Leveraging Asymmetry and Interdependence to Enhance Social Connectedness in Cooperative Digital Games
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Play is a fundamental component of human development and is an important means of forming healthy relationships throughout life. Research has shown that the types of digital games people play, how they play them, and who they play them with can have significant impacts on players' social and psychological well-being. Playing games with preexisting social relations, such as family and friends, has been shown to help strengthen relationships, but it can be difficult to find games that provide both enriching social interactions and are able to accommodate the wide variety of player types, ability levels, genre preferences, and social roles that each player brings to the group dynamic. Asymmetric cooperative games---games that present their players with sharply contrasting aesthetic experiences in the same shared play space---are a unique but relatively understudied style of game that is well-positioned to tackle this multi-faceted problem by providing different players with different interfaces, challenges, abilities, and information while tightly coupling their interactions through shared goals and feedback. My research focuses on better understanding the design of asymmetric cooperative games and how they can leverage interdependence to enhance players' perceptions of social connectedness. Based on a review of existing asymmetric cooperative games and related literature, I developed an initial conceptual framework that identified several mechanical forms of asymmetry common to these games. I adopted a ``research through design'' approach to then apply several forms of mechanical asymmetry to the iterative design of two prototype asymmetric cooperative games, “Goombagrams” and “Beam Me ‘Round, Scotty!” (BMRS). I then conducted a series of focused player experience studies examining and refining different aspects of the conceptual framework using the most promising of those prototypes, BMRS. The first study established several characteristic dynamics of asymmetric cooperative play including considerations of directional dependence, synchronicity, necessity, leadership and primacy. These insights were used to evolve the BMRS prototype and mount a second study demonstrating that, even when controlling for visual and narrative aesthetic details, asymmetric cooperative play is perceived as more socially engaging than symmetric cooperative play. My third and final study closed the theoretical loop between the mechanical design elements identified in my framework and the socially enriching effects of interdependence by demonstrating how deliberately increasing the mechanical coupling between players could generate corresponding increases in perceptions of social connectedness. Collectively, my research contributions can help both game developers and researchers to design more effective asymmetric cooperative experiences through a better understanding of this uniquely social style of game.
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John Joseph Harris (2019). Leveraging Asymmetry and Interdependence to Enhance Social Connectedness in Cooperative Digital Games. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/14710