VR, Games, & Storytelling Panel – ‘Platform Cultures’

The Lab’s VR, Games & Storytelling project is interested in the intersection between games, immersive theatre and VR storytelling, and the principles and frameworks for developing narrative material for immersive experiences. The project team brings together academic expertise in gaming (Richard Cole) and immersive theatre (Harry Wilson) with creative practitioners working in XR (Ruth Mariner and Eirini Lampiri). The project emerged following discussions at the Metaverse workshop, hosted by the Centre for Creative Technologies at the PM Studio, and was generously funded by the Centre’s seed corn initiative.

On Tuesday 25 July, the project team were delighted to collaborate with Jacqueline Ristola on her ‘Platform Cultures’ event and offer the keynote address. The keynote brought together two specialists, both XR Storytellers from different backgrounds:

  • Jo Mangan, a director coming to XR through a background in immersive theatre
  • Rob Morgan, who comes to XR from a background in video games.

Jo and Rob were asked to consider the following prompts:

  • How do the rules of environmental storytelling change when we move from a gaming or immersive theatre environment to a headset?
  • How do you use interactivity to increase immersion within a story? And, how might approaches to interactivity be different between a VR game, and VR theatre piece?

Our intention was to compare and contrast the different approaches to XR storytelling, and how each form influenced the approach to interweaving story and interactivity. Our ‘North Star’ was to work towards a set of ‘rules’ or principles for telling stories using XR. And although we didn’t reach a full framework, there was agreement around specific themes and issues.

Both speakers touched on the importance of narrative integration in different contexts. Rob spoke about how failure to integrate an audience member’s self-conscious feelings when participating in an immersive experience can be a barrier to immersion. Although a common perspective within the immersive sector is that self-consciousness itself is a barrier to immersion, Rob argued that the player is always aware, and that by emphasising the notion that self-consciousness is permitted, and weaving this into the narrative fabric, audiences can accept the ‘gap’ between how they feel and the role of the character within an immersive experience.

Jo spoke about the need for narrative integration to signpost the audience around the space, and how it is important to let the environment guide the audience in a way that is integrated into the narrative, rather than asking the player to move directly. Referring to  immersive theatre, she touched on the example of bad spatial design, where audiences do not know how to inhabit the space, but are moved from one spot to another by stewards. In the virtual space, audiences should be given enough information from the environmental storytelling to know how to interact with the space.

Both speakers also touched on the subject of how to create meaningful choice, as well as feedback systems that immerse the audience by enabling them to feel they can impact the environment. This operates on multiple levels of the experience, from the ‘core’ of the piece and the narrative dramatic structure, to individual audience choices on how to view and experience the work at any given moment.

It was agreed that by making choices within a narrative framework, audience members need to feel that the consequence of their decision has an impact on the narrative. For example, if audience members are presented with a decision that feels serious, they will expect for there to be consequences which impact significantly on the direction of the narrative. If the consequence of their decision is minimised, or doesn’t impact the plot fully, they can feel let down.

On the ‘surface’ layer of the experience, where the audience choose how they experience the work, there is still a lot of agency that can be afforded. In Jo’s production for Irish National Opera, audience members could follow different sonic layers by changing the way that they tilted their head, leading them to explore and experiment with the way that they experienced the work, on a sensory level.

Finally, immersive experiences are closely linked to the 3D avatars of the audiences and/or players. Circling back to the initial theme of the audience’s feeling of self-consciousness, Rob spoke about the construction of the audience’s character in AR experiences, describing it as ‘a light, pliable character, like a silhouette’ instead of a fully fleshed out role. He went on: ‘often, being a protagonist in AR  is more like an extra dimension that you augment on to the player’s own identity.’ This gives more freedom to the player, enabling them to enact in ways that are perhaps more dangerous or risky than they would opt for in everyday life.

Our sincere thanks to Jo and Rob, as well as to Jacqueline for the simulating discussions that followed the keynote and carried on throughout the ‘Platform Cultures’ event.

Catch the full recording of the keynote address.

Race and Reception in MECC’s ‘Freedom’!

This is part of a series of research/industry snapshots, capturing the work of those affiliated with the Bristol Digital Game Lab. For the first post in the series, we are delighted to showcase the work of Claudia Jones, Bristol Digital Game Lab intern.

