Cognitive psychological principles for game design to facilitate narrative interpretation as play

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


In discussion of digital games that prioritise the experience of story over other forms of gameplay, it is found that perspectives in games research and practice often consider the engagement with narrative in digital games to be passive. This thesis proposes an alternative perspective that the interpretation of narrative is an active and psychologically involving process that can itself be considered a form of play. Following an epistemological examination of the concepts of play and game with which to provide an appropriate basis for the concept of interpretation as play, this is investigated as a lens for practice in game and narrative design.
Utilising a practice research methodology focusing on the identification and application of change in practice, current approaches to practice are reviewed to identify how existing methods may relate to interpretation as play. A review of approaches to the design of walking simulators identifies methods for storytelling that consider player imagination, indicating cognitive psychology as a relevant field of research. A review of theories of working memory, schema theory, and discourse comprehension leads to the development of the model of inference and situation model construction that shows how, through inference, individuals activate relevant long-term memory to determine how to integrate stimuli into current narrative understanding in the form of situation models. Limited activation of memory may result in a more effortful controlled inference to activate additional memory for the integration of stimuli. Further theories of arousal regulation, curiosity, and cognitive closure inform the model of optimal arousal regulation. This describes how individuals seek out novel stimuli with limited activation to facilitate arousal boost and arousal reduction to elicit pleasure through their integration.
The psychological models inform the generation of four psychological principles for game design to prioritise interpretation as play. The four principles aim to facilitate controlled inference to increase arousal boost and reduction for greater pleasure: Mediating Situation Model Activation, Providing Situation-Model-Discrepant Stimuli, Mediating Schema Activation, Providing Schema-Discrepant Stimuli. The four principles are utilised in the design and development of White Lake to determine their applicability in practice, identifying nuances and challenges in their application in game design. Responses to White Lake are analysed to then determine how players respond to a digital game that intentionally prioritises interpretation as play. Responses suggest that participants encountered novel stimuli, with common discussion of prediction possibly indicating controlled inference. Responses indicate a need to better balance methods for increasing arousal with arousal reducing methods, with some participants potentially showing aversive behaviours in response to excessively high arousal, and others showing exploratory behaviours in response to low arousal. Responses to White Lake therefore suggest that interpretation as play is being facilitated.
Date of AwardSept 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorPeter Howell (Supervisor), Neil Dansey (Supervisor) & Mark Christian Eyles (Supervisor)

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