Jacqueline Moran

Jacqueline Moran received her PhD from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, where she teaches game studies and interactive narratives. Her doctoral thesis investigated player accounts via Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis to examine and redescribe Joseph Campbell's hero's journey as a phenomenological model for analysing player experiences and meaning-making.

Contact information:
jmoran at swin.edu.au

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Hero's Journeys in Zelda: Opportunities & Issues for Games Studies

by Jacqueline Moran


Phenomenological approaches have been used in game studies, from investigations of a specific cohort's experiences with a specific game to ontological discussions of games and gameplay. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is a popular phenomenological approach combining richly detailed personal accounts with theory-driven interpretation to investigate lived experiences and contextualised meaning-making. Although it is applicable to a diverse range of experiences and has become a dominant qualitative approach in many disciplines, IPA has not been utilised as extensively in game studies. In this article, I outline IPA as a methodology with the potential to offer valuable insights for game studies. I draw on health research, where IPA is most prevalent, and a case study from my research comparing Campbell's hero's journey against player experiences in Breath of the Wild and Ocarina of Time to explain IPA's theoretical foundations, history, methods, strengths and weaknesses. I argue that IPA offers game studies a useful methodology for exploring the complexity, diversity, multiplicity and situatedness of practices and meanings around games.

Keywords: interpretative phenomenological analysis, qualitative research, hermeneutic phenomenology, idiography, methodology, meaning, experience, The Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild, Ocarina of Time, hero's journey, Joseph Campbell



Alex said that killing Guardians, the giant spider-like machine enemies in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD, 2017), made it “feel like you're a god.” This was an important step in Alex's progress towards their goal of unhindered exploration. Alex at first believed they could go anywhere in Hyrule but quickly discovered strong monsters barred their access to large swathes of the map. Without clear instruction or protection, Alex was “running around in your underwear with just a stick” exploring, experimenting, discovering and dying as they gained the skill and knowledge to defend themself and fight back. Eventually, after many hours of clever tactics, sensible retreats, begrudging stealth and determined accumulation of items, Alex could kill their way through anything. “I feel like there are two ways to kind of do things in the game,” Alex said. “You can do it how the game tells you to do it or you can um get ridiculously strong and just come back to it later and just kill the enemy that's in your way (laughs).”

Alex is one of six participants I interviewed to compare experiences playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD, 2017) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo EAD, 1998) against Joseph Campbell’s influential mythological pattern, the hero's journey (Campbell, 1968; Moran, 2021). Alex's account demonstrates a common pattern of experience across this study’s participants: finding a personally meaningful goal, setting expectations about what that goal is and how it should be accomplished, and judging the game against those expectations. The project a person pursues shapes their existence, subjectivity and phenomenological experiences (Vella & Gualeni, 2019). Each of my participants had different projects and consequently different experiences with these games. Some projects shaped their entire playthrough, others arose briefly and receded, others recurred throughout a game and across games. In each case, the most satisfying experiences were the ones that matched the participant's expectations, regardless of whether it pushed them closer to or further away from their goal.

This pattern more closely resembles the hero's journey as originally described by Joseph Campbell (1968) in The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949 than Christopher Vogler's (2007) interpretation of the hero's journey written for Hollywood screenwriting in the 1980s, which is often repeated by game designers and scholars (e.g., Ip, 2011; Rollings & Adams, 2003). The most popular version of the hero's journey prescribes a series of 12 or sometimes 17 steps describing a hero who overcomes adversity. Campbell's hero's journey describes the relationship between a hero and a goal, and any change in the hero's distance from that goal -- whether by progressing, regressing, or even failing -- is considered part of a hero's journey.

To collect these richly detailed accounts and identify the convergences whilst preserving personal nuances, I used Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), a qualitative phenomenological approach designed to investigate lived experiences. In this article I provide an overview of the history, strengths and weaknesses of this approach through my analysis of Alex's experiences playing Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD, 2017), one case study from a larger research project (Moran, 2021).

Player experience is important in game studies. Some researchers conduct studies inspired by their personal experiences (e.g., Brown & Marklund, 2015) and using their own experiential data (e.g., Bizzocchi & Tanenbaum, 2012). Because the “gameness” of a single-player digital game is projected onto it by those engaging with it (Leino, 2012), and a researcher's experience playing a game is shaped by their professional motivation and research interests (Aarseth, 2003), some researchers also find it valuable to recruit participants (e.g., Mallon & Webb, 2005). However, assigning games for participants to play, called “mandatory exposure,” can often skew results because the participants are playing games they did not choose in an environment that is unfamiliar to them (Ryan, Rigby & Przybylski, 2006, p. 354). To avoid these biases, researchers also recruit players to play games they already enjoy (e.g., Buchannan-Oliver & Seo, 2012) or to study their past experiences (e.g., Conway & Elphinstone, 2019; Oliver, Bowman, Woolley, Rogers, Sherrick & Chung, 2015).

Objects do not contain pregiven, ahistorical meanings. The perception and meaning of a digital game depend on the existential situation of the person to whom it appears, including the bodies, technologies, skills, knowledge, literacies, history, culture, assumption, intentions and any virtual worlds subjects adopt into consciousness as part of their environment (Gualeni, 2014). The appearance and meaning of game artefacts change with their objective material structure but also with the embodied context in which the objects and events are perceived (Conway & Elphinstone, 2017; 2019; Leino, 2012). For example, the gameworld in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Game Studios, 2006) at first seems vast and unfathomable but becomes mundane and manageable once you have reached its boundaries (Martin, 2011). A grenade launcher is a weapon until you gain the knowledge and skill to use it for traversal (Aarseth, 2003; Lowood, 2006). Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012) may be meaningful as a race to the end, an escapist fantasy, or a metaphor for the search for happiness (Farca, 2016). A glitch may be a frustrating disruption, a timesaving shortcut or a reminder of the game artefact’s agency (Boluk & LeMieux, 2017; Leino, 2012).

