At Play: Between Reality and Make-Believe

Game Studies Day at the Now Play This Festival
Thursday, April 11 2024
On-site and Livestreamed


The Game Studies Day is produced by Federico Alvarez Igarzábal, Substitute Professor of Media & Game Studies (Cologne Game Lab) with the support of Cologne Game Lab and in collaboration with “In betweenness of play” British DiGRA  & DiGRA Brazil and Counterpoint Arts




All play occurs in a liminal space: a place between everyday reality and a realm that can be composed of fanciful objects, characters, and settings, and which is typically governed by a special set of rules. When at play, we shift our priorities to focus on objectives that take primacy within the confines of this liminal space. During a chess match, the most important thing for each contestant is to win. When at play, we also accept new roles and the existence of impossible or improbable events and things. A child may suddenly become a doctor and one of their parents their patient. Play is a place of imagination, simulation, experimentation, learning, transgression, enjoyment, frustration, sadness, and joy.

This event will explore diverse facets of the liminal space of play through the work of scholars and artists, seeking to offer a deeper understanding of this complex phenomenon through the lens of the field of Game Studies.


Open doors – accreditation

Opening Words by Luján Oulton (Now Play This) & Federico Alvarez Igarzábal (Cologne Game Lab)

utonomous Digital Worlds: Live Simulations as Radical Inaction
Serafín Alvarez, BAU College of Art and Design

This conference examines some of the implications of designing non-interactive video games through a posthumanist lens, introducing the concept of “radical inaction”. In contrast to traditional approaches focused on the active participation of human players and engaging gameplay, radical inaction foregrounds inherent facets of video games often overlooked, such as complex entanglements of non-human agencies, thereby challenging and broadening prevailing definitions of the medium. Drawing from my artistic practice and juxtaposing it with the work of fellow artists and researchers, this ongoing research argues that a posthumanist approach to algorithmic autonomy in the context of video game automation offers a fruitful theoretical framework for reevaluating established notions concerning player-game relationships.

The Gaps in the Game – Loading Screens and Other Phenomena of Montage
Philipp Bojahr, Cologne Game Lab, TH Köln

Loading screens in video games possess a curious ontological status: they fill gaps in gameplay and thus are not born out of an artistic decision but rather technical necessity. They represent cracks in the aesthetic layer that offer glimpses into the underlying mediality of the video game: an ‘assemblage’ of content, specific formal aesthetics, and circuitry, stitched together on the fly and individually as we play.

Following this path, the talk will explore the different forms of montage in computer games on the aesthetic and technical layers, and will also look to other media (such as film, literature, or painting) as well as to principles of industrial assembly.

The Haunted Spaces in Between: On the Structural Liminality of Walking Simulators
Katja Aller, Cologne Game Lab, TH Köln

This talk explores the inherent liminality of so-called walking simulators. Utilising the theories
of the Uncanny (Freud; Heidegger) and Hauntology (Derrida; Fisher), it examines how
walking simulators reflect and create spaces of liminality across three key dimensions: 1) on
the diegetic level; 2) in the realm of game production; and 3) within the discourse
surrounding the subversion of an established (cis/hetero/male-normative) “gamer” identity,
particularly during the 2010s.
With their accessible gameplay and comparatively cheap development costs, walking
simulators have not only diversified the gaming landscape but also challenged traditional
notions of who qualifies as a "gamer." The debate over whether walking simulators truly
classify as games highlights their role as both a reflection of and a contributor to the game
industry's liminal state during the past decade, marking a significant artistic and cultural shift
that I call “the emotional turn” of game development.

Gameplay as a Self-Sustainable System
Emmanuel Guardiola, Cologne Game Lab, TH Köln

For a large number of games, the core gameplay is defined as the player’s actions in an uncertain context, where they confront a challenge and attempt to reach a victory state. We can formalize the player’s actions as loops and flow charts that visualize the experience proposed by the game. We can also make explicit the interactions between the different game systems and how they influence each other. This talk aims to portray gameplay form a different perspective, as an independent, self-sustainable system navigating in the time and space that contains it.  


14:30 Race-Making in Real-Time 3D: The Assetization of Diversity in ‘Post-Race’ Videogame Culture
Aleena Chia, Goldsmiths, University of London.

