Tobias Unterhuber

Dr. Tobias Unterhuber studied modern German literature, comparative literature and study of religion at LMU Munich and at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2018, he earned his PhD with his thesis on the works of Swiss author Christian Kracht. He is a post-doc for literature and media studies at the Leopold-Franzens University Innsbruck. In addition to pop literature, literary theory, discourse analysis, literature & economics and gender studies, his research interests include video game research in the field of cultural studies. He is an editor of the game studies journal PAIDIA.

A magic dwells in each beginning? – Game Studies, its rhetoric rituals and mythos of being a young field

FROG 2021 – Talk

Looking at Game Studies publications at large researchers frame themselves and their studies often very similarly: – Game Studies is a young field and a young discipline. – The research topic is young as well and underappreciated. – This research is the first of its kind. – We happy few are the only ones interested in researching games. And so on. This rhetorical positioning might have been appropriate 20 years ago, when Espen Aarseth declared the Year One of Game Studies (even though there was already a lot of research before). However, in the year 2021 it seems rather strange to still uphold these sentiments. Especially if you look at the amount of Game Studies publications which can make the entrance into the field a rather daring endeavor. These declarations might originate in the structure of Game Studies itself. Game Studies is caught in a paradoxical situation. It is a prolific field, but still lacks the appropriate institutionalization and embedding in academic structures. Therefore, the interest in the study of the history of Game Studies itself is rather underdeveloped, as researchers seem to have to prove their worth repeatedly. Because of this lack of interest, the field lacks a central technique of self-reflexivity and self-evaluation. However, beside these structural problems, there might be a third reason. Keeping the mythos of a young field and of being the first in a field alive immunizes research against certain critiques and creates exclusivity and thus Game Studies’ own magic circle.

Doris C. Rusch

Dr. Doris C. Rusch is a professor of game design with a special focus on Transformative Play at Uppsala University, Department of Game Design. She is the author of “Making Deep Games” and numerous journal papers and book chapters as well as lead designer of numerous award-winning games about the human experience. She is collaborating with Prof. Andy Phelps on the Existential Transformative Game Design Framework which draws on existential psychotherapy, depth psychology as well as myth and ritual to create experiences which can ignite change in a self-directed and uncoerced manner.

Andrew Phelps

Andrew “Andy” Phelps is a designer and professor at the Human Interface Technology Laboratory NZ (HITLabNZ) within the College of Engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand where he explores virtual and augmented reality, games and education, and art and interactive media experiences. He is also a professor in the Film & Media Arts division of the School of Communication, holds a joint appointment in the Department of Computer Science, and is the director of the AU Game Center at American University in Washington DC, USA. His latest games include Fragile Equilibrium (XBOX, Steam, 2019) and The Witch’s Way ( 2021). He maintains a website of his academic publications, popular writing, artwork, curriculum development, and more at

The Magic of The Witch’s Way

FROG 2021 – Talk

Prof. Andrew M. Phelps, American University (Washington DC); University of Canterbury (NZ), guest prof. at Uppsala University

This talk discusses the design of The Witch’s Way, focusing on its conceptualization and creative rendering of magic. In this interactive text adventure game, you play a middle-aged woman named Lou, who decides to take a time out from her busy and outwardly successful but inwardly unfulfilled life, and move to the cottage in the woods her aunt has left her. There, she establishes contact with nature, the Unknown Forest behind the cottage, and the mysterious beings that dwell within it. Guided by animal spirits, a wise and quirky bookshelf and her aunt’s magical clues, Lou learns about the Witch’s Way and how to live in greater alignment with herself and the world around her, tapping into a pervasive and powerful magic that changes her and her life forever. The Witch’s Way is part of a bigger research endeavor that aims to articulate a theoretical framework for existential, transformative game design (Rusch, 2018; Rusch, 2020; Rusch and Phelps, 2020a; Rusch and Phelps, 2020b). Its driving research question is: how can we create games that address existential concerns – death, identity, isolation, freedom and purpose (Yalom, 1980) – and contribute to a meaningful life, i.e. a life where we are as much in alignment with our true self as we possibly can be (Bugental, 1990; Campbell, 2004). Drawing on anthropology (Davis, 2009), archetypal psychology (Hillman, 1996) as well as mythology and ritual studies in the context of (existential) psychotherapy (May, 1991; Larson, 1996; Goodwyn, 2012, 2016; Greenwood and Goodwyn 2016; Jodorowski, 2010), it harnesses four technologies of magic (Beck, 2012), 1) Wordlessness, 2) Oneness, 3) Imagination and 4) Forming, which are ways to access the unconscious self and sync it up with the energy of the conscious self as well as the energy world that surrounds us. Rather than remaining purely in the mystical realm, The Witch’s Way and its underlying framework further create a bridge to neuroscience and neuroanatomy. Because the magic of inner alignment requires access to our felt sense, research on embodied consciousness (Varela, Thompson & Bosch, 1993; Blake, 2019; Fogel, 2009) and whole brain living (Taylor, 2021) provides a fascinating and insightful scientific complement to our theoretical and creative explorations.

