Meaningless Play: The Psychological Experience of Shame in Computer Gameplay – Glen Spoors

Abstract: This article draws an analogy to Sartre’s (1943/1993) existentialism to describe qualities of “meaningless” computer gameplay. Silvan Tomkins’ (1962, 1963, 1992) work is used to argue that disjunctive moments of gameplay may elicit an affect of shame that possess an existential tone, and Donald Nathanson’s (1992) “compass of shame” is adapted to identify four different ways of experiencing this shame. However, these experiences may be aesthetically recuperated when games represent existential experiences and/or players employ a Sartrean strategy of confronting such experiences with an attitude of humour and resolve.


In Rules of Play Salen and Zimmerman (1994) state that “meaningful play” is the core concept of their design approach. One way that they define meaningful play is in terms of the “emotional and psychological experience” when a game’s goals and outcomes are holistically integrated (2004, 33). This definition effectively subsumes Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s (1975, 1991) notion of flow, which is characterised by: clear goals and feedback; a balance of challenge and skill; a high degree of focus; the illusion of control; the merging between consciousness and activity; a loss of self-consciousness, an altered sense of time; and an autotelic quality. As Salen and Zimmerman note, when a computer game player reaches the level of engagement associated with flow “the player has transcended an ordinary psychological state to arrive at a more profound relationship with the game” (2004, 336; see also Douglas and Hargadon 2004; Gee 2003; Juul 2005; Koster 2005; Mortenson 2007; Poole 2000).

However, flow is precariously situated between anxiety and boredom in that challenges exceeding a player’s skills cause anxiety, whereas challenges that are too easily overcome cause boredom. Salen and Zimmerman identify anxiety and boredom as the “enemies” of “meaningful play” (2004, 354) and discuss ways in which games can evade them. This approach is obviously practical, but its unstated implications are that any gameplay that does not occur in a state of flow is less meaningful and that the loss of all positive interest or enjoyment may lead to “meaningless” play. 1 The possibility that “meaningless play” may deserve equal recognition as a “profound” experience is not given adequate attention, although Salen and Zimmerman do observe that "boredom is a ‘dead space’ in a game, moments when the taut space of possibility falls limp, when the player is not being confronted with a rich set of choice in an entraining pattern of experience". (2004, 352)

This complements their observation that

there is a very thin line between meaningful challenge and truly unpleasant anxiety. . . When the play of a game becomes synonymous with anxiety, the experience is surprisingly similar to boredom. No matter what choice a player makes, it feels like negative outcomes will always result, and choices in the game therefore feel arbitrary. (2004, 352)

This stated similarity between boredom and anxiety, and the concomitant description of play as “dead”, “limp”, “unpleasant”, and “arbitrary”, is suggestive of common qualities of play that may emerge from boredom and anxiety but are not reducible to them. This article does not assert that there is an ontology common to all “meaningless play”, but it does argue that psychological processes involved in gameplay may give rise to a characteristically “existential” experience of meaninglessness. In elaborating upon this it draws from the work of Jean-Paul Sarte (1943/1993), Silvan Tomkins (1962, 1963, 1991), and Donald Nathanson (1992), using examples from Squaresoft’s computer role-playing game Final Fantasy X (2001).

Anguish and Shame

The experience of “meaningless play” may be seen by way of a seemingly innocuous moment when an interface hangs in temporal suspension awaiting player input. For example, a player of Final Fantasy X (FFX) may be pleasurably immersed in the activity of fighting a wandering monster only to suddenly find herself vaguely conscious of a quiet pause as she navigates the turn-based menu system. This might give way to an absent-minded scrolling through the menu, broken by the wet blips that accompany each button press, until inertia creeps in and the player realises that she must make a choice if she wishes to continue play. This is likely to be a transitory moment which is easily passed over, but it also may be seen as a potentially disjunctive experience if one attends to Sartre’s (1943/1993) description of “anguish”. For Sartre, anguish may be found in those (presumably) familiar moments when we experience the salience of our choices, when our future hinges upon an action in a present separate from the past (1943/1993, 30-33). Here a person experiences "the recognition of a possibility as my possibility; that is, [anguish] is constituted when consciousness sees itself cut from its essence by nothingness or separated from the future by its very freedom". (1943/1993, 35) In this respect, anguish is a form of alienation in which an individual perceives herself as a conscious being separate from the world of objects, and a player’s awareness of a game pausing in wait of her input may function as an index of more profound moments during which one feels alienated from the flow of play.

