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Some Thoughts on Meaning and Games

How do games create meaning?

This is the question that is at the core of some the most prevalent, heated, and often exhausting debates in the game development community. Arguments over the place of storytelling in games, or whether or not games can be considered ‘art’. I believe that the search for an answer partly fuels the popularity of games from Metal Gear Solid to Passage and is the primary cause of what Eric Zimmerman calls our “cinema-envy”.

Now, no one is questioning that games can be meaningful. There are plenty of games that produce highly emotional states, in both players and spectators. It’s also commonsense that all games foster certain types of behavior, from Football’s reliance on the division of labor to Starcraft‘s multi-tasking.

In this case though, the question is less about psychology and more about semiotics. We’re very familiar with how words and pictures create meaning, how they signify a thing. If I show you a picture of an orange or the word ‘orange’, a signifier, depending on your level of literacy you’ll be able to figure out what I’m trying to communicate, the signified fruit.

However, is there a way a game can signify something without the aid of pictures or words?


The obvious answer is that games create meaning through their mechanics. This is the position taken up by the theorist/game designers Gonzalo Frasca and Ian Bogost and echoed (perhaps unintentionally) by the game designers Rod Humble and Jason Rohrer. The basic gist of all their ideas is that you can interpret a mechanic just as you can interpret a sentence.

For instance, in one of Frasca’s games the player must destroy enemies who are scattered among neutral NPCs with a weapon that has a large area of effect. The problem is that for every NPC that the player kills along with an enemy, a certain number of other NPCs then become enemies.

The moral that a player might read from these mechanics is that it is inefficient to use a weapon with a large blast radius to destroy an enemy that is hidden within a group of neutrals, if (importantly) those neutrals become enemies when other neutrals are destroyed.

Even without the context that Frasca gives in presenting the game, called September 12th, which is set in a small Middle Eastern village with the player dropping smart bombs, you could see how this might invoke thoughts about the type of war the United States has decided to wage against terrorism. Right?

Kanta Matsuhisa’s Every Extend is a game where the player must maneuver around swarming enemies, exploding themselves at the right moment, taking out as many of their enemies at one time as possible. Because the player has a limited stock of explosions they must take out enough enemies to earn another explosion, therefore allowing them to continue destroying enemies.

Whatever the intent of Matsuhisa (which probably didn’t extend beyond making an interesting shooter/puzzle game) it’s very unlikely that she was thinking of religious martyrdom while making Every Extend. This certainly wasn’t in the thoughts of Tetsuya Mizuguchi when he remade the game for the PSP, adding his own trance-inducing musical aesthetic.

It’s reasonable to say though that it would be difficult to find an American living in the present moment who could not easily make a connection between Matsuhisa’s game described in pure mechanics and suicide bombings.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a signifier having multiple signifieds, a picture of an orange calls to mind both the fruit and the color, but it’s a little worrisome that the meaning of a game’s mechanics could be quite so plastic. It’s worrisome because it becomes very difficult to assess the merits of an expression when that expression is ambiguous. No one wants to make the mistake of accusing a well-intentioned designer with espousing radical jihadism.


This contradiction, where one game’s mechanics are fairly representative of its rhetoric while another’s appears totally counter-intuitive, is not as problematic as it seems at first. Meaning, after all, is never inherent. The word ‘orange’ means nothing to someone who is not an English speaker (or maybe something unintended).

The link between signifier and signified is a social construct that is in no way inevitable.

If you and I agree that the word ‘orange’ actually means that feeling you get when you can’t remember if you did something or not, then it now has that meaning for us in addition to its more traditional definitions.

The problem with the “mechanics as meaning” approach is that it presupposes a set of agreed upon meanings for any given set of mechanics.

Beyond this, meaning is always in flux, as one agreed upon vocabulary is critiqued and subverted by the next. Statements then, like “a game creates meaning through its mechanics” are obvious, tautological, and ultimately empty.

Because the analysis of game mechanics is small and poorly documented when compared to the vast history of games themselves, it should be no surprise that when games want to create easily recognizable signs they have frequently relied on the more established signifiers of other art forms.

Non-interactive cut-scenes that communicate the context and motivations for players in a game are a modern example of this phenomenon. Video games from Final Fantasy VII to Halo 2 employ the conventions of cinema to establish their characters and plot, depicting complex narrative elements that would be difficult or maybe impossible to get across through pure mechanics.

The same phenomena can be found in older folk games that have no primary author. My favorite example is the card game War, which is completely random and features frequent reversals of fortune.

The mechanics of War themselves aren’t particularly evocative of actual warfare (though I could make an argument if pressed), but the fact that this game has been passed down to us with such a militaristic title gives us some context for an anthropological interpretation. The question is not “are these mechanics a good abstraction of war” but rather, “why is this game, this set of mechanics, called War?”.

