Trauma in Games: Narrativizing Denied Agency, Ludonarrative Dissonance and Empathy Play

  • Author / Creator
    Kuznetsova, Evgeniya
  • Popular culture often views video games as a source of mindless entertainment, unfit for profound artistic expression. And yet, with every passing year game narratives become more and more complex, allowing developers to tell deeply personal and poignant stories concerning the most intricate matters of the human condition. Of particular note is the rising popularity of games dedicated to topics that are still largely considered taboo in popular media, such as mental illness, emotional and psychological suffering, and the moral and ethical aspects of encountering violence and atrocity. How does one analyze such games and their contribution to popular culture, if they so obviously fall outside the scope of the idea of “fun,” closely associated with game media? A robust analytical toolset for exploring such narratives can be found within the ever-expanding interdisciplinary field of trauma studies. This field combines frameworks and methodologies from a vast number of areas, including psychoanalysis, sociology, clinical psychology and critical literary analysis, to thoroughly examine the psychological, physical and cultural processes involved in human encounters with unassimilable horrors. One of the products of these explorations is the discovery of a large corpus of texts – literary, cinematographic, musical and others – that strive to authentically represent psychological trauma through artistic means. Scholars in this area conduct critical readings of various media to uncover particular devices and affordances that are utilized in these portrayals, with the ultimate goal of gaining insight into the nature of trauma only accessible through such symbolic, largely metaphorical means. However, despite the growing popularity of trauma studies as a field, critical trauma readings of video games are virtually non-existent. This is the main reason for the development of this study. In my research I bring together concepts developed by trauma scholars to conduct literary analyses of trauma narratives, and game studies approaches to analyzing games as a storytelling medium. I combine them to argue that games can be read through a trauma lens, allowing researchers to uncover new themes and arguments developed through the process of play. I proceed to argue that games offer unique technological affordances for portraying trauma, inaccessible to non-interactive media. To support this argument I explore the concepts of agency and gameplay-and-story integration as unique storytelling affordances available to games, and demonstrate how their explicit subversion – through deliberate denial of player agency or purposeful introduction of ludonarrative dissonance – can be used by developers to create complex narratives of trauma and suffering. Using the theoretical framework I develop, I conduct close readings of the games Beyond: Two Souls (Quantic Dream 2013), Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics 2013) and Silent Hill 2 (Konami 2001), in order to demonstrate that these games can be successfully analyzed as trauma fiction on par with famous trauma literature and film. With the aim of uncovering new insight into how trauma is represented and perceived in popular culture, my work initiates the process of assembling a corpus of trauma mechanics – uniquely procedural, gamic ways of portraying psychological trauma, which evoke empathy from the player and encourage critical reflection on the experiences they portray.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2017
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Master of Arts
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.