Pascal Marc Wagner

Pascal Marc Wagner is an M.A. cognitive and cultural linguist with a B.A. in English Studies and German Media and Human Rights Law from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. His theses concerned gaming-specific language in online settings and spell name neologisms in JRPGs. Currently, he works as project referent at the Goethe-Institut Munich and teaches English linguistics at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. He founded the website to further advance the field of linguistics into the study of digital games. In 2020, he co-founded the antifascist network “Keinen Pixel den Faschisten!”. Reach him on Twitter as @indieflock and @languageatplay.

“Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology” – How Semantics Produces Science from Spellcasting

FROG 2021 – Talk

The line between fantasy and science-fiction blurs in many games. A mage in Skyrim or Demons’ Souls might be able to sling the same fireballs, to shoot similar lightning, to levitate cheese wheels just like the protagonists of BioShock or Prey. In playable effect, the differences between supernatural or science-fictional forces are often marginal, if existent at all. All examples and many fictions beyond them use depletable resources that need to be refilled via consumables to utilise these skills, as well as locking their usage or strength modifiers behind some kind of parameter thresholds. Indeed, seeing that not scientific plausibility, but more likely a “plausible possibility” of science-fictional “technomancy” is the basis for most Sci-Fi examples, the delineation between fantasy and Sci-Fi becomes even blurrier. The talk develops, from a cognitive semantic perspective, that the difference of perception in these examples is one of suspension of disbelief: Fantasy titles like Skyrim or Dark Souls mince no words talking about magic, ascribing its existence to deific intervention or natural spirits. More Sci-Fi adjacent games like BioShock or Prey however choose different, more (pseudo-) scientific explanations, such as gene therapy or neuron transplantation as cause for people being able to “technomance”, to effectively spellcast in a semantic framework of fictional, but nevertheless scientifical, rule-bound definition. The presentation’s outlook on this technomancy is therefore a culturally and cognitively linguistic one, utilising semantic definition to delineate the difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy – or possibly not to.

Miłosz Markocki

Miłosz Markocki, Ph.D. is an independent researcher based in Toruń, Poland, whose expertise and research concerns fantasy fiction and online gaming (especially massively multiplayer online role-playing games), as well as the related communities. He is the co-author of the monograph Gameplay, Emotions and Narrative: Independent Games Experienced, as well as several peer-reviewed journal articles about online gaming and machinima videos. He is also the author of book chapters concerning game mechanics, storytelling, and various aspects of gameworld design (including cultural framework features), as well as online player communities and related culture.

Magical and Magic Identities in Games

FROG 2021 – Talk

Magic, magical qualities and phenomena, and magical items are often featured in various types of games. They can be depicted in a plethora of different ways, and be used as narrative or world building tools in game texts. Magic in games can be discussed and analysed as a game mechanic that influences the gameplay—for example when the player’s avatar is brought back to life because resurrection magic exists in the game world—or as the main plot point around which the entire story of a game is based on—such as in the case where the player has to fulfil various tasks in the game to lift an evil curse. This paper will focus primarily on magic as an element that facilitates the creation and development of different identities in a variety of games, as well as on the different ways of depicting, defining and classifying magic and the manner in which they influence potential individual and group identities in specific games. Based on examples of tabletop role-playing games and digital games, the paper will explore and analyse the way in which games depict and define diverse types of magic influencing and shaping the identities of singular entities, as well as larger groups, communities, classes, and even entire races of beings.

Jonas Linderoth

Jonas Linderoth is a professor in Education and the subject Media, Aesthetics and Narration. He is currently working part time at the university of Gothenburg, part time at the Swedish defense university.

