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Sydney Games and Play Lab

Innovative research in the gaming century
People in Australia and all over the world are playing games now more than ever. The Sydney Games and Play Lab brings together researchers studying their use, design and impact to offer new insights into this emerging media.

Games are one of the most significant mediums of the 21st century, at the forefront of rapid changes in society, technological development, and youth digital cultures.

Over two thirds of Australians regularly play games, and the global industry is estimated to grow to $240 billion globally by 2025. This growth is increasingly driven by an expansion of who plays games, the types of stories and experiences told through this young medium, and the careers available to those skilled in games whether as content creators or influencers, teachers and educators, game designers or artists or testers, game critics, journalists, reporters, or researchers.

About us

The Sydney Games and Play Lab conducts research in three main areas: Make, Play and Learn.

  • Make involves innovative research into the design of games and playable media, including the use of emerging technologies such as AI and creating new games and playful experiences
  • Play encompasses research into play cultures and practices, including livestreaming and game spectatorship, and critical philosophical work about this emerging medium
  • Learn focuses on the serious potential for applying games and other playable media in educational contexts

We aim to foster research excellence through global and local partnerships with the broader games industry; and by providing a world-class environment for ECRs and PhDs.

Below, you can learn about our current research projects. We are always interested in new opportunities for research collaboration.

Our projects

Narrative-based videogames are particularly powerful at encouraging youth to engage with diverse perspectives as they embody characters and playfully interact with stories, which can foster deep empathetic engagement and critical analysis of multimodal texts. Moving beyond simple gameplay, we are studying how games can encourage young people to embody protagonists, grapple with challenging contemporary themes, and push the boundaries of narrative gameworlds whilst also considering how teacher professional learning can support the integration of games into the secondary curriculum. Currently, our research focuses on the emergent genre of Young Adult Videogames (YA Games), or games played through the perspective of an adolescent, and developing partnerships with schools interested in co-designing videogame-based curriculum.
Project Team: Associate Professor Jen Scott Curwood (CI), Associate Professor Marcus Carter (CI), Associate Professor Christian Ehret, (CI, McGill University), Premeet Sidhu 

Partner: Secret Lab

Game live streaming has become a major new media industry and element of gaming culture in the past decade, with several million people creating gaming video contact and broadcasting it live to hundreds of millions of viewers. This project is building on existing leading studies of game streaming to examine national differences in the consumption and production of this medium. Presently the first ever studies of Australian and Japanese channels (funded by the Hoso Bunka Foundation) are being conducted with more to follow.

Project Team: Dr Mark Johnson (CI), Ryan Stanton (PhD), Yifan Wang (MA), Dahlia Jovic (Honours), James Baguley (RA)

Partner: Hoso Bunka Foundation

Metaverse technologies such as Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies are increasingly finding a foothold in culture and society. As these technologies proliferate in entertainment contexts, and beyond, it is important that we are equipped to critically examine both their benefits and their drawbacks. This project seeks to understand the broader impacts of the metaverse on society, particularly for those ‘at the margins’ of technological harm.

Project Team: Dr Marcus Carter (CI), Dr Ben Egliston (CI, QUT DMRC), Professor Gerard Goggin (Collaborator).

Funding: Meta

The growth of digital games is a source of enormous concern for parents, and games are coming under increasing public scrutiny for the use of gambling-like microtransactions, such as ‘Loot Boxes’. However, we know very little about how children are monetized by the digital games industry, and how children experience this monetization. Through the use of innovative studies of children, parents, game developers, and the policy environment, this project will create significant benefit via guidelines and recommendations for parents seeking to negotiate children’s digital play; new ethical frameworks for the design and implementation of videogames for children; and actionable advice for policymakers and practitioners.

Project Team: Dr Marcus Carter (CI), Dr Stephanie Harkin (Research Associate)

Funding: Australian Research Council, via ARC Future Fellowship on The Monetisation of Children in the Digital Games Industry.

The often-professionalised competitive play of digital games or “esports” has become a significant phenomenon in the past decade, with top players earning millions of dollars for their play, major sponsorships and advertisers involved in the biggest tournaments, and massive grassroots communities across the world. This project is examining the relationships between esports players and esports businesses, especially focusing on how non-endemic businesses navigate the competitive gaming ecosystem – and what players and fans think of them. The goal is to understand the relationships between the “top-down” and “bottom-up” pressures on esports and where esports and its economics might be going in the future.

Project Team: Dr Mark Johnson (CI)

Partner: University of Nevada, Las Vegas

“Content creation” has become an important force in gaming communities. Whether live streaming, YouTube “Let’s Play” videos, gaming podcasts, cosplaying, modding, fan art and fan fiction, or related media on websites like Instagram or Twitter, gaming content plays a significant role in the circulation of gaming ideas and gaming cultures. This project – primarily focused on game streaming on Twitch, but also exploring other contexts like podcasts and YouTube – explores the economics, practices, celebrities, and impacts of gaming-related online “content”. The project seeks to understand this gaming-related content, the people who make it, and the influence it has on gamers around the world.

