Engagement through play? The relationship between video games and political engagement

Wagner, Hanne Gesine (2020) Engagement through play? The relationship between video games and political engagement. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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The presented research is an investigation of politics in video games. This is done with two overarching goals in mind. The first is to further the understanding of an under-researched area in both political science and game studies as well as human computer interaction. The second and main aim is to consider how games can be used to promote political engagement and increase the interest of the players in real world politics. Both goals were pursued using an interdisciplinary approach, introducing insights, methods and literature of Political Science and Political Psychology, with Human Computer Interaction and Game Design studies.

The first study sought to produce a clearer picture of the state of politics in games through a landscaping study among players. The study inquired into what players thought of as ‘politics’ and ‘political’ in games, what game titles were considered particularly political and how the presentation of politics in-game was perceived compared to real-world, everyday politics. However, it was not only games that were of interest to the study. It was also the players of such games themselves and how interested and engaged they were with politics. The study’s findings showed that politics were most often associated with elements of institutional politics, especially cases of Use of Force and Diplomacy or Negotiation. Politics in games were perceived to be not very likely to be realistic by study participants, though this varied greatly between games. Participants themselves showed an elevated level of interest in politics. Their general gaming habit and motivations were in line with what the literature would expect from a ‘typical’ gamer population. There was furthermore a positive relationship between playing political games and interest and engagement with politics.

The study revealed the need for a common foundation and structure for debating and researching politics in games. This led to the development of the ‘Politics in Games’ framework, which sought to introduce and link political science and political psychology terms and concepts to the context of digital games, while also providing the ability to consider elements known to increase political engagement in games. The framework therefore was constructed as two variable sets, one specifically for political engagement and another for the general (political) environment in a game. The use of the framework was also two-fold: enabling the analysis of the politics within games, while also being applicable as a guide to develop and design games with political content and the potential for promoting positive political engagement.

To test the framework’s ability to analyse games, both expert and non-expert users were asked to produce test analyses. The expert users’ case studies were consisted of in-depth reports, whereas the non-expert users were asked to analyse the games through an online survey. Both user groups were able to produce game analyses by using the framework as a foundation and produced comparable results. Using the framework also enabled users to consider areas of politics that were often forgotten or invisible in the previous study. Feedback and results from the online survey and case studies were incorporated into the framework and informed the following study.

In order to evaluate the framework’s ability to be used as a tool for creative and design purposes a number of design workshops were held in which participants were asked to develop an idea for a political engaging game. In addition to the framework, a set of ideation cards based on the framework was developed. Participants used both framework and ideation cards, however for different tasks. While the ideation cards were used for creating ideas and discussions in group design sessions, the framework was found to be more useful for guiding the overall structure of game ideas and development. In addition, the ideation cards were considered to be especially good tools to convey political concepts. Participant groups tended to work according to one of two patterns. Their work was either ideation driven, starting with an idea or topic and then using the provided materials to build up on it, or alternatively it was material driven, using materials such as the framework or design cues to come up with an idea that was then further developed. The game design process itself was influenced by both internal and external factors. External factors included elements such as the framework and other provided materials as well as discussion in the workshop prior to the game designing exercise. Internal influences came from the participants’ backgrounds, prior knowledge, experiences and opinions. Nationality in particular proved to be an influential factor, while professional or educational backgrounds were less important. Participants in the workshops thus exhibited similar influences and biases such as those often found in professional game development. Overall, the workshop showed how the framework was a valid tool in designing political engagement promoting games.

In summary, the research showed the importance of a common foundational language and terminology when talking about games in politics between different stakeholders. The user studies provided the ground to suggest that the Politics in Games framework is an effective tool to achieve this, both for analytical and creative purposes. These findings can furthermore have implications for the way we talk about games in politics and the media in general, as well as how we design games, both for education and entertainment. In politically uncertain times both understanding of, and participation in, politics and the democratic processes have become more crucial than ever before. This research thus hopes to contribute in its own way to a growing awareness of the importance of being politically informed and active.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Rodden, T
Flintham, M
Keywords: politics, political engagement, video games
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation. Leisure
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Science > School of Computer Science
Item ID: 60800
Depositing User: Wagner, Hanne
Date Deposited: 13 Mar 2024 15:03
Last Modified: 13 Mar 2024 15:03
URI: https://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/60800

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