Part 2 covers the second half of my literature review; looking at uncomfortable interactions, empathy and moral values.

Uncomfortable Interactions

What does it mean to make someone “uncomfortable” when playing a game? In the context of HCI, Benford et al (2012) classify uncomfortable interactions into 4 different types; visceral, cultural, discomfort through control and discomfort through intimacy. They use an overall definition of uncomfortable interactions as “those that cause a degree of suffering to the user” whilst stating the aim of an uncomfortable interaction is not just to cause discomfort but as a “way of promoting certain other benefits”. These benefits can be increasing charitable donations (Steinemann, Mekler, Opwis 2015) or promoting awareness of a social issue. Much like eudaimonic entertainment, uncomfortable experiences can improve awareness of the human experience (Benford et al 2012) and allow players to think about their personal values.

The uncomfortable interactions discussed in Benford’s paper revolve around physical human- computer interactions rather than a purely digital experience such as a digital game. “Visceral” experiences depend on physical feedback such as pain or wearing uncomfortable objects during play. Discomfort through control and through intimacy are also heavily dependent on a physical space, although could be explored with digital multiplayer experiences. It is possible to combine physical and digital game interactions such as Musical Embrace (Huggard et al 2013), a digital game that is controlled by two players pushing on a pillow from both sides as if hugging it and the other player. This is an exploration of social awkwardness (discomfort through intimacy by Benford’s definitions) as an enhancer of the game experience. Dark Room Sex Game (Copenhagen Game Collective 2008) is a digital game played with controllers alongside other players in the same space. The gameplay that of a rhythm game, where actions with the controller are done with in a rhythmic fashion with the game to simulate a sexual experience. There are no graphics in the game, leaving the player to mentally “fill in the blanks”. Musical Embrace and Dark Room Sex Game are examples of how the blending of digital and physical experiences can combine to create discomfort e.g. through creating embarrassment.

In terms of purely digital games, the horror game genre is a good example of games being explicitly indented to make players experience discomfort. Fear and anxiety can invoke unpleasant physical experiences as well as being negative emotionally. (Cantor et al 2010). College students playing horror games reported sleep disturbances as well as signs of post-event anxiety after play as well as feeling helpless and overwhelmed while playing (Lynch and Martins 2015). Players also reported that, despite avoiding fear in real life, there is an enjoyable thrill element when playing horror games (Endress, Mekler and Opwis 2016). This reinforces Benford el al (2012) argument that uncomfortable experiences can also produce positive effects.

Failure is another uncomfortable experience that occurs in most digital games. Juul (2013) refers to the “paradox of failure” in games; humans dislike failure and therefore avoid it but seek out games where failure is a core component of the experience. He also postulates that games do not reward the unpleasant sensations of tragedy with catharsis as other forms of media do. It is possible that this paradox is solved by viewing games as separate from real life, but this is unlikely given that game experiences linger after the game has ended such as in horror games (Lynch and Martins 2015). Instead failure acts as motivation to continue playing, you can succeed if you keep going. McGonigal (2011) likens this to our need for meaningful work; working through failure or fear is an emotionally fulfilling activity that games excel at. Failure triggers a similar physiological arousal response to success (Ravaja et al, 2006)

Positive-Negative Experience

It has been shown that negative game experiences can lead to enjoyment or other positive effects. These types of experiences can also be referred to as positive-negative experience (Montola 2010). A study by Bopp, Mekler and Opwis (2016) asks participants to describe emotionally moving moments they have experiences playing digital games. This study was fairly open with participants being able to describe any type of game and any type of emotion as long as it was “moving”. Participants described moments of sadness, fear, frustration and guilt. These emotions could be intense. In terms of themes, loss was the predominant theme with participants recounting death of a game character or other types of separation. The main emotion for this theme was sadness, although most of the participants also rated the experience high on the enjoyment scale. Participants felt grief because they had become attached to the character and they empathised with the suffering of the characters left behind. Some participants continued to feel emotional effects after the game experience had ended. This was linked to their own life experiences regarding loss and grief. Outside of this, other participants talked about how their game experience had inspired self-reflection. They took characters they were attached to as role models or were inspired to think about their place in the world. Participants in this study could choose the game they wanted to reflect on, therefore it is unclear if these games are representative of all types of games that produce negative emotions.

The Bopp, Mekler and Opwis (2016) study shows the conflict between positive and negative emotional game experiences. The majority of participants scored highly on enjoyment measures even though they were recounting difficult emotional responses. Some players explicitly stated feeling two different emotions at the same time, such as feeling achievement when defeating a character but at the same time sadness because they regarded that character as a friend. This is a similar finding to the work by Montola (2010) in emotionally difficult role-playing games.

