Kristine Jørgensen

Kristine Jørgensen is an associate professor at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen, Norway. She is author of Gameworld Interfaces (MIT Press 2013) and A Comprehensive Study of Sound in Computer Games (Mellen Press 2009). She has also published research on playfulness, game characters, game narratives, and the Norwegian game industry.
Contact information: kristine.jorgensen at

The Positive Discomfort of Spec Ops: The Line

by Kristine Jørgensen


This article documents how players report the positive discomfort of playing the third-person military shooter Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Entertainment, 2012), and analyses their descriptions with reference to the idea of “positive negative experiences” (Hopeametsä, 2008; Montola, 2010), “frame analysis” (Goffman, 1974; Björk, 2015), “reversal theory” (Apter, 1992), and the “theory of ethical game design” (Sicart, 2009, 2013). The analysis shows how the game uses techniques connected to fabrication, the highlighting of negative consequences, and reversal to create a sense of complicity that creates a powerful experience of positive discomfort.


positive negative experiences, reversal theory, frame analysis, ethical game design, player studies, player experiences


The idea that games and play are all about the fun and the safe has long been contested (e.g. Geertz, 1973, pp. 432--433; Jørgensen, 2014; Malaby, 2007, p. 107; Schechner, 2013, pp. 118--119; Stenros, 2015, pp. 72--76). BASE jumping is dangerous, horror games are uncomfortable, and failure and the unpleasant feeling of inadequacy are integral parts of the gameplay experience (Juul, 2013, p. 9). Failure can take place both on the level of gameplay and on the level of fiction, which opens up for the interesting possibility that when the player is successful, the protagonist fails (Juul, 2013, p. 27). Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) is one such game. Here, completing missions is a success in terms of game progression, but on the fictional level each completed mission spirals the protagonist “Captain Walker” down into the abyss of war crimes and eventually to a point where death may seem like the better end-game option.

When released, the game was not a big commercial success, but it has over the years since its release gained status as a classic. Spec Ops: The Line is a game that aims to inspire reflection by deliberately trying to create discomfort and displeasure in the player (Dyer, 2012; Garland, 2012; Klepek, 2012; Sicart, 2013, pp. 112--114). During playtesting, the developers reported that test players sometimes left the room after having witnessed the dramatic turning point of the game (Payne, 2014, p. 276; Sicart, 2013, p. 115). However, not everyone agreed that Yager Development’s attempt to create a profound experience disguised as a traditional military shooter was successful, and in the gaming press and online discourse reception was mixed: Some reviewers hailed the game for its ability to make players reflect upon the gameplay actions taken in violent shooter games (Dyer, 2012; Klepek, 2012; Pitts, 2012). Other reviewers recognized the horrors that were displayed, but did not find the integration between gameplay and narrative to be particularly uncomfortable (Björk, 2015, p. 182), and yet others argued that the use of conventional mechanisms of the shooter genre created a situation where any deeper narrative message would necessarily fall through (Lindsey, 2012; Keogh, 2013, p. 8).

The aim of this article is to provide insights into how players in a focus-group study discuss their experience with Spec Ops: The Line with reference to the idea that the game creates a sense of gratification in the player through evoking negative experiences. Empirical data from focus-group interviews will be discussed in light of the idea of “positive negative experiences” (Hopeametsä, 2008; Montola, 2010), “frame analysis” (Goffman, 1974; Björk, 2015), “reversal theory” (Apter, 1992), and the “theory of ethical game design” (Sicart, 2009, 2013). The discussion will focus on how the players describe the positive discomfort that they experience while playing, and what techniques they find most effective in creating that experience. I will argue that the narrative context that frames gameplay is what makes Spec Ops: The Line effective in communicating its message, and that this is what creates an experience in the player that is highly uncomfortable at the same time as it provides a positive experience. The article is psychologically inspired, but takes a play-centric perspective stressing the importance of the context of play for understanding positive negative experiences in this game.

Spec Ops: The Line -- an Overview

Developed by the German game studio Yager Development and released by 2K Games in 2012, Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person-perspective military-themed shooter game. The player takes on the role of protagonist “Captain Walker” who leads a Delta-Force team on a special-operations reconnaissance mission in Dubai after a devastating sand storm. The mission quickly turns into a search for Walker’s former “war buddy” “Colonel Conrad” who has “gone rogue” with the 33rd Battalion.

