Monday, 22 April 2013

Interview with James Ash on Videogames and Affect

Image: James Ash
To supplement articles by James Ash in recent issues of both Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, Souvik Mukherjee interviewed him on videogames, attention and affect.

Both articles are free to access until the end of May



Souvik Mukherjee:  Your exploration of videogames as affective media that embody dynamic and complex attention modulation mechanisms is a welcome intervention in so-called ‘new media studies’ and game studies. However, with such a deep focus on the affect, this also seems to diverge from the notion, as effectively summed up by Alex Galloway in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, that ‘if photographs are images, and lms are moving images, then video games are actions’. Of course, Galloway himself is one of the first to introduce the idea of the affection-image in videogames. Would you go as far as to say that videogames are more about affect than action? How would you see the attention- affection-action (not necessarily in that order) dynamic in videogames?

James Ash: The relationship between affect and action is an interesting one, because on the face of things these two terms might be considered as opposed to one another. Much of the literature on affect points to a pre-conscious priming or shaping of action, whereas the concept of action might imply a stronger sense of agency, in terms of the gamer controlling the action. However, I don’t really see that as an opposition. Videogames are about the production of affective feedback loops between player and game, in which capacities to affect and be affected are designed into the environments and rules of the game. In this case, action is a particular modulation of affect. Of course, the whole difficulty of games design is trying to modulate affect indirectly using a series of fairly strict rules, which have to be implemented by designers before the game reaches an audience. In this case, much design is about trying to anticipate the contingency of player action, before that action comes into existence (see Ash, 2010).

Furthermore, while many critics will say otherwise, affects are contextual and historical. Players develop a whole series of somatic and analytic attunements when playing videogames, which shape their expectations and understandings of how to play them. When one picks up Call of Duty, one may have played past games in the series, or other modern First Person Shooter games, all of which will influence how one is affected by the current experience.

In the TCS paper, I theorise the relationship between attention and affect through the concepts of amplification, modulation and bandwidth. Videogames attempt to amplify and modulate affect within a particular bandwidth between positive affects such as joy and negative affects such as sorrow in order to hold players attention. Action is a key part of this process, because it is through players’ responses that the feedback loops of modulation take place.


SM: There seems to be a disconnect so far between the theorising about videogames and the actual design processes in the industry. You make some clear connections with game design mechanics and your theoretical framework - how do you see these translating into the future videogame design manuals and say, Call of Duty 10 (I’m sure we’ll have it soon - I finished CoD Modern Warfare 3 a few months ago)?

JA: The videogame industry, from my experience, is just starting to try and seriously quantify what a fun game is and link that to the particular gameplay mechanics in a game. You can see this happening at Microsoft where they have been investing huge amounts of money into their own game labs and using a variety of psychological tests to measure players’ responses to games. I know that these processes of testing and feedback were central to the design of Halo 3, for example.

I think the development of this kind of testing is occurring for two main reasons. First is to try and mitigate the huge financial risk big budget games are for a publisher. It is not uncommon for one large failure to sink a studio and this generation has seen many videogame studios closing around the world for this reason. Second and perhaps more interestingly is the lack of formal languages or theories that can help describe or communicate what makes a videogame good or bad. I found this especially to be the case when conducting the research for my PhD thesis. When I interviewed games designers and asked them what made a game fun or interesting, they often had a hard time putting this into words or formalising it in any way. They would often refer to how a game ‘felt’ to play, but couldn't really describe that feeling in more detail. When you may have millions of dollars on the line in development costs, a vague feeling about whether the game is any good or not just isn’t really enough!

In terms of the concepts I develop in the paper, yes I think they could be used to design videogame environments in an attempt to modulate and hold attention. However, you always have to be careful with formulae, because they can quickly become formulaic. We are seeing this at the moment with the Call of Duty franchise. The games are still selling huge numbers, but Black Ops Two did not sell as well as the previous two games in the franchise. This may be because players are becoming fatigued with what is essentially the same game engine and gameplay mechanics which are just tweaked and tuned in each iteration.

Looking into a crystal ball, one could argue that attention modulation techniques will become more complex on a number of fronts, both technical and creative. Firstly they may become more real-time. Studios regularly release patches to fix issues with games after they have been released. One could imagine that these sporadic patches could give way to real time updates in which the game environments and rule sets are moulded and shaped ‘live’ in response to trends in modulation and analyzed by games companies while the games are being played. Creatively we are seeing how attention modulation is now being utilised in open world games, as well as linear ‘corridor’ type shooters such as Call of Duty. The hunting systems in Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 3 are examples of this. Traveling from point A to point B is broken up through the presence of wildlife and animals, which can be hunted to create items. The process of discovering, hunting and harvesting these animals serves to modulate attention in what can be quite boring trips across a game map. As game engines develop and become capable of modeling more and more entities with active properties, these environments and the affective modulations they afford may become more complex.