Such moments may become particularly alienating when a player suddenly recognises the hours of labour required to demystify a game by navigating its interface and completing its goals (Friedman 1995). If, as the cover of the Playstation Solutions (2002) issue dedicated to Final Fantasy X suggests, a player wishes to “Finish every Quest”, “Win every battle”, “Master every character” and “Learn every secret”, then she may feel a sense of incompleteness every time she fails to finish a quest, dies in battle, is unable to develop her characters, and/or cannot find hidden items or information. Here the choice to involve one’s sensorimotor and cognitive system in some supposedly meaningful and pleasurable activity in a play space gives way to Sisyphean labour and the game may feel meaningless and joyless. Of course players are hardly likely to make the leap from such a feeling to existential philosophy, but there is a correspondence between this kind of experience and Sartre’s (1943/1993) account of anguish. For Sartre, anguish is informed by an existential realisation that the only facts we can take for granted are that we exist, we will die, and our interpretations of our existence and death are arbitrary. The human condition is therefore defined by the absurd necessity of making meaning in a meaningless world. By analogy, gameplay may become an absurd situation in which a player plays in the absence of interest, enjoyment, or meaning. 2

The significance of this analogy may be seen in terms of the psychology of shame. Sartre describes the experience of shame in his account of existential experience (1943/1993, 259), and, conversely, psychological accounts of shame make mention of the existential experiences described by Sartre (see Meares 1992; Nathanson, 1992; Schore 1994; Tomkins 1963). Silvan Tomkins’ (1962, 1963, 1991) work, which has been developed in clinical and neurophysiological terms by Nathanson (1992) and Schore (1993), is particularly useful in this context. 3 In its broadest terms, the affect of shame is a generalised response to the sudden and unexpected reduction of interest or joy accompanied by an ongoing desire for whatever provided that interest or joy. For example, an infant may enjoy looking into its mother’s eyes for thirty second periods but the mother may only be comfortable looking into her infant’s eyes for twenty second periods, and when the mother looks away the child is liable to experience an affect of shame (Schore 1994). Such disjunctive feedback has been referred to as misattunement (Schore 1994), whereby one experiences (the possibility of) a certain type of attentiveness or feedback but finds it frustrated (also see Erikson 1950, 1968; Kohut 1971, 1977; Meares 1992).

Schore (1994) describes the neurophysiological basis of shame in terms of an “attachment deactivator” component, which

acutely brakes hyperaroused and hyperstimulated states . . . contracts the self, lowers expectations, decreases self-esteem, active coping, interest and curiosity, inte
rferes with cognition and increases overt consciously experienced shame . . . (363)

Shame therefore functions as a braking mechanism associated with the inhibitive activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which arrests arousal and triggers partial paralysis of motor function during sleep, digestion, and recovery. Shame is also accompanied by vagal restraint, which reduces the motility of the gastrointestinal tract and produces the characteristic nausea associated with shame (Schore 1994). 4 The resulting form of shame as a “slump, blush, averted gaze, and loss of attention” reflects a break from interest in the sense that “nobody can think clearly in the moment of shame . . . . [It] turns off interest-based consciousness and turns on shame-based consciousness and shameful attention” (Nathanson 1992, 133). The unpleasantness of shame, and the desire to regain the positive affects that came prior to its experience, means that shame plays an educational role. Individuals are motivated to attentively reappraise shame-inducing situations so that they may reengage with them without subsequent experiences of shame.

It should be noted that while “innate affects” have a biological character, “learned affects” are influenced by personal experience and have a biographical character (Nathanson 1992, 116). 5 By the time one is an adult the experience of affects is governed by a psychobiography of prior experiences which, in the case of shame, include personal associations related to one’s sense of physical ability, attractiveness and success (see Nathanson 1992, 317) and cultural associations drawn from, for example, legal, ethical and economic discourses that govern one’s sense of proper conduct. However, shame is not simply shaped by development, it plays an important role in it, notably in the formation of, and experience, of a sense of self. This is central to Russel Meares’ argument in The Metaphor of Play (1992) that play is vitally important to developmental processes because it is “where, to a large extent, a sense of self is generated” (1992, 5). For Meares, “before the child conceives of a boundary to self, he or she lives in a largely personal universe in which his own mental life penetrates his surroundings . . . The inanimate world is given the attributes of life” (1992, 33). When the demands of a fragile, developing self are met with disjunctive or insufficient feedback from others and the environment, which logically includes excessive affects of shame, an individual may develop “pervasive feelings of emptiness”. For Meares this is one reason why some individuals “sense no core existence and are often without access to true emotions or an authentic feeling of being alive” (1992, 1). 6