This does not just concern emotional game experiences. It can also be reflected in the game mechanics. “Masocore” is a type of game defined by being difficult to the point of being unfair (Wilson and Sicart 2010). The aim of these games is to upset the player by breaking game conventions, for example hidden blocks placed in areas the player will hit when jumping, causing them to fail. These games are seen as dialogue between the player and the designer; the designer wants to frustrate the player and the player wants to “beat” the designer by finishing the game successfully.

These papers discuss two types of positive negative experience; one of abusive game play and one of exploring negative emotions. This is close to the concept of functional vs emotional challenge. Functional challenge is dictated by gameplay and is usually skill-based (Cole, Cairns and Gillies 2015) whereas emotional challenge is more story-based and confronts players with emotional circumstances to overcome (Bopp, Opwis and Mekler 2018). Just as in the positive-negative experience study, players reported experiences with negative emotions and considered these to be emotionally challenging. Themes such as death, social issues and ethical choices had emotional challenge. These emotional challenges could be viewed as a subset of uncomfortable interactions even though they are not covered well in Benford et al’s (2012) definitions. Functional challenge can also generate negative emotions such as frustration and anger; these emotions interfered with gameplay to the point of some players feeling forced to stop play. The difference here is that the negative emotions associated with emotional challenge were still enjoyable whereas the negative emotions associated with functional challenge were not.

One way for developers to explore negative emotions is through the use of moral choice systems. They can be used to manipulate emotional responses through directing this control through choices. (Isbister 2016). A common method for this is to impose moral choices on players. RPGs such as the Dragon Age series (Bioware 2009) put players in situations where they have to choose factions or characters to support. For example, the player of a female character may have to choose to make another character king at the price of discontinuing their romance. Moral choices in digital games are not a new concept, for instance Ultima IV (Garriott 1985) requires players to make choices according to a set of 8 values matched by giving the player a form of personality test when starting a new game (Zagal 2009).

Values and Morals in Gameplay

Eudaimonic entertainment is entertainment chosen to align to a personal value system, therefore it could be possible for a person to feel discomfort by consuming media that works against their personal values.

Flanagan and Nissenbaum (2014) advocate that all creative media carries the ethics and values of its creators whether this is overt or not. Murphy and Zagal (2011) look at games and the ethical frameworks they use and espouse. Players operate within these ethical frameworks and choose to enact their personal moral choices, or to explore a different view of ethics that they can’t in real life; picking the evil options for example. The “evil” choices are options that go against the game’s internal framework and vice versa for “good” choices. Murphy and Zagal argue that traditionally games follow an utilitarian ethical framework but that there are other ethical systems that could be followed, such as the ethics of care. The ethics of care is a framework wherein people have a natural need to care for others and to be cared for. In games that use ethics of care as a base framework, the emotional success of the game is about generating and maintaining relationships with the characters within the game, alongside more traditional goals (winning battles, earning wealth etc). Using a wider variety of ethics systems within games will attract different kinds of players increasing the breadth and diversity of the audience. Murphy and Zagal note for example that the ethics of care has its basis in feminism and therefore could draw players for whom that is a driving value.

Formosa et al (2016) use the game Papers Please to look at the differences between systemic and scripted game design when making games around ethics. Papers Please is a game where the player acts as a border guard in a fictional European country in the 1980s and has to examine papers of people entering the country to decide if they are eligible or not. The game design of Papers Please arises from these frequent small moral choices rather than explicitly flagged events. Formosa states that the repetition of these ethical choices allow the player to have a deeper exploration of the ethics of the game whereas games that have rare but large moral choices don’t invite the same level of consideration as much. However, a systemic approach to ethics (such as Papers Please) doesn’t have the reactive characters of a scripted game (the authors cite Fallout 3 as their example) and so players have to do more work in order to feel empathy. Games can use the discomfort caused by difficult choices to improve the player’s empathy with a group of people, for example the game Nurse’s Dilemma casts players in the role of a nurse who gets interrupted in their task and has to make choices about how deal with these situations. Players of the game reported feeling more empathy for nurses. (Iacovides & Cox, 2015).

The Role of Empathy

When looking at ethics and moral in digital games empathy becomes an often talked about concept. Katsarov et al (2017) identify empathy as a core component of moral sensitivity that can be trained through digital games. Empathy in games can be used to promote prosocial behaviour (Steinemann, Mekler and Opwis, 2015) and to educate players on serious concepts (Iacovides and Cox, 2015).

