Hackrobatics! A Study of Artificial Constraints as Play in Game Development

  • Application end date: 11th February 2018
  • Funding Availability: Funded PhD project (EU/UK students only)
  • Department: School of Creative Technologies
  • PhD Supervisor: Dr Neil Dansey, Dr Peter Howell, Dr Mark Eyles

Project code: CCTS4370218

Project description

A common focus of game developers is to create enjoyable, satisfying play experiences, often in return for some tangible profit. Developers need to work within the technical constraints of target platforms but normally take full advantage of the technical capabilities of these platforms (e.g. high resolution graphics and gigabytes of memory). They tend to take advantage of tools and working practices that make game development as efficient and painless as possible. Wherever they can, they avoid obstacles (for example out of date hardware, poor working conditions, or bad practice) that might hinder the achievement of their objectives, because the end product – and the player experience – is paramount.

However, there exists a particular cadre of developers who, in addition to the technical limitations of the particular technologies they use, voluntarily impose additional (often extreme) obstacles in terms of time, space and/or functionality, in order to challenge their creativity under pressure. Notable examples include One-Hour Game Jams, one-page microgames such as Paper 'Mech, and extreme sizecoding projects such as Tiny Twitch. Such endeavours appear to be intrinsically rewarding: the enjoyment seems to come from the triumph over adversity, rather than solely the quality of the end product. This has parallels with Bernard Suits’ discussion of play as the deliberate pursuit of less-efficient means to some objective, where the restrictions are accepted just because they make the activity possible; therefore this type of game development might be seen as “game development as play”.

This project aims to broaden our understanding of what “play” can mean in terms of digital games, by exploring the many forms of playful game development, and the wide-ranging motives of the developers who take part. The imposition of unnecessary obstacles is not a new phenomenon in other arts - for example, Six Word Stories and National Novel Writing Month apply a similar ethos to creative writing. Indeed, our recent research began by looking at how a group of writers who called themselves the Oulipo formalised this process via "consciously preelaborated and voluntarily imposed systems of artifice", in order to produce works of significant hidden depth and complexity, often presented as a playful exchange between author and reader. The Oulipo were seen as the "literary madmen" and self-styled "acrobats" of the creative writing world, and using equivalences from other media we will endeavour to show how this can also be observed in game development.

While there are some examples in academia (including in our own research) where specific instancesof playful gamedevelopment have already been explored, to our knowledge no dedicated work has been done towards a deeper understanding of the broad range, and diverse nature, of these activities as whole, and therefore this particular playfulness as a whole, in the specific context of games development. One outcome of the project would be to carry out this work while also contextualising examples in terms of broader artistic trends. It is also expected that several game prototypes will be generated as part of an ethnographic study; The University of Portsmouth’s own annual Game Jam (gamejam.port.ac.uk) would be a valuable case study for this, as it is has been clearly shown to be popular and enjoyable but has not yet been investigated in any formal academic depth.

This research will use a qualitative methodology to understand the experiences of developers and the appeal of such an apparently masochistic pastime. The first step of the project is to examine how different factors of game development might be artificially limited, based on an extensive review of existing examples of playful game development, using parallels in other arts in order to discover avenues for potential focus. The student will then engage in an ethnographic study where they will develop several game prototypes under conditions that typify the “playful prototyping” ethos. The research data from this study will be combined with qualitative data from other developers in the field, aimed at producing a taxonomy of processes and developer motives. There is an intention to disseminate the project near the end through a symposium and, if appropriate, with an accompanying exhibition.

Supervisor profiles

Dr Neil Dansey

Dr Peter Howell

Dr Mark Eyles 

Admissions criteria

You’ll need a good first degree from an internationally recognised university (depending upon chosen course, minimum second class or equivalent) or a Master’s degree in an appropriate subject. Exceptionally, equivalent professional experience and/or qualifications will be considered. English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0.  


Informal enquiries are encouraged and can be made to Dr Neil Dansey at neil.dansey@port.ac.uk (02392 843024) or Dr Peter Howell at peter.howell@port.ac.uk (02392 845925).

For administrative and admissions enquiries please contact cci-enquiries@port.ac.uk.

How to Apply

We welcome applications from highly motivated prospective students who are committed to develop outstanding research outcomes. You can apply online at www.port.ac.uk/applyonline. You are required to create an account which gives you the flexibility to save the form, log out and return to it at any time convenient to you.

A link to the online application form and comprehensive guidance notes can be found at www.port.ac.uk/pgapply.

Applications should include:


- Full CV including personal details, qualifications, educational history and, where applicable, any employment or other experience relevant to the application

- Contact details for two referees able to comment on your academic performance

- Research proposal of 1,000 words outlining the main features of a research design you would propose to meet the stated objectives, identifying the challenges this project might present and discussing how the work will build on or challenge existing research in the above field.

- Proof of English language proficiency (for EU students)

When applying, please quote project code: CCTS4370218

Interview date: TBC

Start date: October 2018.

Funding notes

The fully-funded, full-time three-year studentship provides a stipend that is in line with that offered by Research Councils UK of £14,553 per annum.

The above applies for Home/EU students only. 

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