SM: Recent research on first-person games has been majorly concerned with analysing videogames as affective media. Galloway, Gordon Calleja and myself among others have all looked at FPS games in terms of involvement, telos and the gameplay experience per se. I’m curious about other genres of gameplay such as real-time strategy games and MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) where the issues involved might be somewhat different. I was wondering if you have given this a thought …

JA: Absolutely. I actually think that the genre of First Person Shooters probably embody some of the simplest forms of attention modulation mechanics in videogames. MMORPGs can be much more complex, because there is often a group dynamic involved, with players working together to defeat difficult raids and bosses. If you watch multiple players engaging in a raid you can see how the interface and environment is designed to distribute attention, both spatially and temporally, very widely, and create more complex links between different modes of temporality. Players have to attend to the boss’s actions and movements, the movements and actions of other players, as well as performing various statistical calculations as part of the team’s overall strategy. In doing so, the relationship between here and there, now and then, is spatialised into a variety of different formats, all of which require attention. In Real Time Strategy games like Starcraft, and fighting videogames like Street Fighter (see Ash, 2012) players actively develop languages and units to formalise units of temporality which operate below the conscious threshold of casual and non-players. In Starcraft, player skill is measured by actions per minutes, with professional players capable of more than 200 actions in a single minute. In Street Fighter IV players can respond within three, two or even one frame of animation (equal to a sixtieth of a second). Here, attention is drawn into and shaped around a phenomenological ‘now’ point that is very narrow.

Furthermore, in games like World of Warcraft, players can also actively modify their interfaces, changing the layout of icons and adding different overlays and functionality to the standard heads-up display. This capacity for modification and creative response by players complicates a simple narrative in which designers have direct control over the player. In videogame design, attention modulation is indirect, which is why I talk about trying to modulate attention into a particular bandwidth, rather than fixing attention to a specific spot.

SM: All of the games that you describe are ones that quite obviously tell a story. How do non-storytelling games figure in your analyses? Do you see a connection between storytelling and affect in videogames?

JA: No, I don’t really see any formal relationship between affect and storytelling in games. Games can obviously tell stories and stories can affect the player on a variety of levels. The affective resonances of a particular moment or mechanic in a game may also be heightened or shaped by plot and narrative revelations, but these are differences in degree, not in kind. The issue of narratives and their relationship with rules has been a point of contention for a long time in writing on videogames, but I don’t think this is a useful distinction at all. I think it is more productive to think about how players actually experience games as mixtures of rules and narrative than try to introduce and formalise distinctions between them. I also think the same model of attention amplification, modulation and bandwidth is applicable to games with very little apparent narrative. For example, puzzle games like Tetris are all about attempting to amplify positive affects and modulating attention between voluntary and captivated states, in order to keep clearing lines and gaining a higher score. In this regard I am more interested in what technologies like videogames do and how they operate than I am in trying to define exactly what makes a videogame a videogame.

Furthermore, I think the concepts of affective amplification, modulation and bandwidth can also help us think about a number of technologies outside of videogames and how they operate to modulation attention. I am thinking here of satellite navigation technologies and a variety of context and locative media apps. This, to me, is the next question; to think about what happens when attention modulation is mobile and embedded in a general environment outside of a specific object.

SM: Could you tell us about any article(s) in TCS or elsewhere to which we could direct readers interested in exploring your research area a bit further?

JA: My piece in Body & Society was the catalyst for the article in TCS. The paper looks specifically at how the environments in the multiplayer component of Call of Duty 4 works to attune bodies in order to create a state of captivation. I have also written specifically about games design as a process of managing contingency, drawing upon my empirical work as a games tester in Environment and Planning D (Ash, 2010). Finally, if people are interested in learning more about the creative responses, techniques and languages players develop through games, I have written pieces in Environment and Planning A (Ash, 2012) and Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (Ash, 2010b) on empirical work with players.


Ash, J (2012) 'Technology, technicity and emerging practices of temporal sensitivity in videogames', Environment and Planning A, 44 (1) 187-203, doi:10.1068/a44171

Ash, J (2010) 'Architectures of affect: anticipating and manipulating the event in practices of videogame design and testing', Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28 (4) 653-671, doi:10.1068/d9309

Ash, J (2010) 'Teleplastic Technologies: charting practices of orientation and navigation in videogaming', Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35 (3) 414-430, doi:10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00389.x


James Ash is a lecturer in Media at the University of Northumbria. He received his PhD in Human Geography at the University of Bristol in 2009. His thesis investigated practices of videogame design and use. His current research is concerned with developing post-phenomenological accounts of body–technology relations.
More information about his research is available at his website:


Souvik Mukherjee is the Manager of the TCS Website, and Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Presidency University, Kolkata. India.
Email:, Weblog:



TCS and B & S are published by SAGE.


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