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Student Research

Allergies and Allegories

Steve WilcoxSteve Wilcox, PhD candidate from the English Language and Literature department at the University of Waterloo, has begun preliminary research at The Games Institute on treating games themselves as heuristics for knowledge translations. 


Games afford players a degree of agency that enhances their capacity to represent experiences in a persuasive, personal, and practical manner, which fosters the retention and deployment of those experiences in everyday interactions. He explores this notion not only in terms of its artistic implications, but in its potential application to scholarly publishing, or what can be referred to as playable publishing. This concept represents a kind of interactive form of conveying scholarship that enhances the reader/player’s understanding of the material by affording a degree of play into the process. Allergies & Allegories, a web-based game of Steve’s design, is an example of transforming the insights of an academic paper to the need for increased awareness of food allergies into a game that attempts to realize that increased awareness. This has the potential of making scholarship accessible to wider audiences, while also making the material more persuasive and meaningful.

Allergies & Allegories, which follows from his collaboration with GET-FACTS (Genetics, Environment and Therapies: Food Allergy Clinical Tolerance Studies) is a portion of Steve’s dissertation. This game has players working with Mia, a child who has a peanut allergy and has recently moved to a new school. The objective of the game is to improve the Mia’s well-being, which is a composite of various factors identified in the research conducted by GET-FACTS on children with food allergies in Ontario schools. The objective in creating the game is to work towards lowering the social and cultural difficulty these individuals face by engaging children, adults, students, and teachers with various representations of day-to-day life with food allergies.

Allergies and AllegoriesSteve will be presenting this idea at the upcoming Sustaining Partnership in Scholarly Publishing conference. He will also be presenting on First Person Scholar, an online periodical that publishes accessible scholarship on games and culture, for which he is co-founder and editor-in-chief.

Kitchen Table

Ryan Clement, PhD candidate from the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo, is conducting a study on the effectiveness of games as tools for intercultural communication and knowledge translation. 

Since 2014, he has been working with GET-FACTS (Genetics, Environment and Therapies: Food Allergy Clinical Tolerance Studies) with support from the Games Institute, in particular Dr. Neil Randall, and from Drs. Susan Elliott and Jenna Dixon from the Department of Geography and Environmental Management. As part of the project’s mandate to find new and innovative ways to increase overall empathy towards people with food allergies, Ryan designed the Kitchen Table board game. A co-operative game built around family meal planning and dietary restrictions, Kitchen Table challenges its players to work together to ensure there is enough food on the table for everyone to eat, while dealing with issues like cross-contamination and hidden allergens. Kayla Oliveira, a student at the University of Waterloo and GI member, designed the graphics shown below for the Kitchen Table board game pieces.  Kitchen Table game graphics

With an estimated 2.5% of adults affected by food allergies—and 6-8% of children under the age of 31—there exists a substantial generational disconnect over the issue of food allergies and anaphylaxis. Kitchen Table aims to bring diverse groups of people together from within families, workplaces, schools, and other organizations—so that everyone can gain a better understanding of what life is like for a person with anaphylactic food allergies.

Students playing Kitchen TableWhile preliminary studies have already suggested the game has been effective at reducing tensions, spreading awareness, and encouraging more empathetic points of view, a more formal study is presently underway. When it is complete, Ryan hopes to be able to provide quantifiable evidence that not only can Kitchen Table be a powerful tool for encouraging empathy towards people with food allergies, but games themselves can be a powerful tool for social change.

Like many of his fellow game scholars and designers, Ryan is an ardent advocate for the capacity of games as a form of media that challenge old limitations and reach incredible new possibilities. As a tool of knowledge translation, they stand unique, not only in their embrace of interactivity and immersion, but also in their incorporation of multiple modes of learning from text-based and pictoral styles to kinesthetic and auditory techniques. Connected with cutting edge technology, yet rooted in the more than ancient human instinct for play, games represent the natural way to learn and to communicate.

That and they can be a whole lot of fun!


1Ben-Shoshan, Moshe and Susan Elliot, et al. "A population-based study on peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, and sesame allergy prevalence in Canada." The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 125.6 2010: 1327-1335.

Lady Hobbits

Emma Vossen and Elise Vist made the Lady Hobbits video in Neil Randall's Lord of the Rings class in the coursework year of their PhD.

Title screen

Because of the critiques they leveled at Jackson’s adaptation of LOTR, Emma and Elise decided to make their own adaptation, using the LOTRO game to make a machinima. their adaptation gender-bends and (somewhat, due to the limitations of character creation) race-bends the main characters of the LOTR in order to show that the story is just as interesting and relevant if the characters are not white men. It was very important to us that the story was still recognizable as Frodo’s journey, even with female hobbits. They also wanted to have some fun with the book, bringing in their own politics and making a few jokes that point out odd moments in the narrative, but they took care not to make jokes about the hobbits being female characters.

