Aesthetic Emotions in Digital Games: The Appeal of Moving, Challenging, and Thought-Provoking Player Experiences

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School of Science | Doctoral thesis (article-based) | Defence date: 2020-12-04
Degree programme
74 + app. 76
Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 175/2020
Film, music, literature, and the visual arts are all acclaimed for their capacity to afford emotionally rich experiences, including aesthetic emotions typically considered negative and challenging. Games, in contrast, have been argued to be less effective at evoking a similarly broad spectrum of emotions due to their inherent focus on gameplay and mechanics. Concurrently, efforts in player-computer interaction have mostly concentrated on fun, flow, and need satisfaction. As a consequence, several empirical and conceptual gaps in our understanding of the player experience remain: We know little about what kind of aesthetic emotions players feel, to what extent they value such experiences, how games evoke these emotions, and what the outcomes of such experiences may be. This thesis addresses these research gaps in five empirical studies. Results from Publication I, Publication II, and Publication III showcase that players experience a range of aesthetic emotions in games, typically associated with other art forms. Games also afford unique aesthetic emotions, such as remorse and a sense of responsibility. Publication I and Publication III highlight that players enjoy and appreciate such aesthetic emotional experiences, in some instances, precisely because of games evoking intense negative feelings. Moreover, Publication I, Publication II, and Publication III identify means through which games facilitate aesthetic emotions, including tough decisions, as well as attachment to and loss of game characters. Players' personal experiences and memories also shape the gaming experience, highlighting how games can profoundly impact players in different ways. Notably, Publication IV showcases games' potential for affording aesthetic epistemic emotions, experiences that prompt reflection on the self and others. Finally, Publication V provides insights on how a VR game specifically designed to stimulate reflection fostered understanding and empathy for others in distress, both in-game and in real-life. This thesis contributes to empirical and conceptual problem-solving in player-computer interaction. First, it provides empirically based descriptions of the hitherto little explored phenomenon of aesthetic emotions in games and their potential outcomes. Second, it contributes to a more nuanced understanding of positive player experience and helps to clarify concepts such as emotional challenge and character attachment. Finally, the thesis highlight game aspects that play an important role in affording aesthetic emotional experiences, and outlines avenue for future research.
Defence on 4.12.2020 17:00 – 21:00. Via remote technology (Zoom):
Supervising professor
Mekler, Elisa D., Prof., Aalto University, Department of Computer Science, Finland
Thesis advisor
Hämäläinen, Perttu, Prof., Aalto University, Finland
player experience, emotion, aesthetic emotion, games
Other note
  • [Publication 1]: Julia Ayumi Bopp, Elisa D. Mekler, Klaus Opwis. Negative Emotion, Positive Experience?: Emotionally Moving Moments in Digital Games. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems., San Jose, 2996–3006, Honorable Mention, 2016.
    DOI: 10.1145/2858036.2858227 View at publisher
  • [Publication 2]: Julia Ayumi Bopp, Livia J. Müller, Lena Fanya Aeschbach, Klaus Opwis, Elisa D. Mekler. Exploring Emotional Attachment to Game Characters. In Proceedings of the Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play (CHI PLAY), Barcelona, 313- 324, Honorable Mention, 2019.
    Full text in Acris/Aaltodoc:
    DOI: 10.1145/3311350.3347169 View at publisher
  • [Publication 3]: Julia Ayumi Bopp, Klaus Opwis, Elisa D. Mekler. “An Odd Kind of Pleasure”: Differentiating Emotional Challenge in Digital Games. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Montreal, 41, 2018.
    DOI: 10.1145/3173574.3173615 View at publisher
  • [Publication 4]: Elisa D. Mekler, Ioanna Iacovides, Julia Ayumi Bopp. “A Game that Makes You Question...” Exploring the Role of Reflection for the Player Experience. In Proceedings of the 2018 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play (CHI PLAY), Melbourne, 315-327, Best Paper, 2018.
    DOI: 10.1145/3242671.3242691 View at publisher
  • [Publication 5]: Martijn J.L. Kors, Erik D. van der Spek, Julia Ayumi Bopp, Karel Millenaar, Rutger L. van Teutem, Gabriele Ferri, Ben A.M. Schouten. The Curious Case of the Transdiegetic Cow, or a Mission to Foster Other-Oriented Empathy Through Virtual Reality. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Honolulu, 619, 2020.
    DOI: 10.1145/3313831.3376748 View at publisher