Now that my Masters dissertation has been marked (and I didn’t fail!) I’d like to share it with everyone. Rather than just put the document up (which I might do later), I decided to serialise it into chunks on my blog.

It’s still fairly academic with references but as I go on I’ll edit things to make them a bit more readable. All the references for each post are at the bottom and a lot of them are really good reading. So here is part 1: What is enjoyment?


The market for digital games is large and diverse. According to a report by NewZoo in 2017 the global games market generated $110 billion in 2017 with a predicted growth to $143.5 billion by 2020. This is 3 times as much as cinema ticket sales and is close to the money generated by global sports industry. In the UK, 52% of the gaming audience is women with gamers over the age of 44 outnumbering children or teenagers.

With such a large audience and industry, the study of how and why people play games is receiving increasing amounts of attention. Player Experience (PX) is a field related to User Experience (UX) within the context of digital games. While there isn’t a concrete definition of PX, the research mostly looks at the usability, emotional experience and the effect of digital games on players. Games with good experience are more likely to be successful (Nacke and Drachen, 2011). A large amount of the PX literature looks at enjoyment and how to make games more enjoyable.

Enjoyment is not the only emotion a player may experience; research into positive-negative experience has shown that negative emotions such as loss are used in digital games and more games are using elements of trauma in their scenarios (Smethurst and Craps 2015). These types of games can make some players feel uncomfortable, but what exactly does this mean? What makes an experience uncomfortable rather than upsetting, or emotionally blank? These blog posts will look at uncomfortable experiences in digital games in order to have a better understanding of this concept and how it occurs.

This post will look at the existing academic literature in this space. It will cover some background to player experience and the general motivators behind playing digital games. It will also look at work relating to discomfort in film, role play and the physical game spaces as well as some potential causes of discomfort such as personal values and empathy.

What is Enjoyment?

Much like PX itself, there is not a one standard definition of “enjoyment”, therefore it can be considered in a myriad of ways. It often overlaps with other PX concepts such as flow and immersion. Enjoyment is a positive response to media and content. This is especially important for digital games where enjoyment is a core element of the experience (Nache and Draken, 2011). This is different from other types of software which usually serve a different main purpose, such as supporting work or commerce. Games are intrinsically motivating in that they are played for the sake of playing them (Reiber, 1996).

Commonly used standardised tools of measurement of game experience related to enjoyment are the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI), the Game Experience Questionnaire (GEQ) and the Self- Assessment Manikin Scale (SAM). (Mekler et al, 2014). There is also use of physiological measures designed to measure arousal and emotion. In some studies, researchers create their own questionnaires to be used alongside or without a standardised measure. The IMI and SAM are not PX specific measures, rather they are measures of self-reported experience and emotional state respectively. The GEQ does not measure enjoyment directly, but rather different components of the player experience (Immersion, Flow, Competence, Positive and Negative Affect, Tension, and Challenge). Here “positive affect” is the component that includes statements such as “I enjoyed it” or “I found it impressive”. Measuring game experience requires a multi-modal approach as neither game metrics nor psychological measures give a full enough picture when used alone (Nache et al, 2009).

The idea of breaking down enjoyment, or motivation, into other components is heavily repeated in the literature. Yee (2006) looks at factors for playing online RPGs and breaks them down into three main areas; Achievement (progress, mechanics, competition), Social (socialising, relationships and teamwork) and Immersion (discovery, role-playing, escapism and customisation). He also notes that these areas are not exclusive from each other; a player can enjoy competing and working together equally. Enjoyment is not an explicit motivator but can be inferred from the others. Vorderer, Hartmann and Klimmt (2003) also find that competition can be a key component in enjoyment.

Game enjoyment therefore is a positive emotion, related to fun and being interested. This implies that games are played for satisfying psychological needs. What need then does enjoyment fulfil? Games are a source of stress relief (Colwell 2007). Gameplay can be used deliberately by a player to help improve their mood. Children may be playing games to meet the same needs as friendship (Colwell 2007). Games as mood enhancers is a point of interest in the medical sector, different types of games have different emotional effects and therefore could be tailored to meet an individual’s specific needs for example helping with depression, anger management (Russoniello, O’Brien and Parks 2009) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and flashbacks (Holmes et al, 2009). Digital games have a clear ability to induce and work with player emotions; but is this just because of enjoyment?