There are multiple ways to interact with and interpret a game artefact. Much like how Leino (2012) describes non-player characters (NPCs) in Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment, 2010), a Guardian in Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD, 2017) will “remain on my screen as an NPC attending to NPC business” and materially exists independent of my phenomenology and any assumptions about its rules or purpose. To understand the Guardians as part of the game being played requires studying them as experienced from the player’s perspective. To me, the mechanical, unfeeling Guardians that attack relentlessly on sight were unquestionably dangerous entities I could eradicate without remorse. The situational, changing, multifaceted and seemingly contradictory interpretations across my participants’ experiences provide greater nuance and complexity to my understanding. When Alex was oriented toward their goal of freely exploring every part of Hyrule, Guardians were “really cool” additions to the Zelda franchise, initially as obstacles challenging Alex to improve their skill and later as signs of the skill Alex had achieved. When another participant, Elliott, was oriented towards improving their skill through new boss fights, Guardians were precursors that spoiled the final boss fight's challenge. On the other hand, when Elliott was oriented towards discovering Hyrule's apocalyptic demise, Guardians were part of an intriguing mystery, “as something for good” that were now used for “evil.”

Conway and Elphinstone (2017; 2019) argue that a phenomenological approach is the only way to understand these meanings. Phenomenology is “the philosophical movement concerned with lived experiences” (Smith, 2011, p. 9). This includes how we understand the world and the meanings that arise from our relative position in the world (Conway, 2018). When Krzywinska (2006) advocated for the importance of studying the experience of playing games, she proposed that phenomenology could offer vital insights. Since then, phenomenological approaches have been used in game studies to investigate expertise (Reeves, Brown & Laurier, 2009), embodiment (Crick, 2011), subjectivity (Gualeni, 2014; Vella & Gualeni, 2019), physicality (Witkowski, 2012), the definition and possibilities of gameplay (Larsen & Walther, 2020; Leino, 2012; Vahlo, 2017), games as phenomenal objects (Vella, 2015), subversive design (Jørgensen, 2016), sociohistorical situatedness (Welsh, 2020) and the experiences of specific cohorts such as retrogamers (Ahm, 2021) and Muslim women playing esports in Pakistan (Hussain, Yu, Cunningham & Bennet, 2021).

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis

Considering the importance of lived experience, individual perspectives and contextualised meanings in my study, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was a particularly useful phenomenological methodology. IPA combines rich description and theory-driven interpretation to explore how individuals perceive, understand and make sense of a topic that matters to them and is directly relevant to their lives (Larkin & Thompson, 2012).

IPA was developed in 1996 by Jonathan Smith and its popularity steadily increased from 2004 (Langdridge, 2007; Smith, 2011; Smith & Osborn, 2015). IPA is especially prevalent in health research (Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). However, it can explore “any type of experience” (Smith, 2011, p. 9) and is therefore applicable to a diverse range of studies (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006; Smith & Fieldsend, 2021). IPA offers more guidance for sampling, data collection and analysis compared with other phenomenological approaches (Peat, Rodriguez & Smith, 2018). Additionally, there are many sources detailing these processes, evaluating existing studies, describing new developments and offering recommendations for best practice (e.g., Nizza, Farr & Smith, 2021; Smith, 2011; Smith & Fieldsend, 2021; Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022).

Despite its versatility, availability of resources, emphasis on lived experience and use of methods typically found in game studies (such as semi-structured interviews and thematic analysis), IPA has not been utilised in game studies to the same extent as in psychology and psychiatric fields. Of the phenomenologically based game studies listed above, only Jørgensen (2016) and Ahm (2021) specifically draw on IPA. I found IPA to be an effective approach for collecting richly detailed accounts of participants' play experiences, identifying the commonalities and nuances of their experiences and exploring their meaning-making processes as hero's journeys. I argue in what follows that the methodology is a valuable addition to game studies.

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis developed over time through practice and has established “a set of core ideas” to which all IPA research should adhere (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006, p. 117). Langdridge (2007), Larkin and Thompson (2012), Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022), Smith (1995), Smith and Osborn (2012) and Smith and Shinebourne (2012) all provide explanations for the theoretical foundations of IPA and outline the process. Smith, Jarman and Osborn (1999) specifically explain the process of analysing transcripts and writing up results. Larkin, Watts and Clifton (2006) explain IPA's commitment to both accurately presenting participants' experiential accounts while also providing an interpretative analysis to reveal the phenomenon beyond the participants' sense-making, and Smith (2011) and Nizza, Farr and Smith (2021) define the key attributes of high-quality IPA papers.

I further supplemented this advice for my research project with existing IPA papers. These papers provided practical demonstrations of data collection, analysis and writing up results beyond general guidelines. Dickson, Knussen and Flowers (2007) explain how to recruit participants through friends and colleagues while Patel, Tarrant, Bonas and Shaw (2015) explain how to recruit from universities where the researchers work. Budak, Larkin, Harris and Blissett (2015) and Murray and Rhodes (2005) explain how they protected participants while investigating sensitive topics about miscarriage and adult visible acne, respectively. Face-to-face semi-structured interviews are the most common form of data collection, but Smith (1999) demonstrates how to analyse diaries. Meanwhile, Budak, Larkin, Harris and Blissett (2015) and Murray and Rhodes (2005) explain why conducting interviews via email was important for protecting their participants' well-being.