The question that emerges here is: How is one’s sense of self affected when one’s partner in play is a computer? Sherry Turkle (1984, 1995) drew from aspects of Piagetian psychology in her description of three stages of development in children’s relationships with computers: a metaphysical interest in the status of the computer as alive or dead; a concern with mastering the machine; and the use of the computer as a way of defining one’s identity or subjectivity. The most relevant aspect of her account is that children often live in an animistic state and tend to project psychological qualities onto the computer to the extent that it becomes a “second self”, a liminal space where the boundaries between self and other are explored and experimented with. Of course vestiges of magical thinking persist in adults, who also project psychological properties onto objects (Meares 1992), such that an adult player’s sense of self can be extended into the screen (Turkle 1995). It can be argued that when players enter into a state of flow their sense of self merges with the activity of gameplay partly because they are projecting their own qualities onto that activity, but here what is important is the experience that follows a merger state. 7 As Csikszentmihalyi notes, “paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over” (1991, 49), and in computer games this seemingly paradoxical experience may be related to the qualities of the computer as a medium.

In some respects a player’s position vis-a-vis the computer may be experienced in a manner analogous to an existentialist’s position vis-a-vis a universe. For existentialists the world is disenchanted and its facticity is analogous to scientific language in that, even if there is structure in the world it holds no meaningful or dignifying place for the human. Similarly computers are reducible to such qualities as numerical representation, algorithmic processes, modularity, and automation (Galloway 2006; Manovich 2001). They are dead, and, despite their dynamic activity, ultimately unempathetic and disinterested in a player’s dignity or happiness. Bernstein goes as far as stating that computers can “be seen as an alien form of consciousness” (2001, 162) and elicit a certain type of anxiety:

Consider the catastrophic nature of numerous PC error messages: invalid sector, allocation error, sector not found, attempted write-protect violation, disk error, divide overflow, disk not ready, invalid drive specification . . . general failure, bad sector, fatal error, bad data . . . disk unusable, unrecoverable read error. (2001, 162)

Bernstein argues that this invites a controlled anxiety that may be part of the pleasure of play, but his description reflects the potential of a catastrophic misattunement between player and game in which it is clearly evident that a computer does not experience fun, nor can it witness or acknowledge another’s fun. 8 Therefore excitement may turn into the realisation that one’s intimacy with a game was experienced with an emotionless and indifferent artificial intelligence, and victory may be experienced as a hollow, partial or alien victory against something incapable of recognising or understanding that victory. In short while meaningful play is expected to be gratifying to the ego its disruption during gameplay may activate an affect of shame, and since the computer cannot even recognise the player’s ego a player may experience shame in its profound sense as a separation from a positive experience of selfhood.

The Compass of Shame

Nathanson’s (1992) “compass of shame” (Table 1) was developed to find therapeutic applications of Tomkins’ theories and describes different strategies for dealing with shame. The model identifies four general coping tendencies – withdrawal, avoidance, attack other, and attack self – which suggest four ways in which players of computer games may experience and self-regulate shame.

Point of compass Style of operation Sexuality Auxiliary affects Range of action
withdrawal shame affect as such impotence; frigidity distress; fear sulk in presence of game or resign/hide from game
avoidance prevent the affect machismo excitement; anger deny or cover-up failure by reinforcing one’s pride
attack self avoid masochism; helplessness disctress; self-disgust; self dissmell take control of the experience by belittling
attack other avoid inferiority sadism; disgust anger; dissmell abuse the game and/or engage in destructive gameplay

Table 1. Nathanson’s (1992) compass of shame adapted to strategies of shame-regulation in computer gameplay.

The pole of withdrawal constitutes the basic affective experience and response to shame. Players are unlikely to accord a computer game the same authority as a human in terms of its ability to shame them in the everyday sense but where the disruption of interest, enjoyment or flow does not simply promote boredom, anxiety, or anger it may produce affects of shame. Where this is the result of a trivial failure in performance or a minor (perceived) limitation of the game, shame may merely manifest as a momentary pause or exhalation characteristic of resignation. Players may take a second to recognise and process their separation from their interest, enjoyment, or flow before making the effort to re-enter the play space. The outward behaviour of this may seem unremarkable, but the inner experience may have an existential character in that a positive sense of self, fully present to itself as a possibility, is denied through a sudden recognition of the computer’s lack of attunement. This sense of non-being is not without meaning, since a player might say that the “meaning” is that the game is unsatisfying, but it is nonetheless experienced as a loss of personal meaning and value.

