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While the earliest character representations in video games were rudimentary in terms of their presentation and performance, the virtual characters that appear in games today can be extremely complex and lifelike. These are characters that have the potential to make a powerful and emotional connection with gamers. As virtual characters become more intricate and varied, there is a growing need to examine the theory and practice of virtual character design. This book seeks to develop a series of critical frameworks to support the analysis and design of virtual characters.

PEER-REVIEWED PAPERS

The Enemy Within: Designing a cell-based gameplay system for cancer education

Sloan, R.J.S. and Saurin, A. 2019. The Enemy Within: Designing a cell-based gameplay system for cancer education. CHI Play 2019, Barcelona, 22-25 October 2019.

This paper outlines the design and preliminary evaluation of The Enemy Within, a browser-based game produced to raise awareness of the nature of cancer as a progressive disease. Aimed at high school and young adult audiences, the ambition with the game is to make visible to players the myriad ways in which healthy cells can mutate and ultimately inherit hallmarks of cancer, whilst also demonstrating how both real-world behaviours and underlying genetics impact both positively and negatively on cell health. 

Designing Sugaropolis: Digital games as a medium for conveying transnational narratives

Sloan, R.J.S., Brown, G., Wilson, M. and Bond, E. 2018. Designing Sugaropolis: Digital games as a medium for conveying transnational narratives. Second Annual Conference of British DiGRA, Stoke-on-Trent, 14-15 June 2018.

In this paper, the authors present a case study of ‘Sugaropolis’: a two-year practice-based project that involved interdisciplinary co-design and stakeholder evaluation of two digital game prototypes. Drawing on the diverse expertise of the research team (game design and development, human geography, and transnational narratives), the paper aims to contribute to debates about the use of digital games as a medium for representing the past. With an emphasis on design-as-research, we consider how digital games can be (co-)designed to communicate complex histories and geographies in which people, objects, and resources are connected through space and time.

Recover: Designing a videogame to assist with recovery from PTSD

Macleod, E. and Sloan, R.J.S. 2017. Recover: Designing a videogame to assist with recovery from PTSD. Games for the Assessment and Treatment of Mental Health, CHI Play 2017, Amsterdam, NL, 15 October 2017.

Recover is a game prototype that was developed to explore the potential of videogames to provide users recovering from PTSD with an alternative form of immersive self-help. The game is presented as a playable concept that focuses on mindfulness techniques whilst aiming to engage and retain users. The concept also includes a companion application for mobile, whilst the main videogame has been designed for use with Virtual Reality (VR) headsets.

Virtua Walker ’87: Technostalgia for a walking sim from an alternative past.

Sloan, R.J.S. and Robertson, P. 2017. Virtua Walker ’87: Technostalgia for a walking sim from an alternative past. International Conference on Game Jams, Hackathons, and Game Creation Events 2017, San Francisco, CA, 26 February 2017.

Virtua Walker ’87 is VR walking sim that makes use of a step-based controller for input. Players view the game world using the Gear VR headset, which they can use to look around. Movement is controlled by walking on the spot, with force sensitive resistors picking up player steps and translating each step into a single step in the game. The game is conceived as a piece of technostalgia from an alternative past, and was created by academic staff at Abertay University as part of Global Game Jam 2017.

Nostalgia videogames as playable game criticism

Sloan, R.J.S. 2016. Nostalgia videogames as playable game criticism. G|A|M|E: The Italian Journal of Game Studies, 5(1).

The aim of this paper is to consider the emergence of nostalgia videogames in the context of playable game criticism. Mirroring the development of the nostalgia film in cinema, an increasing number of developers are creating videogames that are evocative of past gaming forms, designs, and styles. The primary focus of this paper is to explore the extent to which these nostalgia videogames could be considered games-on-games: games that offer a critical view on game design and development, framed by the nostalgia and cultural memory of both gamers and game developers. Theories of pastiche and parody as applied to literature, film, and art are used to form a basis for the examination of recent nostalgia videogames, all of which demonstrate a degree of reflection on the videogame medium.

Homesick for the unheimlich: Back to the uncanny future in Alien: Isolation

Sloan, R. 2016. Homesick for the unheimlich: Back to the uncanny future in Alien: Isolation, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, 8(3), pp. 211–230.

