Articles and essays

Spokes, M., Denham, J., Coward-Gibbs, M., and Veal, C. 2023. ‘I wasn’t me, grieving in my room. I was Spiderman’: Gaming, Loss and Self-Care following COVID-19. Mortality [in press].

Building on Stroebe and Schut’s (1999) ‘dual process model’ (DPM), this paper draws on data from a survey of young people who identify as regular gamers (n=450) and semi-structured follow-up interviews (n=20) to understand video games as a form of self-care, and the positive and problematic encounters gamers experience in relation to immersion and escapism. The work is situated in relation to game/leisure studies, and extant research on different types of loss (bereavement; social opportunities; employment). We argue that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, self-reported responses to play function as a form of oscillation between ‘loss’ and ‘restoration’ in the DPM, and that the act of play and its post-hoc rationalization is a crucial form of coping for young people, and an opportunity for meaning-making whilst grieving. Our contribution is to demonstrate how video games can and should be considered as a catalyst for grief management.

Denham, J., Spokes, M., Coward-Gibbs, M., and Veal, C. 2023. Personal, Pedagogic Play: A Dialogic Model for Video Game Learning. Pedagogy, Culture and Society.

Utilising data from semi-structured interviews (n = 20), this paper explores the educational function of internationally popular, blockbuster videogames, including the ways in which players identify and operationalise these learning experiences. It proposes a framework through which different learning experiences in mainstream, culturally significant games can be categorised, utilising dialogic learning approaches – drawn from application of – to position players in constant dialogue with the games that they play: a co-constructive pedagogy of videogames. We find that, in the context of popular videogames, implicit learning is relevant, present, and valuable. Our contribution is to offer a reimagined dialogic typology which can help players, educators, caregivers and games scholars identify, utilise and research digital play-learning.

Coward-Gibbs, M. 2021. Why Don’t We Play Pandemic: Analog Gaming Communities in Lockdown. Leisure Sciences 43(1-2).

This response considers how analog gaming (both contemporary board gaming and tabletop roleplaying games) practices shifted as a response to the Covid-19 lockdowns issues in the United Kingdom. The article considers the tools at gamers disposal and both the promises and the difficulties of turning what was usually a physical medium into a digital one. The respondents in this study noted that there were significant changes to their play experiences. However, overall, players were appreciated of the sense of normalcy that continuing to engage in play afforded them during the ongoing pandemic.

Denham, J., and Spokes, M. 2021. The Right to the Virtual City: Rural Retreatism in Open World Gaming. New Media and Society 23(6).

In this work we explore how the spatial geography of certain open world video games influences the play experience. Particularly, we consider how certain social inequalities, like gender, race, and class, can be seen and reproduced in video game spaces. The work uses Henri Lefebvre’s ‘spatial triad’, a way of thinking about how the spaces which we go contain hidden power dynamics, to show how inequality and space are linked in play. We focus on social exclusion – who is and isn’t welcome in certain spaces – to highlight that games can be a learning opportunity for players by letting them embody ways of being that they aren’t necessarily used to, or helping them see problems which are sometimes ignored in everyday life.

Denham, J., Hirschler, S., and Spokes, M. 2021. The Reification of Structural Violence in Videogames. Crime, Media, Culture 17(1).

This work looks at structural violence in video games, which is the type of violence that’s often invisible: like unequal access to healthcare, resources, or harm that’s caused by things like geographical inequality, systemic racism, or sexism. It looks at player’s perception of ‘realisticness’, and argues that even though interpersonal violence is the most obvious and well documented in game spaces, its generally received by players as fictional, make-believe – taken with a grain of salt. On the other hand, we argue that structural violences are of far greater importance to study, since players receive them less critically – as the thing which grounds the game in realism. As games researchers, our focus should be on the bleeding of real world inequality into game spaces.

Coward-Gibbs, M. 2019. Critical Spelunking of Casual Toxicities: Patching Gaming Culture. Information, Communication and Society 22(14).

This review essay considers recently released texts in game studies and argues that there is a growing call for a reboot of gaming culture which patches out the toxicities that exist within it.

Spokes, M., and Denham, J. 2019. Developing Interactive Elicitation: Social Desirability and Capturing Play. The Qualitative Report 24(4).

In this work, we make the case for a new form of research data collection called “interactive elicitation”; it combines elements of photo elicitation, interviewing and vignettes. We use the approach during work with young people playing violent open-world video games (GTA V in particular). We reflect on the initial design of the research methodology, the problematic aspects of conducting the research – focusing on social desirability bias – before offering adaptations to our approach in relation to complementary work in the field of Game Studies. We feel this approach is especially useful for producing authentic data around experiences of play, especially if you’re playing with the participants at the same time! 

Spokes, M. 2019. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, procedural rhetoric and the military-entertainment complex: two case studies from the War on Terror. Media, War and Conflict 32(2).

This article explores how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is represented in video games developed and played during the height of the War on Terror. It looks at two historical case studies - Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2005) and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon 2 (2004) – to understand how representations of North Korean military personnel and types of gameplay operate and what this might mean more broadly in relation to the ‘military-entertainment complex’. The article compares the games with notable films featuring North Korea, concluding that in a representational sense, North Korea is framed paradoxically in video games, a country that is viewed on the one hand as a threat to world peace and on the other as an absurdist dictatorship. 