Don’t break the circle – The ”evil” design of the ball game Four square

FROG 2021 – Talk

Carl Heath (Research Institute of Sweden)
Björn Sjöblom (Swedish Defense University)
Jonas Ivarsson (University of Gothenburg)

This talk is based on a study (Linderoth, Heath, Ivarsson & Sjöblom, forthcoming) about school personnel’s experiences of the ball game Four Square. Previous analyses of Four Square in the field of childhood studies have represented antagonistic play as always resulting from the children’s choosing. The results presented here challenge this view. The recurrent conflicting understandings that occur in Four Square can instead be seen as arising from the systemic characteristics of the game’s design. In four square, the boundaries of the magic circle can be blurred in a way that turns the game into an arena for bullying and exclusion. The study suggests that some ways in which school personal tries tackle this problem enforces the indistinct boundary between the game and the wider world, i.e. the blurred magic circle which is the root to the problem.

Hossein Mohammadzade

Hossein Mohammadzade began his academic research in game studies with his thesis for his master’s degree in English Language and Literature at the University of Guilan. He is now an independent scholar, and he studies television and videogames. His main area of interest is the relationship between ideology, narrative, and videogames.

Revisiting Schools in Magic Gameworlds: Political Magic Representing Politicized Science

FROG 2021 – Talk

Atefe Najjar Mansoor (Independent Scholar)

The vocabulary that is used to describe the process of learning magic is often similar to what is used to describe science. For instance, this is seen in two major videogames when magic is “studied” and the mages usually seek more “knowledge.” There are different “schools” of witchers in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and the mages in the “College” of Winterhold use spell “books” and “libraries,” and do “experiments” to learn magic in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. However, this is not the only similarity between science and magic in these gameworlds. For example, magic is often political and mages are used by politicians. There are characters that fear magic, associate it with the divine, and assume that some individuals are born with a talent for it, almost in the same way that people have perceived science and scientists at times. Therefore, this study argues that the resemblance between the two concepts hints at a symbolic meaning. The political magic in these gameworlds could represent politicized science in the physical world, and associating magic with science could have political implications. It also argues that studying how characters perceive or interact with magic in these videogames could lead to understanding how people engage with science in modern societies, how they understand it, mystify it, possibly even fear it or distort it into a modern religion, and how they believe and spread misinformation. Moreover, doing so could also help understand the relationship between ideology and science, and challenge the notion of apolitical science.

Gabrielle Trépanier-Jobin

Gabrielle Trépanier-Jobin is a Professor in Game Studies at the School of Media of Université du Québec à Montréal and the co-director of Homo Ludens research group on gaming practices and online communication. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT Comparative Media Studies | Writting. She is currently conducting research on player immersion as well as on diversity and inclusion in the gaming industry.

The Survival of Huizinga’s “Magic Circle”

FROG 2021 – Talk

Many game scholars rejected the idea of a spatiotemporal division between games and daily life suggested by Huizinga’s (1938) “magic circle” metaphor. It has been argued, for instance, that this separation ignores how everyday rules, norms and values apply in game environments and compete with rules that are specific to a game, a player community or a gaming context; that relationships between players can be as genuine as face-to-face relationships; that the avatar and the player identities are intertwined, etc. (Lehdonvirta, 2010; Consalvo, 2010). For all these reasons, several game scholars suggested replacing the expression “magic circle” with more accurate metaphors. Lehdonvirta (2010) proposes Strauss’ concept of “social world.” Consalvo (2010), for her part, suggests Turner’s concept of “liminal space” and Goffman’s concepts of “frames” and “modes.” Apter (in Salen and Zimmerman, 2003) talks about a “protective [psychological] frame” and Juul (2008) proposes the puzzle metaphor. Despite all these criticisms and suggestions, the concept of “magic circle” has survived and remained widely discussed in game studies. It has kept inspiring game scolars such as Arsenault and Perron (2009) with their concept of “magic cycle.” In our talk, we will try to understand why an expression that was used only once by Huizinga in his seminal book Homo Ludens has left such a mark on people’s minds. To do so, we will turn to the French philosopher Henriot (1989) who perceives play as a subjective experience that involves a playful attitude characterized by three moments. The first moment implies a “magical transmutation” of the objects which take a new significance. The second moment involves “lucidity” as the player knows that it is a game and not a hallucination. The third moment entails an “illusion”; the player allows herself to be enchanted without losing contact with reality (Perron, 2013). This conception of the player’s attitude as similar to the attitude one adopts in front of a magician might help us to understand why the “magic circle” metaphor sticks around despite the outdated idea it initially conveyed.