While the term war games often refers to games used for military training (Frank, 2014, p. 5), Spec Ops: The Line is a commercially-distributed game intended for entertainment purposes, sometimes labeled militainment (Payne, 2014). Games that fall under the genre of contemporary military shooters are often a product of a “symbiotic relationship” (Keogh, 2013; Nieborg, 2006) between the entertainment industry and militaristic interests, and for this reason it may not be surprising that many military-themed games stress the romantic story of the war hero and feature simplistic imagery of the enemy that creates a binary narrative about “the good versus the bad”. According to Matthew Thomas Payne, military shooters tend to avoid showing dead civilians and slaughtered US-American soldiers due to the negative experiences such imagery conveys and because it would break with the conventions of the genre (Payne, 2014, p. 279).

The gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line follows the conventions of the military-shooter genre, but subverts them through a powerful narrative. The game adopts traditional shooter mechanisms where violence rarely is questioned but understood as the primary means of agency. Challenges relate to traversing areas filled with armed, shooting enemies (Arsenault, 2009, p. 167; Poole, 2007, p. 56), and game objectives are presented as commands given in a hierarchy that should not be questioned. The most important mechanisms in Spec Ops: The Line are connected to combat-oriented gameplay, such as shooting with different weapons, strafing, throwing grenades, melee, and giving simple tactical commands to the player’s two “squad mates”. Another important mechanism is the execution mechanism, which allows the player to explicitly execute downed enemies that are still alive. Also, at a few moments of particular narrative importance the player is given a choice between two courses of action. However, the narrative framing soon subverts the meaning of gameplay actions. By following the missions and adapting to the traditional shooter play-style, the player is drawn into a dark narrative of post-traumatic stress syndrome and a military operation gone horribly wrong. Not long into the game, the narrative starts diverting from the conventional hero story and leads “Captain Walker” and thus also the player into a series of actions with ethically problematic consequences, illustrating how the conventions of the military-shooter genre are not only broken but also turned against the player.

Methodology: A Qualitative Player Perspective

While there is already a substantial body of research discussing the design and content of Spec Ops: The Line (Keogh, 2013; Sicart, 2013, pp. 111--116; Payne, 2014; Björk, 2015; Pötzsch, 2015), with the exception of the accounts of reviewers and testers, there is little reference to non-researcher players’ experiences of the game. While game analysis and developer accounts are important for disclosing how a game is designed and communicated, it says little about how the players themselves as consumers and intended audience receive and experience the game. In online debates, the game has been praised by players for its ability to tell a story, to create an emotional reaction in the player, and for its ability to tackle topics relating to the consequences of war for civilians and soldiers. At the same time, players have been critical towards a dissonance between gameplay and narrative and mediocre gameplay (Blackcompany, 2013; CarelessRock117, 2015; Santoryu, 2016).

The data presented here are the words of five participants selected from a focus-group study aimed at bringing forward a player-centered perspective of the attitudes and emotions surrounding uncomfortable game content. The snowball method was used (Patton, 2002, 237) in recruiting key individuals from local game organizations. These key individuals were given mandate to recruit additional individuals with whom they would be able to discuss uncomfortable game content. In total, three focus groups of three individuals and one group of four were carried out. Two of the groups of three were of mixed gender, while the remaining two were male only.

Out of the thirteen focus-group participants, one woman (referred to here under the pseudonym Mary (25)) and four men (referred to here under the pseudonyms Oscar (36), Tony (36), Ted (25), and John (21)) across three of the focus groups had played Spec Ops: The Line prior to being recruited to the project. All participants were Norwegian citizens living in a metropolitan area, and had played games since childhood or early adolescence. John (21) and Ted (25) were students at the time of the study, and the rest were skilled workers. When asked to give an account of an uncomfortable game experience in the introduction to the focus group, these five participants all brought up Spec Ops: The Line on their own initiative, although two referred to the fact that the game had been listed in the distributed documentation.

Although the recruitment of respondents was sensitive towards the representation of diverse opinions about what content is appropriate in games, in practice there was high agreement between the five players that Spec Ops: The Line is successful at what it tries to do and that the game is uncomfortable. The small sample and the fact that these respondents are all citizens of a fairly homogenous and liberal Nordic country, in addition to the fact that the game also was criticized by many players, makes it difficult to claim generalizability in terms of player attitudes towards uncomfortable game content. It does, however, show examples of how individual players actually interpret and understand the game, and the fact that their claims are supported by the analysis stresses that the study has wider appliance for understanding positive negative experiences. 

