Scholarly Works

A list of my conference, journal, book, and trade publications

Interpretive Play and the Player Psychology of Optimal Arousal Regulation

Higgins, M. & Howell, P., 2020

Building on previous discussions of interpretive play in story-focused digital games, a psychological foundation of narrative interpretation is proposed. First, how narrative information is synthesized with prior experiences and expectations into ‘situation models’ in long-term memory. Second, how pleasure is derived from increased arousal through engaging with novel, unfamiliar stimuli. This psychological foundation is then compared to contemporary approaches to narrative design, particularly in Her Story and Dear Esther. The relevance of the proposed cognitive psychological foundation is also considered in regard to digital games with no documented intentional use psychologically, primarily through an analysis of player behaviour and response in Gone Home. Results are comparable to the psychological model, particularly the prominent roles of recalling and forming expectations, and how player attention is often attracted to novel, unfamiliar, or unexpected stimuli. The ongoing aim of this work is to further investigate interpretive play in the context of digital games and continue to develop the cognitive psychological foundation. Future work shall also contextualise the research and findings though the development of commercial games.

Creating Meaningful Games through Values-Driven Design Principles

Jerrett, A., Howell, P. & Dansey, N., 2020
Proceedings of DiGRA 2020 Conference: Play Everywhere

Abstract: The interactivity present in games makes them useful vehicles for the exploration of various concepts outside of “finding the fun”. Empathy games – games that are developed to educate and encourage empathetic responses from players about a scenario – are one such example. However, the notion of empathy game design overlaps with other tangential design theories like emotional game design, radical game design, and critical game design. These theories often overlap but are difficult to discover because of their different naming conventions. To assist designers, this paper discusses design principles from these and other similar game design frameworks. Using these, it presents a consolidated set of design principles and considerations that can be applied to game projects. These principles are presented to inspire future design work to explore lesser-known experiences, in the hopes of being more inclusive of, and more meaningful to, a diverse player base.

Developing an Empathy Spectrum for Games

Jerrett, A., Howell, P. & Dansey, N., 2020

Published in Games and Culture Journal.

Abstract: Games often encourage players to feel empathy for characters or scenarios by design. However, the term ‘empathy’ is often misunderstood and used in a variety of contexts as a substitute for feelings of sympathy, pity and compassion. This article defines a distinction between these similar terms and uses their definitions to describe how players emotionally engage with a game. This helps define an empathy spectrum, ranging from pity to compassion, that can be used to subjectively classify different games. To show the spectrum in use, the article discusses a variety of video games that can be placed at the spectrum’s key points, before discussing how games might reach the spectrum’s furthest point: compassion. The research hopes that modelling these abstract psychological concepts on this spectrum can help game designers, players and scholars better understand the range of emotional responses present in games.

Epistemological Issues in Understanding Games Design, Play-Experience, and Reportage

Howell, P. & Stevens, B., 2019
Proceedings of DiGRA 2019 Conference: Game, Play and the Emerging Ludo Mix

Abstract: This paper presents a philosophically-grounded argument for examining how second-order analysis can be approached with regard to epistemologies of game design and play-experience. Games are presented as multiple ‘units of being’ sharing relationships of dependency and transformation, which can be approached differently by different audiences. To demonstrate how such relationships can function between units of being, examples from game analyses are discussed with particular attention to the role of cognition and memory in reporting on the play-experience specifically. Implications for design practice, player studies, game analysis, and games criticism are discussed throughout the argument, working towards a theoretical foundation for enabling more deeply informed interpretation and analyses.

The Role of Social Interactions in a Multiplayer Context for Rehabilitation Games

Whitby, M., Howell, P., Garner, T., & de Weerd, C., 2018
Proceedings of ICDVRAT-ITAG 2018

Abstract: This paper presents an investigation into the effects of creating multiplayer rehabilitation applications, undertaken as part of a six-month internship with Motek Medical. Two approaches were taken; firstly, taking an existing rehabilitation game and integrating multiplayer mechanics, secondly, designing a bespoke cooperative game. Twenty-two participants took part in a pilot study and the results suggest that designing and developing with social gameplay in mind from the start leads to better perceived team communication than in an adaptation of an existing product. The results highlight one application being perceived as a more social experience, while the other was perceived as having clearer goals.

Designing and Creating a Game Installation

Whitby, M. & Howell, P., 2017
The Computer Games Journal

Abstract: A game installation is a game that incorporates the surrounding environment, something that has mostly been explored on a city-wide scale. This paper concerns the creation of a game installation set within a room, and explores locative media, mixed reality games and the fourth wall. A framework for game installations has been designed and tested with a group of participants in a case study. The results in this paper show that the final artefact could be considered a success; recommendations for deeper development of the framework are also provided.

A Theoretical Framework of Ludic Knowledge: A Case Study in Disruption and Cognitive Engagement

Howell, P., 2016
Proceedings of POCG 2016, The 10th International Philosophy of Computer Games Conference

Abstract: This paper presents a theoretical framework of ludic knowledge applicable to game design. It was developed as a basis for disrupting player knowledge of ‘normative’ game rules and behaviours, stored as different types of ludic knowledge (intraludic, interludic, transludic, and extraludic), with the aim of supporting a player’s cognitive engagement with a game. The framework describes these different types of knowledge and how they inform player expectation, engagement with gameplay choices, and critical responses to games before, during, and after play. Following the work by Howell, Stevens, and Eyles (2014) that presented an initial schema-based framework of player learning during gameplay, this paper further develops the framework based on its application to the design and development of the commercial game Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (The Chinese Room, 2013); a first-person horror-adventure title released for PC. While the theoretical framework of ludic knowledge was developed to support the concept of ‘disruption’, it can also be applied as a standalone tool usable as a basis for critical analysis of how players engage with and talk about games more generally.