* In-Betweenness of Play Pre-Conference Plenary Address, Co-programmed with British DIGRA and DIGRA Brazil *

While the dominant aspiration for human beauty on social media is smoothness and symmetry, the benchmark for quality in digital humans is texture and irregularity. Within the visual economy of hyperreal videogames, imperfection imparts character to artificial beings, enhancing their capacity to engage, influence, and entertain. Requiring more resources to model, visual character can now be blended from databases of diverse facial features, skin tones, and hair textures captured from photogrammetric scans of real humans. Predominantly white makers of digital human tools such as Epic Games’ MetaHuman Creator promote their ‘diverse series of presets’ as empowering equitable character creation. Scholars of post-race call out these practices as diversity surfing, which casts race as a cosmetic rather than political category, producing compliant digital humans who stand in for black and creators of colour. Building on this scholarship, this talk analyses how tools such as MetaHuman Creator abstract racial diversity as mathematical fact derived from databases of human scans. As a key technique of real-time 3D production, photogrammetry extends an understanding of race that segregates core technologies from peripheral assets: the control rig of human kinesiology is insulated as proprietary function, while the ‘ever-growing library of variants of human appearance’ is relegated as fungible asset. These tools impose computational constraints on racial blending, based less on plausibility of scan data, and more on conservative understandings of racial coherence that underpin modern notions of racial difference. Digital humans are avatars of this paradoxical state of plasticity, whereby racialised forms (of value) are continuously recast by external pressure, yet must consistently preserve internal coherence.

Representation in Video Games: Where the social justice and the market align
Hossam Fazulla, Laith Elzubaidi & Tommy Sim’aan

* Presented in cooperation Counterpoints Arts *

In the ever-evolving entertainment industry, video games hold the greater position of influence and potential. Yet, like film, tv and other mediums, video games have often perpetuated the same patterns of inaccurate and harmful at times representation of people of colour. This panel aims to dissect the layers of representation in video games, identify the issues with such portrayals, and explore pathways towards a more inclusive and truthful gaming ecosystem, and what such representation could be. By bringing together voices from the gaming and social justice spheres, we aim to chart a course for a future where the gaming industry can flourish while reflecting the richness of human experience.

16:00 BREAK(30 m)

Closing Keynote:
Emerging Life at and in the Virtual Frontier
Gundolf S. Freyermuth, Cologne Game Lab, TH Köln 

The frontier to virtuality opened in the early 1980s, after four decades of preparatory technological work characterized by the conceptual separation of hardware and software, the technical realization of software’s affordance for virtualization, and finally, the development and implementation of software-based networking. By the start of the 1980s, thousands of digital networks had emerged, connecting computers numbering in the millions and an even greater quantity of users, albeit fragmented by proprietary protocols. In 1983, the Internet interconnected them.

In this pivotal moment, when the act of traversing the threshold between materiality and virtuality started evolving from a scientific endeavor to a mass cultural practice, three popular visions of future media took shape. To this day, they persist as foundational and potent models for both technical and artistic imagination: William Gibson’s Cyberspace (1982), Gene Roddenberry’s Holodeck (1987), and Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse (1992). Their common denominator is that they envisage liminal and hybrid spaces for living virtually between fact and fiction. In very different ways, Cyberspace, Holodeck, and Metaverse promise partial escapes from reality – but also the empowerment to overcome real problems through virtual experimentation with new ideas, behaviors, and identities beyond the boundaries of material space, cultural restrictions, and social consequences.

In my talk, I will investigate the frontier attributes of these three future media and their dialectical interplay – from the global hallucinatory immateriality of Cyberspace (thesis) to the Holodeck’s local playground of computer-controlled fluid materiality (antithesis) to the Metaverse’s software simulation of a global and semi-material 3D counterworld (synthesis).

The Game Studies Day is produced by Federico Alvarez Igarzábal with the support of Cologne Game Lab and in collaboration with “In betweenness of play” DiGRA UK & DiGRA Brazil and Counterpoint Arts 






Federico Alvarez is Substitute Professor of Media & Game Studies at Cologne Game Lab. Federico is a scholar of games and play working at the intersection of aesthetics and cognitive science. He specializes in time in video games, both concerning the formal analysis of the medium and the psychology of time perception. This combination of fields has allowed him to work on national and international projects both in the humanities (game studies, media studies) and the natural sciences (psychology, neuroscience), combining theoretical and experimental approaches


Serafin Alvarez is an artist, researcher and educator. Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and Master’s degree in Artistic Production and Research from the University of Barcelona (UB), he is currently pursuing a PhD in Design and Communication at BAU, College of Arts & Design of Barcelona, with a practice-based research oriented towards the design and production of autonomous digital worlds using video game technology. At BAU, College of Arts & Design of Barcelona, he serves as both a faculty member and the Head of the Composition and Languages Department.


Philipp Bojahr (Cologne Game Lab) is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the CGL working in the field of game studies and game design with a focus on new media applications in museums and other cultural contexts. As part of his tandem position, he also works in this field on a practical level at the Siegerlandmuseum in Siegen, where he serves as curator with a focus on multimedia and multimodal presentation.