Frank Pourvoyeur

Frank Pourvoyeur is an independent game developer and artist. His research interest is in games that are beneficial for the individual consciousness of players and the positive aspects of cooperative experiences. His research aims to make gaming more enjoyable while also allowing for deeper revelations about one’s personal awareness. He graduated from the Danube University in Krems in 2020 with a degree in game studies.

Intention based random number generator in games

FROG 2021 – Talk

Traditionally, magic is used to change the probability of events occurring. Practicing magicians try to make favorable events happen more likely, while avoiding undesirable events from occurring. Chance also plays an important role in designing events in games. Not only to select the occurrence of an event, but also to choose rewards. Random rewards have been shown to be meaningful and to trigger different emotions in players than when a reward is predictably earned. The likelihood of occurring is sometimes further modified by buffs or nerfs. This work will investigate different possibilities of random number generator implementations to check which adaptations to a strict random number generator provide the best game experience. The concept of a random number generator should not be abandoned, but it is suggested to be adapted to the intentions of players in order to provide better random results in the context of a game experience. Therefore the paper deals with the concept of an intention based random number generator, where the game attentively observes the actions of players to derive intentions that in turn favor the occurrence of desired events. In the following, possibilities are discussed how rituals can be used to work towards the occurrence of a desired random event in order to simultaneously preserve the principle of a stroke of luck but also to prevent unwanted grind in the process.

Damiano Gerli

Gaming historian and freelance journalist Damiano Gerli was born with a faithful Commodore 64 by his side, where his love for obscure titles first developed. He has been writing a history about the Italian gaming industry, researching forgotten software houses to document their stories, before it’s too late. Damiano has been writing about video games for 25+ years, with no plans to stop in the future.

Xyzzy – the magic word that changed everything

FROG 2021 – Talk

Xyzzy was the first magic “spell” ever used in gaming, first appearing in 1976′ Colossal Cave Adventure (the first adventure game in history) as the “magic word”. The word would then later appear countless times, from other games to even applications like Gmail. Its role, in time, has changed, slowly evolving into something that works in a similar level to the number “42” in humorous sci-fi novels. A passkey of sorts, to be used to evoke a reaction from an Interactive fiction title, or even a simple easter egg. Later, considering how Colossal Cave Adventure shaped the adventure genre, magic would always remain an essential part of a genre which would refuse – time and time again – to be chained against the walls of reality. Even the very first graphical adventure game, Mystery House in 1980, would award the player the title of “guru wizard”, despite it being a murdery mystery. The talk would also focuse among other titles, on how magic – and especially magic users – were described and used in early adventure classics like Sierra’s famous King’s Quest or Quest for Glory series. Xyzzy and its slightly magical flavour would prove to be an essential ingredient for the genre, inspiring countless of other adventure games, even far removed characters like Simon the Sorcerer or the Voodoo Priestess in the Monkey Island series.

Aviv Heilweil

I am a design and technology generalist — a multidisciplinary, creative technologist, product designer, strategist, experience & interaction designer, mixed reality developer and overall digital age enthusiast, Currently I am designing virtual worlds and virtual experiences.

Killem all. A unique VR experience

FROG 2021 – Talk

Dina Levy
Erez Mor

…from early days video games are obsessed with death. In many games we kill and in many games, we die. Why does death take such a major role in games, and is it actually death? In his Magic Circle Huizinga introduced games as suspension of reality. As such games are suitable candidates for people to experiment with the boundaries of morality, mortality, and death. In games, you are allowed to go beyond, play with fire, touch the sublime, hurt, destroy and kill anything you want, But this idea also has a small catch. Since the game sphere is a safe haven, with no real consequences or implications, dealing with death and killing loses its essence – for “it is only a game”. Game designers put a lot of effort into their games to create believable convincing life-like death-like experiences, (some are portrayed in this essay), but the suspension of disbelief always ends up heating the “Game Over, Please start again”, anticlimax. So as gamers we strive to play with death and games do offer the promise, but on the same hand also deny us the “true” essential experience. But what happens when the blood-gushing festive yet impotent magic circle is introduced with the “ultimate empathy machine” – the VR? Will the always failing in-game death experiences manage to somehow manifest differently as an embodied virtual experience? Will killing be different when it is your (virtual) hands doing the killing? Will dying feel different when it is your head that is decapitated? This essay will try to examine these questions through a unique VR experience – where you get to Killem all.