They filmed LOTR: LH using "digital puppetry" methods for creating a machinima. That is, one person controlled a "camera" character (who would view the action) and another person would control the character(s) who was/were onscreen. Using in-game elements like "emotes" (you can make a character wave, or sit down, for example) they acted out the actions and then recorded dialogue to match up to the actions.


While they knew this would be a big project, there were many aspects of the project that surprised them. Emma and Elise didn’t really realize just how much time it would take, for starters. They knew that they would spend several hours recording and editing, but failed to recognize just how much time it would take to create 6 new characters (between levels 6 and 10), craft and assemble different costumes, rehearse animations and lighting, and learn how to use various programs, like iMovie and GarageBand, on top of scripting, filming, and editing. All told, they spent about 100 hours working from script to finished product. Because of this, they came to have a new understanding of the labour and expenses involved in fanworks. The most complex shots required 8 computers running at the same time, and they also needed computers that could run sophisticated editing software. Even though they both have (relatively) expensive laptops, we still had to go to campus to edit and film scenes, because our comp uters were simply not powerful enough. This was particularly interesting, as fanworks are often used as examples of inexpensive and accessible creation, but this experience has proved that this is not always -- and perhaps not even generally -- true.


They spent hours of time talking about what these characters would be like, their body language, their dress, the way they do their hair, their voice, the relationships to each other and a lot of this work is obviously invisible to a viewer, it looks like coincidence, as it should! The characters were all unique in some way. Their Gandalf for example, is very much Tolkien's Gandalf but she is also an expansion of that character. Emma and Elise make it explicit that she is a bit of an unreliable, flakey windbag who is also filled with wisdom and knowledge. Strider is still the hero that protects the hobbits throughout their journey, but she is also uptight and straightforward to a fault, she can't take or make a joke. Sam is every bit as much of a sweet devoted lover as Tolkien's Sam, but they have demonstrated this in different ways.


For Emma, making this machinima was a reclaiming of the LOTR story for herself because it was the process through which she learned to really love The Lord of the Rings. Going back now and reading the books, she has erased all of the characterization and visuals from the films. For her, their Frodo has become HER Frodo, before Elijah Wood. And This Sam has become the primary Sam to her. Being able to think of these characters in this way allows her to connect with the text on a level that she couldn't previously and in an embodied way. Playing the game, moving through the narrative as her TRUE Frodo and also voicing that Frodo, similar to the way you might feel about a character in a play after portraying them in a production, you feel an embodied connection to that character.

Towards a Poetics of Narrativized Play and Beyond

Shawn DeSouza-Coelho, a Master’s student from the English Language and Literature Department at the University of Waterloo, has been studying narrative theory and games with project work in conjunction with the Stratford Festival of Canada.

Shawn’s project began November 2014 and is scheduled to continue until the end of July 2015. However, the project is part of a much bigger digital development project being undertaken by the Stratford Festival and so, in that sense, it is ongoing. It's his hope that the team carries his particular section of this project through to completion, wherein they will possess a fully functioning cooperative, mobile game entitled, Places, Please!: Hamlet Edition. The game is also but one part of his much greater MRP.

The purpose of his research is four-fold. Firstly, he curious about the intersections between narrative and gameplay, asking the fundamental question: How do we play narrative in a game?

Second, aiming towards the poetics, and basing my research on theories of interaction design, affect theory, procedural rhetoric, theatrical dramaturgy, narrative theory, and the like, he is theorizing new ways of creating intersections between narrative and gameplay. These theories manifest in a formal design logic system that he terms 'procedural incongruence'. In this logic system, the controls/mechanics of the game (i.e. the very means by which the player enters into a conversation with the game world) change over the course of the narrative proffered within that game world.

Third, he theorizes and conceptualising a suite of hypothetical and original video games that utilize 'procedural incongruence' as their foundation. The games of particular focus are: Spec Ops: The Line, Set Them Free, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Places, Please!: Hamlet Edition and C33.

The purpose here is to explore 'procedural incongruence' as it manifests in different degrees of narrative ([1] embedded, [2] embedded with some emergence, [3] emergence with some embedding, [4] emergent, and [5] something I can only term meta-embedded because it aims to allow players to converse directly with narrative structure as opposed to the content [characters, setting, actions, etc.] through which these conventions typically manifest.)

