre and performance, a system of feedback can be understood to take place between performers and spectators; a feedback loop is created when the audience reaction (output signal) returns to affect aspects of the performance (input signal).’ Bay-Cheng, S  et al.(2010). Mapping Intermediality in Performance. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 186.

As can be seen from the above example, the intermedial perspective of feedback loops is directly relatable to that of game theory. We can see this because the common theme is the idea of output creating input, and a cyclic feedback between two entities, be this the game and player, or audience and performer. If we consider the structure of some mixed reality performances, this also becomes true, as explored earlier in this blog, without the willing engagement of immersant, mixed reality cannot build this feedback relationship. When we consider trajectories or narrative again, this is a feedback loop between the immersant and given narrative, with the trajectories created by the immersant affecting outcome. The affective nature of immersant within a feedback loop with experience/performance could be an imperative characteristic of mixed reality performance, as well as gaming. Before this can be ascertained, let us consider more of Calleja’s theory in affective involvement, to see what characteristics he identified as being key in game design. Perhaps we must understand the allure of gaming for the player, which Calleja goes onto explain:

‘For those suffering from a lack of excitement, games offer an immediate source of emotional arousal. Conversely, for those whose work or personal lives are too hectic, the games’ compelling nature makes them ideal for shifting their attention to a performative domain that suits the players’ needs: to vent frustration through intense action, to become absorbed in the cognitive challenge of a strategy game, or to stroll at leisure through an aesthetically appealing landscape.’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 135.

This identifies the escapism involved in the engagement with digital games, getting the player away from the reality of their own lives. This escapism is something that must be considered if we are to realise game theory in mixed reality concept developments. It can be noted, also, that Calleja expresses this escapism can be achieved through a variety of means, such as action, cognitive challenge and aesthetics. However, Calleja also goes on to discuss the term ‘escapism’ in gaming terms.

‘The compelling and mood-affecting qualities of games are often associated with the concept of escapism. Labeling an activity escapist carries with it at least a sense of triviality, and often more seriously derogatory connotations.’ … ‘The notion of escapism implies a shift from one environment or emotional state to another one that is perceived as being more favorable. Leaving a rough neighborhood to avoid the threat of danger, migrating from a war-torn country to a more stable one, or fleeing an armed assailant to safeguard one’s life are all examples of escape from an undesirable or downright dangerous situations. The imperative here is an attempt to move permanently away, toward a more desirable state of affairs.’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 136.

Here Calleja identifies an idea that escapism implies getting away to something inherently better, to escape from something negative to something more positive, which poses interesting questions if we consider the narratives and setting often explored in horror. Horror expresses often as a negative environment, from which characters wish to escape. There is, therefore perhaps an ironic link between the escapism involved for the player into a virtual world, and the escapism of the character fleeing from their situation in narrative. Perhaps, therefore we may consider that the escapist fantasies of the player can be realised by a fictional world in which the negative aspects of life are animated in such a sophisticated and harrowing way. Does this perhaps help the player to connect with characters such as those featured in survival horror games such as Silent Hill (1999) and Resident Evil (1996) in which the characters are attempting to escape that which is trying to kill them.

Escapism similarly presupposes movement to a more desirable place or situation, but unlike the one-way connotation of escapeescapism also implies an eventual return to the point of departure. The escapist is grounded in a location or social context that much be returned to. The escapee, on the other hand, aims for a permanent, or at least long-term, change of situation. What both have in common is striving for a better state of being. For the escapee, positive change comes from a wholesale shift, while the escapist hopes for improvement of the original situation upon return, or at least a temporary lightening of current burdens. There is no guarantee that this change will be a positive one, or that any change will even occur, but an expectation for improvement is often there.’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 136.

If we are to consider these interpretations of both escapist and escapee as terms, we might return to the previously mentioned assimilation of how we may understand the escapism involved in horror gaming. As the player is looking to escape the mundanity, or business of everyday life by playing the game they are the escapist, they are hoping for some improvement in mood or for a release by playing the game, but will ultimately return to the world outside the game, in, as Calleja states ‘the escapist hopes for improvement of the original situation upon return, or at least a temporary lightening of current burdens.’ In contrast to this, we can consider the character in horror games, fleeing from danger, fighting evil or getting out a place, as the escapee. For their characters, positive change can only come around from a ‘wholesale shift’. They are looking for a long-term solution to the situations they find themselves in, rather than the momentary release of the player.

‘Escapism also plays an important part in breaking away from stagnation, and so it is often a favored antidote to boredom. Games are particularly useful in this context, as they offer a variety of experiences that not only alleviate boredom but also have the potential to emotionally affect players.  These emotions might not all be perceived as positive: frustration stemming from a lack of cooperation with teammates or a defeat suffered against a competing player or team is a common experience in on-line gaming, for example.’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 137.