Even a game that makes a concerted effort to communicate exclusively through its mechanics, such as Rod Humble’s seminal “art game” The Marriage, must rely on a level of overt visual representation. While the pulsing opacity of the different shapes in Humble’s game is meant to express the trials and tugs that take place during married life, it seems unlikely that anyone could guess this if the two most important squares weren’t blue and pink.


Ironically, and inevitably, this process of creating meaning through more recognizable signifiers has developed a vocabulary of signs specific to games.

Strategy games, from Risk to Civilization II to Age of Empires, typically feature resource management and moving units across a map from a god’s-eye-view, and have just as typically been coupled with themes of colonialism and imperialism. Chain quests and “lock-and-key” progression are the hallmarks of adventure games, and are often paired with pseudo-mythological storylines and iconography.

This has created a set of endogenous conventions for games in the form of genres, where certain themes and mechanics have become closely associated. For instance, the connection of resource management with colonial themes is at this point taken to be natural, even expected. As natural as the connection between first-person shooters and radical, militaristic individualism.

Now, as I have said, these mechanics at most merely lend themselves these themes. It would be a leap too far to say that these mechanics would have always found these themes, or vice versa, that these themes cannot be (and have not been) equally well coupled with other mechanics.

Over time however these conventions have given birth to a rudimentary mechanical vocabulary that some modern games are evolving upon.

Few games have as much cultural cachet as Grand Theft Auto III and its sequels. Having become political shorthand for the dangers of violent content paired with interaction, the games are part of a small group that the average person could describe with any level of accuracy. What is less discussed about the GTA series is that from a strictly formal viewpoint it’s not all that remarkable.

Set in a large, open world, the player can talk to NPCs to learn about missions, which will unlock new areas with more NPCs and missions. A player can also just wander around, finding hidden items, getting into fights, interacting with less consequential NPCs, etc. Functionally speaking, there’s not much difference between GTA III and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (admittedly each game after III has expanded on the formula in important ways, but bear with me).

The difference between GTA and Ocarina of Time is really a matter of emphasis, and perhaps more importantly, theme.

The GTA series is a brilliant satire. First and foremost it is a satire of American culture and its fixation on guns, cars, power, and violence. Deeper than that it is a satire of video games, taking the mechanical conventions of the adventure genre and throwing out the swords and pointy ears. Replacing the fanciful mythologies of video games with the American mythologies of the Corleones and the Montanas.

Unfortunately Grand Theft Auto‘s satire is only skin deep. It’s no longer simply a cut-scene or dialogue box that carries the joke, the mechanics are an important stage on which the humor plays out. However the mechanics, with their history, are only funny in relation to the game’s theme.


We are still left with a question: Can games create meaning without using the conventions of other art forms as a crutch? Can mechanics signify something without a theme?

Maybe they can’t.

In his lecture at GDC entitled I-Fi: Immersive Fidelity in Game Design, Clint Hocking, a creative director at Ubisoft Montreal, suggested that there were two kinds of immersion: formal and sensual. Formal immersion is when a player disappears into a ruleset, bending every neural pathway around an abstract problem in the hopes of solving it to their advantage. There is also sensual immersion, where the player is pulled into deep concentration by the sights and sounds of a game. His goal, he said, as a game designer and director, was to fuse these two different types of response into a single, seamless experience.

Whether or not this can be accomplished, I’m not even sure if it’s even necessary.

What seems obvious to me is that in games like Carcassone, Super Smash Bros., Passage, the sensual immersion, which is often more accessible, serves as a gateway to formal immersion. Players are far more willing to explore the rich and interesting mechanics of a game when they are paired with an appropriate and attractive theme.

Finally, the language of signs (visual, auditory, literary, etc.), is meant to communicate our perceptions and reactions to the world around us. The problem might be that mechanics are not actually signifiers. They are not a matter of perception but of mathematical truth, and are ultimately and intimately linked to the systems that run the natural world.

Perhaps it is so hard to signify a thing with pure mechanics because the thing being signified is actually a signifier for the mechanic itself.

In other words, the mechanics of Chess are not about politics. “Politics”, along with “kings” and “pawns”, are the ideas, the signs, we use to wrap our heads around the dynamics at work in both human power structures and a certain ruleset that governs the movement of distinct pieces across a checkered board.

Games, then, are not like war. War is a bad game.


The author would like to strongly invoke the “intentional fallacy” in defense of this piece, and also apologize for the rather cursory use of semiotics. Also, be sure to checkout the upcoming “Far Cry 2″ and judge for yourself how successful Clint Hocking was in marrying the formal and sensual.


  1. Bob wrote:

    When I think of “the meaning of mechanics,” I think of how attractive a game can be as a piece of propaganda. Passive forms of media have all been used as vessels to present political, religious and societal agendas and push them onto an audience that has no choice but to keep on reading/watching/listening. Whether you’re watching “Triumph of the Will”, reading “Atlas Shrugged” or listening to the 1812 Overture, you really don’t have any other choice but to accept what the filmmaker, author or composer is imposing upon you, whether you agree with their sentiments or not.