When history meets game experiences, players are virtually transported to an event in time, a setting once long forgotten but remembered, and characters that enliven the story. If historical games grant access to the past and engage with our history, whose history are we accessing? Who is allowed to grant this access? How can games act as a digital archive of our collective memories?

My dissertation for the Master of Arts in Black Humanities explores these questions, and many more during the course of my continued research this summer. I am currently conducting autoethnographic analyses of three historical games that focus on the Black American experience within historical contexts, while using secondary sources to critically evaluate them. One of the titles is Freedom!, a 1992 educational game that centered around characters escaping slavery in the United States. It was published through the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, famous for its work on The Oregon Trail. After the title was tested at selected schools in the United States, but was subsequently pulled from release after receiving complaints.

I found it incredibly important for this to be the starting case study due to its sensitive content in an educational setting. Through an emulation found on the Internet archive, I was able to download Freedom! and play through its entirety three times. Each time, my character attempted an escape but was recaptured and sent to the deep south, where further chances of escape were slim.

As I played, I returned to the question of “whose history are we accessing?” and it slowly morphed into “is this the type of history that games should access?” While on the surface, it seems obvious as to why Freedom! would not be released for the general public. However, as I played with these characters, there is a multitude of symbols that inform my experience within Freedom’s game world. The use of vernacular. The feeling of hopelessness and confusion as you navigate. The anxiety in encountering violence. These characteristics are common in a multitude of games, but coupled with events such as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, ethical implications come in play.

Rather than the question whether these games should exist, which is valid, there should be an expansion of and why representation is vital in game worlds and how to ethically portray people of colour in these spaces. After over 30 years since Freedom’s creation, the work continues to be done to examine these questions, and I am thankful to be a part of it.

Claudia Jones is the Bristol Digital Game Lab intern studying in the Master of Arts in Black Humanities. She is a former librarian from the United States of America. Her research interests include Black historical narratives in video games, Black digital bodies, and games as archives.

Funding Awarded for the VR, Games & Storytelling Project

We are delighted to announce that the Bristol Digital Game Lab has been awarded funding by the University of Bristol’s Centre for Creative Technologies to run a project on VR, Games & Storytelling.

The VR, Games & Storytelling project is interested in the intersection between games, immersive theatre and VR storytelling, in particular where interactivity can enhance or obstruct storytelling, what the different forms could learn from each other, and how we might define the ‘rules’ of storytelling within these mediums. This project has emerged following productive discussions at the Alternative Technologies workshop on the Metaverse, hosted by the Centre for Creative Technologies, as well as the recent Immersive Showcase in Bristol, organised by Empress VR.

To achieve this, Richard Cole and Harry Wilson will work with Ruth Mariner and Eirini Lampiri at the PM Studio to organize knowledge-exchange events with experts working at the intersection between games, immersive theatre and VR storytelling. They will also take part in a workshop to explore further projects and training activities on the theme of VR, Games & Storytelling.

As part of this project, we’re delighted to be partnering with the Platform Cultures event at the PM Studio on Wednesday 26 July 2023. The project will be contributing the keynote for the day in the form of an ‘in conversation’ event with experts working at the intersection between games, immersive theatre and VR storytelling. Come and hear Jo Mangan, Director at The Performance Corporation and Robert Morgan, Creative Director at Playlines and Visiting Fellow at King’s College London, speak about their projects and engage in discussion on the nature of VR, Games and Storytelling. If you would like to attend, you can sign up by expressing an interest in the Platform Cultures event.

Studying Player Experiences of Historical Video Games

The academic study of the representation of history in video games is currently thriving: more and more researchers are investigating what this popular medium has to offer in terms of thinking about the role of history today, and the amount of books, articles, conferences, and workshops organized around the topic has likewise grown exponentially. Still, one area that has not really received sustained attention is the question of how players actually play historical games, referring to both the impact such games may have on players, and specific (un)conscious decisions they make during gameplay.

