Ioanna Iacovides - Investigating game-play


Investigating game-play:

Are breakdowns in action and understanding detrimental to involvement?

Jo Iacovides

Academic interest

• Games are intrinsically motivating

– Challenge, control, curiosity and fantasy (Malone, 1981;

Malone & Lepper, 1987)

• Potential for learning (Gee, 2004; 2007)

– Active learning, scaffolding, affinity groups etc.

• Games + education = engaged students?

– However, the use of games in education is not always successful (e.g. O’Neil et al., 2006)

– Need for further empirical evidence concerning how and what people learn from their involvement with games (Squire, 2008; Oliver & Carr, 2009)

Informal learning (Vavoula et al., 2005)

Engagement and motivation

• The Player Involvement Model (Calleja, 2011)

• Micro involvement

– Engagement experienced during game-play

• Macro involvement

– Longer term motivations for play

– The activities which occur around play e.g. reading game magazines, looking up a walkthrough

My research (Iacovides, 2012)

• How do motivation, engagement and informal learning relate to each other within the context of gaming?

• Outline of research

– Phase 1: Email interviews

– Phase 2: Case studies

– Phase 3: Wider survey

Phase 2: Case studies

• Multiple case study approach (Yin, 2009)

• Focusing on game-play and wider activities to investigate:

– How do learning and involvement come together in practice?

• Participants (age 23-59; M = 5, F = 4)

– Eight cases

– Recruited from previous email interview study

– Mix of gamers and more casual players


• Preliminary interview

• Two game-play sessions

– Player and researcher game choice

– Observation

– Collection of physiological data

– Post-play cued interview

• Diaries over three week period

– Final diary interview (Elliot, 1997)

Lab setup

Examining play

• Problems/challenges that occur during play

• Breakdowns as a source of learning

– Activity theory and contradictions (Oliver &

Pelletier, 2006)

• Different levels of breakdown

– Breakdowns and contradictions (Barr, 2007)

• Different types of breakdown

– Breakdowns in interaction and illusion in terms of how they relate to flow (Ryan & Siegel, 2007)

Defining breakdowns & breakthroughs

• Definitions provided by Sharples (2009)

– Breakdowns are “observable critical incidents where a learner is struggling with the technology, asking for help, or appears to be labouring under a clear misunderstanding”

– Breakthroughs are “observable critical incidents which appear to be initiating productive, new forms of learning or important conceptual change” (p. 10)

• Extended to apply to a game-play context

Game-play breakdowns & breakthroughs

• Occur on three related levels


: unsuccessful vs. successful implementation of strategies


: unsure about what to do or where to go vs. solving a problem


: boredom or frustration vs. positive engagement

• Examined video, diaries and transcripts for critical instances

Physiological data

• Emotion (e.g. Mandryk & Atkins, 2007)

– Galvanic skin response (GSR) as indicator of arousal

– Heart rate (HR) as indicator of positive and negative emotion (valence)

– Electromyography (EMG) as indicator of valence

• Over the brow = negative (frowning)

• Over the cheek = positive (smiling)

• Identifying critical instances? (Hazlett, 2008)

– Non-expert approach

Coding the data

Utility of the physiological data

• The physiological data

did not prove useful

in relation to identifying critical instances involving breakdowns and breakthroughs

(Iacovides et al., 2013)

• This was due to:

– Movement artefacts

– Lack of consistent patterns

– Difficulty of pinpointing stimuli (risk of trying to “make” the data fit with gameplay)

– The impact of observation

The effect of observation

• Amy (28) and Mario Kart

– Multiple action breakdowns: “If I’d been on my own, I might have just got annoyed”


: “I guess you kind of go, well I’m not going to get annoyed, so, I may as well just find it amusing. As an alternative emotional response to the stupidness that is this game

• Physiological reactions are indicators of a complex emotional reaction to playing a game and knowing someone else is watching

Analysing the data

• Evaluating claims based on previous research:

1. Breakdowns in action and understanding are not detrimental to involvement

2. Player involvement increases through action and understanding breakthroughs

3. Progress requires breakthroughs in understanding

4. A loss of agency leads to a breakdown in involvement

Assessing the evidence for examples and counter-examples

1. Breakdowns in action and understanding are not detrimental to involvement

2. Player involvement increases through action and understanding breakthroughs

Kameo: Katy (23)

Kameo: defeating the glass jawed boss

Action breakdowns


– numerous strategies fail e.g. uppercuts

Action & understanding breakthroughs


– figures out the correct combination of attacks

Action breakthrough:

– defeats the boss

Involvement breakthrough



– Wonders “what’s going to happen next?”

3. Progress requires breakthroughs in understanding

Little Big Planet 2: Natasha (31) & William (32)

Little Big Planet 2: Skate to Victory

Action breakdowns/breakthroughs


– carrying out different actions e.g. using jetpacks

Understanding breakdown


– “What are we actually meant to do?”