We can see from Calleja’s writing that due to their design, digital games have the ability to alleviate boredom with their diverse range of gameplay and styles, but also that this can affect players emotionally in an equally diverse way. Suppose we are to consider that negative emotions are as implicitly important as that of positive ones in gaming, this would be an interesting way of considering horror gaming. For example, a player might take great joy in the ability to kill monsters in a game, but the fear associated with it takes perhaps equal importance in it being an enjoyable and affecting experience.

‘This tendency to involve the emotions often serves to engage players with other aspects of the game, such as improving their skills (kinesthetic involvement), rethinking their overall strategies (ludic involvement), or working better together (shared involvement). Importantly, both positively and negatively perceived emotions stimulated by games may be better than experiencing boredom. Indeed, negative affect can, in certain instances, heighten other dimensions of involvement.’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 137.

Here Calleja shows us that emotional affect the game has on the player may benefit other forms of engagement and involvement. If we consider horror games once again, we can perceive that the affect of fear on the player from the presentation of the game may consider them to involve themselves differently, considering their positioning, impending danger, and how to skilfully escape situations. This constant re-evaluation of perception based on emotional response to the digital world, could be considered a form of ‘feedback loop’ as explored earlier in this post.

‘Some activities described as escapist have the particular quality of occurring within aesthetically pleasing environments. One of the important ways in which contemporary game environments affect players’ moods is through the representational qualities of their environments, which enable a sense of habitable space that can be very appealing to navigate. This aspect of the attraction of game world was mentioned regularly by my research participants in a wide variety of contexts, and was well characterized by Oriel:

When I am alone … it’s when I am relaxed and have the sounds on. I like to pretend I am actually there. … Like sunset time at Menethil Harbor while waiting on the boat to show up. Flying through Gadgetzan at night over the ocean and looking at the stars. Listening to the crunching snow under my feet in Winterspring. Hearing crickets chirp at night when going through the forest. … Oh, and the red and gold falling leaves in Azshara; so pretty. It’s peaceful. I want to live there. (Oriel, World of Warcraft)’

Oriel’s desire to imagine that she is there, inside the virtual world, is both the product of the aesthetic beauty of the game world and also Oriel’s absorption into her consciousness of Azeroth as a habitable space.’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 138.

Here, we can see that perception of the digitally created environment can evoke strong emotion from the player. This returns us to the ideas of immersion, and how this can then affect the player, or in the case of mixed reality, immersant/experiencer. We can see from the descriptions offered from Oriel, that there are significant aspects that evoke this sense of existing in a habitable space.  The mediated sights and sounds of the world created, and their interactive abilities, give it a sense of a habitable space. But it is the combination of the visual and aural together; married with that of the player’s ability to move the character around within this space freely as they would in the real world. Calleja continues:

‘Tolkein (1983) has remarked on this quality of habitability and sees it as an inherent feature of textual creations he calls “secondary worlds”;

That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. … He [the author] makes a Secondary World, which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the abortive Secondary World from outside. (132)’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 138-139.

This could be interpreted as an interesting way of considering mixed reality in that it merges the digitised, or in Tolkein’s case, texturised, with reality. The challenge therefore becomes this entering of another world. Perhaps an important way of considering mixed reality in response to this is in a dimensional way. Immersants often experience performative content based in a real place, such as that of Blast Theory’s Can You See Me Now? in which immersants participate in the piece in the real world, but with input from technology, are reconsidering the space and their connection with it. In either trying to hide from, or seek out, other immersants using GPS tracking technology, they are responding emotionally to the input given to them from the narrative concepts used in the piece, and also their responses to the space itself. It becomes, if you will, an ‘alternate reality’ within the same space, either digitally or running through the streets. The levels of this balance between Tolkein’s understanding of the textual Secondary World, and ‘alternate realities’ based in the same physical space will change and flux with the work. If we consider, for example, the numerous performances created within Second Life (Linden Lab: 2003) in those examples, the performance takes place within the virtual world of Second Life, however is controlled by real world entities, and how much may take place in the real world, especially in staged examples of these works, in balance with any live elements, and audience perspective, affects the emotional response from either immersant or audience. This is an example of how the mixed reality continuum explored earlier in this blog is applied and can be considered.

There is, it would seem, an importance in digital elements are presented in their escapist context, in order to, as Tolkein argues, not only expect a suspension of disbelief, but to rather transport a person’s mind to another world. As we can see, emotional affect from digital games is dependent, in part, as explored in this example, a well structured and considered world in which it exists and operates.

In the next post we shall be exploring further Calleja’s theory on affective involvement, and how this may find a place in a mixed reality, horror based framework for creating work.



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