Dissertation Summary

4 minute read

I recently gave a mock-lectio praecursoria as part of a course I’m taking. It summarises some of the work I’ve done for my dissertation.

See below for more. The games I reference in the end are Depression Quest, That Dragon, Cancer, and Papers, Please.

Games are the medium of this millennium. Since the beginning of digital games, now more than 50 years ago, they have been in the forefront of new technology and have both challenged us technically and proven to be a very successful form of of entertainment. Just recently, Grand Theft Auto V exceeded 1 billion dollars in sales in three days, making it the fastest selling entertainment product in history. Games certainly have the power to entertain us.

However, seeing games simply as a form of entertainment is not enough. Games are a powerful form of expression, capable of conveying nuanced and complex meanings. And like all other media before them, games have a language of their own. It is this language my dissertation tries to map, finding both things that are similar to other media – for example cinema and literature – and things that are unique to games as a medium.

I was trained as a philosopher, so it is the tools of philosophy I bring to the study of games. The approach I use is based on hermeneutics, which has traditionally been conceived as the study of texts. Hermeneutics is the art and science of finding out how is it that our texts have meaning, how do authors convey their intended meaning through text and how are readers able to understand and interpret that meaning.

However, hermeneutics is not limited to books and literature, and is able to say something about how things in general are interpreted and understood. Here, I take the tools of hermeneutics and combine them with theories of game studies, to say something about how games convey and create meaning.

While I say game studies in singular, it is not clear that there is yet such a discipline. The study of games is multidisciplinary and comprised of theorists of various backgrounds and specialties. While this brings game studies a rich variety of perspectives, it also means that the different perspectives often do not meet, since both the language and the interests of different theorists are so different from each other.

In this dissertation I try to establish some basic vocabulary for discussing meaning in games, hopefully making discussions within game studies easier in the future. For this purpose, I weigh in on the debate to define games in certain ways, showing how the disagreement is partly a battle of different language-games and partly a hermeneutic process towards agreement.

For this purpose, I suggest no final definition of games, nor do I believe such is reachable. As a cultural form of expression, games will keep on changing as the culture around them changes. It is now possible to create games that were earlier impossible, both artistically and technologically. Games will keep changing as long as humanity around them keeps changing.

I also use hermeneutic tools to analyse previous discussions in game studies over how games should be understood, and show what kind of misunderstandings have occurred in those discussions and how those misunderstandings could be avoided in the future.

Furthermore, I discuss some basic features of games, showing how their procedural, interactive nature affects how they create and convey meaning. Games consist of procedures that interact with at least one player, making the meaning-making process a feedback-loop between the player and the game. Players do not get to simply sit back and enjoy the show, because the show requires their contribution to begin and continue.

In this sense, we need real-time hermeneutics to show how the real-time processes of interpretation and understanding happen. However, temporality in games is not a simple issue, and there is more than one type of interactivity going on while playing games. In my dissertation, I discuss these two concepts and show how they need to be analysed in accurate detail in order to be useful for game studies. I also make a distinction between the real-time interpretation that happens during play and the hermeneutic process that takes place outside of play. Games as objects also have a meaning. Figures like Super Mario and Pac-Man are meaningful outside their respective games and have become prominent figures in popular culture.

In addition to establishing a foundation for understanding meaning in games, I present some tools for people wanting to create games and show how these tools can be employed to provide certain meanings. I do this by taking some tools from literature and converting them to games, establishing some differences between these two media in the process.

I am not alone in seeing games as potential vessels for deep meaning. Game developers today create games about surviving depression, struggling with cancer and living in a totalitarian society, giving players an opportunity to experience something they might never experience outside of games.

While depression, cancer and oppression are things no-one should have to experience in real life, experiencing them in games might lead to players better understanding people who are unfortunate enough to have to experience them in their lives.

By studying the conditions and tools for creating such games, I have hopefully made it easier to create them in the future.