– But Natasha helps him achieve a


pointing out the drawbridge by

Action breakthrough

(William - moving the cylinder)

Understanding breakthrough

(Natasha) “Maybe if we fill that thing with stuff, it comes down”

4. A loss of agency leads to a breakdown in involvement

Doctor Who – Natasha (31)

Action breakdowns:

controller problems mean she is not able to act effectively within the game world

Involvement breakdown:

gets frustrated and quits

So far so good but lets look at some other examples…

Endless Ocean 2: Nick (29)

Endless Ocean 2: “I just didn’t find it interesting”

Involvement breakdown


– The game was "very slow and, yeah, boring I guess, it wasn’t stimulating and I just didn’t find it interesting"

Understanding & action breakdowns


– Not paying attention to the narrative

– Trouble interpreting the map and navigating

– “I found it hard to concentrate on the game because I wasn’t really enjoying it”

Indiana Jones 2: Linda (59)

Lego Indiana Jones 2: Changing characters

Repeated action breakdowns


– Lack of progress: “I'm thinking well, where can I go now? I've done this before”

Underlying understanding breakdown


– “I need a character with a gun, I thought well he's useless, he's only got a spanner”

Involvement breakdown:

– “It's back here, it's in the hub and I was cross”

Refined conjectures


A lack of initial involvement will cause further breakdowns.

II. Involvement will be reduced when breakdowns take too long to overcome or have major consequences, e.g. a loss of progress.

III. Action and understanding breakdowns help to maintain involvement when they lead to breakthroughs.

IV. Involvement breakthroughs occur when overcoming breakdowns leads to a sense of achievement.

Sam & Max – Matt (24)

Sam & Max: Knocking out Whizzer

Partial understanding breakthrough


– knows what to do but not how to do it

Action breakdowns


– Strategies fail e.g. trying to plant the cheese when

Whizzer isn’t looking

Action breakthrough


– clicks on the bathroom door

Involvement breakdown


– “that’s what kind of a bit annoyed me because it's like, you know what you've got to do, it's just you've got to do it in the way the game designer wants you to do it"

Refined conjectures

V. Progress requires action breakthroughs, but not necessarily understanding.

VI.Action breakthroughs that occur without understanding will be less satisfying.

Flower – Alex (41)

Flower: Navigating the canyon

Action breakdowns


– Missing petals “all of a sudden we’re too high, and then woop

, you can’t get any of those?”

Understanding breakdown:

– "I’m not sure what’s me, I’m not sure what’s just happening cos of the breezes"

Involvement breakdown:

– "So, it, kind of was a pretty experience as an on rails type thing, then that can be quite nice but, as a game that’s not very satisfying."

Refined conjectures

VII.Recurring controller problems, that lead to repeated action breakdowns, are an obstacle to the expression of agency.

VIII.The experience of agency is necessary for maintaining involvement.

IX.Agency is reduced if players feel their actions do not have a meaningful impact within the game world.


• Are action and understanding breakdowns detrimental to involvement?

• Yes & no

The refined conjectures illustrate:

– Failure is a common, if not integral, component of the game-play experience

– Involvement stems from experiencing cycles of breakdown and breakthrough i.e. through overcoming challenges

– However, when something interrupts the cycle, involvement is negatively affected


• Game design

– Breakdown and breakthrough categories

– Designers need to support learning

– Players should feel responsible for their progress

• Educational contexts

– The desired learning should be presented in the form of understanding breakthroughs that lead to progress

– Games cannot “make” someone interested in a topic

Limitations and further work

• Small sample size but can generalise to theory

(Yin, 2009)

– Statements do not represent a definitive theory of learning and involvement

– Serve as a foundation for future research

• Scope to investigate:

– Different platforms e.g. mobile

– Multiplayer contexts e.g. online

– Player strategies e.g. casual vs. hardcore

Thank you!

Email: [email protected]



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Complete conjectures

1. Macro level expectations are informed by prior experience, other players and the wider community.

2. Repeated micro involvement depends on expectations being met, the promise of in-game rewards, and external factors such as the price of the game.

3. The unpredictability of outcomes leads to meaningful and compelling experiences only when the outcomes are interpreted as fair and consistent.

4. Narrative and social context contribute to what makes a game play experience meaningful and compelling.

Complete conjectures

5. A lack of initial involvement will cause further breakdowns.

6. Action and understanding breakdowns contribute to involvement when they are overcome by breakthroughs.

7. However, involvement will be reduced when breakdowns take too long to overcome or have major consequences e.g. a loss of progress.

8. Additionally, an involvement breakdown will occur if outcomes are not considered fair and consistent.

9. Involvement breakthroughs occur when overcoming breakdowns lead to a sense of achievement.

Complete conjectures

10. Progress involves action breakthroughs, but not necessarily understanding.

11. Action breakthroughs that occur without understanding

(i.e. through trial and error), will be less satisfying.

12. The experience of agency is necessary for maintaining involvement.

13. Reoccurring controller problems are an obstacle the expression of agency.

14. Agency is reduced if players feel their actions do not have a meaningful impact within the game world.