An empirical exploration of aesthetic distance through mimetic interface design in videogames

  • Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Aesthetic distance is determined by the frame of reference created by the use of technical devices around an artwork, to differentiate it psychologically from reality, so it may be critically observed. Traditionally a term concerning literature, theatre, and visual art, it is proposed that aesthetic distance should also apply to videogames. A player’s sense of aesthetic distance is an emergent phenomenon, arising from both the stylistic qualities of the game itself, and the attitudes of the player. Due to improvements in sensor technology, mimetic interfaces of all types, from gestural controls such as Xbox Kinect to head-mounted displays such as the Oculus Rift, are becoming more commercially prevalent; these have also been the subject of scrutiny for ‘moral’ issues they may raise for narrowing the distance between the player and the game. This is particularly important with regard to “morally significant” videogames, featuring a narrative concerning emotional or dramatic consequences for human characters.
Two between-subjects studies altering interface mimesis examined whether this affected a player’s sense of aesthetic distance from morally significant games. Firstly, a popular commercially available videogame was used, featuring unjustified violence. Through a factor analysis of participants’ varying experiences of aesthetic distance, 10 factors were identified, including an attitude of “it’s just a game”. Following this, a second study was performed, for which a 3D first-person game was developed. This simulated rock climbing with a non-player-character climbing partner; this forced a situation in which the player had to take a ‘morally significant’ action, determining whether their partner’s life should be sacrificed, or whether ‘they’ (the player’s character) should also die.
Aesthetic distance was empirically found to be mediated by interface mimesis, when supported by physical embodiment. The time taken for players to make their decision was also increased as interface mimesis was enhanced, and they reported altered feelings of aesthetic measures, such as how engaged vs. detached they felt, how far they identified with their player character, feelings of plausibility, and feelings of tension. They also reported differences in whether they focused on feelings rather than thoughts, and whether knowing that the game is fiction made a difference to their feelings. Trait empathy contributed to how guilty players felt as their embodiment increased.
Thus, aesthetic distance in games is not a straightforward picture: qualitative data found that players experienced feelings of double awareness, this attitude of “it’s just a game”, even as their sense of embodiment in the game decreased their aesthetic distance. Thus, it is proposed that, any heightened involvement through enhancing interface mimesis still occurs within the nuanced context of Walton’s theory of “mimesis as make-believe” in representational art. This is consistent with, and extends, the theory that videogames happen within a ‘magic circle’ of play. Thus, it is suggested that a player’s sense of double awareness, together with their heightened emotional involvement, may allow for a physically embodied paradigm of procedural rhetoric, particularly when tackling themes that are morally significant, or socio-political. This is termed embodied critical play
Date of AwardApr 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorBrett Stevens (Supervisor), Mark Eyles (Supervisor) & David Anderson (Supervisor)

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