Single-Player Games and the Self: (Game)Play and Transformations

Research output: Book / Anthology / Report / Ph.D. thesisPh.D. thesis


This dissertation presents a qualitative research project aimed at understanding and describing how transformative learning processes transpire in gameplay with digital single-player games.
With the aim to understand how transformative processes are constructed and internalised in this sensitive and private activity of solitary gameplay, an investigation into game studies literature on the experience of gameplay and transformative learning theory in connection to games led to a frame of exploratory research. The main research question concerned how identity, or the self may be constructed or maintained in solitary play with single-player games, and how such processes could be defined from the perspective of transformative learning theory. A theoretical synthesis led to a theoretical frame consisting of existential and experiential viewpoints on the subject of transformation in relation to games and gameplay.
This combined theoretical frame indicated that a problem-centred and transdisciplinary approach to the research question was necessary. In this, the project views play as a continuum of processes and has attempted to research this continuum as close to the activity of solitary play as possible without disturbing the activity itself, and thereby the processes.
The frame of solitary play with single-player games, along with an understanding of the sensitivity of the processes that transpire within this meant that a novel research design had to be attempted. Taking inspiration mainly from ethnographic research methods, the resulting research design consists of 4 sequential stages all leading to the final analysis. I present this combined research design as the DisPlay Method: The first stage concerns gathering gameplay video directly from participants. The main goal of this stage was to gather gameplay video that would represent the participants' original play experiences specifically with single-player games in the context of their everyday life activities. The second stage is a video analysis, which is used to identify potential transformative processes occurring in the gameplay. The video material was watched from beginning to end and journalised. Moments and situations of interest were marked and given an analytical memo for use in the later video-elicited interview. Four observational criteria were iterated to aid the analysis and the final selection of moments to use in the interview. These four criteria concerned Movement, Pauses, Opportunity for radical action, and Unexpected behaviour. The third stage is the video-elicited interview, where participants are shown the identified moments of interest and are able to articulate what transpired in that particular moment of gameplay. With the mnemonic assistance of their own gameplay video, the participants were able to give detailed accounts of their lines of thought and emotions, and were able to express their meaning-making processes in the situations as they had transpired. The fourth stage is a differentiation analysis, which triangulates the data from the previous stages. The main aim is to organise the participants' statements in connection to processes, and how these statements relate to the video data. This preparatory stage before the final analysis is necessary, as the video-elicited interview produces statements that are connected to processes, process-elaborations, and meta-reflections. Overall, the research data that the analysis and results of this research are based on consists of 184 hours of gameplay footage and 13 video-elicited interviews. The games participants played were mostly within the roleplaying game genre.
The final analysis and theorisation show how the player is constantly in a state of both being and becoming something in gameplay. A central argument is that players form a Playful Self, which is an intersection between the personal lifeworld of the player, and the player as situated in the gameworld. The playful self is this state of being and becoming, as this intersection is that of self-perception through a reflected self. This self-perception emerges as the player at any given time activates their personal biography and personal identity in relation to the gameworld, their biography with this gameworld (game biography), and their playful identity as it is created in their relation to the gameworld. As such, the playful self is the intersection of the player's Lifeworld self and an experience of self through the gameplay.
Transformative processes in gameplay both constitute and are dependent on this playful self. Within the player, evaluative processes of learning lead to changes in functionality and sensitivity in relation to the game. These internal evaluations are guided by the gameworld presentation and representations, and lead to enactments of sociality within the game. These internal evaluations leading to interaction as enacted sociality are what transform the playful self and thereby the player within the gameplay activity. The relations of these selves and the internal evaluations that lead to transformation are presented in a final model of transformational processes in solitary gameplay.
In the final chapter of the dissertation, these findings and the methods used in the project are discussed for their applicability and limitations. Specifically, there are ethical concerns in the use of the method as it can give access to very private activities and the emotional complexes in these. While the effect of transformation in gameplay on the person as a whole is still somewhat conceptual, the model allows for new questions to be asked in terms of play and internalisation processes. In this, the hope is that it could be functional for further research into how players transform in the many different aspects of gameplay. In this, there are many open questions that can lead to further empirical research and game design research, be it for educational, entertainment, or serious purposes.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages222
ISBN (Print)978-87-7949-052-9
Publication statusPublished - 2024

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