The focus group interviews were carried out using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), a qualitative method used in psychology for researching how people experience and deal with lived experiences and major life events (Smith et al., 2009, pp. 1--4). Allowing the participants to talk about their experiences and interpretations in an unfiltered manner and on their own terms, the method stresses self-expression, emotion and subjective accounts (Smith et al., 2009, pp. 56--57). However, a challenge of researching experiences is that the researcher is twice removed from the experience, as they are limited to interpreting how the individuals themselves interpret and describe their own experiences (Smith et al., 2009, p. 35). Also, using focus groups with IPA has an additional challenge because the discussions that tend to arise in such a constellation often reveal more about attitudes and interpretations rather than experiences (Smith et al., 2009, pp. 71--73). For this particular study, a weakness is that considerable time has passed since the players had played Spec Ops: The Line, and although the players’ descriptions demonstrate that the game was a memorable experience for all of them, the clearest memories most likely reflect the most powerful events in the game, and are not necessarily representative of how the players experienced the game as a whole. Also, the way the players talked about the game suggests that they have given the game considerable thought after playing, stressing that the experiences they talk about in the focus group do not necessarily cover the experiences themselves as much as it covers their retrospective interpretations.

Uncomfortable Gameplay Experiences

Encountering emotionally transgressive or uncomfortable media content has the potential to enable awareness by provoking the audience into reflection (Julius, 2002, p. 27) and by questioning their culturally-received and most fundamental values (Grønstad, 2012, p. 38). To interact with such content has additional perks as interaction itself may provide unique, unusual experiences for the participant (Brown et al., 2015, 478--480) that may prove particularly memorable (Benford et al., 2013, p. 66). In games, the creation of uncomfortable experiences is not a new issue. The horror genre in video games is one of the oldest, spanning back to the early 1980s (Rouse, 2009, p. 15), and the history of horror table-top role-playing games is at least as old (Montola, 2010). Inside the Nordic Live Action Role Playing (LARP) environment, uncomfortable play has been explored for at least fifteen years (Koljonen, 2004). More recently, uncomfortable experiences in games and play have also been documented in research (Brown, 2015; Brown et al., 2015; Carter, 2015; Hopeametsä, 2008; Montola, 2010; Linderoth & �-hrn, 2014). In their analyses of player experiences with distressing content in live-action role-playing games, Heidi Hopeametsä (2008) and Markus Montola (2010) identify what they call positive negative experiences, understood as experiences that are intense and distressing, yet somehow gratifying because they create new insights or experiences (Jørgensen, 2014, pp. 6--7).

The five players in this study all described Spec Ops: The Line as an uncomfortable experience, creating emotions of regret, guilt, as well as queasiness. However, this was also described as a meaningful sense of discomfort. According to Tony (36):

[I felt] a little sick, and… [m]y thought was to play through the whole thing in one go, and just get that… I was left with that kind of feeling, a little tired, a little drained, but really happy for what I have, for the simple reason that we will hopefully never experience anything that even comes close to something like that. And [I felt] a little tired, actually, like weary and drained. But at the same time there were a lot of thoughts (Tony (36); interviewed by the author on September 28, 2015).

Tony (36) remembers playing Spec Ops: The Line as an experience that left him with a range of responses. The sense of discomfort is described as a bodily as well as a mental reaction, which seems to have spawned reflection. This reflects Montola’s (2010) description of the positive negative experiences that he identified in players of extreme role-play. However, Montola’s respondents also stressed that positive negative experiences have a potential for new insights because it provides unique experiences. In the same focus group as Tony (36), Oscar (36) follows up his friend’s argument by stressing the potential of uncomfortable game experiences in providing new perspectives:

What is positive about Spec Ops, actually, is that hopefully it contributes to making most of those who play the game understand that war might not be a good solution. So there is kind of a point about the whole thing, but you’re not left with a good feeling about things though. And that is very much because it appears in a way to be realistic, to say it that way (Oscar (36); interviewed by the author on September 28, 2015).