Denham, J., and Spokes, M. 2018. Thinking Outside the Murder Box: Subjective Violence in Open World Gaming. British Journal of Criminology 59(3).

This article investigates what gamers choose to ‘do’ inside of games that are often labelled as ‘violent’, and finds that frequently – open world playspaces are used to simulate other aspects of life, with violence often being shunned in favour of other activities. We reflect on those other activities, like driving around on the right side of the road, stopping and waiting at traffic lights, personalising one’s avatar-self, or going for rides on a Ferris wheel, and what they tell us about gameplay. Our argument in this work is that our game of study (Grand Theft Auto 5) acts more like a capitalism simulator than a violence simulator, and that the choices made by players in-play can allow us witness purchasing-seeking behaviour rather than interpersonal violence-seeking behaviour.  

Spokes, M. 2018.  ’War…War Never Changes…’: Explicit and implicit death narratives in a post-apocalyptic gameworld. Mortality 23(2).

This article explores how gamers use the bombed-out spaces of an alternative Boston as a catalyst to discuss their own fears about death and dying. Using an example of skeletons fixed in different poses spread across the game, the article suggests that play enables gamers to experience – at a safe distance – a variety of forms of death, both interpersonal and environmentally-based, and to use these experiences as a proxy to unpack their concerns about their own mortality and broader worries about potentially catastrophic events that might result in the destruction of the human race. 


Coward-Gibbs, M. (ed.) 2020. Death, Culture and Leisure: Playing Dead. Bingley: Emerald.

Spokes, M. 2020. Gaming and the Virtual Sublime: Rhetoric, Awe, Fear, and Death in Contemporary Video Games. Bingley: Emerald.

Chapters in edited books

Denham, J., and Spokes, M. 2023. Il diritto alla città virtuale: la regressione rurale nei videogiochi open world. In: Bittanti, M. (ed.). Reset: Politica e videogiochi. Milano: Mimesis Edizioni. [reprint]

Coward-Gibbs, M. 2022. Why Don’t We Play Pandemic? Analog Gaming Communities in Lockdown. In: Lashua, B., Johnson, C.W., and Parry, D.C. (eds.). Leisure in the Time of Coronavirus: A Rapid Reponse. London: Routledge. [reprint]

Coward-Gibbs, M. 2020. Some Games You Just Can’t Win: Crowdfunded Memorialisation, Grief and That Dragon, Cancer. In: Coward-Gibbs, M (ed.). Death, Culture and Leisure: Playing Dead. Bingley: Emerald.

Coward-Gibbs, M. 2020. Death ≠ Failure. In: Coward-Gibbs, M (ed.). Death, Culture and Leisure: Playing Dead. Bingley: Emerald.


Denham, J., Spokes, M., and Hirschler, S. 2019. Video game violence is not the problem – the real world that inspires it is. The Conversation (15 November).

Conference presentations and public talks

Coward-Gibbs, M. July 2023. Surface Tensions: Why What We Play on Matters. UK Games Expo, Birmingham NEC. Public engagement.

Coward-Gibbs, M. July 2023. Panellist on Talking about Books about Games. July 2023. UK Games Expo, Birmingham NEC. Public Engagement.

Spokes, M., and Denham, J. February 2023. UK Digital Games Lab Summit, University of Leicester.

Coward-Gibbs, M. April 2021. Panellist for Gaming while Queer. Department of Psychology, University of York.

Denham, J., and Spokes, M. July 2020. The Right to the Virtual City: Rural Retreatism in Open-World Video Games. Spelunking 2020: Games, Cultures, Societies, University of York.

Coward-Gibbs, M. March 2020. Analog Gaming’s Second-Hand Markets. AireCon 6, Harrogate Convention Centre. Public engagement.

Denham, J., Hirschler, S., and Spokes, M. August 2019. The Reification of Systemic Violence in Video Games. DiGRA 2019, Kyoto.

Coward-Gibbs, M. July 2019. Dying to Play: Games, Death & Social Life. Archbishop Holgate School, York. Public engagement

Coward-Gibbs, M. 2019. Analog UK: Tabletop Gaming in the 21st Century. UK Games Expo, Birmingham NEC. Public engagement.

Coward-Gibbs, M. March 2019. UK Tabletop Gaming Communities. AireCon 5, Harrogate Convention Centre. Public engagement.

Coward-Gibbs, M. September 2018. Cemeteries, Consoles & Corpses: Burial Ground Ethnography in Gameplay Environments. Death & Culture II, University of York.

Coward-Gibbs, M. May 2018. Some Games You Just Can’t Win: Crowdfunded Memorialisation, Grief and That Dragon, Cancer. Playing Dead, University of York.

Denham, J., and Spokes, M. May 2018. Aesthetics of Digital Violence. Playing Dead, University of York.

Coward-Gibbs, M. April 2018. Survival Horrors, Surviving Horrors: Wolfenstein, Traumatic Play and the Social Gothic. Gaming the Gothic, University of Sheffield.

Coward-Gibbs, M. September 2017. In War, Not Everyone is a Soldier: Ritual Thresholds and Tabletop Gaming. Thresholds, SATSU, University of York.

Spokes, M. September 2016. War, War Never Changes: Exploring Death Narratives with Skeletons in a Post-Apocalyptic Gameworld. Death & Culture, University of York.