Disrupting the Player's Schematised Knowledge of Game Components

Howell, P., Stevens, B., & Eyles, M., 2014
Proceedings of DiGRA 2014 Conference: <Verb that ends in ‘ing’> the <noun> of Game <plural noun>

Abstract: The concept of ‘conservatism’ in game design has been a subject of debate for a number of years. This ‘conservatism’ is linked to ‘player-centricity’ in design. Such player-centricity can be suggested to place a limit on the fulfilment of high level cognitive player needs. A framework is thus proposed for disruptive game design that focuses on the player and how they learn about game components. It actively seeks the disruption of knowledge construction as well as the recall process used in applying that knowledge to new situations. Such disruption aims to increase the player’s cognitive engagement with the game in a way that does not entirely prevent them from understanding the game, which may cause frustration or confusion. This design approach thus aims to provide greater potential for fulfilment of a player’s high level cognitive needs. The framework is applied to a small case study of the game Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (The Chinese Room, 2013) that was designed and developed utilising its principles.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs Postmortem Report

Howell, P., 2014
Feature Article on

A look back at the development of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs from the perspective of The Chinese Room, and which focuses on not just its development but the collaboration with series creator Frictional Games.

Schematically Disruptive Game Design

Howell, P., 2011
Proceedings of DiGRA 2011 Conference: Think Design Play

Abstract: Many games focus their resources at satiating player ‘needs’, and meeting perceived expectations that players have of how games should behave and of what constitutes enjoyable, gratifying gameplay. This paper outlines an alternate position on game design – one which focuses on disrupting these expectations, on designing games that players cannot succeed in simply by relying on their pre-acquired gameplay experiences. A critique of current game design trends is offered, and possible future outcomes of these trends analysed. The proposed framework for ‘Schematically Disruptive Design’ is discussed in relation to the current body of literature, alongside a justification of taking a development-led, horror-focused approach to this research programme. The current position of the research and intended direction of study is lastly outlined, along with the intended application of future results.


Theses and Unpublished Works

An assorted collection of my early research, theses, and unpublished writing

PhD Thesis:
Disruptive Game Design: A Commercial Design and Development Methodology for Supporting Player Cognitive Engagement in Digital Games

Howell, P., 2015

Partial Abstract: Utilising a Research through Design methodology, a model of game space proposes different stages of a game’s creation, from conceptualisation through to the final player experience. The Ludic Action Model (LAM), developed from existing game studies and cognitive psychological theory, affords an understanding of how the player forms expectations in the game as played. A conceptual framework of game components is then constructed and mapped to the Ludic Action Model, providing a basis for understanding how different components of a game interact with and influence the player’s cognitive and motor processes. The Ludic Action Model and the conceptual framework of game components are used to construct the Disruptive Game Feature Design and Development (DisDev) model, created as a design tool for ‘disruptive’ games. The disruptive game design approach is then applied to the design, development, and publication of a commercial game, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (The Chinese Room, 2013). This application demonstrated the suitability of the design approach, and the proposed models, for establishing disruptive game features in the game as designed, developing those features in the game as created, to the final resolution in the game as published, which the player will then experience in the game as played.

PGCert Proof of Concept Document:
Designing Game Environments that Operate Against Player Schema and the Influence of this on Perceived Levels of Fear

Howell, P., 2011

Abstract: This document outlines my initial study plan for researching, analysing, evaluating and designing with schema, and schematic disruption, or incongruence. This document was intended to be the first of three, forming a full, Masters length thesis, however as I transferred onto the Ph.D programme before I completed the full thesis, this document served as a foundation to the early stages of the PhD literature review.

PGCert Pilot Study:
Implicit Fear Mechanisms and Player Experience in Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Howell, P., 2010

Abstract: As a means of informing future game level design, this study was intended to explore the theory that the use of implicit fear heightens immersion and enjoyment of a game. Interviews were carried out with participants that had played Amnesia: The Dark Descent, asking them whether they found the game scary, immersive and enjoyable, and what caused this.

Results showed that both sound and lighting had significant impact on player immersion, with sound being the most influential. Additionally, player-avatar identification and utilisation of preexisting schema were found to have possible effects on immersion and enjoyment. The results of this study conclude that the relationship between fear, and immersion and enjoyment of a game is not necessarily causal in one direction. Immersion through other game mechanisms may result in the eliciting of fear from a player as much as fear may result in immersion in a game.

Undergraduate Dissertation: 

Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Study of the Influence of Game World Lighting in a First Person Shooter on a Player's Decision Making Processes

Howell, P., 2010

Abstract: This study was designed to investigate the impact of lighting in a First Person Shooter game world environment on a player’s decision making processes in relation to previous research in the field of experimental psychology and games research.

The study used a level built in UnrealEd 2, with two distinctive lighting versions which were designed to direct players to follow particular paths through the level. It was predicted that players would follow these lighting cues and take the routes intended by the design.

It was shown that, whilst players did show a tendency to follow the expected routes, the effect was far less pronounced than was predicted. It was shown that other design aspects such as music played a large role in influencing a player also, as well as psychological preconceptions of what to expect when playing a game in the First Person Shooter genre. Previous gaming experience also appears to have an impact on how players make decisions and the possible influence a level designer can hope to have over these decisions.

The map is available to download from ModDB.

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©2020 Peter Howell.

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