Spec Ops: The Line communicates a message in a way that is rhetorically strong because it reflects certain aspects of actuality and provides a meaningful insight into something that concerns a real-world issue. There is no doubt that playing Spec Ops: The Line creates a highly uncomfortable game experience for Tony (36) and Oscar (36). At the same time, this experience is described as rewarding and valuable because the sense of discomfort provokes reflection and insight. In reversal theory, such experiences are labelled parapathic emotions: “enjoyable forms of negative emotions” (Apter, 1992, p. 67). Parapathic emotions are strong negative emotions that are enjoyable and exciting (Stenros, 2015, p. 134), but demand a feeling of safety in order to remain enjoyable. Later I will discuss how parapathic emotions work to uphold the positive negative experiences of playing Spec Ops: The Line.

Techniques for Creating Positive Discomfort

The participants in this study stress that the realist framing of Spec Ops: The Line is important for the experience. This distinguishes the game from other military-themed games and provides a greater depth or seriousness for the participants. While traditional military-themed games have been criticized for representing warfare in a sanitized (Pötzsch, 2015, p. 5) or glorified way (Payne, 2013, p. 279), Spec Ops: The Line goes against this trend. Traditional shooters are frequently described in terms of realism or authenticity (Keogh, 2013, p. 5), but for the respondents of this study neither photorealism nor an authentic simulation of warfare is in focus. Instead, they are more interested in how the game stresses the impact that war has on soldiers and civilians, and that the psychological reactions of the soldiers in the game narrative are believable. In this sense, the realism that they stress is a social kind of realism (Galloway, 2004) that highlights a believable setting and narrative (Breuer et al., 2012, 217--218). For Mary (25), it is the sense of social realism and closeness to actual events that creates a positive sense of discomfort:

I think Spec Ops is that game that gives you a correct idea of what it would be like to be, kind of, in active combat somewhere. Like, these are things that do happen. For instance, USA just accidentally bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, right. So the whole situation here is based on many similar situations that have taken place in active warfare. And… it’s uncomfortable because it is correct, I think. The presentation moves you and gives you an icky sensation because you know these are things that do happen. … To give that role to a player who thinks war is stupid -- like I do -- is very effective, because it is not what you expect (Mary (25); interviewed by the author on October 16, 2015).

According to Mary (25), one of the strengths of Spec Ops: The Line is its ability to reference situations that actually take place in warfare, but from an insider perspective by way of the player’s position. In this game, realism is for her related to bringing the player close to the realities of warfare without sanitizing or filtering the unintended consequences of war (Pötzsch, 2015, pp. 4--5).

The game plays with human psychology. But how does it do this and through what mechanisms? In the following, I will discuss three techniques that the participants highlight as the most effective in creating a positive sense of discomfort in Spec Ops: The Line.

Technique 1: Subverting Genre Expectations through Fabrication

In Spec Ops: The Line, the conventions of the military-shooter genre are not only subverted but are also questioned and thus used to manipulate the player. By following the genre conventions from the start, the game establishes certain expectations that are later forcefully broken by a particular kind of narrative framing. With reference to Goffman’s frame analysis, Staffan Björk has argued that this happens through fabrication (2015, p. 178); a playful kind of deception, understood as the intentional effort to manage an activity in order to induce a false belief about what is going on (Goffman, 1974, p. 83). Ted (25) describes how he experiences this mismatch between the expectations established through gameplay, and the narrative message of the game:

At a point in the game, you’re supposed to gas a group of enemy soldiers, which is a completely ordinary thing, [it’s] no problem if you’ve played Call of Duty and Battlefield and all those games, it’s an ordinary quest, it’s what we like to do. But then… a little later, you walk through the camp and [realize]… [o]h well, here’s a container full of [dead] civilians (Ted (25); interviewed by the author on November 11, 2015).

Ted’s (25) response is illustrative of how the players in this study stressed the establishment and subsequent breaking of expectations to be powerful in creating a particular game experience. For Ted (25), the fabrication of the game as a traditional shooter is what makes it so emotionally effective. Since the conventions for shooters are to maintain a positive sensation of gameplay and avoid potentially uncomfortable content such as images of dead civilians or US-American soldiers (Payne, 2013, p. 279; Pötzsch, 2015, p. 5), Ted (25) expects this game to be fun and exciting in the same way as traditional shooters. In Spec Ops: The Line, however, this convention is abruptly broken by showing the player the civilian causalities they have been responsible for.