Dickson, Knussen and Flowers (2007), Reynolds, Vivat and Prior (2011) and Patel, Tarrant, Bonas and Shaw (2015) document their interviews lasting between 30-90 minutes, 50-90 minutes and 60-90 minutes respectively, which is a more concrete guide than Smith and Shinebourne's (2012) general statement that semi-structured interviews can last more than an hour. Murray and Rhodes (2005) explain how they created rapport between interviewer and participant, and Bramley and Eatough (2005) explain how they encouraged participants to discuss emotion and embodied experiences. Eatough, Smith and Shaw (2008) demonstrate the kind of detailed emotional and bodily descriptions one should aim to elicit from participants. Reynolds, Vivat and Prior (2011) explain how they used unexpected topics from earlier interviews to inform their questions in later interviews. Dickson, Knussen and Flowers (2007) explain how their interview schedule began with general questions and gradually progressed to more sensitive questions. Finally, these studies demonstrate how different sample sizes are handled, such as comparing Dickson, Knussen and Flowers's (2007) study of 14 participants against Bramley and Eatough's (2005) use of a single case.

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis as Method

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis is a qualitative method for describing and interpreting lived experiences and the way people make sense of their experiences. “Experience” is a broad term but, for the purposes of IPA, anything can become “an experience” (Smith & Shinebourne, 2012, p. 73). An event becomes “an experience” when the person participating in the event reflects on what happened and attempts to make sense of what happened. Through their meaning-making, the event “takes on a host of additional meanings” beyond being “simply immersed in it” as we are in the “everyday flow of lived experience” (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2022, pp. 1-2). This meaning-making involves “a lot of cerebral and emotional activity” (Smith, 2019, p. 167), which Smith (2019), Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022) and Smith and Shinebourne (2012) call “hot cognition.” Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis can be used to examine any experience, but is ideal for experiences involving hot cognition, rather than for experiences that “are not of current importance” to the person and consequently involve less cognitively and emotionally laden meaning-making, which Smith and Shinebourne (2012, p. 73) call “cool reflection.”

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis is particularly useful for investigating topics that are complex, ambiguous or novel, especially topics and perspectives that are relatively new or unexplored (Peat, Rodriguez & Smith, 2018; Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). This is because IPA is “exploratory rather than explanatory” (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 103). It is intended for broad and open investigations, focusing on “how people make sense of what happens” (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022, p. 39, emphasis in original) and “what it is like to live with x” or “how y works” (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 114, emphasis in original), rather than gathering facts about what happened, testing hypotheses or producing explanations (Langdridge, 2007; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). Investigations are “inductive, grounded in the data rather than pre-existing theory” (Langdridge, 2007, p. 108), and results are valuable for the new insights they provide of the phenomena under investigation (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006).

Phenomenology, hermeneutics and idiography are the “three primary theoretical touchstones” of IPA (Smith & Shinebourne, 2012, p. 73). Phenomenology is the study of lived experiences, specifically the lifeworld, “the world as concretely lived” (Langdridge, 2007, p. 23). Phenomenological approaches study the world through the way it is experienced and appears in consciousness from a situated, embodied position in the world (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022). Due to these phenomenological roots, IPA involves a “detailed examination of personal lived experiences, the meaning of experience to participants and how participants make sense of those experiences” (Smith, 2011, p. 9).

It specifically draws on hermeneutic (or existential) phenomenology. Whereas transcendental phenomenology argues it is possible to “transcend our everyday assumptions” and “get at the universal essence of a given phenomenon, as it presents itself to consciousness,” hermeneutic phenomenology argues context and experience are inseparable (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 102, emphasis in original). Consequently, IPA acknowledges subjectivity and interpretation, of both the participant being interviewed and the researcher conducting the analysis, are fundamental aspects of the world being studied.

Idiography is the study of the particular: “how particular experiential phenomena (an event, process, or relationship) have been understood from the perspective of particular people, in a particular context.” (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022, p. 24) Although IPA studies often analyse accounts from multiple participants and identify patterns of similarity, the idiosyncrasies of each participant's unique experience and the context of their experience must be preserved to provide a nuanced analysis of the different ways the topic is experienced and understood (Nizza, Farr & Smith, 2021).

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis is an inherently flexible approach that continues to develop over time as more research is conducted and evaluated (Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006; Smith, 2011; Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). Any description of IPA can only be a guideline or a collection of strategies for each researcher to adapt to suit their circumstances, provided they adhere to IPA's phenomenological, hermeneutic and idiographic roots (Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Smith, 2011; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012).

Lifeworld to Gameworld

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis's “emphasis on experiential claims and concerns of the persons taking part in the study” is one of its distinguishing characteristics, separating it from other qualitative analyses (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006, p. 104). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis is not concerned with “collecting facts” (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 104) or constructing an “objective statement of the objects or events” (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999, p. 218). Instead, IPA aims to investigate the participant's “view of the topic” (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999, p. 218), how they “make sense” of the topic (Smith & Osborn, 2015, p. 27) and the specific circumstances that “constitute and define the experience” (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006, p. 111).

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis is ideal when studying games as processes, not by investigating what happened but by exploring how it is understood by a person who participated in that process from their situated, embodied position in the world. Open questions invite participants to describe their experience, share their sense-making and engage in sense-making during the interview. Analysing the idiosyncratic nuances of their experiential claims and concerns sheds new light on the topic by complicating and problematising current understanding and making novel discoveries, rather than clarifying, solving or reaching generalisable conclusions. IPA is appropriate for addressing questions about the experience of subversive design in Spec Ops: The Line (Jørgensen, 2016), the range of motivations for engaging with retrogames (Ahm, 2021) and, in the case of my study, the narrative experiences that can arise while playing Breath of the Wild and Ocarina of Time because, in Larkin and Thompson's (2012) words, IPA is a matter of “how things are understood” rather than “what happened” (Ibid, p. 112).

