Hello, I’m Sonny-Rhoey a 23-year-old trans woman, doing my Master of Arts in Creative Writing. As part of my creative residency with the Centre of Arts and Wellbeing, I will be exploring how, through games and gaming, collaborative storytelling is able to take on new formats of narrative styles that are specifically designed to promote companionship, community and foster individual growth from and within its players. From now until May, I will be sharing critical reflections on how these narratives present themselves. After this introduction, future posts will have a specific focus on a particular form that games take: sports, video games, tabletop games, role-playing-games, and the negative sides to each. Welcome to my second blog on gaming! In the first piece, we took a general view of how narrative manifested in a few gaming mediums, how those narratives can nurture a positive wellbeing, as well as a brief look at how they can harm wellbeing.


Today, I’m examining video games and how, as the title states, the immersion they offer to players can aid their wellbeing. We will also be looking at how the narrative presented in video games are vehicles for immersion, so I want to briefly remind everyone at how Henry Jenkins, prominent media scholar, in his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006) discussed participatory narrative and how an audience functions as a participant in a narrative [1]. I applied this narrative theory to games in my first blog, and put forth the idea that narrative, as it manifests in games, is an ever-changing unpredictable element, that players and spectators influence and change at will as a combined audience. With this in mind, we need to first look at video game genres, and begin to understand how those genres differ from each other, and how the narrative differs. Genre defines narrative; in video games, this goes beyond what type of narrative you present (romance, mystery etc.) and further into how it is presented; a third person-shooter is a very fundamentally different beast from that of a puzzle game, and so the way those narratives are presented to the player are drastically different as well. The way these differences relate to one’s wellbeing is complicated, and I do delve into it later, but can be simplified for now down to the importance of immersing the player into the games world, by making their decisions impactful.

What do I mean by “immersion”? Similarly to films and books, immersion is the suspension of one’s disbelief in order to accept the rules, regulations and events being shown or told to you. However, video games allow players/audience to directly participate within its story through their inputs and decisions. Narratively speaking, this is a bit more complex than it initially seems: the narrative of a video game cannot progress without a player’s input, nor can it even begin; the player isn’t just participating in the narrative, they are controlling it. To be clear I don’t mean constructing the narrative itself, but the story presented in any video game cannot begin until the player undergoes the physical sequence of actions of turning on their console / PC, sitting down with their controller / mouse and keyboard, loading the game they want to play, and starting it. Additionally, the narrative can be paused, restarted, or stopped at any point the player chooses, similarly, again, to books and film; you can bookmark your place in a book or pause a film whilst you go to the toilet, and the same can be done for video games – you can pause them and save your progress as often as you are able. However, I would argue that the degree of control these differing mediums offer is inextricably linked to wellbeing.

For example, an audience member of a film has no influence on what occurs within a film, beyond starting and pausing it; by contrast within a video game, a player can do anything a game allows them to do. In many games, there are often a plethora of options given to the player for them to explore, fight, and progress in any way they see fit; this degree of control is what enables video games to be so fun, and why they can be so addictive. For example, in the 3rd person platformer Ratchet and Clank the player is given the opportunity to buy various types of weapons to defeat enemies (a flamethrower, an enhanced boxing glove, a rocket launcher etc.) and there is no set way to beat any enemy within the game, even if some a naturally more suited to one situation over another.

The weapon vendor from Ratchet and Clank HD Collection (2002/2012) – Screenshot of YouTube video by Paul Seeraj

Additionally, the game has a lot of optional content to find like “Gold Bolts” (a hyper-rare form of the game’s currency, “Bolts”); players are incentivised to want to go and find these types of extras, even if there is no narrative value placed on content like Ratchet and Clank’s “Gold Bolts”.