To investigate this in more depth, Richard Cole, co-Director of the Bristol Digital Game Lab teamed up with Alexander Vandewalle from the University of Antwerp and Ghent University (Belgium). Together, they coordinated an experiment where Classics students were asked to play the game Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for eight weeks and subsequently report and reflect on their experiences. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft, 2018) is a critically and commercially successful historical video game in which players adopt the persona of a mercenary during the first nine years of the Peloponnesian War (431-422 BCE) between Athens and Sparta. In the game, players travel to well-known ancient sites, ranging from the Parthenon in Athens, the oracle at Delphi, to the Minoan palace at Knossos, as well as to more obscure locations such as the Acrocorinth and the Delian Lion Terrace. Players also participate in historical events, including the staging of Aristophanes’ Knights (424) and the Battle of Amphipolis (422). The game was lauded for the lavish detail with which it reconstructed ancient Greece.

Specifically, the experiment inquired into how Classics students played their game characters, why they made the decisions that they made, and to what extent they were motivated to play in a certain way because of historical considerations. In total, the experiment was conducted with ten students, six of whom attended Ghent University, and four who studied at the University of Bristol. The Bristol Digital Game Lab provided infrastructure for this experiment, offering valuable support ranging from the recruitment of student participants, to platforming further discussion during the analysis itself. The investigators behind the experiment would like to extend their sincere thanks to the Lab!

On May 26, Richard and Alex presented their work at the third Interactive Pasts conference (TIPC3) hosted by the VALUE Foundation in Leiden, a leading Dutch research group that has been conducting research into historical games since 2017. Their presentation, entitled ‘As You Write Your Odyssey…’: An Empirical Study of Classics Students’ Play Interests and Ergodic Characterization in Historical Video Games, discussed the experiment’s main findings and elicited further conversation on the meaning of immersion in such games, the methods used to study player experiences, as well as future avenues for game designers to enhance players’ engagement with games. You can watch the recording of the presentation on YouTube. Richard and Alex plan to write up the experiment analysis and publish the results, thus opening up the debate about the nature of players’ experiences of historical games.

Our thanks to Alexander Vandewalle for writing this blog post.

Virtual Realities as Time Travel Workshop

On Friday 12 May, the Virtual Reality Oracle project hosted an international, multidisciplinary workshop on Virtual Realities as Time Travel at the University of Bristol and online.

Virtual Realities as Time Travel brought together speakers from the project team and from across academic disciplines and industry to explore how users and producers of VR experiences and historical video games conceive of journeying to the past.

Virtual Reality Oracle Project, Esther Eidinow, Kirsten Cater, et al, with Friday Sunday Studios, funded by AHRC, University of Bristol.

This event was organised by Richard Cole, in collaboration with Chris Bevan, Elisa Brann, Crescent Jicol and Emilia Tor. The workshop was sponsored by the Bristol Digital Game Lab and the Centre for Creative Technologies.

The event attracted over 100 signups, with around 40 people attending the event in person at Bristol’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and 54 on Zoom.

Esther Eidinow (Bristol) kicked off the day with an overview of the Virtual Reality Oracle project. Esther discussed how virtual reality has helped to imagine a visit to the oracle of Zeus at Dodona, c. 465 BCE. Richard Cole (Bristol) followed with an exploration of how game and VR developers often frame the experience of their worlds as a form of time travel, as well as how feedback on these experiences frequently draws on the same terminology.

The remainder of the day was divided into the following panels: Playing with Time, Facilitating Time Travel, Connecting Past and Present, and Producing Historical Experiences.

In the first panel, Alexander Vandewalle (Antwerp/Ghent) suggested that rather than thinking of time travel, a more useful way to understand what historical games offer is to think about them as a form of time tourism. Bettina Bodi (Leeds Becket) refocused attention on the player as an active agent in playing with the temporal structures of game worlds, and looked at how cosy games complicate the idea of temporality in games when compared to fast-paced play.

Robert Houghton (Winchester) took the audience on a tour back to late antiquity with a paper on Total War: Attila. By deploying innovative strategy game mechanics, Robert argued that Total War: Attila attempts to create an experience of a truly Dark Age. From console to phone, Kate Cook (St Andrews) went on to explore how certain design features, such as microtransactions, alter the player’s relationship with time in mobile games.

After lunch, Jack Lowe (UWE) charted how location-based games engage with place. Jack suggested that the relationship with the past in such games is more a form of wayfinding than time travel.