If antecedent events have left a player with persistent feelings of inadequacy then that player may be more susceptible to more powerful affects of shame. This may be the case if a player has endured humiliation in the real world and tries to seek solace from a game only to find her feelings of uselessness reinforced by that game. A player in this state may take longer to pick herself up from her ejection from the play space, akin to a form of learned helplessness. This might be manifested as sitting still and staring at the game controller, looking away from the screen, or quietly getting up and/or turning off the game. This may be seen in terms of Tomkins (1963) observation that shame is shameful, in the sense that the visibility of shame amplifies the affect. If we are caught blushing, or averting our gaze, we are likely to become more embarrassed or ashamed because our inward feeling of shame are confirmed by others as proof that we have done something of which we should feel ashamed (1963, 36). Of course since a game cannot literally see the player any withdrawal will likely result from external (potentially hypothetical) witnesses of our shame being internalised and projected back onto the game. This would construct the game as an anthropomorphised witness to one’s failure and thereby motivate the player to remove herself from the game’s presence.

A player may also experience shame in the everyday sense when the affect of shame is accompanied by an evaluation of gameplay from someone else’s (actual or hypothetical) perspective. This may occur whenever a player makes a personal link between herself and a negative stereotype, such as a nerd or geek, or, more generally, a bad player, a bad loser, or a cheat. This is closer to Sartre’s description of shame in his account of Being-for-others (etre-pour-autrui) where a person becomes (shamefully) conscious of his/her being defined by others, as when one is caught peeping through a key-hole (1943/1993, 259). Sartre emphasises how, through shame, we exist in a different way: “Shame is by nature recognition. I recognise that I am as the Other sees me” (1943/1993, 221). This is a radical moment of disruption, of separation from a prior state of knowing one’s self and of Being-for-itself (etre-pour-soi). This shift in perception may be particularly salient when a player becomes conscious of gameplay as an immediate social performance. For example, a player of FFX engaged in such tedious virtual tasks as looking behind trees, stones, and crates, rechecking areas in case an item was missed, may become conscious that this activity is not gratifying to a viewer. The player may feel that she has failed whenever there is no adequate kinaesthetic spectacle or demonstration of skill, and this feeling of not being able to entertain a viewer could lead a player to feel that she is not only wasting the viewer’s time but is wasting her own time and is therefore (perceived as) a “time waster”. A player might withdraw from this by giving up the controls only to feel like she is (being perceived as) someone who “gives up”. This kind of shameful self-awareness would extend to players who participate in observer-participant research and become self-conscious that their actions are being evaluated according to some (possibly unknown) criteria that might reflect poorly upon them.

For Nathanson the avoidance pole of shame refers to the ways in which we “reduce, minimize, shake off or limit” (1992, 313) shame through some other stimulation or by calling attention to whatever brings us pride. In other words, avoidance is achieved not through physical withdrawal but through diversionary stimulation (such as eating, sex or drugs) and/or a prideful re-evaluation of one’s self-esteem. Indeed pride is complementary to shame in regulating self-esteem, or, more precisely, self-esteem is governed by “two dissociable psychobiological components” (Schore 1994, 363): an “attachment deactivator,” associated with shame, and an “attachment regulator”, which “reduces consciously experienced shame, negative affective self-representations, low-keyed depressive states and passive coping” (1994, 363). These are self-comforting functions which aid in recovery and are associated with positive moods, narcissism, and a greater capacity to deal with stress.

The cognitive component of a pride response during gameplay may be as benign as “I’ll get it if I keep trying”, which may lead the player to redefine her aesthetic relationship to the machine. A player may accept that the game is harder than she wants and change the difficulty settings and/or check to see if she can better prepare by double-checking the manual, playing tutorial sequences, or searching out hints, cheats or walkthroughs. In role-playing games like FFX a great deal of time is spent preparing characters by buying and selling items and rearranging them in character inventories to maximise the chances of surviving dangerous opponents. This kind of activity may be seen as governed by a healthy pride response: the player does not experience disruptions of play as proof of any personal inadequacy but rather as part of the learning curve, and previously fatal encounters are revisited without damage to her self-esteem. Alternately, a pride response may provide a sense of adequate self-esteem vis a vis the act of play such that the player can comfortably terminate gameplay. The cognitive form of this might be: “I was only trying to get to the last checkpoint anyway” or “I’m having an ‘off’ day – I’ll play when I’m in a better mood”. This may make it easier for the player to compartmentalise a gaming se
ssion and achieve something closer to the kind of cathartic pleasure found after viewing a classical drama or feature film.