Finding a Gold Bolt in Ratchet and Clank HD Collection (2002/2012) – Screenshot of YouTube video by Paul Seeraj

In finding their own way to collect hidden content, or come up with creative ways to defeat enemies, a loop of positive reinforcement is created, in which the player is encouraged to keep trying new strategies in combat and utilise creative thinking whilst exploring. It is not unfair to call this an example of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning [2], in which a pleasant stimuli is given as a reward to hone and perfect a behaviour; in this case, a player receives a reward from the game, making them want to receive more rewards as it makes them feel good about themselves, and thus positively affects their mental wellbeing, by giving them an outlet to express their skills and knowledge. It is here that we see the core philosophy that video games are constructed around: the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic value. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy published an article around the intrinsic / extrinsic dichotomy, and they defined it as:

“The intrinsic value of something is said to be the value that that thing has “in itself,” or “for its own sake,” or “as such,” or “in its own right.” Extrinsic value is value that is not intrinsic.” [3]

––Zimmerman, Michael J. and Ben Bradley, “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition)

Personally, I believe that Zimmerman and Bradley perfectly encapsulate the sensation of exploration in video games. Finding optional hidden content in video games is motivated by, and rewarded by, intrinsic value; in that, the act of finding is fun “in itself” without a need for extrinsic motivation. Through indulging the intrinsic motivation that video games offer, the body releases dopamine and thus pushes the player to want to keep finding more of that style of content[4], learnt via Pavlovian conditioning[5].

This then begs the question, what extrinsic motivators compel someone to play a video game? Speaking from experience, reviews and online opinion are often a very compelling extrinsic motivator, especially regarding gaming. In November 2019, the then most recent Pokémon games (Sword and Shield) were released to mostly negative reviews, primarily pertaining to one crucial aspect: it was no longer possible to own every Pokémon on one game, and players were now made to pay for a subscription service to house their Pokémon they had on older games. This, alongside a myriad of other issues with Sword and Shield, compelled many decades-long Pokémon fans to declare these games the worst in the franchise. Below is the thumbnail and title for an almost 4-hour long critique of Sword and Shield, touting 4.5 million views in its 3-year life span, with a ‘like to dislike’ ratio of 93 thousand to 4.6 thousand. Notably, the first four words of the description are “Lifeless, lazy, greedy, uncaring”.

Screenshot of the video: “The Deliberately Bastardized Pokémon Game” by RadicalSoda

I followed a lot of the drama surrounding the games when they were released, and was extremely reluctant to purchase them, anxious not to give my money to a company whose games I felt were undercooked. Eventually however, I relented and bought them, not because suddenly had a paradigm shift, but because I wanted to be able to give an informed opinion on the games, and not simply repeat the opinions of others. In this way, I only had an extrinsic motivation to play the game – to have an informed opinion on it – and there was no intrinsic motivator for me in this instance as I did not find the game to be enjoyable; there was no motivation for me to play the game “in itself” as Zimmerman and Bradley would put it. Here, my wellbeing was both positively and negatively reinforced, as I was able to confidently agree with the negative discourse directed to the game, but I also had to spend money to do so, and thus support the flawed product Game Freak (the Pokémon developers) created.