In 2014 Sega released Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, a video game sequel to the 1979 film Alien. As an attempt to create both an authentic homage to the Alien franchise and a credible successor to Ridley Scott’s original film, Alien: Isolation was received as both a work of remediated nostalgia and as a deeply uncanny survival horror. This article discusses Alien: Isolation framed by theories of the uncanny (the unhomely) and of nostalgia (the homely), with the aim of revealing how the production design of the game reconciled these seemingly contradictory but nonetheless overlapping aesthetic qualities. By drawing on examples from Alien: Isolation’s visual and level design, this article discusses how the integration of nostalgic and uncanny qualities could be of value to horror and sci-fi game design, in particular to the development of sequels within existing franchises, and to remediations, remakes and reboots.

An impression of home: Player nostalgia and the impulse to explore game worlds

Sloan, R.J.S. 2016. An impression of home: Player nostalgia and the impulse to explore game worlds. 1st International Joint Conference of DiGRA and FDG, Dundee, UK, 1-6 August 2016.

In this paper I argue that there is a need for game studies to look beyond nostalgia as a period style or form of remediation, and to more carefully consider the role of nostalgia as an affective state experienced by players. Specifically, I argue that nostalgia is a positive emotional response that can be elicited in players without the need to embed period or historical referents in games. Extending this, I argue that nostalgia might enhance player motivation to explore game spaces, which has repercussions for game design. This paper makes use of existing literature on the psychology and aesthetic qualities of nostalgia to develop an initial theoretical basis for the study. To explore the implications of affective nostalgia, a case study analysis of two recent games is presented. Both of these games are dependent upon player motivation to explore their game worlds.

The game jam movement: Disruption, performance and artwork

Locke, R., Parker, L., Galloway, D. and Sloan, R.J.S. 2015. The game jam movement: Disruption, performance and artwork. Foundations of Digital Games 2015, Pacific Grove, CA, USA, 22-25 June 2015.

This paper explores the current conventions and intentions of the game jam - contemporary events that encourage the rapid, collaborative creation of game design prototypes. Game jams are often renowned for their capacity to encourage creativity and the development of alternative, innovative game designs. However, there is a growing necessity for game jams to continue to challenge traditional development practices through evolving new formats and perspectives to maintain the game jam as a disruptive, refreshing aspect of game development culture. As in other creative jam style events, a game jam is not only a process but also, an outcome. Through a discussion of the literature this paper establishes a theoretical basis with which to analyse game jams as disruptive, performative processes that result in original creative artefacts. In support of this, case study analysis of Development Cultures: a series of workshops that centred on innovation and new forms of practice through play, chance, and experimentation, is presented. The findings indicate that game jams can be considered as processes that inspire creativity within a community and that the resulting performances can be considered as a form of creative artefact, thus parallels can be drawn between game jams and performative and interactive art. 

Videogames as remediated memories: Commodified nostalgia and hyperreality in Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Gone Home

Sloan, R.J.S. 2015. Videogames as remediated memories: Commodified nostalgia and hyperreality in Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Gone Home. Games and Culture. 10(6). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1555412014565641.

In the last decade, the maturation of the first generation of gamers has underpinned growing discussion of nostalgia for and in videogames. This article considers how the search for a connection to our past can be satisfied through consumption of the richly remediated memories represented in nostalgic videogames. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Gone Home are analyzed framed by Baudrillard’s theories of consumer objects and simulation. These videogames make extensive use of 1980s and 1990s cultural referents. In particular, they embed references to media (such as music, film, and television) that epitomize memories of these periods. The aim of the article is to discuss the ways in which the videogames commodify nostalgia to fulfill a consumer need for retrospection, and to examine the extent to which they provide a simulation of cultural memory that blurs historical reality with period modes of representation.

Children's perception of the Uncanny Valley in human-like virtual characters

Tinwell, A. and Sloan, R.J.S. 2014. Children's perception of the Uncanny Valley in human-like virtual characters. Computers in Human Behavior, 36, pp.286-296.

The Uncanny Valley phenomenon predicts that humans will be less accepting, to the point of rejection, of synthetic agents with a human-like appearance. This is due to a perception of a strangeness or difference in how those characters look and behave from the human norm. Virtual characters with a human-like appearance are increasingly being used in children’s animation and video games. While studies have been conducted in adult perception of the Uncanny Valley in human-like virtual characters, little work exists that explores children’s perception of “uncanniness” in human-like virtual characters. Sixty seven children between 9 and 11 years of age rated humans and human-like virtual characters showing different facial expressions for perceived strangeness, friendliness, and human-likeness. The results showed that children do experience uncanniness in human-like virtual characters, perceived as stranger, less friendly, and less human-like than humans. This perception of the uncanny was exaggerated further in human-like characters with aberrant facial expression. That is, when showing a startled expression and/or happiness with a lack of movement in the upper face including the eyes, eyebrows and forehead. The possible implications of including human-like virtual characters in animation and video games for this age group are discussed.