As a playful endeavor, fabrication is about tricking someone into believing that a social situation is something else than what it actually is. Here, dramatic techniques known from narrative theory can be useful in building the necessary tension and drama for creating uncomfortable interaction (Benford et al., 2013, pp. 71--72). Oscar (36) describes how genre expectations as well as an untrustworthy narrator tricked him:  

Point is, after a while you start to realize that the person you are playing is actually mentally disturbed. So the information you have in order to make choices during the game is not actual information, right. So you get this icky feeling, because what the history of games has conditioned you into is kind of not right any more, that’s the sensation you get (Oscar (36); interviewed by the author on September 28, 2015).

Here, player expectations as well as the framing of the game point towards a traditional shooter. When the narrative on the other hand starts hinting that the information given might not be trustworthy, Oscar (36) gets a tingling sensation that something is amiss. Another example of how narrative techniques are used to create fabrication comes from John (21):

There’s a different scene from Spec Ops. … You jump down into a kind of underground with some corpses. And if you search, you find an audio log, and you start realizing that maybe things are not exactly what they seem on the surface. It’s like, why am I actually here, am I here because… [b]ecause the guys up there are right, or is there something hidden? And you start kind of [thinking], shit, what’s going on? (John (21); interviewed by the author on November 11, 2015).

He explains how embedded narratives, or the distribution of informational pieces across the gameworld environment (Jenkins, 2004, p. 126), make him suspect that the game is something more than a traditional military shooter. Non-mandatory information picked up during the exploration provides subtle hints that the established narrative frame is a fabrication, and the embedded narrative works to create a sense of uneasiness, as John (21) realizes that the game might be something different from what it first seemed to be.

These examples show how game mechanisms and narrative techniques are employed to set up certain expectations that are later subverted. There is a discrepancy between narrative and gameplay in the game, in which certain narrative techniques are employed to subvert the conventions known from the military shooter. These player experiences stress Björk’s argument that fabrication happens not only on the level of gameplay, but also on the level of narrative, by showing how the game first establishes the “Walker” character as a stereotypical action hero of traditional shooters, but then breaks this down by showing that his responses to the actions he has caused are non-heroic and in concert with human psychology (Björk, 2015, p. 184).

Technique 2: Highlighting Negative Consequences

A different technique used to create positive negative experiences is to stress the negative consequences of player actions. According to Sicart, animations, in-game feedback and the filtering of information through “Walker”’s perception are elements that work to create a particularly emotional experience in Spec Ops: The Line (2013, pp. 115--116). A golden rule in interaction design and game design is to stress positive feedback loops rather than negative: With reference to behaviorist learning theory, gamification stresses the use of rewards and punishment (Hense et al., 2013, p. 210; Landers et al., 2015, p. 169). Schrape points out that negative feedback such as punishment is unwanted in gamification contexts, where designers rather aim at rewarding or reinforce wanted behavior (Schrape, 2015, p. 42). While a similar mechanism is used here, behaviorism is not well equipped for explaining the subjective experiences of aesthetic works. In video games, an important reason for wanting to provide negative feedback is connected to narrative progression. Cutscenes are often used in video games to provide relevant narrative as well as gameplay information (Klevjer, 2002, p. 194), and tend to be located at particular checkpoints in a game, and thus they take on a reward function. However, in Spec Ops: The Line, cutscenes often show the negative consequences of player actions, and in this sense we could argue that the role of the cutscenes is subverted into punishing rather than rewarding the player. According to Mary (25):

Very many games, generally, show all the action up until you push the button and then cut. While Spec Ops shows that you push the button, and then it lets the camera focus for a very long time on what happened next, and kind of force feeds down your throat that this is your doing. This makes the game very good. And that, kind of, … keeps very much [attention on] the consequences of what you do. It makes the game kind of very effective (Mary (25); interviewed by the author on October 16, 2015).

