Screen Ecologies, Multi-Gaming and Designing for Different Registers of Engagement
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
This article is based on academic research recently published in the proceedings of CHI Play, the 2014 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play where it was nominated for the Best Paper award. It has been re-written for a Gamasutra audience.
Fig. 1. An image posted to /r/gaming with the title, “Ladies and Gentlemen. My brother. Playing Rome II total war in between battlefield 4 deaths”, by /u/Coleey.
I have become deeply fascinated with a gaming practice that I have recently realised is far more widespread than my own obsessive need to consume digital content; multi-gaming. As an avid EVE Online player I’ve always known about (and toyed with) multi-boxing, garnering a deep but alien respect of the players who run 12 World of Warcraft accounts simultaneously.
Multi-gaming, on the other hand, is something entirely distinct from this that has grown into a widespread practice thanks to the increasing power of computing technologies and a proliferation of screens in domestic environments. By multi-gaming, I’m referring to the simultaneous play of discreet games, such as the above instance of a player taking Rome II Total War turns in between Battlefield 4 deaths.
It was this picture, posted to reddit.com’s /r/gaming that prompted us to investigate these phenomena in more detail. Of the thousand plus comments, a vast majority were from other players commenting their own engagement in a similar practice. “No disrespect. I was playing Goat Simulator last night in between being summoned for co-op in Dark Souls 2”; “I used to mine in Eve, while raiding in wow and had peggle open for trash pulls”; “And I thought I was badass when ratting in EVE and playing EQ2 at the same time. All this on the same PC with dual monitor”.
In my own research into EVE Online it was clear that ‘playing’ was a practice with varied rhythms distributed across multiple online spaces, but these were hundreds of players reporting that these games on their own weren’t enough, other games (and TV and sites like reddit and facebook) were needed in order to satisfy the player.
Not only is this an opportunity for better game design, but it provides a fascinating look at the motivations of gamers that raises questions about notions like immersion and flow that are often privileged in contemporary game design.
I’ve found the best way to start when thinking about this practice of multi-gaming is with the contemporary screen ecology and the environment in which many people are now playing games. I’m leaving a lot of ‘gaming’ out in this story but bear with me.
15 years ago, domestic gaming typically happened on a computer with a single screen. Before the proliferation of smart phones, laptops, tablets and even TVs, this was (for most people) the only screen in the room where gaming was happening.
The consequence is that games were, for the most part, the only register of engagement during play. From this we get the archaic notion of the ‘gamer’ as a nose-to-the-screen, fully immersed participant, making the quaint theses of late 90’s virtual world scholarship much more understandable.
As new technology has been introduced, and old technology gets much cheaper, this has drastically changed. It is now incredibly rare to see a ‘gaming PC’ with less than two screens, and the power of those computers means running multiple applications at once doesn’t degrade performance except for the most demanding of games. Despite this, there are very few games that provide an option to work across multiple screens, which (as I’ll argue) reflects a huge missed opportunity.
Alongside this change, a whole bunch of other technology has invaded the space of the domestic gamer. Smartphones, laptops and tablets are now part of this screen ecology, placed in front of or beside our 21”, 24”, 27”, 32” widescreen monitors. TVs are cheaper now too, and consoles are no longer dedicated gaming devices but media hubs that can stream movies and browse the internet.
‘Gamers’ have also gotten older, gotten ‘real’ jobs and begin constructing dedicated gaming environments that read more like shrines to gaming than a utilitarian machine. A quick browse of reddit’s /r/battlestations or an overclockers forum shows that a serious gaming computer isn’t just about performance, but it’s about a place to do gaming; the desk, the chair, the lighting and the setting are just as important.
Fig. 2. As computing technology has grown more ubiquitous, the screen ecology of gaming has changed from a single screened computer to something much more complex. Image posted to /r/battlestations.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, go have a browse of reddit.com’s /r/battlestations community. Switch to best of all time to see some envy-inducing places to play games.
It’s this contemporary screen ecology that has afforded multi-gaming; the simultaneous play of discreet games. Thanks to multiple monitors, windowed mode, and separate devices, players are no longer unfairly restricted to playing just one digital game in their leisure time. This, we felt, was worth trying to better understand.
As researchers in a University, we spend a lot of time thinking about research methodology. There are a lot of ways to better understand a phenomena like this, but since we only wanted to understand the breadth of the phenomena we settled on something quick, cheap and easy. We found a few dozen instances of posts like the one in Fig. 1 on reddit, gaming forums & steam discussions where players were chiming in with their own experiences playing Peggle during World of Warcraft, or Madden (on PS3) while playing Madden (on iPhone), while also watching a live NFL game. Or using Tinder in-between League of Ledgends matches. That one was probably my favourite.
From this we were able to glean 97 game and media combinations, what kinds of different games people were playing simultaneously and some insight into how they configured this practice. We also drew on some data from our studies of specific games, including EVE Online, DayZ, Candy Crush Saga and World of Warcraft.