A sweetspot for innovation: Developing games with purpose through student-staff collaboration

Sloan, R.J.S., Galloway, D. and Donald, I. 2014. A sweetspot for innovation: Developing games with purpose through student-staff collaboration. In V. Camilleri, A. Dingli and M. Montebello, eds. 2014 6th International Conference on Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications: VS-Games 2014. Malta, 9-12 September 2014, pp.123-130. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE.

Within industry as well as academia, developing games that have wider impact on society has been of particular interest in the last decade. The increasing use of terms such as ‘games with purpose’, ‘serious games’ and gamification’ has been mirrored in a flurry of activity in games research. Broader applications of games beyond entertainment are now well-understood and accepted, with universities and companies excelling in creating games to serve particular needs. However, it is not explicitly clear how undergraduates of game design and development courses can be directly involved in serious game creation. With most undergraduates inspired by commercial games development, and the games industry requiring that universities teach specific technical skills in their courses, balancing the research aspirations of academics with the educational requirements of an appropriate undergraduate course can be a difficult balancing act. In this paper, the authors present three case studies of games with purpose developed through collaboration between undergraduate students and academic staff. In all cases, the educational value of the projects for the students is considered in relation to the research value for the academics, who face increasing demands to develop research outcomes despite a necessity to provide a first-rate learning experience and nurture future game developers.

Playing outside the box: Transformative works and computer games as participatory culture

Mavridou, O. and Sloan, R.J.S. 2013. Playing outside the box: Transformative works and computer games as participatory culture. Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 10(2), pp.246-259.

The main purpose of this study is to examine the creative fan community as a paradigm of participatory culture, from a computer games perspective. A review of relevant literature is used to examine transformative works and the related subculture in its many diverse forms. The produced discussion seeks to respond to a number of questions, such as: What exactly constitutes transformative work, what is the legal status of such work, and how can it be improved? To what extent do transformative works constitute a part of the play experience and enjoyment of games? Does participation in associated creative activities influence, shape or redefine the aforementioned experience? Can transformative works be appreciated as valuable artistic pieces on their own merits, outside the communities in which they are produced? Does the existence of the transformative work benefit the wider gaming culture from an artistic, financial or other point of view? 

Thinking outside the (X)box: encouraging innovation in game design education

Parker, L., Sloan, R.J.S. and, Martinez, S. 2012. Thinking outside the (X)box: encouraging innovation in game design education. Media Education Research Journal, 3(2), pp.41-53.

This article reports on a teaching research project that sought to encourage computer arts students to engage with disciplines beyond that of entertainment design in order to stimulate the creation of novel game ideas. While teaching of both technical and artistic skills is essential to education that prepares students for employment in the creative industries, the authors identified a need for creative thinking, interdisciplinary awareness, and innovation to be encouraged alongside skills development within a game design curriculum. To investigate this problem, an education research project was conducted at the Scottish Centre for Excellence in Computer Games Education, at the Abertay University. This involved an initial case study of a student team, who designed a strategy game in order to address a problem identified by colleagues in environmental science. The case study informed the design, delivery and evaluation of a live game design module undertaken by students of a computer arts programme. The findings indicated that a mix of skills demonstration, lectures that cross discipline boundaries, and activities outside the computer lab not only encouraged more creative thinking in terms of design concepts, but also motivated students to direct their own learning of technical and artistic skills

Why worry about the uncanny valley? Photorealism vs suspension of disbelief in animation and games

Sloan, R.J.S. 2012. Why worry about the uncanny valley? Photorealism vs suspension of disbelief in animation and games. Media Education Journal, 52, pp.19-22.

In recent years, the Uncanny Valley theory has been used to frame critical analysis of hyperreal character animation in both film and computer games. The theory predicts that, as  characters become more human­like in appearance, they run the risk of becoming unsettling to  audiences. This dip in acceptability is the Uncanny Valley, and on the other side of this valley  are the theoretical human simulants characters co convincing that they are undistinguishable from real humans. However, the theory ­ which has its origins in robotics can distract us from  one of the primary aims of animation. While some character designers might be concerned with wowing their audiences with photorealistic character appearance and movement, other  character animators are more concerned with exploring what it means to be human. Indeed, it  can be argued that imagined characters that are unnatural in appearance and movement can in fact be more believably human than those that focus on visual mimicry. This article makes a  case for an alternative approach to the Uncanny Valley for judging the aesthetics of human­like animation, with specific focus on the intentions of the animator in presenting characters that  reflect human experience rather than replicate human appearance.