In Mary’s (25) description, the cutscene is very explicit in its communication and stresses the negative consequences of the player’s actions. However, in behaviorist terms this would be identified as punishment, but that is not how it is experienced here. Due to the narrative progression and the dramatic context, Mary (25) finds this otherwise negative feedback to be gratifying, thus stressing the positive aspect of this otherwise negative feedback. This effect is created through the use of cutscenes and audiovisual style -- through the game’s mise-en-scène. While mise-en-scène in film and theatre generally refers to all elements related to staging, such as costumes, lighting, setting, and -- for film -- camera movements (Bordwell & Thompson, 1997, p. 169), the term is also concerned with what elements are presented to the spectator, and how the elements are used to draw attention to particular features or events (Girina, 2013, p. 48). Mise-en-scène may not be the best term if we want to capture the function of interactive elements and their affordances, but it works well to capture the mood, style, and not least the expressive aspects of the cutscenes in this game. As such, the term is appropriate when discussing the aesthetic style of Spec Ops: The Line, whose ability to make the player uncomfortable is highly associated with lingering cameras, the use of panoramas and zooms, changes in lighting, gory graphics and unsettling audio. As Mary (25) stresses, this use of mise-en-scène is very effective in making the player reflect on what they have caused, while also wondering whether there was any way to prevent this.

By forcing the player to witness the brutal consequences of her or his actions, mise-en-scène may appear to punish the player for her or his in-game actions. However, in the light of the idea of positive negative experiences, in Spec Ops: The Line the stress on negative consequences feels gratifying not only because it makes a clear political point about war, but also because it highlights the drama of the narrative, and creates a deeper and more emotionally-touching game experience. This technique is crucial for the emotions experienced by the player respondents when playing the game.

Technique 3: Reversal by Design

While the fact that fabrication takes place in Spec Ops: The Line is hinted at throughout the first half of the game, it is abruptly revealed at the dramatic turning point of the game’s narrative. Ted (25) describes the moment thus:

[T]here’s a section where I can shoot down at people from the sky and it rains down on them as a vengeful finger of god. And it’s fun to do it. … And then when you enter [the area afterwards] and see what… well, this is what happened, then the sense of joy drops a bit, and then you see this and it knocks you completely down to the ground. So this has so much bigger mood swings [than other games] (Ted (25); interviewed by the author on November 11, 2015).

Up until this point in the game, fabrication has made Ted (25) feel emotionally safe. He has expected to play this game as one that asks him to invest in terms of gameplay and not in terms of engaging in an emotionally heavy drama. When the game from one moment to the other changes from the frantic pushing of buttons to release bombs onto what the player is led to believe are enemy soldiers, to being forced to slowly follow a trail through burning soldiers moaning in pain just to learn through a cutscene of lingering images and slow motion that the people attacked were civilians guarded by soldiers, Ted (25) experiences a dramatic change in mood. This mood shift is an important part of the game’s narrative design. Having a point of no return that completely turns the situation upside down is not only an effective way of creating an interesting and unpredictable narrative, but it also has the potential of surprising the audience. In Spec Ops: The Line, this turning point is carefully designed for an emotional impact, and Ted’s (25) response indicates that this design choice is an attempt to replicate the logic of reversal theory. According to this theory, the reason why the fun factor suddenly changes into despair and discomfort, is that excitement and anxiety are different framings of the same kind of sensory response -- arousal. Whether we find arousal to be positive (excitement) or negative (anxiety), depends on whether we are in an excitement-avoiding or excitement-seeking meta-motivational state (Apter, 1992, pp. 14--16). In the excitement-seeking state, we experience a psychological protective frame that allows us to acknowledge the possibility of danger at the same time as we feel safe, regardless of whether or not we are actually safe (Apter, 1992, pp. 25--27). It is this sense of safety that allows us to experience dangerous as well as uncomfortable experiences in terms of excitement rather than anxiety, but since the two are only separable due to the meta-motivational state, reversal between whether something is experienced as excitement or anxiety is not only possible but also frequent (Apter, 1992, pp. 20--21).

Obviously, the reversal that Ted (25) experiences is different from the change from excitement to anxiety that happens when a racecar driver suddenly loses control over the car. It is important to stress that Spec Ops: The Line deliberately attempts to create this particular dramatic effect. While Ted (25) is not in any actual physical danger, the shift is abrupt and reminds of how one can be taken out of what reversal theory calls the frame of the safety zone. Inside the safety zone, individuals are fully engulfed by the experience and do not perceive the sense of danger (Apter, 1992, pp. 49--51) in a way that reminds of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow (2000 [1975], pp. 78--87). When Ted (25) describes the sudden shift in mood, this reminds of the reversal effect, but whether this mood change is a change from excitement to anxiety is questionable. If he was truly experiencing anxiety, he would likely stop playing. Instead, the turning point creates a sense of drama connected to the sudden realization that the player is actually complicit, which then piques curiosity and an interest for continued play.

