Immersive Gameplay – Interview with Nathan Hook

August 27, 2012

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The seventh interview is with role-playing designer and writer Nathan Hook. His article “Circles and Frames: The Games Social Scientists Play,” argues that Solomon Asch’s 1951 Conformity Experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Prison Experiment among others, when read as games, interrogate the boundary between the so-called “magic circle” and “protective frame” of play. His article implies that there is but a thin line between psychology experiments and live-action games, and between player and character in such situations.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner –  How does being a game designer affect your work in psychology?

Nathan Hook – Games can be viewed as systems that alter player behaviour.  Since psychology studies behaviour as an expression of inner mental states, understanding how systems can influence that behaviour can be crucial.

To give a particular example: there is an incredibly strong social contract in a game that, once it has begun, the game must be finished. We need to be mindful that this applies to psychology experiments as well. In one of my undergraduate experiments, a participant was stung by a bee halfway through and still refused to step out of the experiment, ‘playing’ through to the end.  Explaining the right to withdraw from the event is not in itself sufficient if participants bring in their own frame which impairs their judgement in using this right.

In terms of role-playing rather than games in general, being a successful ethnographer is extremely close to role-playing.  In the classical tradition of ethnography, an ethnographer immerses oneself into a different culture or subculture to gain insight into the actual living experience.  They are playing a role –sometimes that of a tolerated outsider, sometimes using their social status to get commitment, sometimes fully undercover and immersed.  I’ve found that applying ethnographic principles to researching role-playing an extremely self-reflective and recursive experience.

In clinical psychology, debate is ongoing about the medical recognition of computer game addiction.  For me, this is ironic, given that academic computer game texts explain quite clearly how one makes any given game addictive.

ET – At what point do psychologists become game designers, even to a limited degree? Where is the line that they cross?

NH – The history of experimental psychology is full of game-like examples.  To give one simple example: a classic cognitive psychology experiment often repeated by undergraduates is to measure under different conditions participant’s digit span – the maximum length of a string of characters a person can remember.  One form of this is to tap out a sequence on a number of blocks which the participant then tries to repeat – essentially identical to the ‘Simon says’ game.  Psychometric testing could also be considered a game, if people were to start comparing their scores.

To give another example: an experiment had participants undertake an IQ test and then gave them a predetermined result to induce a particular emotional state.  On their way out, a person planted by the researcher tried to ‘chat up’ the participant and get their phone number.  In many ways, this is a role-playing game – the organiser has created a situation, briefed the participant-player and then arranged an encounter with a scripted non-player character (NPC) to see how the player responds to it.The line that separates these two lies is the intent of the designer.  The psychologist (like other scientists) is normally creating a situation for the purpose of attempting to acquire data to test a hypothesis (or, in ‘grounded theorising,’ to form a new hypothesis).  In contrast the game designer is designing a situation/system to give the players some kind of experience – often but not always ‘fun.’  The difference is a question of intent of creative agenda.

ET –Fundamentally, what impact do experimental larps or larp-as-experiments have on their participants that ‘normal’ larps do not?

NH – Experimental larps often push people boundaries outside the comfort zone to offer experiences that would not otherwise be had, such as being an abused prisoner or a having a different sexual orientation.‘Normal’ larps (which is a heavily questionable concept, since what is a normal in larp varies massively) tends to offer a greater element of wish fulfilment – for example, being a hero with a sword.  While they do offer an experience outside the everyday, they neither push boundaries nor challenge the player’s core identity.Being an adventurer killing an orc is very psychologically different to being a guard abusing a prisoner.  There is a distinct lack of research on the psychological safety of experimental larps.  Just as people choose to engage in high-risk physical sports knowing the risks, it is important that we understand the risk factors of such larp events.

ET – Why should psychologists read larp research?

NH – Psychology is a very broad subject and itself is difficult to define.  Literally ‘the study of the soul,’ one common definition is ‘the study of people (except for animal psychology).’  Some would define it as ‘the study of the mind,’ but that presupposes a binary division between body and mind.

All games involve people, and structured games are a defining trait of being human.  For this reason, the study of people needs to acknowledge and include a widespread and defining human activity.

In the early days of psychology and the wider social sciences, one approach was to study human creations to gain insight into the minds and cultures that created them.  By studying a work of art, we might gain insight into the mind that created it.  If we accept that games are art, then studying games is a direct continuation of this tradition.  As Lizzie Stark recently argued, the unlimited progression of Dungeons & Dragons is analogous to the American dream and reflects the culture that created it.

ET – As someone who has, on occasion, gotten addicted to certain video games, the ‘hidden formula’ behind the games that really arrest your attention for hours on end is interesting to me. What characteristics do the most addictive games share?

NH – One of the underlying reasons for computer game addiction is called ‘flow’  This is a cognitive state caused by being challenged just enough for your skill level, and challenge(s) increasing the difficulty at just the right pace to match for increasing skills.  The rhythm of the activity creates a mental state of focused motivation and ignoring other wider motivations.

All games are about constructing new frames for meaning.  The positions of pieces on a chess board are trivial and of no importance to us before a game. Once we start playing, they become vitally important.  We imbue them with meaning because we attach symbolic value to that data. In the same way, once we start playing a computer game, the position of virtual pieces becomes of vital importance – so important that it drowns out other important elements of our lives. This is studied from different angles both in sports psychology (sometimes called being ‘in the zone’) and educational psychology as principles to achieve effective learning.

ET – How does larp itself become addictive?

NH – I don’t think larp is addictive, at least not in a formal medical or scientific sense. In a more casual sense of addictive, I think there are many factors at work.  For some, larp does offer escapism from the stresses of everyday life, as shown in the documentary film Darkon (2006).  It offers power and agency, and power (even pretend power) is addictive.  A campaign larp can be ‘addictive’ in the same way that a good book is addictive – people care about the characters and want to follow their story and, in larp, identification with a main character is implicit in the design, since they are living inside your body.

 I’d also recognise that larp also extends to involvement in the social community of larpers, comparable to team sports or amateur dramatics.  While social conflict does happen, the larp community is also very accepting.  Having intense emotional experiences – even negative ones – tends to bond people together and larpers often tend to have other common interests, such as computer games or an interest in certain genres of fiction.

ET – You say on the one hand that there is perhaps no “normal” larp, but on the other hand suggest this analogy of an “adventurer killing an orc.” Semi-genocidal fantasy adventurers seems a very specific legacy that is nevertheless attached to “normal” role-playing. Why has this particular psychological investment in killing orcs had such power over the gaming hobby since the 1970s?

NH – Michelle Nephew argues a strong element of role-play is male fantasy wish fulfillment – being the lone hero outside of society armed with the sword.  While I don’t agree with all of her argument, I do accept that part of it.

In some respects, this kind of fiction is designed to make it easier for a scenario writer.  D&D happens in a dungeon, since walls and corridors stop players from wandering in a direction the GM hasn’t mapped out.  Having some orcs, zombies or bandits to fight is easier to design than a complex murder mystery or political intrigue.

One reason I’d suggest newer tabletop role-play games have moved away from this has been that computers became better at running games of dungeons and orcs, ane a number of board games also simulate fighting through dungeons well.  Tabletop role-playing games responded by becoming about intrigue or horror, something more challenging for computer games to do.

Nathan Hook recently finished his master’s in psychology research methods with The Open University. He uses an ethnographic approach to study identity construction by recreational role-players and emotional bleed from fictive play experiences. He lives in Bristol, United Kingdom; his website is

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”


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