Following Jack’s talk, workshop attendees were treated to two industry presentations. The first, from Leyla Johnson (Mokawk Games), demonstrated how developers can turn a historical era, leader, or event into a game system. Using Mokawk’s Old World as an example, Leyla emphasised how this approach could be used to incorporate a diverse range of historical material. The second industry speaker, Stéphanie-Anne Ruatta (Ubisoft), delivered a richly illustrated presentation on the experience of using historical source material to create the world of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Stéphanie-Anne showed how historical research served as a foundation for many of the facets of the game experience, thus creating ‘time travelling’ opportunities for the player.

Dooley Murphy (Copenhagen) rounded off the workshop with a paper on his project Hans Christian and I, which uses VR, not to recreate Hans Christian Andersen’s life, but to explore facets of his character.

The Virtual Reality Oracle project team would like to extend their thanks to all the speakers, Chairs, and to Claudia Jones at the Bristol Digital Game Lab for her excellent work overseeing the hybrid format of the workshop, which was praised by participants for opening up access to the event.

Plans are underway for a publication inspired by the workshop. Watch this space!

The Bristol Digital Game Lab at the Arts and Social Sciences and Law Showcase

The Bristol Digital Game Lab was invited to create a poster for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Law Research Centre and Group Showcase on Thursday 4 May 2023. This was a fantastic opportunity for us to reflect on our original aims for the Lab, what we have achieved in 2022-23, and our ambitions for the future. We focused on our five core areas of work: Research, Funding, Networking, Partnerships and last, but by no means least, Play! The poster helped us to share our work and meet new collaborators at both the Showcase and the Faculty of Arts Research Celebration on the 9 May 2023. We have included the full poster text below.

Richard and Xiaochun at the Showcase. Poster design by Melissa Cole.


Over the past seven months we have organised three research seminars in collaboration with University and civic partners, hosted local and national industry speakers, run an eight-week experiment with Classics students looking at how they play Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft, 2018), supported ECRs across the University through a research student work-in-progress event,  established a network of UK Game Labs, and sponsored a workshop on Virtual Realities as Time Travel, organised by the multidisciplinary Virtual Reality Oracle project. 


We’ve secured £10,000 of research funding to support our activities, and are actively exploring further avenues of funding, including from industry. Our thanks to our current sponsors: the Faculty of Arts and International Strategic Fund, University of Bristol; the British Academy. 


Following the first annual UK Digital Game Lab Summit in February 2023, where we invited the leads of eight UK-based game labs to Bristol, we have pioneered the creation of a ‘meta’ network of game labs in the UK. With support from the International Strategic Fund, we are building links with EU game labs in Cologne and Tampere. We have also fostered links with local and national industry partners. Our mailing list currently numbers over 100 researchers and practitioners. 


From the start, we were keen to work with partners in the creative industries, including the non-for-profit Bristol Games Hub. Thanks to these partnerships, we have been invited to share our research at industry-led showcases, such as the Made in Bristol Showcase in October 2022 and the Immersive Showcase in April 2023. We have also supported local industry partners in applying for key funding opportunities, and invited industry experts to share their insights with us at public lectures, including Dr Tomas Rawlings, Studio Director of Auroch Digital (Bristol) and Luke Holmes, Senior Game Designer from Creative Assembly, the multi-award-winning BAFTA UK games studio. 


As Huizinga argued, play is essential to the human condition. We have had fun running events such as our Festive Gaming session, where local industry partners shared early releases with us to playtest. We also enjoyed co-judging the Computer Science Society’s ‘It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!’ game jam, where we identified the winning entry, Magnum Opus.  


We’re excited to be arranging future events with colleagues at the PM Studio in the Watershed. We’re also planning to run a game jam, organise several conferences, collaborate with the Centre for Creative Technologies, MyWorld and BDFI, develop our industry partnerships, as well as plans for courses and skills training in gaming. We would also love to hear from you. Let us know what you are working on and what you would like the Game Lab to do. Come play with us!

Richard with the Game Lab poster at the Faculty Research Celebration on 9 May 2023.

The Quest for Authenticity in Historical Games – Creative Assembly Talk

On Wednesday 26 April, we had the pleasure of hosting Luke Holmes, Senior Game Designer from Creative Assembly, the multi-award winning BAFTA UK games studio. Luke came to the Lab to talk about ‘The Quest for Authenticity in Historical Games‘.