Beyond Enjoyment

The work examined so far suggests that enjoyment is a large motivator behind people playing digital games however when looking at other media it is clear that other motivators are at play. Film and literature are consumed for other reasons than pleasure. Film studies refer to the concept of hedonic vs eudaimonic experience (Wirth, Hofer and Schramm, 2012). Hedonic entertainment is entertainment that is consumed purely for pleasure. In contrast, eudaimonic entertainment is consumed for the purpose of fulfilling a moral need. Eudaimonic films are ones that are watched because something about their message or aesthetic aligns with a viewer’s set of personal values. They provide insight into the human experience. Rather than enjoyment, the primary emotion associated with eudaimonic films is sadness. This shows that entertainment in general can involve more than just pleasure.

Other forms of games have embraced this need to fulfil value-based play. Nordic freeform is a genre of in-person role playing game that deals with emotionally negative but gratifying experiences (Montola 2010). These games cover themes such as sexual assault, community silence of crime and post-apocalyptic social collapse. The central concept of Nordic freeform is “bleed”, a phenomenon that describes how players are influenced emotionally by the plight of the characters they play and that emotional state “bleeds” into how the player then continues to play. Playing these games allow players to explore complex and difficult emotions in a space where the fact that it’s “only a game” can allow some form of psychological defence. The aim is to “balance between safe and raw experiences” (Montola 2010). From an outsider perspective this may seem counter-intuitive but players of these games describe them as positive experiences. Discomfort is not an unpleasant thing and players report improving their personal insight into situations or the darker side of humanity. The experience also has an influence on relationships with the other players. As the game is played together in a physical space it is common for the gameplay groups to quickly bond, and for this to continue once the game is complete. Aftercare is seen as an important component of these games, allowing players to reflect safely on their experiences with each other.

One alternative to designing games around enjoyment is proposed by Wilson and Sicart (2010) who explore the concept of “abusive game design”. This is a type of game design that sets out to challenge normative game design and create a dialogue between player and designer. They argue that focusing on enjoyment has created a conservative attitude in games designers and a sense of entitlement in players. Instead richer and new experiences can be created by disregarding current best practice around convention and accessibility. There are different types of abusive game experience from physical pain to unfair design. It is important to note that abusive here means unpleasant, rather than referring to abuse in the traditional sense of harassing the player without consent. However, the examples of games that Wilson and Sicart use are niche titles and many are player-created mods for existing games, rather than commercially available titles. Studying these games would not provide a wider understanding of what most players would classify as uncomfortable, but it does show that discomfort in games is something that can be used to design new experiences and allow for a broader scope of emotions to be used and explored.


Content warning: Most papers contain various game spoilers

Colwell, J. (2007). Needs met through computer game play among adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(8), 2072–2082.

Content warning: This paper discusses PTSD Holmes, E. A., James, E. L., Coode-Bate, T., & Deeprose, C. (2009). Can Playing the Computer Game “‘Tetris’” Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science. Cognitive Science. PLoS ONE, 4(1).

Mekler, E. D., Bopp, J. A., Tuch, A. N., & Opwis, K. (2014). A systematic review of quantitative studies on the enjoyment of digital entertainment games. In Proceedings of the 32nd annual ACM conference on Human factors in computing systems - CHI ’14(pp. 927–936).

Content warning: This paper covers a roleplay game about rape Montola, M. (2010). The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-Playing. The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, 153. Retrieved from

Nacke, L. E., Drachen, A., Kuikkaniemi, K., & Kort, Y. a W. De. (2009). Playability and Player Experience Research. Proceedings of the IEEE, 1–11.

Nacke, L., & Drachen, A. (2011). Towards a Framework of Player Experience Research. In Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Evaluating Player Experience in Games at FDG 2011, Bordeaux, France.

Reiber, L. (1996). Seriously Considering Play: Designing Interactive Learning Environments Based on the Blending of Microworld, Simulations and Games. Educational Technology Research and Development, 44(2), 43–58.

Russoniello, C. V., O’Brien, K., & Parks, J. M. (2009). The effectiveness of casual video games in improving mood and decreasing stress. Journal of Cyber Therapy and Rehabilitation, 2(1), 53–66.

Smethurst, T., & Craps, S. (2015). Playing with trauma: Interreactivity, empathy, and complicity in the walking dead video game. Games and Culture, 10(3), 269–290.

Vorderer, P., & Klimmt, C. (2003). 2 . Playing Computer Games : A Sequence of competitive Situations. Proceeding ICEC ’03 Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Entertainment Computing Pages 1-9, 2–10.

Wilson, D., & Sicart, M. (2010). Now it’s personal: On abusive game design. In Proceedings of the International Academic Conference on the Future of Game Design and Technology - Futureplay ’10(p. 40).

Wirth, W., Hofer, M., & Schramm, H. (2012). Beyond Pleasure: Exploring the Eudaimonic Entertainment Experience. Human Communication Research, 38(4), 406–428.