    Games, however, have the interactive component which makes success integral to whatever viewpoint they’re pushing. In order to beat a game, you kind of have to agree with its agenda enough to buy into it as strategy. The illusion of choice is what makes the whole mechanical-meaning argument so disturbing, and also far too tempting not to indulge in.

    For the record, don’t think that I’m lumping Tchaikovsky with Rand or Riefenstahl, there. I just couldn’t think of another musical-propaganda example right off hand. Instrumentally, anyway.

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 5:50 am | Permalink
  2. Frank wrote:

    Charles, I think I pretty much agree with your conclusion here.

    The more I think about it, the more I think that the “statement” model of meaning is misapplied to games. Games do not transmit meaning from an author to an audience, games produce meaning. Meaning emerges from a game. And like any genuinely emergent property it is surprising and unpredictable or it is nothing at all.

    I wrote about this here:

    And it is also the focus of an essay about games and the “art question” in a forthcoming book about Pervasive games. This is where I broach the idea that “games are not media”.

    Here’s a detailed example of what I’m talking about:

    Say a game designer creates a game situation that is metaphor for a certain aspect of life – let’s say maintaining balance between your immediate goals and your long-term obligations. And let’s say that somewhere, a player discovers a way of approaching that game situation that is very surprising and clever, maybe he figures out a tricky, unexpected way to abandon his long-term obligations, complete his immediate goal, and then pick up his long-term obligations again and move forward that way.

    The fact that the designer didn’t predict this particular response to the game situation is important. To me that’s an essential property of something being a real game. If there aren’t any emergent properties, any aspects of the game system that aren’t known beforehand, any surprises that the designer didn’t predict, than it seems much less like a game to me, and more like some other form of interactivity, like a complicated button press. If the designer knew that there are only options X, Y, and Z and fully knew exactly what outcomes they lead to, then to my mind he hasn’t really embodied the idea in the gameplay, instead it’s a much more conventional relationship of the theme happening alongside the gameplay.

    So, assuming that this player came up with this completely novel response to the situation, then does it make sense to say that the designer is expressing something about the relationship between immediate goals and long-term obligations? The designer might seriously hate the implications of the surprising truth that this player discovered about this situation. He might think “oh, that’s a terrible way to handle a goal/obligation conflict in real life, if you did that in real life you’d be a hypocrite, only a real bastard would do that.”

    Conversely, is the player saying something about goals and obligations here? Not really, it’s not like he had some point he was trying to make, and used the game to express it. He was exploring this little possibility space the designer gave him and discovered this little true thing about it.

    So, is it meaningless? Is the fact that the designer didn’t “mean” it and the player didn’t “mean” it mean that it doesn’t mean anything?

    I would say no. I would say that it is meaningful. But it isn’t meaning in the form of a statement travelling from the designer to the player, or vice versa. It’s more like something the two of them discovered in collaboration, that goals and obligations, when modelled in this particular way, have this particular property, and this is a truth, it’s not something they want to be true, or are claiming to be true, it’s something they discovered to be true, working together, the designer, the player, and the system.

    This doesn’t mean that you can’t bring a certain perspective to how you model the world in your games, that is good, and inevitable. I think the right approach is to think about the subject and theme and how it is modelled, how to capture some essential elements of that theme in the gameplay, but not to think of what you create as a statement, but instead as an experiment, and the first question in a hopefully surprising conversation with other people and with the world.

    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  3. Noah wrote:

    I think you nailed it here:

    “The problem might be that mechanics are not actually signifiers. They
    are not a matter of perception but of mathematical truth, and are
    ultimately and intimately linked to the systems that run the natural

    Since you’re asking if mechanics (in isolation) have meaning, rather
    than games, this point seems more relevant to me than author intent or
    player choice. Game mechanics are similar to melody or harmony or rhythm .. the way in which we perceive them is very closely linked to the simple, observable mathematic truths which define their existence.

    Saturday, May 3, 2008 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  4. Fantastic essay Pratt… and Frank: I’m convinced (now that you’ve laid out your argument) that games are not media. Solid work the two of you!

    Sunday, May 4, 2008 at 7:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Frank – I was hoping you might approve, I cribbed more than a little from conversations I’ve had with you and Kevin.

    Charles B. – Thanks for the compliment! Though I’m not sure about the “games aren’t media” argument yet. It seems to me that games are a much larger term that we realize, and that games might not BE media, but instead CONTAIN media.

    Noah is probably closest to what I’m arguing, which is specifically about mechanics rather than whole games.

    It’s also worth noting that I’m not making an argument that mechanics can’t have meaning, just that we should never trick ourselves into believing that that meaning is inherent. Also, because mechanics are actually reliant on physical laws there’s a danger that the meaning we assign them might not have much correspondence with the systems that actually govern them.

    Monday, May 5, 2008 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

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