Here, I’m just going to talk about the data from my EVE studies in order to highlight how contemporary game design can register engagement in different ways, how this is attractive to players, and how this can be used as a resource for designing games that appeal to players. Check out the published conference paper for more data.
Boring Play and EVE Online
Full caveat; I absolutely love EVE Online; I just completed my PhD thesis on it, but as many EVE players will tell you, it can get a little boring sometimes. I’ve come to realise this isn’t necessarily to imply boring as a pejorative with negative connotations (tedious, irksome, tiresome), but as a state of engagement (or lack thereof).
This is because a number of EVE play styles do not require the player’s full attention and consequently encourage the use of multiple screens, and engagement with other media.
For example, one participant in my research sometimes engaged in ‘cloaky camping’ which is where an EVE player waits hidden in a solar system hoping to find an unsuspecting victim acting carelessly. When they were playing this way, they used the second monitor to play FPS games like TF2 or Counter Strike, games they can drop without serious consequence to attack.
While EVE’s large fleet battles often get a lot of press (there is something undeniably cool about a 1,000 players engaging in a spaceship battle) there is often a lot of waiting involved. Waiting for the enemy to show up, waiting for the ships you’re protecting to get their job done, waiting for intel, waiting for the FC to get back from going to the loo; you get the picture.
However, it’s the kind of waiting that needs some of your attention; you have to be ready to jump back into action. Some of the players I spoke to play games like Faster Than Light (which is “great for this because action is divided into short sections and its easy to pick up where I left off”) and Civilization, a game that never demands you attend it.
The classic example of ‘boring’ play in EVE is mining. For the unfamiliar, mining involves orbiting asteroids, 'shooting' them with mining lasers, and then waiting until the player's ship is filled with minerals. When done in 'high security' space, the player will rarely come under attack, and consequently this is a very passive style of EVE Online play.
One player mentioned how this integrated with their school work, as "it is easy to mine in one window on the computer screen, while writing in another", while others played similar FPS and turn based games. This is thus similar to 'cloaky camping', but more cyclical; one of these mining ships will be full at regular intervals, whereas a player might go hours camping a system without having opportunity to engage. Many miners use their other screens to display a second instance of the EVE Online client, so that they can pilot two ships simultaneously.
In addition to these examples of multi-gaming and using multiple screens to do two discreet activities, using more than one screen is used heavily by players to augment the EVE Online experience. Most players I have spoken to use their second screen to display third-party programs that help demystify some of EVE’s more difficult aspects, along with IRC chat windows, TeamSpeak and game forums.
Each of these examples demonstrates the way in which EVE Online’s ‘boring’ play styles - in that it often has periods of 'downtime' - allow and encourage the simultaneous engagement with other, sometimes non-EVE media during EVE play. These also included web-based browsing sites like reddit, video media like TV shows and game streaming, and the play of other games.
They exemplify how players play EVE differently depending on the type of engagement they want to have; EVE as a passive game, during the play of another, or EVE as a demanding game, wholly consuming the player’s attention. Thus it is not just that the contemporary screen ecology transforms the way EVE Online is played and experienced, but that the design of EVE Online is inclusive of the affordances of this screen ecology, consequently providing a more attractive play experience.
Fig. 3. (from the back) Civilization, Team Fortress 2, Tetris, and Turbotax Deluxe. If you’ve ever wondered why your teammate wasn’t moving.
Designing for Different Registers of Engagement
I’m going to now do something very academic, which is propose a taxonomy, which is meant to capture the different ways that we think modern games are registering player engagement in order to inform future design.
This is not intended to be comprehensive taxonomy, but rather reflect the different genres of attention that we identified in this research and encourage deeper consideration about additional ways games can integrate with other games, as well as other domestic activities. It’s based on those 97 combinations we gleaned from online discussions, and the insight from our 4 case studies.
Cyclical Intermittent Games; games with regular, predictable cycles of 'downtime' - where the player does not need to interact of provide attention - and 'uptime', where the player must commit the majority of their attention. These include games in the FPS genre (such as Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield) and MOBA genre (such as League of Legends) which have intense periods of play interspersed with waiting periods in excess of one minute (typically in the 'lobby' between player-versus-player games). As multiplayer games, the player has no ability to pause play to divert their attention.
Non-Cyclical Intermittent Games; games with irregular, unpredictable cycles of 'downtime' - where the player does not need to interact and only needs to provide little attention - and 'uptime' where the player must be committing the majority of their attention. The most prominent example in this genre was styles of EVE Online play, such as system-camping (whereby you wait, cloaked, for an unsuspecting victim to pass by) or some nullsec PvE (demanding little attention except when attacked).
Pausable Games; games which demanded the majority of a user's attention but could be paused when their attention is demanded elsewhere. These were typically single player RPG games, such as Fable or Assassins Creed or the campaign modes in FPS games like Halo or Call of Duty. Unlike cyclical intermittent games, the player has the ability to control when they need to give their full attention.
