Multidisciplinary Panel: Horizon Zero Dawn

Monday, December 10, 2018
by Marisa Benjamin

three panelists and moderator

From left to right: Marisa Benjamin (moderator), Karina Arrambide (panelist), Nicholas Hobin (panelist), John Harris (panelist)

Thursday, December 6th, three students from different disciplines came together to share their perspectives on Horizon Zero Dawn (2017). The panel discussion was by no means a debate; rather, it was designed to explore three different approaches to the study of games and to showcase the nuances of curiosity, criticism and analytical methodology.

Watch the full panel here, or keep reading for more details on how the event unfolded...

Horizon Zero Dawn is a popular AAA game set in a post-post apocalyptic world where you play as a female protagonist, Aloy, and use a focus - an Augmented Reality-style interface - to help you battle mechanical animals. The game set the stage for the conversation, but the spotlight was on the panelists.

Karina Arrambide, GI resident and Systems Design Engineering PhD student, studies player behaviours and emotions by applying methodologies from Games User Research. Karina uses biometrics to measure player responses during gameplay in order to determine effective and ineffective game design mechanics. She brought to the panel ideas about how the design elements in Horizon Zero Dawn constructed the relationship between the game and the player.

Nicholas Hobin, GI resident and English PhD student, studies narratives in videogames through the lens of how videogames reflect and manifest processes of conceptualization. His specific focus is on animals in videogames and the cybernetic triangle - the relationship between humans, animals, and machines. Nicholas brought to the conversation theories on the cybernetic triangle in order to analyze how Horizon Zero Dawn constructs, or deconstructs, our relationships to animals and technology.

John Harris, GI resident and Computer Science PhD student, studies player experiences in asymmetric game play. His research focuses on building playful experiences that bring different kinds of players together. His specialized research background allowed him to notice the subtler details of the game mechanics and character designs and he discussed how these parts work together.

The panel began with each speaker sharing their overall impressions on the game. What made the game unique? What were the highlights of the game? And what limitations did it have? Even in these short preambles, the differences in their disciplinary perspectives were clear.

Karina commented on how specific mechanics in the game make for a unique player experience, for example how players can change the difficulty level of combat so that they could focus more on the game's story. Nicholas discussed posthumanism in the context of the game, explaining how concepts like "anthropocentrism" and the "cybernetic triangle" relate to the themes in Horizon Zero Dawn. And John discussed his impressions of some of the systems in the game, like how the robo-animals behaved.

For the rest of the panel, the speakers responded to more direct questions about game narrative, player choice and autonomy, world-building, non-player characters, and combat mechanics. The responses from the panelists revealed how complex the game is because they were able to provide answers while simultaneously posing more questions. The panel closed with the question:

Would you research Horizon Zero Dawn? How would you study it?

John answered "no" he wouldn't study the game. Not because it's not worthy of critical inquiry, but because John's research methodology from his Computer Science background requires looking at games from the bottom-up and then testing player responses.

Horizon Zero Dawn is already a completed game so it would be a significant challenge to isolate specific mechanics and measure the player response. Instead, John's research practise has him designing games, such as his work with "Beam Me 'Round, Scotty!"

john harris explaining
Nicholas said that he would study a game like Horizon Zero Dawn. One approach would be to study the game through theoretical models of relationships between players and game designers. Game designers and players approach the game from opposite perspectives where designers think about rules, mechanics, and underlying principles, whereas players encounter aesthetics first.

Nicholas would consider how those differences shape and construct Horizon Zero Dawn: how do players interpret the aesthetics? What were the designers communicating to players, whether it was intentional or not? And from there he would consider the circumstances that led up to those design decisions.

Karina said that if she were to run a study about Horizon Zero Dawn she would be interested to look at player behaviour  and emotional responses. So, for example, she would want to dig into a question like "how do player's respond emotionally when killing a robo-animal compared to a 'real' animal".

Karina might compare player responses from Horizon Zero Dawn with another AAA game like Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018). Similar to John's response, Karina said that since it’s a finished game there are limitations to how you can study the game and it really depends on what exactly you're trying to find.

Watch the full panel here:

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