The PO-VE Framework : Understanding the Relationships Between Player Objects and Virtual Environments in Digital Games
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Based on a qualitative analysis of 99 different digital games, this study develops a framework for understanding the functionality and relationships between player objects and virtual environments, explored in what has been named the PO-VE framework. The PO-VE framework encompasses a general theory, a dedicated terminology, and an analysis model. A virtual environment is a navigable geometry and a computational, relational model that represents the relative positions and functions of objects within it. Based on a relational and functional approach, objects are conceived of as integrated in the virtual environment by being spatially and functionally related to other objects within it, thus emphasising the virtual environment’s relational system-structure. Within the virtual environment, player objects constitute the player’s point of control. As integrated and movable objects, they consist of attributes (properties such as health, speed, and size) and affordances (possible actions such as running, shooting, and jumping). In most cases, player objects are dynamic (i.e., their attributes and affordances are altered over time); they can not only move along a single axis, but also be used for navigating the virtual environment along multiple axes; and they have some sort of visual presentation, which varies according to the specific visual framing of the player object and the virtual environment. The PO-VE framework results from an analysis and iterative coding process of 99 digital games. The games were chosen using a purposive sampling method guided by a pre-conceptualisation of what constitutes an avatar-based game (the initial focus of the study), popular game examples from game studies literature, and certain diversity labels: year of publication, platform, and country of origin. The PO-VE framework thus results from observational data iteratively translated into codes from games published between 1978 and 2018, across 32 different platforms, developed in 17 different countries. The iterative data collection and coding process, which resembled to some extent that of grounded theory, was finally conceptualised into the PO-VE framework, consisting of a general theory of virtual environments as relational systems, a terminology of player objects in virtual environments, and an analysis model that consists of seven categories related to different aspects of PO-VE relations. To illustrate the applicability of the PO-VE model, two levels of application were employed. The first was a broad analysis of the 78 of the 99 games in the sample that meet the player object definition, which reveals general trends and patterns according to types, genres, and production year of games. The second were close readings of ten chosen games from the sample: Space Attack, Altered Beast, Passage, Hotline Miami, Subway Surfers, ZombiU, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, Papers, Please, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Reigns: Her Majesty, that each illustrate the depth of the PO-VE framework, while also clarifying some of the limitations of the framework, including how and why some games, such as Papers, Please and Reigns: Her Majesty, cannot be analysed using the PO-VE framework. The relational foundation of the PO-VE model offers a unique and descriptive approach to analytical game studies that utilises a functional understanding of the digital object. This enables a focus on the environment as a relational system and on integration within it, rather than, for example, on rules, goals, or player experiences. Utilising an OOA/D inspired terminology in the analytical framework is a step towards bridging the gap between humanities-based, theoretical game studies, more technical game studies, and game development. This study is thus a contribution to the most fundamental level of any research endeavour: attempting to map out (parts of) the research object and develop a language that facilitates closer inspection and ultimately a better understanding of digital games and virtual environments.