However pride also may lead to more narcissistic responses, such as “I’m better than that!” or “There must have been a mistake!” This may lead to the kind of magical thinking associated with gambling, but applicable to all situations in which chance is a factor, where players come to feel that their will is capable of affecting a game’s outcome (see Reith 1999; Wallace 1999). Here sequences in which a player fails at some activity may not be seen as evidence of the player’s inadequacies but instead dismissed in terms of inattention (“I was not attending to it hard enough so I shouldn’t have expected it to happen”), external intervention (“something was influencing my attempt to realise my intention”), or weighted probability (“if I keep at it, it will happen”). Failure therefore does not necessarily disprove one’s powers of influence so much as suggest a failure to fully activate one’s potency. Such thinking may seem pathological but, in practice, it may provide the useful function of preserving or amplifying the player’s interest by creating a positive emotional return irrespective of the actual feedback.

In the attack self pole of shame anxiety about helplessness and isolation leads one to take control of the experience by voluntarily putting oneself down in the presence of another. An individual accepts a reduced sense of self but avoids feelings of helplessness and isolation by maintaining a dialogue with another individual or group (Nathanson 1992, 313). In the physical absence of another person a player may simply internalise the voice of the Other and regard the intensity of that voice as an index of surrogate proximity. The most benign response to this might take the cognitive form “that was more unexpected or difficult than I expected but I’ll learn” such that the player defers to the game as a pupil to a tutor. However, the player may respond in terms of far more damaging layers of association, such as the player cognitions listed in Table 2, adapted from Nathanson’s (1992) schemata of negative self-evaluation.

Schemata category
Sample negative schemata
(A) Physiological limitations “I am slow, uncoordinated, and incompetent.”
(B) Dependence “I need someone to show me how to do this properly.”
(C) Competition “I can’t beat this.”
(D) Sense of self “I’m such a loser.”

(E) Personal attractiveness

“I’m alone with this game because no one wants me: my posture is getting worse and I look like a nerd”
(F) sexuality “I am watching Yuna’s virtual breasts, I am such a pervert.”
(F) visibility “I hope no one sees me playing like this”

(H) wishes/fears about closeness

“If I was playing with someone else that would realise how worthless I am”

Table 2. Schemata of negative self-evaluation, adapted from Nathanson (1992, 317).

The emotional experience of play may rarely involve the kind of conscious cognitive responses listed in Table 2, and in any case will vary depending upon each player’s psychobiography and the context of play. However, a response to any negative self-evaluation may be the resumption of play with diminished enthusiasm and a fatalistic attitude to prove that the self is insufficient. This ongoing demonstration may function as a limited form of phatic contact, maintaining the relationship with the game and the internalised voice of the Other to stave off a feared sense of isolation.

In Nathanson’s fourth pole of the compass of shame, attack other, shame “is associated with a feeling of lowered self-worth that is simply unbearable” such that “we are likely to reduce another person so that we can at least be better than someone else” (1992, 136). A player may find it unbearable that a game from which she sought solace and a feeling of mastery does nothing but provide further insults to her self esteem and perhaps even seems to have been expressly designed to diminish her. Anger at the game places the player in a superior position in which she may deny her own failure by adjudicating the failure of the game. The obvious cognitive form of this kind of response is a verbal abuse of a section of the game (“This level is rubbish!”), the game as a whole (“I hate FFX!”), the genre (“I hate role-playing games!”), the medium (“I hate computer games!”), or a physical attack on the computer game itself (striking the screen, console, keyboard, or joystick).

The attack other pole also may be evident when a player takes a sadistic attitude towards the act of play. Instead of verbally or physically attacking the machine a player may deliberately go out of her way to violate the rules of the game. This might be the case when players take their time during a timed sequence, deliberately go the wrong way when given a predetermined path, avoid goals or quests the game provides for them, and/or deliberately allow their character(s) to die. This resistance against the game’s rules may serve to set up an opposition between the inert, dumb inhumanity of the computer game and the creative/destructive activity of the human player. Alternately, this activity could be accompanied by such extreme evaluations as “I’m great no matter what the stupid game says!” whereby the player repeatedly plays and fails as a means to prove the game’s inability to recognise her perceived worth.

The Dreadful Freedom of Play

While for some players the experiences addressed above may be rare or temporary, it is possible that gameplay in general may be experienced less as a state of flow and more as a staggered series of interruptions from which players must constantly pick themselves up. This experience may, like anxiety and boredom, lead players to withdraw from play, but more importantly Nathanson’s (1992) compass of shame suggests strategies of self-regulation that may not simply divert players from the experience of shame but also maintain the situation that gives rise to it. For example, a player who employs a strategy of criticising herself while repeatedly playing an excessively challenging sequence is paradoxically managing her self-esteem by prolonging, and taking control of, her experience of inadequacy. Nonetheless, an entire dehumanising session of play may be emotionally and aesthetically recuperated when an ongoing process of self-regulation finally culminates in success. It is even possible that, for some players, the aesthetic appeal of gameplay lies not simply in the pleasurable ease of flow but in a context for self-regulation in which one can actively promote excessive anxiety and low self-esteem only to win happiness and dignity back from the machine.