A phenomenological study of facial animation

Sloan, R.J.S., Robinson, B., Moore, F., Scott-Brown, K. and Cook, M. 2011. A phenomenological study of facial animation. In Proceedings of HCI 2011: The 25th BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, Conference on Human Computer Interaction. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 4-8 July 2011. Swindon: BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT,. pp.177-186.

This paper covers the findings of a qualitative study of facial animation, in which a cohort of student animators were tasked with producing spatiotemporally configured emotional expression animations. The timing of the upper and lower face regions within and between expressions such as happiness, sadness, and anger was explored by the animators, who sought to determine which configurations were the most and least effective in practice. The results showed that the student animators shared a degree of consensus when they discussed which configurations they found most authentic, and which configurations were the most clear. Configuration selection was dependent on the emotion or emotional transition being animated. These findings demonstrate that engagement with hand-key animators and practice-based research can generate results which would be of interest to the broader HCI community, in particular as regards the animation of interactive humanoid agents which exhibit believable changes in emotion.

Animation and agency: the performance of interactive game characters

Sloan, R.J.S. 2011. Animation and agency: the performance of interactive game characters. Animation Journal, 19, pp. 20-49.

As an animator and practice-based researcher with a background in games development, I am interested in technological change in the video game medium, with a focus on the tools and technologies that drive game character animation and interactive story. In particular, I am concerned with the issue of ‘user agency’, or the ability of the end user to affect story development—a key quality of the gaming experience and essential to the aesthetics of gaming, which is defined in large measure by its interactive elements. In this paper I consider the unique qualities of the video game1 as an artistic medium and the impact that these qualities have on the production of animated virtual character performances. I discuss the somewhat oppositional nature of animated character performances found in games from recent years, which range from inactive to active—in other words, low to high agency. Where procedural techniques (based on coded rules of movement) are used to model dynamic character performances, the user has the ability to interactively affect characters in real-time within the larger sphere of the game. This game play creates a high degree of user agency. However, it lacks the aesthetic nuances of the more crafted sections of games: the short cut-scenes, or narrative interludes where entire acted performances are mapped onto game characters (often via performance capture)2 and constructed into relatively cinematic representations. While visually spectacular, cut-scenes involve minimal interactivity, so user agency is low. Contemporary games typically float between these two distinct methods of animation, from a focus on user agency and dynamically responsive animation to a focus on animated character performance in sections where the user is a passive participant. We tend to think of the majority of action in games as taking place via playable figures: an avatar or central character that represents a player. However, there is another realm of characters that also partake in actions ranging from significant to incidental: non-playable characters, or NPCs, which populate action sequences where game play takes place as well as cut scenes that unfold without much or any interaction on the part of the player. NPCs are the equivalent to supporting roles, bit characters, or extras in the world of cinema. Minor NPCs may simply be background characters or enemies to defeat, but many NPCs are crucial to the overall game story. It is my argument that, thus far, no game has successfully utilized the full potential of these characters to contribute toward development of interactive, high performance action. In particular, a type of NPC that I have identified as ‘pivotal’3—those constituting the supporting cast of a video game—are essential to the telling of a game story, particularly in genres that focus on story and characters: adventure games, action games, and role-playing games. A game story can be defined as the entirety of the narrative, told through non-interactive cut-scenes as well a interactive sections of play, and development of more complex stories in games clearly impacts the animation of NPCs. I argue that NPCs in games must be capable of acting with emotion throughout a game—in the cutscenes, which are tightly controlled, but also in sections of game play, where player agency can potentially alter the story in real-time. When the animated performance of NPCs and user agency are not continuous throughout the game, the implication is that game stories may be primarily told through short movies within games, making it more difficult to define video games animation as a distinct artistic medium.

Using virtual agents to cue observer attention: assessment of the impact of agent animation

Martinez, S., Sloan, R.J.S., Szymkowiak, A. and Scott-Brown, K. 2010. Using virtual agents to cue observer attention: assessment of the impact of agent animation. CONTENT 2010. Lisbon, 21-26 November 2010.

This paper describes an experiment developed to study the performance of virtual agent motion cues within digital interfaces. Increasingly, agents are used in virtual environments as part of the branding process and to guide user interaction. However, the level of agent detail required to establish and enhance efficient allocation of attention remains unclear. Although complex agent motion is now possible, it is costly to implement and so should only be routinely implemented if a clear benefit can be shown. Previous methods of assessing the effect of gaze-cueing as a solution to scene complexity have relied principally on manual responses. The current study used an eye-movement recorder to directly assess the immediate overt allocation of attention by capturing the participant’s eye-fixations following presentation of a cueing stimulus. We found that fully animated agents speed up user interaction with the interface. When user attention was directed using a fully animated agent cue, users responded 35% faster when compared with stepped 2-image agent cues, and 42% faster when compared with a static 1-image cue. These results inform techniques aimed at engaging users’ attention in complex scenes such as computer games or digital transactions in social contexts by demonstrating the benefits of gaze cueing directly on the users eye movements, not just their manual responses.