How the Three Techniques Create a Sense of Complicity

Reversal theory does not take into account emotional nuances and the fact that there can be sudden mood changes that are less extreme than that between excitement and anxiety. In its consideration of fictional contexts, reversal theory claims that the reason why we are able to enjoy uncomfortable fiction, such as for instance horror movies, is because we are safely detached from the situation and not actually engaging in the action (Apter, 1992, pp. 59--60). However, as video games are different from traditional fiction in that interactivity through gameplay involves players in the action, reversal theory cannot alone explain what happens.

What makes the turning point in Spec Ops: The Line different from a similar one in film is the sense of being involved in the events -- not only by witnessing them, but through the sense of being complicit to the actions that take place in the game. Smethurst and Craps show that games can make the player feel as though they have responsibility in causing game events due to the sense of direct control over actions and an interest in keeping the avatar protagonist alive (2015, p. 277). According to Miguel Sicart, the sense of complicity allows the player to engage with the game using moral reasoning, and stresses the fact that gameplay actions have a moral dimension (2013, pp. 21--23). The three techniques discussed above come together in creating a sense of complicity, which is central to making the players describe the game as a positive negative experience. When asked why Spec Ops: The Line is experienced as uncomfortable, Oscar (36) explains: 

[I]n Spec Ops much of it is connected to the fact that you realize after a while… that you actually have the choice not to do these things. And that it is you who have chosen to do something that is not good. … In Spec Ops all the time there are things that are… it is you who chose to do the things. And then you realize after a while that, okay, maybe those were not the right things to do (Oscar (36); interviewed by the author on September 28, 2015).

On two additional accounts, Oscar (36) stresses that what makes him uncomfortable is the fact that the game makes it abundantly clear that the player is responsible for the choices being made. In Spec Ops: The Line, this sometimes happens through explicit player choices, but other times it is because the narrative of the story takes the player in a particular direction. In such situations -- if the player wants to see the conclusion of the narrative s/he must play, and through playing, s/he becomes complicit in the events that take place in the game. Oscar (36) continues:

You’re left with the feeling that it is you who made the choices, right. … You are driven forward, because there is a story to be told in the game, but there are many sequences where there are, well, choices (Oscar (36); interviewed by the author on September 28, 2015).

By showing and putting emphasis on the consequences of her or his actions, the game places moral responsibility on the player: Players feel complicit because they feel morally responsible. Spec Ops: The Line, then, forces the player to reflect ethically upon the actions carried out in the gameworld by making her or him question whether playing the game and moving forward with “Captain Walker” is ethically defendable, but the game also puts the player into an uncomfortable ethical position in the process once s/he realizes what s/he is complicit to (Sicart, 2009, pp. 215--216). Ted (25) describes how the sudden realization that he is complicit to the events in the game makes him feeling uncomfortable: 

[The game] builds up like it’s supposed to imitate Call of Duty with regards to how you play it, so you walk around and shoot people, but then suddenly you arrive at a place where, okay, I’m a fucking bastard who has killed all these people. Oh god (Ted (25); interviewed by the author on November 11, 2015).

Here, the sudden sense of complicity creates the dramatic effect of negative emotions: the dramatic turning point and the sudden realization that the player is complicit. This is what creates the emotional shift, and the game is indeed trying to replicate or simulate the sense of reversal even though it may be questionable whether the narrative turning point of the game creates actual reversal.

The ability to make players feel that they are complicit is important not only for a sense of agency but also for fictional engagement in games. Since player actions in video games are, to a certain extent, guided by game design; being able to create a sense of complicity allows a game to give the player the impression that her or his actions matter for what takes place in a game. While this is a common feature for most games, complicity is made more explicit in Spec Ops: The Line because of the narrative framing and the consequences of the player’s actions, which make the player ask whether there is anything s/he could have done differently.