Prior to joining the games industry, Luke spent almost 10 years working in the museum and heritage sector. Playing with history has been his lifelong passion, incorporating games into museum exhibitions, and now designing the battles for historical Total War games at Creative Assembly. Luke also has a unique connection with the University of Bristol, having studied for an MA in History with a dissertation on ‘Video Games as Public History’, which was later adapted and published, as well as the City of Bristol, having worked at the SS Great Britain.

Drawing on this rich and varied background, Luke introduced the unique offering of the Total War series. He demonstrated how the series allows for a layered historical perspective, which operates at the level of cartography all the way down to individualized soldiers in battle, and described how this enables the player to connect with their actions at different stages within the game. Luke then went on to outline two key academic frameworks for analyzing history in games. Significantly, he suggested that such frameworks could be used to consciously develop historical games.

Luke began with Salvati and Bullinger’s concept of ‘selective authenticity’, which examines how aspects of historical representation are determined by genre and audience expectation. Using examples from Total War and other historical games, such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft, 2018), Luke explored how selective authenticity enables the designer to construct a ‘hall of fame’ of historical references in order to engage the player. However, this can lead to problematic representations, and so Luke introduced Jeremiah McCall’s Historical Problem Space Framework. This tool, Luke argued, could be used to think through the elements that might go into a historical game and whether they reflect the choices that historical agents might have made. He concluded that the HPS framework is a helpful check when it comes to designing historical games, while also useful in terms of opening up new mechanics.

Luke’s stimulating talk generated a fantastic Q&A, covering topics ranging from game design to the role of history in games. Our sincere thanks to Luke and Creative Assembly for helping us to arrange this industry lecture. If you would like to read more on the topic, check out the interview between Luke and Jeremiah McCall on Gaming the Past.

Games/Gaming in Chinese TV: Research Seminar

In collaboration with the Department of Film and Television at the University of Bristol, we were delighted to co-host a research seminar on Friday 24 March by Dr Charlotte Stevens, Lecturer in Media and Communications, Birmingham City University.

Charlotte took us through the early stages of a fascinating research project focusing on the Remediation of Games and Gaming in Chinese Television Dramas. The presentation was rich in clips from games and TV alike, which helped to frame the key research questions and thematic areas that Charlotte is exploring on this project. These included:

  1. The translation of game elements into TV narrative, and the types of storytelling this enables
  2. The transmigration of players into game worlds, and what happens at this intersection
  3. Players themselves as key characters in TV dramas, offering access to game worlds, while also acting to translate success in gaming into success in other social areas.

In the process of critically examining a range of examples, Charlotte posed the question as to whether ‘remediation’ is the most effective term to describe the breadth of activity here. Her talk gave way to a stimulating Q&A with colleagues from across the Faculty of Arts, which was continued over dinner.

Our thanks to Dr Stevens for her wonderful talk, and the Department of Film and Television for organizing! Watch this space for future collaborations at the intersection of gaming and TV.

Poster for The King’s Avatar (2019)

For those unable to attend, you can gain a sense of the talk from Charlotte’s summary:

This talk is an overview of a developing project that considers two broad forms of remediation of video games in Chinese television dramas. First, in fantasy dramas which adapt RPGs and MMOs (i.e., Chinese PaladinXuan-Yuan Sword), I am interested in where and how elements of game mechanics translate into narrative. Second, romcoms and adventure dramas which centre on MMO players (Gank Your HeartLove O2OKing’s AvatarThe Player), or otherwise feature gaming (Original SinThree-Body), present success in MMOs/esports as a proxy for success as a citizen and romantic partner. These are set against a rapidly-shifting cultural policy context that frames online gaming as an adult activity, with children’s access limited to a few hours per week, and an industrial context where large corporations such as Tencent produce both games and television dramas about gaming.