Empathy is related to discomfort as players who empathise with a character’s negative experiences are more likely to experience negative emotions. This is how it is used to educate. Belman and Flanagan (2010) describe the concept of parallel emotional empathy; the ability to feel what another person is feeling. Empathy improves a person’s behaviour towards other social groups. One example of a game using empathy is the Walking Dead series. The games are based on the TV series which is set in a present-day USA being overrun by zombies. The game is a narrative title where the player is controlling a character who is trying to survive this world by co-operating with other survivors. Smethurst and Craps (2015) use the Walking Dead game to examine how digital games use trauma. More game developers are using elements of trauma in their games; creating traumatic situations and asking players to make difficult choices. They argue that empathy is an important skill in being good at the game; players perform better if they can better read and understand characters the player character is interacting with. This could infer that people with empathy might be more drawn to these types of games because they perform well at them. This is similar to the way that choices are used to examine ethics in digital games.

It is also argued that digital games can decrease empathy. Studies into video games and violence indicate some loss of empathy after playing (Funk et al, 2004) although this is debated strongly and there are some indications that these feelings are more related to emotions such as frustration and do not have a long-term effect (Zendle, Cairns and Kudenko, 2018). Violence and violent imagery is could be a source of discomfort for some people.


Many papers contain game spoilers

Belman, J., & Flanagan, M. (2010). Designing games to foster empathy. International Journal of Cognitive Technology, 15(1), 11.

Benford, S., Greenhalgh, C., Giannachi, G., Walker, B., Marshall, J., & Rodden, T. (2012). Uncomfortable interactions. In Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI ’12 (p. 2005).

Bopp, J. A., Mekler, E. D., & Opwis, K. (2016). Negative Emotion, Positive Experience? In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI ’16 (pp. 2996–3006).

Bopp, J. A., Opwis, K., & Mekler, E. D. (2018). “An Odd Kind of Pleasure”: Differentiating Emotional Challenge in Digital Games. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (p. 41).

Cantor, J., Byrne, S., Moyer-Gusé, E., & Riddle, K. (2010). DESCRIPTIONS OF MEDIA- INDUCED FRIGHT REACTIONS IN A SAMPLE OF US ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN. Journal of Children and Media, 4(1), 1–17.

Endress, S. I., Mekler, E. D., & Opwis, K. (2016). “It’s Like I Would Die as Well”: Gratifications of Fearful Game Experience. In Proceedings of the 2016 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play Companion Extended Abstracts (pp. 149–155).

Flanagan, M., & Nissenbaum, H. (2014). Values at play in digital games. MIT Press.

Formosa, P., Ryan, M., & Staines, D. (2016). Papers, Please and the systemic approach to engaging ethical expertise in videogames. Ethics and Information Technology, 18(3), 211–225.

Funk, J. B., Baldacci, H. B., Pasold, T., & Baumgardner, J. (2004). Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: Is there desensitization? Journal of Adolescence, 27(1), 23–39.

Huggard, A., De Mel, A., Garner, J., Toprak, C. “Chad,” Chatham, A., & Mueller, F. “Floyd.” (2013). Musical embrace: exploring social awkwardness in digital games. In Proceedings of the 2013 ACM international joint conference on Pervasive and ubiquitous computing - UbiComp ’13 (p. 725).

Iacovides, I., & Cox, A. L. (2015). Moving Beyond Fun: Evaluating Serious Experience in Digital Games. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI ’15 (pp. 2245–2254).

Isbister, K. (2016). How Games Move Us. MIT Press. Retrieved from

Juul, J. (2013). The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. MIT Press. Retrieved from

Katsarov, J., Christen, M., Mauerhofer, R., Schmocker, D., & Tanner, C. (2017). Training Moral Sensitivity Through Video Games: A Review of Suitable Game Mechanisms. Games and Culture, 1– 23.

Lynch, T., & Martins, N. (2015). Nothing to Fear? An Analysis of College Students’ Fear Experiences With Video Games. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 59(2), 298–317.

Content Warning: This paper discusses a roleplaying game about rape Montola, M. (2010). The positive negative experience in extreme role-playing. The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, 153.

Murphy, J., & Zagal, J. (2011). Videogames and the Ethics of care. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, 3(3), 69–81.

Ravaja, N., Saari, T., Salminen, M., Laarni, J., & Kallinen, K. (2006). Phasic Emotional Reactions to Video Game Events: A Psychophysiological Investigation. Media Psychology, 8(4), 343–367.

Content Warning: Discussion of trauma 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.

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).

Zagal, J. P. (2009). Ethically Notable Videogames: Moral Dilemmas and Gameplay. In Proceedings of DiGRA 2009.

Zendle, D., Cairns, P., & Kudenko, D. (2018). No priming in video games. Computers in Human Behavior, 78, 113–125.