Although critics and players have found the potent narrative of Spec Ops: The Line to be at odds with the traditional shooter mechanisms (Björk, 2015, p. 182; Blackcompany, 2013; CarelessRock117, 2015; Keogh, 2013, p. 8; Lindsey, 2012; Santoryu, 2016), the players in this study highlight the role of this discrepancy in creating a particular game experience. When asked whether the subversion of the game mechanics with respect to the narrative was experienced as disruptive, Ted (25) responds:

In Spec Ops, this was fitting, it was so incredibly amazing. And it depends on the game; it depends on how it is written. This was the perfect game to do it in, which at least made me want to play more. It made me want to go on, wanted to see more (Ted (25); interviewed by the author on November 11, 2015).

Here, Ted (25) stresses that he found the particular combination of game mechanics and the narrative to be very successful. This is in line with Keogh who argues that the criticism that the game got with regards to the ludo-narrative dissonance misses the point that game mechanisms can never be interpreted as separate from a game’s audiovisual representation, and that it is through such representational strategies that Spec Ops: The Line is able to challenge the genre conventions of the military shooter (Keogh, 2013, p. 8). Payne goes further in his argumentation and states that the mismatch between game mechanics and narrative may purposefully and effectively be used if the purpose is not to create “escapist pleasures” associated with traditional digital games, but instead to create other emotions that would lead to more diverse gameplay experiences (Payne, 2014, pp. 269--270). Ted’s (25) enthusiasm for the game and his emphasis on the particular characteristics of the game is a product not of the fact that traditional game mechanics have been paired with a powerful narrative. Instead, the effect is created through the particular merger of the two where the narrative has been carefully designed to give the game mechanisms a particular framing. In this sense, it is the combination of representational and game-mechanical elements that matters for the sense of positive discomfort and how the game as a total is interpretated.

In Conclusion

This article has dealt with how participants in a focus-group study discuss the positive discomfort of playing Spec Ops: The Line. The article identifies three techniques used by the game to create complicity, and thereby sets the stage for “positive negative experiences” that involve the player both on the level of narrative as well as on the level of gameplay: 1) Fabrication is used to subvert gameplay mechanisms; 2) highlighting negative consequences stresses the mood of the situation; and 3) reversal mechanisms are used as a tool to create ludo-narrative drama.

It is important to stress that reversal is here analyzed as a tool used by the designers to promote a particular kind of dramatic effect. While this appears to be experienced as an effective design tool for creating a sense of complicity for the participants in this study, there is not enough evidence to claim that it is creating an actual reversal process.

While video-game players like other media audiences are detached from action and not in any physical danger, the sense of complicity created by the interaction through gameplay puts the player in a more vulnerable position. Complicity presupposes that engagement takes place on the level of gameplay as well as on the level of fiction, and this is essential for understanding positive discomfort in Spec Ops: The Line. This means that the game oversteps the sense of safety created by detachment, but by positioning the player as somehow responsible, the sense of safety connected to the fact that this is “play” also threatens to break. Thus, when the player feels complicit, the fact that a sense of emotional safety is at risk is what makes it particularly interesting. According to Jonas Linderoth and Torill Mortensen, for play to remain interesting, it “needs to be maintained unbroken but at the same time needs to be challenged and put at risk” (Linderoth & Mortensen, 2015, p. 6). This makes video games a very powerful medium for creating positive discomfort because it allows the sense of safety to be challenged both on the level of fiction and on the level of play.

With respect to whether or not the findings can be applied more broadly to military-themed video games, it is important to stress that this is a case study of a military-themed game that narratively is in opposition with the norm of commercial military shooters. For this reason, I do not claim that the results are applicable to all military games; but there is reason to believe that the perspectives and findings can be used to illuminate experiences of other games that subvert the military-hero story. Also, for evaluating wider applicability it is worth mentioning that while the public discourse about the game has been mixed, all the five players in this study described the game in positive terms. The analysis is for this reason limited to understanding situations where emotional drama in games is appreciated.

For reasons of space and focus, certain perspectives have been omitted. The article has not discussed the positive discomfort of games in the context of procedural rhetoric (Bogost, 2007) or experiential metaphors (Rusch, 2009), but due to the fact that all of these perspectives stress the use of particular techniques and mechanisms in games for creating a specific experiential or intellectual response in the players, there is reason to believe that such a link would be fruitful to explore in future research. In addition, cognitive theories of fictional engagement (Carroll, 1997; Currie, 1997; Harold, 2010; Smith, 1995; Vaage, 2010; Walton, 1978) are likely to create a more nuanced understanding of player engagement in video games.


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