In terms of methodology, conceptualising the hypothetical games involved playing each game in a detailed way, paying close attention to how interaction can be used to help convey the narrative being proffered in the game world. Second-hand research aids in this process. Both "Set Them Free" and "C33" involved simply beginning from first principles: writing a script, creating a logic system (controls, rules, etc.) from scratch, and, in the former's case, hiring some actors and an audio engineer to help him bring some aspect of it to life. Places, Please!: Hamlet Edition, with its myriad of practical considerations, possessed a considerably more involved and detailed design process involving: first-hand interviews and correspondence with Stratford Festival personnel (actors, crew, tech, and stage management), and cataloging archival material pertaining to Stratford Festival productions of Hamlet. The game was conceptualized from there.

Fourth, aiming beyond, in creating this suite of games, he has become curious as to the impact of this research on industry as well as the academic field of game studies. With this in mind he is investigating three things:

1) Interrogation of wider discourse using games as the interrogative lens. In this I am touching upon two things: A) The ontology of 'affect' and B) An exploration of the validity of Spinoza's "Ethics" through its manifestation as rudimentary game logic.

2) The role of dramaturgy in game design and its possible applications therein.

3) The role of the humanities scholar within industry. How would such a person, whose sole responsibility is to understand and analyze how a particular object functions and moves its audience, factor into the standard game development process? Would that person factor in at all?

His interests have always been with the very ways that we, as humans, structure our lived realities. Shawn is interested in modes of being, the experience of being, and the ways that we, in essence, cut through all of that so we can shake hands, have coffee, play with our children, climb mountains, and conquer space. He never thought that games would lead me to take up these line of thought once more. But they have. And they do.

Walk-up-and-Play: Overcoming Interaction Barriers in Large Interactive Displays by Victor Cheung

Victor Cheung is currently a PhD student of the University of Waterloo in Systems Design Engineering.
His primary interest is interface & interaction design for interactive surfaces. Personally, he has a wide range of interests including magic, photography, low poly 3D modelling and coffee making. He is also a left-handed person and proud of it.


Victor's dissertation project employs the use of large display to provide engaging experience for passersby in an open setting. One example of this is gameplay that is highly accessible and collaborative in nature. The title, “Walk-up and Play” reflects the aim of his project to create games which anyone can play without struggling with learning rules or confusing button layouts. Currently, collaborative locative games use large displays which are often inaccessible due to their small size and unclear instructions on how to use them. Victor’s work seeks to solve this problem by utilizing bigger screens and gesture tracking technology to draw bigger audiences in.


He is currently working on a simultaneous collaborative game controlled by personal devices called, Multi-Brickout. The game is different from other mobile-connected games because it uses full the full motion of the phone as part of the controller. The game is easy to join in and play because there are no accounts or log in required and players don’t have to mess with QR codes or NFC chips. Using a phone or tablet is innovative and accessible because players are already familiar with their device and (hopefully) enjoy using it. Victor especially enjoys this project because he is always seeking out new technologies to solve current problems in game design.

You can find out more about Victor's project work here.

Words and Worlds: Creating Space Inside and Outside Videogames by Michael Hancock

Michael Hancock’s research interests regarding videogames can be summed up in two concepts: fantasy and science fiction, and textual representation. There are extensive bodies of research that have been done on fantasy and science fiction in general, but relatively little on how that research applies in the videogame media; what do the rhetorics of fantasy become when the protagonist is controlled by the player? What does the megatext of science fiction become when weaved into a multiplayer first person shooter? To speak to textual representation, it is commonplace in the game industry and culture to treat videogames as if they exist in a historical ascent of technological superiority, with visual realism being a marker of superiority. Michael’s research looks into what variants of videogame history we can create if we pay attention instead to how text directs meaning in videogames. These two branches of research come together in the concept of paratext, the objects that are not considered part of a videogame, yet shape players’ interpretation of it. The strategy guide, the instruction manual, the graphic novel adaptation—all of these textual representations guide the player in certain directions, create certain fantasy worlds. Michael sees his role as a scholar to investigate how this guiding happens, and how it reflects on game culture at large.

Michael Hancock is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. His dissertation—as relates to the research above--is on the history of textual representation in videogames, a study which ranges from videogame instruction manuals to the 1989 Amiga game It Came From the Desert, a loose adaptation of the 1954 giant ant, science fiction film Them!. He is particularly interested in three areas of game studies: the social engagements and activities of players, the historical shifts in game design and interpretation, and the formal aspects of video games, as they present themselves to the players. He’s also interested in social applications of digital media in general, and how societies adapt to these new technologies. Michael's current research includes: deadlines in horror videogames, the intersection of videogames and the gothic, and fantasy and commercial structures in match-3 style games. He is formerly the Book Reviews Editor for First Person Scholar at the University of Waterloo.

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