A player’s existential experience of play also may be recuperated when a game represents existential experiences and themes as part of its narrative drama. FFX is an excellent example of this. Tidus, the main character, is a Blitzball player whose father, Jecht, always expressed contempt for him and then disappeared. Tidus’ mother subsequently grew increasingly distant and died. When the monstrous being Sin attacks his home city of Zanarkand, Tidus is teleported, or perhaps in Heidegger’s (1927/1962) terms “thrown”, 1000 years into the future. He finds himself alone, under attack, and then a temporary slave of the Al Bhed, whose language he does not understand. Through his subsequent journeys Tidus discovers that the people of Spira are threatened by death during Sin’s random attacks, and he becomes a Guardian to aid the Summoner Yuna on a pilgrimage to destroy Sin. This pilgrimage is undertaken every twenty years as Sin keeps inexplicably returning after his destruction. Those in Spira accept this situation, but Tidus cannot, especially when he discovers that the Maesters who rule Spira are (un)dead spirits who have conspired to allow Sin’s ongoing reign.

Tidus’ fellow Guardians have all experienced alienation and death and much of FFXs narrative interest lies in the disclosure of their histories. Rikku is an Al Bhed who has suffered prejudice and violent exile from Spira, and her new home in Sanubia sands is destroyed during the game. Wakka lost his brother Chappu, and Lulu is revealed to have failed another Summoner who died on a previous pilgrimage. Kimahri was exiled from the Ronso home in Mount Gagazet and his horn broken as a sign of his lost honour; when he reclaims his honour the deranged and deluded antagonist Seymour exterminates his species. Tidus’ situation is, however, the most relevant. He falls in love with Yuna but eventually learns that she is expected to sacrifice her life at the end of the pilgrimage. He subsequently realises that his earlier optimistic comments about the end of the pilgrimage were hurtful to Yuna and he is forced to confront his own responsibility for his role in her impending death. Tidus later discovers that his father, Jecht, did not actually die but was, like himself, teleported into the future. Jecht went on a similar pilgrimage, during which he was transformed into Sin, which means that Tidus is expected to kill his father and must come to terms with patricide. Finally, although Tidus finds a way of defeating Sin that will save Yuna, he realises that his hopes for a romantic union with her are impossible. He actually died 1000 years ago during Sin’s original attack on Zanarkand and has been a spirit, or Aeon, since he met her. He tragically dissipates at the end of the game.

FFX, then, represents characters confronting their mortality in a seemingly indifferent and absurd world, but it also may be read as representing the emotional experiences that Nathanson (1992) describes in his compass of shame. Withdrawal is represented when Wakka faces the potential and actual failure of his Blitzball team, the Besaid Aurochs, which culminates in his televised failure in Luca, where he hangs motionless in the water, and subsequently quits the game. Avoidance is evident in that Tidus’ bravado, and the adulation he receives from his Blitzball fans, divert him from the underlying feelings of inadequacy that result from his parents’ lack of support. Wakka is representative of the attack self pole of shame in that his poor performance in Blitzball gives way to self criticism, while Lulu represents the attack other pole in that her cold and sarcastic behaviour masks her shame at having allowed a previous Summoner under her protection to die. If a player experiences the existential experiences addressed above then these kinds of representations may provide a basis for identifying, and empathising, with characters. This may recuperate an otherwise meaningless experience of play as aesthetically meaningful, at least in the sense that the player’s affective states resonate, and are integrated, with the drama and goals of the game.

What is more significant is that FFX also provides representations of characters who employ a characteristically Sartrean response to existential realisations or feelings. Sartre (1943/1993) argues that it is only by accepting the anguish of an existential experience and committing to it as a “mode” of being—“of standing opposite [one’s] past and . . . future, as being both this past and this future and as not being them” (1943/1993, 29)—that one is opened to the “dreadful freedom” of choosing a world view, a way of life, and taking responsibility for the consequences. Likewise Tidus is forced to confront and accept a seemingly chaotic world full of strange events, strangers, and strange customs that (initially) make no sense to him. Even if we read his upbeat personality and scratchy voice as a desperate happiness or a nervous manifestation of unhappiness, he tries to remain courageous and optimistic in the face of an absurd situation. Yuna is more introspective and maudlin, owing to her awareness of her impending death, but she actually sees it as her duty to put on a brave and happy face for the people of Spira whom she serves.