Hermeneutics and Contextualising Gameworlds

As Larkin, Watts and Clifton (2006) succinctly summarise, “What is real is not dependent on us, but the exact meaning and nature of reality is dependent on us” (Ibid, p. 107, emphasis in original). The socio-historical context in which a game is played (including practices, paratexts, expectations and other people) is inextricably part of the gameplay experience. A researcher cannot remove themselves from their context and directly access another person's experience (Smith, 2011). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis instead aims to “come to know something” about a participant's experience through “careful and sympathetic attention” (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006, p. 110). This is accomplished through a two-step interpretation process that Smith and Osborn (2015) call the “double hermeneutic.”

Psychological phenomena are both constituted by and studied through human interpretative practices (Smith, 2011, 2019). The participant makes sense of what happened to them, turning the event into an experience. The researcher then makes sense of the participant's sense-making and uncovers the hidden meanings in their experience, beyond what was literally said, by positioning the account within a wider social, cultural and theoretical context whilst acknowledging the researcher's own subjectivity by reporting the thoughts and preconceptions influencing their interpretation (Langdridge, 2007; Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006; Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999). This is the double hermeneutic process: to allow the participant to tell their own interpretative account and then to engage in a more speculative interpretation of the account to draw conclusions about the experience (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006).

Idiography and Player Participants

Knowledge comes from somewhere. Following IPA's idiographic commitment, participants are purposively sampled and asked to share their lived experiences of the phenomenon and the meanings and truths that arose from their historical, social and cultural context (Langdridge, 2007; Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Reynolds, Vivat & Prior, 2011; Smith & Osborn, 2015). The value is in the depth of these accounts, not the breadth of the data collected. Rather than randomly sampling from a population and drawing broad conclusions and generalisations about a topic, IPA results are valuable for “the light it sheds within this broad context” (Smith & Osborn, 2015, p. 28). Jørgensen's (2016) “fairly homogenous and liberal Nordic” sample is not representative of all people who play Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) but their real “positive negative experiences” contribute to existing research about subversive design. The motivations expressed by Ahm's (2021) nine participants cannot be generalised across all retrogamers but they reveal a wider variety of motivations beyond the typical research focus on nostalgia.

I recruited participants based on their experiences with only two games: Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild. This allowed me to familiarise myself with both games and contextualise the accounts during interviews and analysis. This also allowed interviews to focus on a smaller set of concrete experiences so participants could reflect on those experiences and make sense of them, beyond their initial assumptions. When I asked Alex to describe Breath of the Wild at the start of the interview, they said the antagonist Ganon was a central character and defeating him was the driving motivation. However, as they elaborated and reflected, they were far more motivated to kill the monsters barring their access to Hyrule than to kill Ganon, who only barred access to the final cutscene.

Richly descriptive, highly contextualised accounts also provide novel discoveries and new understandings that contribute to ongoing research, rather than validating and defending an existing argument (Walsh, 2012). Hussain, Yu, Cunningham and Bennett's (2021) interviews with Pakistani Muslim women about playing esports sheds light on the experiences of a group that is insufficiently represented in current research. Their paper contests academic assumptions and addresses the growing interest of Muslim women in esports, thus establishing grounds for future research. Hornbeck's (2016) interviews with Chinese World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2005) players explored players' moral meanings, which then allowed him to construct hypotheses that could be quantitatively tested. My intention was to explore Campbell's (1968) version of the hero's journey as a phenomenological model for analysing play experiences, particularly its dissimilarities from Vogler's (2007) better known hero's journey. Doing so offers novel insights to existing discussions of the hero's journey in games. Alex's hero's journeys were uniquely their own, but Alex's account of finding a weapon they “probably weren't supposed to have that early on” and pushing themselves to fight enemies far stronger than themself until the weapon broke and they were forced to flee again demonstrates Campbell's “thief” hero sequence (1968, p. 246), which is absent from Vogler's (2007) hero's journey. This does not prove Campbell's hero's journey is better or occurs more frequently, but it does reveal Campbell's version accounts for failures and repeated attempts in a way Vogler's hero's journey does not.

The intensive and time-consuming process of collecting and analysing detailed accounts necessitates a small sample size (Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Smith, 2011; Smith & Fieldsend, 2021; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). Smith, Jarman and Osborn (1999), Smith and Fieldsend (2021) and Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022) say ten participants provide sufficient data for a richly detailed analysis and allows researchers to keep “a mental picture” (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999, p. 225) of the separate accounts in their mind. Smith and Shinebourne (2012) say six participants prevented the similarities and differences across the cases from being overwhelming. For first time student projects, Langdridge (2007) recommends five or six and Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022) more cautiously recommend three to five.

I limited my sample to six participants. This provided the time to conduct hour-long (or longer) interviews, become familiar with each transcript, carry out the iterative coding process and find commonalities, all while treating each participant's account as a unique point of view. Each part of an account must be interpreted in the context of the entire account, so idiosyncratic details should be preserved and referenced throughout the analysis process (Nizza, Farr & Smith, 2021). The reason for Alex's frustration upon successfully completing an important quest by sneaking past the almost unkillable Yiga Blademasters becomes apparent when analysed alongside the exhilaration Alex expressed when dying repeatedly to a horde of monsters and the pride they felt in their improvement with each attempt. The quest required skill and Alex did succeed, but undefeatable enemies were not meaningful to Alex's project and contradicted their expectations of the game.