Project Team: Dr Mark Johnson (CI), Ryan Stanton (PhD), Dahlia Jovic (Honours), James Baguley (RA)

Death pervades videogames. It is constant; it is core to how failure is signified in games, and how we learn how to play. Through studies of player experiences and game culture practice,s this project seeks to understand how we experience death in games, referring both to in-game death and the increasing ways that games have become sites for commemoration and mourning.

Project Team: Dr Marcus Carter (CI), Professor Martin Gibbs (CI, UniMelb), Fraser Allison (CI, UniMelb)

How do queer indie games tell stories? Whose perspectives do they bring, and for whom? The motivation to focus on queer indie games is to conjure a potential paradigm shift that can illustrate, alter, or enhance queer possibilities in games. By centering ‘games made by and for queer folks’, this project goes beyond counting queerness and quantifying representations. In this research we look through queer lenses to investigate authentic lived experiences and narrative design in games, and in turn, how games shape queer culture in the public consciousness.

Project Team: Dr Xavier Ho (CI), Dr Cody Mejeur (Collaborator), Remedios Perez Escobar (RA), Natalie Tran (RA), Dr Mark Johnson (Collaborator)

Partner: Hunt-Simes Institute in Sexuality Studies (HISS)

Funding: SSSHARC

This project seeks to explore how urban Aboriginal communities in New South Wales, Australia, can utilise Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) to increase cultural promotion and enhance wellness. Drawing on research that will seek to understand how the Metaverse can ethically include Aboriginal people, knowledges, practices, and culture through self-determined, culturally safe, strengths-based approaches, this project aims to develop novel VR and/or AR experiences that showcasing how adapting components of traditional knowledges, practices, and environments for VR through self-determined, culturally safe, strengths-based approaches can increase cultural connection and enhance wellbeing.

In 2022, the project was awarded funding from Meta Australia.

Project Team: Jasper Jerome Garay (Public Health), Luke Hespanhol (Design Computing), Marcus Carter, A/Prof Michelle Dickson (Public Health) 

Funding: Meta

Solving complex issues using games methodology

SQUIGGLE brings together a group of queer theorists, educationalists and designers interested in using games methodology in support of gender inclusivity and belonging. We are particularly focussed on tabletop games where the emphasis is on transformative interpersonal exchange, or all the good stuff that happens when people engage in semi-structured play. The OED says that a squiggle is a short line that curls and loops in an irregular way. As an acronym, SQUIGGLE also loops and curves irregularly. Our pilot project is aimed at high school-aged students.

Project Team: Emily Herdman (Project Officer), Dr Xavier Ho (Monash University), Dr Nanda Jarosz (SSSHARC Executive Officer), Dr Victoria Rawlings (School of Education and Social Work, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Premeet Sidhu (School of Education and Social Work, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences), Logan Timmins (Amble Studio) - Professor Lee Wallace (SSSHARC Director).

Partners: Amble StudioCruxes Innovation,  Social Impact Hub, The Women’s College, University of Sydney.

Funding: USyd DVCR Strategic Research Impact Fund: Proof of Concept Award 2023 $80 000

The digital games industry has turned to a service-based business model reliant on the generation of continuous user revenue. This project assesses the implications of service-based monetisation for how games are designed, consumed, and regulated, focusing on three controversial, yet insufficiently understood monetisation strategies: advertising, in-game transactions, and blockchain-based play. While promising benefit for consumers and industry, these monetisation strategies carry the potential for risks like surveillance, harmful advertising, and predatory design. Discoveries from this project will help policymakers, industry, and consumers regulate, design, and use games featuring service-based monetisation in effective and ethical ways.

Team: Dr Ben Egliston

Funding: Australian Research Council, ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award ‘Paying and Playing: Assessing and regulating digital games-as-a-service’

Winter School

The Games and Play Lab Winter School is an opportunity for PhD students and early career researchers studying games to share their work, benefit from in-depth feedback, and learn from established and emerging research leaders in the field of game studies.

Learn More

Nintendo gaming console and screens

Photo by Branden Skeli on Unsplash.

HDR student projects

The Sydney Games and Play Lab has a substantial cohort of HDR research students with innovative and exciting projects. If you are interested in conducting games research with us, please get in touch.

Read about our current students’ projects below.

Artificial Intelligence is reshaping the designed world, from fashion to architecture to digital products. This project – a collaboration with the Designing with AI Lab at USYD – explores how AI can be employed as-collaborator in the game design process.