He studied media studies (B.A.) and media culture (M.A.) at the University of Siegen and received his doctorate in media and theatre studies from the University of Cologne for his work on aesthetic and technical visual forms of montage/assembly in videogames (“Visuelle Montageformen des Computerspiels”).

Katja Aller (Cologne Game Lab) is the program manager for the interdisciplinary MA Game Development and Research. She holds a joint master’s degree in German and Comparative Literature from both Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn (Germany) and St Andrews University (Scotland) and is a co-organizer of the Young Academics Workshop. As a former literature scholar, she has a soft spot for narrative-heavy games and so-called walking simulators. In 2020, she became a PhD candidate in media studies at Cologne University. Her dissertation “The Narrative Capacities of Spaces and Objects in Walking Simulator Games” explores the connections and relationships between player, narrative(s), and in-game environments in walking simulators. Her research interests include (transmedial) Narratology, Theory of Space, Object/Thing Studies, and Horror in games and film.

Emmanuel Guardiola (Cologne Game Lab). After 15 years in the video game industry, focusing on game design methodologies, Emmanuel Guardiola took up a professorship at the Cologne Game Lab at TH-Köln. With a Ph.D. in computer sciences, he drives research in game design.



Aleena Chia (Goldsmiths University, London) uses ethnographic and textual methods to study cultures of creativity such as vocational passion and computational creativity in digital game production, New Age innovation rituals in tech cultures, and wellness discourses in social media disconnection.

Aleena received her PhD in Communication and Culture from Indiana University in 2017 and was a postdoctoral researcher at the Academy of Finland’s Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies in 2018. Before joining Goldsmiths, she was Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, Canada. Her work has been supported by funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and an internship at Microsoft Research New England’s Social Media Collective.

Counterpoints Arts is a leading national organisation in the field of arts, migration and cultural change. We support the arts by and about refugees and migrants and we produce a range of programmes in the UK and internationally, including Refugee Week, PopChange and Platforma festival.



Hossam Fazulla (Faz) is a Digital and Multimedia Producer and a video game artist and journalist, whose work blends arts, technology, and social justice. Faz has worked for several international Organisations, including The BBC World Service, and Pen International, and now works as a digital producer for Counterpoints Arts.



Laith Elzubaidi is a British-Iraqi Screenwriter and Producer based in London. He is also the founder of the British-Arab Writers Group and producer at Counterpoints Arts spearheading their Pop Culture and Social Change programme; including a consultancy that connects creatives with lived-experience of refugee and migrant experiences with productions across the globe.



Tommy Sim’aan, is a multi-disciplined British-Iraqi actor and can currently be seen in flagship BBC One Drama VIGIL. He speaks French, Spanish and Arabic fluently, is a skilled martial artist with strong movement/combat/sword skills, and a multi-instrumentalist and singer, playing the violin, piano, guitar and accordion.

His onscreen credits include THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS for SKY and a returning role in DOCTORS for the BBC.

His radio and voiceover credits include Thomas Hardy’s TWO ON A TOWER and THE MEDICI: BANKERS, GANGSTERS, POPES for BBC Radio 4, BALDURS GATE III (recipient of the Game of the Year award at the 2023 Game Awards) and upcoming AAA Video Game projects with SIDE and Molinare.

On stage, productions include  A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE for Headlong, THE TEMPEST for the RSC, STARCROSSED at Wiltons Music Hall (where he was nominated The Stage Debut award) and a UK tour of THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW (Tilted Wig / Malvern Theatres / Churchill Theatre).

Tommy trained at Bristol Old Vic.

Gundolf S. Freyermuth Ph.D. (Cologne Game Lab) is a professor of Media and Game Studies and a founding director of the Cologne Game Lab at the Technical University of Cologne in Germany. Additionally, he serves as an Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies at the IFS (Internationale Filmschule Köln). Beyond academia, he has extensive experience as an editor, reporter, scriptwriter, and documentary filmmaker. In the last decade, he has secured and executed numerous third-party-funded research projects with combined budgets in the seven-figure Euro range. Recently, he was awarded an Opus Magnum grant from the Volkswagen Foundation to complete his monograph Play: Audiovisuality in the Modern Era-Theater, Film, Television, Games.

Freyermuth co-edits the “Studies of Digital Media Culture” series with transcript publishing. He has authored or (co-) edited over 20 fiction and non-fiction books and published approximately 500 papers, essays, and reportages. His most recent publications include Games | Game Design | Game Studies. An Introduction (2015) and as co-editor Playing Utopia (2019), Paratextualizing Games (2021), and Playful Materialities (2022).