The number of participants and the degree of homogeneity among the sample depends on both theoretical and pragmatic concerns (Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Fieldsend, 2021; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012), such as the time and resources available (Larkin & Thompson, 2012) and the languages in which the researchers are fluent (Smith, 2011). Jørgensen (2016) recruited 13 participants but only five had played Spec Ops: The Line so only five accounts were analysed. Ahm (2021) selected his nine participants based on their availability and responses to pre-interview questions. Considering historically favourable reviews of Ocarina of Time and the recent release of Breath of the Wild, I expected the games would be equally represented in my sample. However, although five did play Breath of the Wild, only one of my six participants had significant experience with Ocarina of Time whereas two stopped playing early due to frustration and three had not played it at all. Consequently, most of my analysis was based on Breath of the Wild experiences, while Ocarina of Time experiences were used to add nuance and contrast.

Accessing the Gameworld

Following IPA, participants' stories can be collected from diaries, focus groups, email dialogues and written description, but one-on-one semi-structured interviews are by far the most common form of data collection (Langdridge, 2007; Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). Semi-structured interviews require more time and effort to conduct and transcribe from audio recordings but the data is richer and consequently more useful when studying complex processes and personal issues (Smith, 1995; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). Semi-structured interviews involve a collaborative conversational style (Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). This allows meaning to emerge “intersubjectively (between the interviewer and interviewee)” (Langdridge, 2007, p. 110). The participant has the freedom to describe their experience in as much detail as possible, while the researcher has the flexibility to follow important issues as they arise (Langdridge, 2007; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012).

Despite this collaborative dialogue, Smith and Osborn (2015) emphasise the importance of an interview schedule, i.e., a set of questions prepared before the interview to help the researcher focus on topics and anticipate problems. Following advice from Smith and Osborn (2015) and Smith and Shinebourne (2012) and descriptions of Dickson, Knussen and Flowers's (2007) interview schedule, my interview schedule began with simple questions, such as requests to describe the game. These broad questions produced information I could use to probe for more detailed descriptions of the participant's experience. My interview schedule also included notes about relevant topics I should pursue were they to arise (e.g., language about feelings and bodily sensations, descriptions of game events and characters), prompts encouraging participants to describe their experience (e.g., "Were there any parts of Ocarina of Time/ Breath of the Wild that stood out to you?") and follow-up questions to elicit more detail (e.g., "What stands out to you about this thing?"; "So, you said this but also you said this other thing?"; "What was your reaction?"; etc.).

The researcher's aim is to elicit accounts of the meaningful world in which the participant is “‘always-already’ immersed” (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 102). The researcher begins by establishing rapport with the participant, to ensure the participant is calm and reflective (Smith, 1995; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). For instance, the researcher might share their own experience with the topic (e.g., Murray & Rhodes, 2005). The participant is “the experiential expert” (Smith & Osborn, 2015, p. 31) and, consequently, they are “given considerable leeway in how the interview proceeds” (Smith & Shinebourne, 2012, p. 76). The participant should be encouraged to give a richly detailed personal account of their experience of the phenomenon, even about topics the researcher did not anticipate (Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). The researcher can guide the participant towards topics of interest, but trying to extract answers with excessive follow-up questions risks leading the participant to certain responses and prevents them from honestly describing their experience.

When investigating player experiences, the topic of interest is not the computational materiality of the objective game system, but the phenomenal game object that exists in the player's imagination and the rules and meanings that arise for the player and are projected onto the game as they play (Vella, 2015; Leino, 2012). What matters is what matters to the player. Ganon is Breath of the Wild's final boss, but he was much less significant to Alex than the Guardians surrounding his castle. Guardians were an ever-present reminder of Alex's need to fight back, which motivated Alex to become stronger. The Guardians eventually became the clearest and most satisfying indicator of Alex's achievements. Even if I expected Ganon to be prominent or prepared my interview schedule around Ganon, Guardians were more meaningful to Alex and were therefore a more fruitful topic for discussion and analysis.

According to Smith and Osborn (2015), good interviews tend to move back and forth between general and specific questions. Following this advice, I began with general questions to identify what matters to the participant and then used key words and phrases in their account (e.g., specific characters, events or emotions) to prompt them to give more detail about what those things mean to them personally. In my interview schedule, I arranged groups of prompts in increasing degrees of specificity, starting with general questions about what mattered to the participant, asking for more detail about the things they raised, asking them to describe concrete experiences with those things and finally asking how they felt during those experiences. When a line of questioning was unsuccessful, I returned to a more general line of questioning until key words arose.

Exploring the Gameworld

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis is inductive, grounded in the participants' accounts rather than pre-existing theories (Langdridge, 2007). The details of the participants' accounts and the specific context of each participant's experience must be central to the analysis process (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006). For this reason, the first step of IPA is to build familiarity with and become “immersed in the data” (Smith & Shinebourne, 2012, p. 77) by reading and re-reading a single transcript while listening to the audio recording, at least for the first reading (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022). By repeatedly reading and listening, the researcher “gain[s] a holistic picture” of the account (Bramley & Eatough, 2005, p. 226).

Researchers must treat every part of the account as potentially important (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006; Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999; Smith & Osborn, 2015). With each reading, the researcher gains “new insights” into the participant's experience (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999, p. 220). When I asked Alex to describe their familiarity with Breath of the Wild, they began by listing locations they knew on the game's map. This initially seemed like a small detail but, through re-reading, I realised that reaching these locations, which were often hidden and surrounded by monsters, required a level of skill and strength that Alex pursued for most of the game. Being able to reach so many places on the map was a significant accomplishment for Alex, not merely a summary of the game's contents.