In this context a revealing moment in FFX is when the Guardians are about to leave Luca for the Mi’ihen Highroad. Yuna, seeing Tidus’ despondence, tells him that Summoners like her offer the people of Spira hope and so she practices looking happy. She advises Tidus to “try laughing out loud”, which he does, finding the effort sufficiently awkward to comment “This is weird”. When he manages a laugh his laughter is uncomfortably wooden, not only because of his awkwardness but also because of the forced voice acting and the limited facial movement afforded by the game’s graphics engine. Yuna jokes “You probably shouldn’t laugh any more”, a sentiment likely shared by the player, but she joins in, and the pair pretend to laugh over the balcony until they fall into genuine laughter. Yuna comments: “Too funny!” and “I want my journey to be full of laughter”. This laughter has an absurd quality because it is consciously informed by the loss, death, and suffering that they know they will experience. This is especially evident in that, when Tidus turns and sees the other Guardians looking at him, there is an embarrassed pause before he asks them what they are looking at. Wakka replies: “We were just worried you guys might’ve gone crazy!”

Just as Tidus and Yuna use humour as a means of dealing with a harsh and indifferent world, players may confront any disjunctive affects experienced during play through the use of humour and/or resolve. Such an acceptance of the absurdly frustrating or boring aspects of gameplay, and the existential feelings these may give rise to, may preserve one’s sense of meaningful selfhood. A simple example of this would be if the eighty or so hour epic of FFX was cut short by Tidus’ death at the hands of a minor wandering monster and the player realised that she was not irritated or frustrated. Rather, she found herself amused at the arbitrariness and absurdity of the situation, especially given her voluntarily commitment of time and money to it, and pushed on. A situation in which an unempathetic agency holds power over oneself during a supposedly ego-validating experience is thereby accommodated as part of the experience of play.

Of course, just as Tidus and Yuna share their moment of absurd laughter, a player’s existential experience during gameplay may be a shared experience in a social context. For example in massively multiplayer online role-playing games like EverQuest (Verant Interactive 2000), Final Fantasy XI (Squaresoft 2002), and World of Warcraft (Blizzard 2004), there is a shared vulnerability to a network in that play often involves such frustrations as patching the game, being subjected to lag, being kicked off a network in the middle of a game, and dying in inconvenient locations so that one must retrace one’s steps across the game world to fetch inventory items from one’s corpse. Players may take a while to accept that these kinds of arbitrary frustrations are really part of the labour of play, but when they have learned to wrestle joy from an indifferent network they may be said to have undergone an existential rite of passage that allows them to recognise the shared condition of an inhuman context for human play.

The recognition of another’s existential experience is important because it allows for not just empathy but also support. In FFX the Guardians frequently boost each other’s self-esteem during moments of despondence and shame. Notably, before their conversation at Luca, Tidus taught Yuna a technique for whistling used to increase morale amongst Blitzball players and, after their shared laughter, the pair agree that if they are separated they will whistle and find each other. In the same way a player who has faced a computer game alone can recognise and support fellow players who have confronted the digital abyss, if only by providing a human presence. This perspective gives additional meaning to complaints about a game or network as well as much of the creative activity that occurs during gameplay. 9 This is not to deny that the act of talking to other players may lead to the realisation that one has nothing in common with them nor that an online community may find its lines of communication disrupted by computer and network problems. However such disruptions may constitute another basis for existential moments and during them one may find humour and resolve in acknowledging that frustration, anxiety and boredom are part of the gameplay that other players have chosen to commit to in their free time. In this respect game communities may be maintained not only on the basis of shared enjoyment, but also with shared attempts to cope with its absence.



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1. Koster’s account of “fun” in games is representative of this usage, especially when he lists reasons why the “pleasurable learning experience” of play is “killed” and dedicates a whole page to the simple statement “the game becomes boring” (2005, 45). He then absently notes that these experiences are “really” “boredom+frustration, and some are boredom+triumph, and so on”, before moving on.

2. Sartre’s (1943/1993) existentialism betrays its class status by refusing to emphasise that most people are beholden to social forces. Many people are so disenfranchised or disadvantaged by poverty, war, repression that their experience is characterised by terror or starvation. For such people Sartre’s notions of anguish, shame, and nausea are not only the least of their concerns, they are a luxury, and it is an insult or naiveté to suggest that such people be, as he suggests, “authentic” to themselves.