Project Team: Alex Elton-Pym (PhD Candidate), Dr Kazjon Grace (Supervisor, Design Computing), Dr Marcus Carter (Supervisor)

This PhD aims to analyze the production process of gaming podcasts, in order to further explore the ways in which the creation of new media occurs. A previously unexplored field, the project hopes to provide a particular focus on the intersections between platform power and creator autonomy, drawing on ideas of platform capitalism to do so. While it is clear there are asymmetries in the power dynamics here, the extent of these asymmetries—and the ways creators deal with them—have remained relatively unexplored. Analysing these gaming podcasts is not only important because of their unexplored nature, but also because it can shed further light on the cultures of the intersecting fields of podcasting and gaming content creation.

Project Team: Ryan Stanton (PhD Candidate), Dr Mark Johnson (Supervisor)

Learn More: Gaming Podcast Research Project Website

Some moments in games are able to impact the ways in which people navigate, reflect on, and make sense of their real lives and worlds. Using the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons [D&D] as a case study, this PhD investigates how these meaningful and pivotal play experiences can be designed for and applied in wider areas of learning, pedagogy, and game design. Although contemporary research into games and learning leans towards the design, experiences, and associated impacts of digital gaming practices, this research emphasises the increasing popularity, accessibility, and utility of non-digital games for education and learning.

Project Team: Premeet Sidhu (PhD Candidate), Dr Marcus Carter (Supervisor), Associate Professor Jen Scott-Curwood (Supervisor)

While spatial study of games has gained popularity in the last few years, the amount of research into game spaces as spaces – rather than vessels for gameplay or narrative – has remained minimal. This thesis looks at how games allow players to experience spaces that do not exist in reality; examining case studies where games have adapted locations from genre fiction in other mediums to understand what techniques developers use to make these non-interactive spaces interactive, and what impact interactivity has on how audiences relate to and respond to them. Particular attention is paid to the Gothic genre, made interactive in games such as Castlevania, and defining how spatial concepts like ‘atmosphere’ apply to games.

Project Team: Mads Mackenzie (PhD Candidate), Dr Marcus Carter (Supervisor), Dr Chris Chesher (Supervisor), Dr Bruce Issacs (Supervisor)

This PhD thesis aims to develop an ontology of ‘emergent objects’ found within games, game-spaces, and interfacial regimes. Utilizing a multi-layered ‘Stack’ based approach to global computing, I propose that the objects we encounter via interfacial regimes, game spaces and platforms, are emergent material phenomena. That is, unlike non-digital objects, the appearance of emergent objects is not co-extensive with its materiality, and is instead a product of concrete infrastructures, programming languages, interfacial regimes, and social signification. This research has the potential to impact our understanding of game spaces by providing a systematic interrogation of the digital objects that serve to populate them. In addition to this, this research could form the basis of a theoretical framework from which to examine the modes of existence that prevail within games and digital platforms more generally.

Project Team: Conor Spence (PhD Candidate), Dr Chris Chesher (Supervisor), Dr Mark  Johnson (Supervisor)

The Nintendo Switch is a novel and exciting hybrid approach to videogame consoles. This project seeks to understand how the hybridity of the Switch informs and shapes play and player experience, and through interviews with Switch players has uncovered the crucial role that the unique Nintendo brand plays in affording specific player experiences.

Project Team: Tianyi Zhangshao (MRES Candidate), Dr Marcus Carter (Supervisor), Dr Mark  Johnson (Supervisor)

World-building is a term that is often deployed within the academic and popular discourses surrounding games, though there has been minimal research into the ways it works as a political practice situated in a specific politico-economic context. This PhD will be the first major study to analyse the political dimensions of world-building within video games, and its nature as a historically contingent practice under neoliberal capitalism. It will closely analyse a wide variety of video game worlds – with an emphasis on non-capitalist, anti-capitalist, and post-capitalist worlds – showing how world-building is always guided by deeply held – or even unconscious – political assumptions and affects. The PhD will investigate how games help us envision, create, simulate, and explore worlds that are radically different from our own.

Project Team: Finn Dawson (PhD Candidate), Dr Mark Johnson (Supervisor), Associate Professor Benedetta Brevini (Supervisor)

This research focus on revisiting neglected historical accounts through designing a place-based augmented reality game. Using the story of Toronto’s Chinatown as a case study, this research adopts a co-design approach to tackle the issue of neglected stories in urban development, investigating the design of an augmented reality game using similar technologies of Pokémon Go to playfully engage audiences with the surrounding built environment. This research identifies neglected stories, investigate the policy-making process and social environment which potentially lead to their neglect, explores an innovative solution to recover them, and provides recommendations of designing playful approaches.

Project Team: Yifan Kong (PhD Candidate), Dr Luke Hespanhol (Supervisor), Associate Professor Tooran Alizadeh (Supervisor)  

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Dr Marcus Carter

Deputy Director

Dr Mark Johnson

Academic staff

Associate Professor Jen Scott Curwood
Associate Professor Jen Scott Curwood
Visit Associate Professor Curwood's academic profile

Dr Kazjon Grace

Mr John Tonkin

Dr Chris Chesher

Dr Luke Hespanhol