Choreographing emotional facial expressions

Sloan, R.J.S., Robinson, B., Scott-Brown, K., Moore, F. and Cook, M. 2010. Choreographing emotional facial expressions. Journal of Computer Animation and Virtual Worlds, 21(3-4), pp. 203-213. DOI: 10.1002/cav.339.

While much is known about the appearance and human perception of emotional facial expressions, researchers and professionals experience difficulties when attempting to create believable animated characters. Methods for automating or capturing dynamic facial expressions have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, resulting in increasingly realistic characters. However, accurate replication of naturalistic movement does not necessarily ensure authentic character performance. In this paper, the authors present a project which makes use of creative animation practices and artistic reflection as methods of research. The output of animation practice is tested experimentally by measuring observer perception and comparing the results with artistic observations and predictions. Ultimately, the authors aim to demonstrate that animation practice can generate new knowledge about dynamic character performance, and that arts-based methods can and should be considered valuable tools in a field often dominated by technical methods of research. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Observer perception of artistically manipulated emotional facial expression animations

Sloan, R.J.S., Robinson, B., Scott-Brown, K., Moore, F. and Cook, M. 2010. Observer perception of artistically manipulated emotional facial expression animations. CGIM 2010. Innsbruck, February 17-19 2010.

While we know quite a lot about emotional facial expressions, we know relatively little about the temporal development of dynamic expressions. In order to study expressions, most researchers have made use of acted, posed, or naturalistic expressions of emotion. However, objective manipulation of dynamic expressions for experimental study can prove difficult without disrupting perceptual quality or degrading natural movement. Another way to investigate the temporal configuration of dynamic expressions is to consider the subjective perspective of an animation practitioner. Few studies have considered the artistic representation of facial expressions, and how animators produce what they believe are authentic dynamic expressions. In this paper, the authors discuss a mixed performative-experimental approach to facial animation research, in which facial expression dynamics are manipulated artistically and the resulting animations are tested on observers.

Investigating facial animation production through artistic inquiry

Sloan, R.J.S., Robinson, B. and Cook, M. 2009. Investigating facial animation production through artistic inquiry. CONTENT 2009. Athens, 15-20 November 2009.

Studies into dynamic facial expressions tend to make use of experimental methods based on objectively manipulated stimuli. New techniques for displaying increasingly realistic facial movement and methods of measuring observer responses are typical of computer animation and psychology facial expression research. However, few projects focus on the artistic nature of performance production. Instead, most concentrate on the naturalistic appearance of posed or acted expressions. In this paper, the authors discuss a method for exploring the creative process of emotional facial expression animation, and ask whether anything can be learned about authentic dynamic expressions through artistic inquiry.

Considerations for believable emotional facial expression animation

Sloan, R.J.S., Cook, M. and Robinson, B. 2009. Considerations for believable emotional facial expression animation. In 2009 2nd International Conference on Visualization. Barcelona, 14-17 July 2009. Los Alamitos: IEEE Computer Society. pp.61-66.

Facial expressions can be used to communicate emotional states through the use of universal signifiers within key regions of the face. Psychology research has identified what these signifiers are and how different combinations and variations can be interpreted. Research into expressions has informed animation practice, but as yet very little is known about the movement within and between emotional expressions. A better understanding of sequence, timing, and duration could better inform the production of believable animation. This paper introduces the idea of expression choreography, and how tests of observer perception might enhance our understanding of moving emotional expressions

Dynamic emotional expression choreography: perception of naturalistic facial expressions

Sloan, R.J.S., Robinson, B., Cook, M. and Bown, J. 2008. Dynamic emotional expression choreography: perception of naturalistic facial expressions. SAND 2008. Swansea, 24 November 2008.

Facial expressions can be used to communicate emotional states through the use of universal signifiers within key regions of the face. Psychology research has identified what these signifiers are and how different combinations and variations can be interpreted. Research into expressions has informed animation practice, but as yet very little is known about the movement within and between emotional expressions. A better understanding of sequence, timing, and duration could better inform the production of believable animation. This paper introduces the idea of expression choreography, and how tests of observer perception might enhance our understanding of moving emotional expressions.

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