3. While theorists within Cultural Studies may be uncomfortable drawing from scientific research, Sedgwick and Frank (1995) argue that, although the cognitive sciences are often associated with essentialist descriptions of “nature”, human physiology has been constructed by its evolutionary context. Consequently, accommodating scientific discourses that address evolution, physiology and cognition can broaden, rather than diminish, one’s sensitivity to the constructedness of human experience (see Grodal 1997). That a player has good sensorimotor skills but poor spatial memory, and tends to improvise rather than act strategically using mental map of the game world, cannot be reduced to a textual approach (see Loftus and Loftus 1983). Furthermore, physiological sensations are affected by individual development and labelled in culturally-specific contexts. Where cognitive accounts accommodate this, including the role of language, they may work alongside textual accounts and recognise that, for example, one player’s anxiety might be another player’s excitement (see Grodal 1997; Richardson and Steen 2002; Tan 1996).

4. Sartre’s (1959/1964) account of existentialism is noted for its descriptions of nausea but for reasons of space I have set aside other arguments regarding the relationship between anguish, shame and nausea.

5. For Frijda (1986; also see Tan 1997) “emotions” are defined as changes in action readiness in response to the appraisal of a situation. Action readiness refers to physiological priming, such as increased heart rate or dilation of the bronchial tubes, while appraisal includes primary appraisal, an automated physiological process, and secondary appraisal, which has a cognitive element. Fear, for example, is not merely a physiological sensation, it also involves a cognitive appraisal that one is under threat. Tomkins’ (1961, 1961, 1992) description of “innate affects” refers to physiological processes identifiable with primary appraisal, but his descriptions of  how “learned affects” are mediated by memory and cognition may be seen as encompassing secondary appraisal and therefore overlap with Frijda’s definition of emotion.

6. Self psychology has elaborated upon this in terms of transitional objects (Winnicott 1971) and selfobjects (Kohut 1971, 1977) which perform a psychological function for the child (also see Piaget 1929/1973). The classic transitional object is of course a teddy bear, which performs the role of supportive companion in the absence of a parent until such time that the child can internalise acts of consolation. Selfobjects, by contrast, are usually associated with people, principally parental figures from whom children have not yet clearly differentiated themselves.

7. The cybernetic relationship between a player and game may give rise to a form of intersubjectivity in which claims that the player-as-subject projects qualities onto a game-as-object may seem to recuperate an outdated and artificial dualism of subject/object (Aarseth 1997; Bogost 2006; Boulter 2005; Friedman 1995; Galloway 2006; Turkle 1995). However, just as a player who sits in front of a game hardly loses the capacity for sensorimotor, cognitive or emotional activity, it is hard to accept that players somehow lose the capacity to perform basic psychological functions like projection. Descriptions of projection and related preoperational processes, such as phenomenalistic causality, nominal realism, and physiognomic projection (see Piaget 1929/1973; Turkle 1984, 1995), are useful precisely because they provide a basis for analysing how a human player may (come to) experience the intersubjectivity of gameplay.

8. Psychoanalytic accounts of anxiety and fear in games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill (Carr 2006; McRoy 2006; Santos and White 2005) are related to, but diverge from, this account. Anxiety or fear may make a player more vulnerable to existential thoughts by creating a visceral experience that focuses one’s attention upon the inability to control events and, ultimately, one’s mortality (see Boulter 2005). It is possible to be fearful of shame and/or ashamed of fear. However, fear is generally directed towards external objects (Frijda 1986) and is concerned with physically protecting the self by motivating the sympathetic nervous system. Shame, by contrast, is directed inwards and governed by the parasympathetic nervous system, which gives rise to a different, more depressive, quality of experience.

9. This may be related to Aarseth’s observation that there is a potential for absurd theatre in computer-generated narratives through “the possibility of unintentional sign behavior” (1997, 124). Players of text-based adventure games may deliberately enter commands into the text parser to produce illogical, silly, or nonsensical responses. Game designers also may embed in-game jokes that draw attention to limitations of an interface. This was notable in the classic Sierra point and click adventure games, such as Quest for Glory (Sierra, 1980/2001), in which repeatedly clicking on redundant objects such as rocks generated sarcastic comments about the interface. Generally speaking, players of almost any game may recognise, or act to promote, unintentional, illogical, silly, and/or nonsensical feedback which may be a response to, or denial of, existential qualities of play.


Author Bio

Glen Spoors is a Lecturer in Communications and Game Culture at Edith Cowan University. He completed his doctorate on ‘Meaning and Emotion in Final Fantasy X: Re-Theorising Realism and Identification in Computer Games’.

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