Slow Games; games which have regular periods of active waiting and rarely command the user’s full attention for times in excess of one minute. The typical games in this genre are city building games such as Cities: Skylines, Banished or Dwarf Fortress where regular intervals of non-interactivity are demanded because of the manner in which certain aspects of the game require time to have passed (resources having been moved and a building having been built in Banished, for example). During this time, however, a small amount of attention must be paid unless something goes wrong (e.g., a goblin raid in Dwarf Fortress). Worth noting, the games in this genre that we observed players multi-playing all featured the ability to pause the game; if the game was at a situation where it was commanding the player’s attention at an inconvenient time, the player could simply pause it.
Timed Games; those games which had regular intervals of passive waiting during which there is no ability for the player to interact. These were typically mobile games, such as Candy Crush or Clash of Kings, which use the freemium monetization pattern of playing by appointment , but also timed play in other games (like farming in Runscape). Players have to wait intervals of 10 or 25 minutes between performing in-game actions, after which the game would not demand attention but simply be accessible to play.
Passive Games; games which were entirely passive, never demanding the user provide their attention at any given moment. The most prominent example of these was Civilization 5, a turn based grand strategy game without simulated combat. The user is never required to attend to Civilization 5. Along with the similar Total War series, these were the most popular 'secondary' games.
There are a couple of reasons why I think this is important, and why I think this research is of interest to Gamasutra readers.
A lot of the time, a ‘gamer’ is typically conceptualized as a nose-to-the-screen fully attentive, wholly engaged user. Our results indicate a much more nuanced and varied practices of distributed interaction and engagement, that presents future research questions regarding how it is affecting gamer’s attentiveness, capacity to multi-task, and the impact of this on the games they choose to play.
Such research should consider the different modes of sensation and interaction demanded by different screens, especially as touch, gesture and motion controlled screens continue to proliferate. Further, the embodied and material dimensions of such engagement suggests a need for game design research that also considers the affordances and implications of physical spaces, peripheral’s and furniture.
(I can’t underemphasise how much I want to do a study of gaming chairs)
I also want to highlight how this backs up similar rejections of ludic-essentialism, de-emphasising what occurs ‘within’ the game for understanding the experience of digital games. It’s just straight up not possible to understand the experience of playing EVE Online through what occurs within the game client. Where gaming occurs matters, and could be relevant to game design.
I’ll use this opportunity to do a shout out for my favourite journal article from 2014, Brendan Keogh’s Across Worlds and Bodies (its open access so give it a read). One of the things Brendan emphasises is that video game play is a “messy assemblage” that functions “across worlds and across bodies”. Our preoccupation with immersion doesn’t align with how games are actually engaged with.
We thus join Keogh in challenging the dominance of immersion in conceptualizations of game experience; how immersed can a player be reasonably considered being if they’re playing Pokemon in between Morrowind load times? Or Peggle during World of Warcraft raids?
I think this is interesting in the context of devices like the Occulus Rift. Our research into screen ecologies and multi-gaming complicates notions of futuristic perspectives that emphasise the visual, and its sensory realism or capture, reflected in a game development paradigm that idolises The Matrix-esque virtual reality as the 'end-game' for game development.
Rather, in this study we see how domestic technologies are being appropriated in ways that distribute immersion across multiple screens and modalities of input, or sometimes dilute game immersion through integration with the real world, suggesting a more complex conceptualization of immersion is needed.
Finally, I want to flag that we’ve highlighted a number of rich areas of potential for future design. As far as we are aware, there do not exist any games where the simultaneous play of two games occurs in a symbiotic fashion, where one game affects the other and vice versa, similar to what is imagined by this online commenter:
"I like to play Pixel Dungeon on my phone and Banished on PC at the same time. I imagine my warrior is fighting for the village."
Many games (such as the Total War genre) feature dramatic changes in game-play and engagement over the course of play, but these occur in sequence; events outside of the battlefield do not progress until the battle is concluded.
Game design could incorporate the contemporary screen ecology through multiple games for simultaneous play, or even sequentially (a mobile game to play during your commute, that has impact on your desktop PC game?).
Conversely, our insights could inspire the design of games which are designed to be consumed simultaneously with any number of other games which complement the way they demand the player’s engagement. Using noises, for instance, that are meant to draw the user back to the game when they’re needed.
Rather than designing games meant to consume a player’s entire attention, maybe its worth designing games to be slow, tedious or even boring. We think this can be attractive to players if they engagingly mesh with their engagement with other media on other screens, something players evidently want to do.
Dr. Marcus Carter is a Research Fellow in the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces at The University of Melbourne. His PhD focused on treacherous play in EVE Online, such as scamming and espionage. He has also researched DayZ, Warhammer 40,000 and Candy Crush Saga. See his personal website, www.marcuscarter.com.