Whilst we’re on the topic of my personal wellbeing, I would like to discuss one game that has significantly improved my outlook on life, and myself: Persona 5 Royal (P5R). A 2020 RPG (role-playing-game) that dabbles in an entire spectrum of relevant cultural, political, and social issues, stemming from corrupt politicians, morally repugnant CEOs, the cruel justice system, and the coercion and predation of young children at the hands of their teachers. I mentioned P5R in my first blog, but I wanted more time dedicated to it here. The game released at a very turbulent time, right at the start of the UK’s lockdown for the Covid-19 pandemic (31st March 2020), and it was certainly a message I needed to hear at the time. It was a game that outright, unashamedly, slaughtered the system of power that had (and still has) taken root in many countries; although the game is set in Tokyo, what it wants to say is universal. A time in which hundreds were dying every day from Covid whilst Conservative politicians were throwing garden parties[6], a game preaching vigilance of a countries citizens towards their leaders was profound. As furlough rolled through for many, mortgage payments were halted, but rent payments were not, and so seeing a game depict greedy money-hoarders that exploit, ruin, and break their workers as horrid people or should be shunned, was cathartic to say the least. Social injustice and those who suffer at the hands of the privileged, are the focus of P5R; as a queer trans woman, and someone of a lower social class, it resonates profoundly with me. So much so that playing the game and understanding its messages of self-discovery, rebellion, and unshackling yourself, gave me the courage I needed to come out. Throughout the game’s 120-hour story, I observed how the characters steeled themselves, attaining a greater understanding of their trauma, and emerged as the truest versions of themselves; it deeply affected me. I don’t think I need to explain why coming out has been an enormous achievement and weight off my shoulders, but the fact that a video game, an art form commonly disregarded as childish or without merit, enabled me to embrace myself wholeheartedly without shame, speaks volumes about the interconnectedness between video games and wellbeing.

To close the blog, I want to focus on the idea of escapism. An interesting point on how I responded to P5R was that the issues it covered were ones that are like the issues we face in our reality. In this way, I was escaping into a reality in which I was able to make a substantial difference, by taking down the bad guys and be able to invoke change in the game’s world. The transferal of power unto the ‘powerless’ is part of why video games are so captivating for many; the fantasy of having power improves one’s sense of worth[7]. However, despite the inherent political qualities of all art, many right-wing gamers have touted a “I play video games to get away from this” sentiment. Usually in relation to left-wing talking points (oft succinctly summarised as “woke bullshit”) this generally amounts to them being opposed to queer representation, women having a substantial role in the story, and over focus on characters of colour. In fact, just yesterday (27/03/24) at the time of writing, Overwatch (a very high profile first-person-shooter) revealed their newest character, Venture; a non-binary person of colour, which was meant with a torrent of transphobic vitriol. Below is one such example of the genre of responses Venture’s release was met with, as well as Venture’s character design.

Venture. @PlayOverwatch on Twitter

An exchange regarding Venture. @PlayOverwatch on Twitter

It often leaves me wondering if they really want escapism, or a really distorted version of realism, where the reality they inhabit is comprised solely of cisgender, heterosexual white men, and maybe a tokenistic character of colour so they can pretend that they are ‘positive’ of inclusivity. This is a topic I plan to pick up more in depth in my next blog regarding multiplayer gaming (including sports!), as I believe it fits more aptly there. Thank you so much again for reading, video games are a very precious thing to me, and I wish to have done them justice. The next blog can be expected around the end of April. Please leave any comments below and I will try and respond where I can.


Read Sonny-Rhoey Liverod-Griffin’s other posts in this series:

Writer in Residence | Sonny-Rhoey Liverod-Griffin | Gaming & Wellbeing: An introduction––Why games are important to mental wellbeing and what they can offer us?


[1] Jenkins, Henry – Covergence Culture (2006), introduction pg 3: Not all participants are created
equal. Corporations—and even individuals within corporate media—
still exert greater power than any individual consumer or even the
aggregate of consumers
[2] https://www.simplypsychology.org/positive-reinforcement.html
The concept of positive reinforcement is associated with the work of behaviourist psychologist B. F. Skinner. As part of his work during the 1930s and 1940s, Skinner considered ways in which behaviour could be changed by treating someone differently based on what they did. This theory is known as operant conditioning.
[3] Zimmerman, Michael J. and Ben Bradley, “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/value-intrinsic-extrinsic/>.
[4] https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22581-dopamine#What%20Is%20Dopamine
“As humans, our brains are hard-wired to seek out behaviours that release dopamine in our reward system. When you’re doing something pleasurable, your brain releases a large amount of dopamine. You feel good and you seek more of that feeling.”
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_conditioning
[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-59952395
[7] https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/mental-health-benefits-of-video-games

Print Friendly, PDF & Email