In this approach, understanding a person's experience requires sustained engagement with the text (Smith & Osborn, 2015). The goal is to make sense of the participant's experience, with all its contents and complexities, and then identify the most important parts of the experience. While becoming familiar with the account, the researcher should begin to make “detailed, line-by-line commentary on the data” (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 104), addressing the participant's concerns, claims, language and anything else that strikes the researcher as interesting or significant. Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022) call this “exploratory noting.” Comparable to free textual analysis, the aim of exploratory noting is to produce a detailed and comprehensive commentary on the transcript (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022; Smith & Osborn, 2015).

The researcher then engages with theory to refine their exploratory notes and construct “experiential statements” (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022), which are “more meaningful statements” (Langdridge, 2007, p. 111) on “a slightly higher level of abstraction” (Smith & Osborn, 2015, p. 41). This leads to “a richer, more insightful” account that enlightens without explaining away the participant's experience (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 111). While reading Alex's transcript, I made exploratory notes about the prominence of monsters and combat, the emotional and bodily language Alex used when recounting fights, and Alex's determination to explore the gameworld despite repeatedly being chased away or even dying. I then used these notes to produce experiential statements “capturing what is crucial at [each] point in the text” (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022, p. 87). Early exploratory notes such as “Ancient Arrows made Alex feel powerful, could navigate maze of Guardians more easily, movement less constrained, no more need to sneak around” were refined to more concise experiential statements such as “Stronger weapons to kill whatever is in the way" and "Being stronger makes exploration more prominent.”

Constructing experiential statements is an iterative process, moving in “the hermeneutic circle” (Smith & Osborn, 2015, p. 30; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012, p. 77). The hermeneutic circle is the process of dynamically moving “between looking at the part and looking at the whole” (Smith & Osborn, 2015, p. 39). This process is necessary for understanding each part in context of the whole and understanding the whole as a combination of the parts. Smith and Osborn (2015) say this begins with the researcher looking at the whole account, then breaking the account down into fragments, looking at those individual pieces in detail and finally reconstructing the fragments into a new whole of clusters and patterns. The reconstructed whole will be different from the initial whole, but it will also be “intimately connected” to the participant (Smith & Osborn, 2015, p. 39).

Early in the interview, Alex described Breath of the Wild as “a mixture of Skyrim [Bethesda Game Studios, 2011] and Zelda in the fact that it's so open world so it doesn't feel like a normal Zelda game.” This quote becomes more significant in light of other quotes that also point towards Alex's desire to explore the map, such as when Alex recounts finding their first treasure chest:

I really felt like an explorer. I really felt like I was the only person who could find this even though there are hundreds of people that have played the game and probably found this same chest but it felt more like my experience because I'd, the, I could go anywhere I want.

It also reveals a frustration with other Zelda games, where challenges and progression are more tightly controlled, suggesting that Alex enjoys Breath of the Wild in part because it is not like other Zelda games:

… my problem with previous Zelda games is that if, they were very linear so if I got stuck on a particular dungeon I would generally stop playing because I couldn't be bothered and I didn't want to stand there wandering around for hours if I couldn't figure something out. But with Breath of the Wild if I, if that happened I could just drop it and go somewhere else and do something else and so I felt like there's a lot more freedom with what you can do. And I really appreciated that. That's the reason that I ended up getting so far in it (laughs).

Even as the researcher draws from theory, analytic strategies and previous research to bring the exploratory notes to more abstract levels, the experiential statements must always relate back to the participant's phenomenological account (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006). Direct quotes “provide the most powerful, insightful or articulate expressions of any given theme” (Dickson, Knussen & Flowers, 2007, p. 855) because they "capture the essential quality of what you are finding" (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999, p. 221). Alex's experience overcoming Guardians after hours of trying, fleeing and dying in Breath of the Wild is vividly conveyed in their own words: It “feels like you're a god.”

In the earliest descriptions of IPA, authors recommended formatting transcripts with wide margins on either side and writing explanatory notes in one margin and experiential statements in the other (e.g., Langdridge, 2007; Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999). Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022) still recommend this approach, using either the “traditional” way with a physically printed transcript or a word processor with columns running along the sides of the document. Some more recent IPA papers explicitly use and recommend qualitative analysis software, typically NVivo (e.g., Bustard, Bolan, Devine & Hutchinson, 2019; Klein & Milner, 2019; Tayor, Edgar & Everett, 2023; Vicary, Young & Hicks, 2017). When writing codes in margins, experiential statements are connected to the places in the transcript where they appear by assigning each an identifier with page and line numbers (Langdridge, 2007; Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012; Smith & Osborn, 2015). Analysis software obviates the need for identifiers (Taylor, Edgar & Everett, 2023). Furthermore, NVivo can link parts of a transcript to additional material, such as audio clips, video recordings, or images drawn by participants during interviews (Klein & Milner, 2019; Vicary, Young & Hicks, 2016).

Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022) encourage innovative approaches to IPA. However, they prefer printing and writing on transcripts, which “engender[s] a sense of close connection with the material,” and the accessibility of generic word processors over analysis software (Ibid., p. 82). They warn that analysis software may not provide the coding options necessary for IPA, particularly the need to treat exploratory notes and experiential statements as two separate levels of coding. This weakness was also observed by those using NVivo, such as Elly Phillips in Wagstaff et al. (2014) and the doctoral student whose reflective journal was analysed by Vicary, Young and Hicks (2017).