Connecting through Game Research Interests at the First Annual UK Digital Game Lab Summit

On 24 February, the Bristol Digital Game Lab hosted the first annual UK Digital Game Lab Summit at Clifton Hill House. The aim of the event was to examine shared research themes, explore ways to engage with industry, and discuss the creation of a network of gaming research groups. Thanks to generous funding from the British Academy and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol, we were delighted to welcome the leads of eight UK-based game labs/groups, including:

The summit was conducted in five sections and began with an icebreaker in a series of small groups, starting with the first game that we ever played. This discussion branched into further conversations surrounding games studies as a discipline, and the utility of games both in academia and the gaming industry.

As the summit progressed, discussions focused on how to run a game lab/research group, before covering the research themes emerging from the work of each group present. Such themes included the interplay of history and gaming, analog vs. digital games, experimental and applied gaming, multidisciplinary approaches to gaming, social action, sustainability, and education in/of games.

After lunch, we heard from Iain Dodgeon of OKRE and Ben Byford of Nuclear Candy Limited/the Bristol Game Hub. OKRE is an organization that focuses on supporting entertainment content that challenges perceptions. OKRE has helped develop and fund BAFTA-winning video games, Oscar-nominated films, and supported Emmy award-winning screenwriters. The Bristol Games Hub is a non-profit organization that provides working spaces in Bristol and the West Country to bring together game developers, academics and other industry workers to create games. Both presentations highlighted the importance of organizations outside of academia to support and fund projects for further development.

The Summit concluded with a discussion about funding opportunities, and how to leverage our shared expertise to tackle policy changes in order to support gaming as a discipline. Attendees provided valuable feedback on setting up a network of gaming networks, including the remit that such a network might have.

The Summit was followed by a public lecture by Dr. Tomas Rawlings, Studio Director of Auroch Digital, on ‘Authenticity in Game Development’ in the Wills Memorial Building. His discussion stemmed from Auroch’s work on Mars Horizon and the experience of working with real space agencies when making a game about running a fictional space agency.

Thank you to all of the researchers and staff who contributed to the first Summit, to our funders, and especially to Claudia Jones, our intern, for writing up this report!

We look forward to seeing you at the Manchester Game Centre in 2024 for the next Summit!

Research Student Work-in-progress Afternoon

To kick off the year, on 30 January 2023 we heard from four current research students working on games/games culture. Dody Chen (Bristol) went first, delivering a video presentation about her PhD research. In her talk, ‘Streamers’ Localisation of Video Games in Live Game Streaming’, Dody navigated her role as both streamer and researcher, and explained how her case study approach, along with practice-led research, will help to better understand how streamers localise video games from English to Chinese in real time, as well as the impact that this type of localisation might have on streaming audiences.

Claudia Jones (Bristol) spoke next about her Masters research, ‘Playing through Pain: The Ethics of Black Historical Narratives in Gaming.’ Claudia set the scene by noting that only 2% of employees in the both the US and UK games industry identify as Black. Considering the size and impact of the industry, Claudia is interested in the question of who is allowed to compete to create historical consciousness in virtual worlds. Her research looks at the ethics of Black historical games broadly speaking, with a particular focus on how Black historical games can serve as an archive of collective memories.

After a coffee/networking break, Jemma Stafford (Leeds) showed how her research has developed since she completed her Masters degree at the University of Bristol. Her PhD, which focuses on the English localisation of Chinese games, was outlined in her talk: ‘Crouching Button, Hidden Typo: The Reception of Chinese Videogames Translated into English.’ Jemma showed how a multimodal, paratextual, UX and reception-based methodology will help her to examine a series of research questions focused on the ways in which English localisations of Chinese games are often negatively perceived, and how this might help to inform future design decisions.

Finally, Edward Knight (Bristol) spoke about ‘Nurturing Inclusivity in the Video Game Industry: A Ludonarrative examination of Blackness in contemporary video games.’ Edward is pursuing his PhD at the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures. The Centre’s unique approach, which considers how the social and digital are interwoven and the possible futures that await us, underpins Edward’s aim to understand both the current state of the video game industry, and its possible futures. In doing so, Edward’s research aims to challenge, call out and disrupt the same exclusionary trends that Claudia drew attention to, and which limit Black people and their presentation of them. His research focuses on games, the gaming industry, and game culture, and takes a mixed methodological approach, including both conventional and creative methods of investigation.

A big thank you to our presenters – we wish you all the best with your studies. Thanks also to the Centre for Black Humanities for live-tweeting Claudia’s talk.