Making Sense of the Gameworld

Eventually, when the experiential statements no longer change with further iteration, the researcher must find connections between them, particularly convergences, divergences, commonalities and nuances (Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Smith, Jarman, Osborn, 1999; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). The aim is to arrange the experiential statements into “a more analytic or theoretical ordering” (Smith & Osborn, 2015, p. 42) that can reveal “patterns of meaning in the data” (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 104, emphasis in original). This is called “cumulative coding” (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006).

The researcher must cluster highly related experiential statements into groups to form a structure of high level Personal Experiential Themes (PETs) and smaller sub-themes (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022). Some experiential statements will have “conceptual similarities” and come together to form a theme (Smith & Shinebourne, 2012, p. 77). Some statements may “carry almost exactly the same experiential meaning” and should be merged into a single statement (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022, p. 97). Some statements will be superordinate, becoming a theme and encompassing other statements (Langdridge, 2007; Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). Some may be dropped if they do not fit the structure forming among the other statements, if they lack sufficient supportive evidence in the transcript or if they fail to add to the analysis (Langdridge, 2007; Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999; Smith & Osborn, 2015).

The earliest descriptions of IPA recommend printing the list of all experiential statements found in a transcript, cutting them into separate pieces and arranging them on a large surface (Langdridge, 2007; Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999; Smith & Osborn, 2015). Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022) still recommend this method and it is still used in some cases, such as Megumi Fieldsend's (2019) doctoral thesis supervised by Jonathan Smith (reported in Smith & Fieldsend, 2021). Others use software (e.g., NVivo) for clustering experiential statements (e.g., Bustard, Boland, Divine & Hutchinson, 2019; Klein & Milner, 2019). For example, Taylor, Edgar and Everett (2023) found that combining statements in NVivo was more feasible for their unusually large sample size of 90 interviews across 30 participants.

Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022) explicitly prefer the traditional manual method. It allows the researcher to randomly distribute the experiential statements, thus “breaking up the initial ordering of the statements” from their arrangement in the transcript and “[facilitating] a search for a different more conceptual ordering” (Ibid., p. 91). It also provides a “bird's eye view” (Ibid, p. 91) and a flexibility needed for finding new and novel connections between statements. They recommend that any software used for this stage should replicate this spatial, flexible rearrangement, rather than presenting statements in a linear list, which risks “privileging early statements” over later statements and makes it “harder to consider all possible links” (Ibid., p. 99).

This process forms a master list of Personal Experiential Themes (PETs), each comprising related sub-themes -- themselves each comprising highly related experiential statements -- with each statement supported by quotes from the transcript (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2022). As PETs, sub-themes and experiential statements are clustered, hierarchised and dropped, it is also important to regularly return to the original transcript to confirm whether the structure reflects the participant's experience (Bramley & Eatough, 2005; Langdridge, 2007; Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999; Smith & Osborn, 2015).

Each account must be analysed individually. Smith and Osborn (2015) recommend starting a new master list for each account, rather than adding each subsequent analysis to a single master list. Producing separate master lists allows each account to “speak in its own terms” rather than being restricted to the themes found in previous accounts (Ibid., p. 45). Larkin and Thompson (2012) say this approach also provides an ongoing summation of the analysis, which is both personally satisfying for the researcher and useful for review purposes.

The process of analysing the entire sample of accounts is also iterative. Earlier master lists include many “quite small” and “tentative” themes, which will change as more accounts are analysed (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 108). Langdridge (2007), Larkin and Thompson (2012) and Smith and Shinebourne (2012) specifically recommend that the researcher return to earlier analyses, both to guide the current analysis and to review earlier cases with reference to the current analysis.

Once a master list has been produced for each account, the researcher must draw the lists together into a single structure reflecting all the accounts (Langdridge, 2007; Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022) recommend first finding connections between Personal Experiential Themes (PETs) to form Group Experiential Themes (GETs). They then recommend organising, and potentially re-organising, personal-level sub-themes and experiential statements to fit the structure forming among GETs and group-level sub-themes. Generating “patterns of meaning” across “a set of transcripts” is called “integrated coding” (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006, p. 116). This “requires considerable time, reflection and discussion” (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 111). The final, integrated list should reflect the thematic convergences across the accounts but also respect the individual nuances of how these themes manifest for each participant (Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012).

A Group Experiential Theme (GET) may be present across multiple accounts, but each participant's experience may also be different, and both the broad convergence and the particulars of each account may enlighten the analysis (Larkin & Thompson, 2012). Alex believed that they could “just kill the enemy that's in your way” in Breath of the Wild. The almost unkillable Yiga Blademasters defied these expectations and “forced [Alex] to do what the game wanted,” rather than what Alex wanted. Many participants experienced this same thwarted autonomy and a dissolving feeling of play when their projects were not supported and expectations were not met, but towards different things for different reasons and to different degrees. Elliott hated the hidden doors and false floors in the Bottom of the Well in Ocarina of Time, which followed no discernible pattern and resisted Elliott's desire for skilful mastery. Another participant, Riley, was frustrated when the giant horses in Breath of the Wild, which they saw as complex living creatures, were actually puzzles to solve.

Alex repeatedly tried to fight their way through the Yiga Blademasters, but eventually gave up in frustration and conceded to sneak past. The experience was frustrating, but Alex did not encounter the Yiga Blademasters again, such that they had little impact on the rest of Alex’s experience with the game. In contrast, Elliott hated the Well since childhood despite their love for Ocarina of Time. Since the dungeons must be completed in a mostly linear sequence, they chose to “push myself through it” to experience the rest of the game. Riley's frustration was brief. The horses as puzzles resisted Riley's interpretation of Hyrule as a living world so Riley consulted a YouTube walkthrough to make the puzzle more explicit and solvable. The idiosyncrasies of how this GET was experienced by each participant would be lost if the accounts were summarised and combined.

GETs, group-level sub-themes and the statements comprising them must all be moved, arranged and rearranged to “develop the relationships between the themes” that have been identified across every account (Larkin & Thompson, 2012, p. 112). The structure of GETs and sub-themes will continue to change as themes are combined or dropped according to their prevalence, richness and whether they illuminate the analysis as a whole (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). The analysis process even continues as researchers write up their results (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999). The researcher must continually return to the transcripts to verify their analysis as their arguments unfold (Smith & Osborn, 2015).

Presenting the Gameworld

The goal of any IPA paper is to guide the reader through the analysis process via a “persuasive and coherent story” (Nizza, Farr & Smith, 2021, p. 371). Larkin and Thompson (2012), Smith, Jarman and Osborn (1999), Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2022), Smith and Osborn (2015) and Smith and Shinebourne (2012) all say it is important to present the themes and patterns of meanings as a “narrative account.” A narrative account should describe each GET one at a time (with illustrative excerpts) and interpret each theme with theory to “generate new insights” (Smith & Shinebourne, 2012, p. 80). Nizza, Farr and Smith (2021) advise alternating between illustrative quotes from the participants and analytic interpretations of those quotes, with each subsequent quote building on the previous quotes to add something new or offer a different perspective.

One GET across my participants’ experiences, called “Power and control,” represents their experiences of having power over the game and the game having power over them. Alex's experience of running from, fighting and defeating Guardians expresses this theme well enough, but the theme, and Alex's experience, are made more substantial when compared with those of other participants. Such experiences include: Chris's struggle to climb a snowy mountain without freezing to death, Kelly's experience being “mercilessly killed” when they unknowingly stumbled into dangerous places and Elliott's experience fighting bosses in both games. In each case, the participant wanted something, misjudged their current state and abilities, realised “maybe I was missing something” (as Kelly put it) and finally began adapting their behaviour until they had the control they initially expected.

Results and discussion sections can be presented separately or combined into one large section, but presenting two separate sections tends to be more common (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999; Smith & Osborn, 2015). When presented separately, the results section presents the GETs, group-level sub-themes, accompanying extracts and the researcher's interpretations as a narrative account and the following discussion section contextualises the themes by connecting them with extant literature (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006; Smith & Osborn, 2015; Smith & Shinebourne, 2012). I followed this advice and presented my results and discussion separately. This structure allowed me to present each theme in detail, including the nuances of how it manifested within each account and each theme's connection with theory. From there, the themes could be discussed in a wider theoretical context, along with the implications these themes have for the hero's journey as a narrative model for games.

In my narrative account, I presented the “Power and control” GET through each participant's unique experiences and revealing quotes. Then, in the discussion section, I analysed the GET by drawing on theories of ludicity (the player's ability to act in the gameworld; Conway, 2010) and Self-Determination Theory (which proposes that activities are intrinsically motivating when they satisfy our sense of competence, autonomy or relatedness; Ryan, Rigby & Przybylski, 2006). With Self-Determination Theory, I discuss how this early contra-ludicity (a lack of impact on the gameworld) was important for each participant's sense of autonomy (the feeling of acting of their own volition) as they discovered possibilities for themselves and thereby increased their hyper-ludicity (or sense of impact on the gameworld). I then compared this analysis to Campbell's hero's journey. The feeling of “missing something” (as Kelly put it) and the way each goal my participants pursued shaped their experience and expectations cumulatively fits Campbell's description of resolving a hero's “deficiency” and “misunderstanding” through the hero's journey (Campbell, 1968, pp. 37, 238).


Phenomenology is a valuable approach in game studies. It has been used to disentangle assumptions of gameness from the material software (Leino, 2012), investigate “the phenomenological and hermeneutic processes” of player understanding (Vella, 2015), understand the impact of historical context on gameplay (Welsh, 2020) and to bridge the seemingly oppositional approaches of game formalism and player-centrism (Larsen & Walther, 2020, p. 625).

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis is an especially useful phenomenological methodology. Other scholars have used IPA to explore concrete experiences, provide new insight into existing research, challenge dominant assumptions and illuminate diversity among players (Ahm, 2021; Jørgensen, 2016). I found IPA to be an ideal approach for analysing play experiences with Breath of the Wild and Ocarina of Time and exploring the way these experiences aligned with and diverged from Campbell's hero's journey.

For much of Alex's time playing Breath of the Wild, the game became meaningful for Alex as they fought against obstructing enemies and explored every part of Hyrule. This was only one project revealed during the study. At other times, the game was meaningful to Alex through goals related to friendship, responsibility and freedom. This was the case for all my participants, in sometimes overlapping and sometimes divergent ways, such as finding closure, solving mysteries and even living peacefully in Hyrule. Each participant was most satisfied when the game was meaningful in ways consistent with their current project. This was true for their expectations of progress and success but also for their expectations of obstacles and failure. These patterns match Campbell's (1968) description of the hero's journey more so than they match Vogler's (2007) more popular hero's journey. This challenges assumptions about the hero's journey's prescriptive and linear stages.

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis offers a set of principles for collecting detailed, contextual data about lived experiences. From this rich experiential material, the IPA analyst can explore meanings and identify commonalities across a sample of participants whilst preserving individual nuances. Its open, exploratory nature gives participants the space to tell their own stories, and its roots in hermeneutic phenomenology allow researchers to contextualise those stories and make sense of the participants' sense-making. Considering the ongoing scholarly interest in studying games as perceived, co-constructed, and practiced, IPA has the potential to explore what matters and what games mean.



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