Digital games have been around for more than half a century. Games are significantly older. They are as old as culture, perhaps even older. Play is a universal phenomenon as prevalent in the animal kingdom as it is among humans. While play and games are not synonymous, they should be discussed together.

Despite their age, games have not been studied for long. Cultural anthropologists and sociologists have noticed that humans tend to play and to play games, but this has usually led them to study play or the cultural and social structures of play. Psychologists have discussed play and the play-instinct, but it took the rise of digital gaming for games to be recognized as a distinct and fascinating form of expression of their own. With this recognition game studies, or more controversially, ludology, began to take shape (Frasca, 1999).1

These days it would be difficult to ignore the power and importance of games. The most successful media products of our time are videogames, at least by commercial standards.2 There already exists a generation that has grown up with games as a central form of culture. Boellstorff (2006, p. 33) expresses it accurately when he states that “the information age has, under our noses, become the gaming age.” Understanding games is therefore important for understanding the contemporary culture in general, although one could argue that this is hardly a new state of affairs and that games have always been central to culture (cf. Huizinga, 1938/1949; Myers, 2006, p. 49).

In addition to games becoming entertainment colossi rivaling cinema as a form of entertainment, they have also become a part of mainstream culture. As Jesper Juul (2009, p. 8) argues, games have become normal. In addition to the enormous blockbusters that require specialized equipment, there are games that are played everywhere, often on the small screens of our phones. Not all of those who play call themselves players, but that does not stop them from playing.

This study sets out to understand a specific aspect of games: How games create meaning? In order to answer that question, we first need to clarify certain key aspects of games. Two central aspects are their background in play and the modern phenomenon of digital games. A short introduction to these aspects is presented next.

A Brief History of Play Theory

Theorizing about play has a long tradition, going back at least to Aristotle. He writes about the function and role of play in Politics:

But, though both labour and rest are necessary, yet the latter is preferable to the first; and by all means we ought to learn what we should do when at rest: for we ought not to employ that time at play; for then play would be the necessary business of our lives. But if this cannot be, play is more necessary for those who labour than those who are at rest: for he who labours requires relaxation; which play will supply: for as labour is attended with pain and continued exertion, it is necessary that play should be introduced, under proper regulations, as a medicine: for such an employment of the mind is a relaxation to it, and eases with pleasure. (Aristotle, 1919, para. 1337b)

For Aristotle, play is a counterpart to work, a frivolous and non-essential yet a necessary part of life. Here one can already notice the tendency to juxtapose play in opposition to work, valuing play only as a respite from work. In other words, play is seen as being necessary but lacking independent value; it is conceived of as “merely play” (Riezler, 1941, p. 505). This tendency continues in the Christian tradition and is emphasized by the birth of Protestantism, which sees work as an important virtue of the pious person (Sutton-Smith, 1997, pp. 201–202). The good Christian has no time for play, for there is much work that needs to be done before salvation is earned (Snow, 1993, pp. 12–13).3

However, in an effort to argue against Kant’s conception of ethics, German idealism ends up rescuing play. Friedrich Schiller criticizes Kant for not taking the aesthetic experience seriously enough and argues that taste is a necessary condition for building morality (Guyer, 2008). While doing so, Schiller elevates play to an important role in his aesthetic thinking. He writes:

[M]an only plays when he is in the fullest sense of word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays. (Schiller, 1794/1985, p. 107)

Here play is not something wasteful done just for rest and relaxation, but an essential part of being a human. This line of thought is later picked up by Johan Huizinga, who provides the previous quote from Schiller in his book Homo Ludens (1938/1949).4 Huizinga sets it upon himself to study how culture is constituted by play, and manages to find forms of it in all kinds of cultural formations, ranging from sports and war to art and law. Even the realm of sacred is pervaded by play for rituals have an element of play to them. Huizinga also remarks that play necessarily precedes culture as humans are not the only playing animals.

Huizinga’s line of thinking is continued by Roger Caillois (1960/2001, 1961). He expands Huizinga’s terminology and builds a more comprehensive framework for analyzing play, perhaps most importantly by dividing forms of play into agon, alea, mimicry and ilinx, or competition, chance, make-believe and vertigo, respectively.

These forms of play coexist and a game may include several, or all, of them. Poker, for example, is a combination of both competition and chance. Caillois also separated the forms of play on a continuum ranging from paidia to ludus, where paidia is playful and unstructured and ludus is structured and constrained by rules. In his view, games would end up on the ludus-end of the spectrum.

However, Caillois also analyzed several cultural forms as degenerations of play. For example, he saw drug-use as a corruption of ilinx and superstition as a corruption of alea. This makes his theory of play rather normative in parts, labelling as corrupted the parts of play he does not appreciate or approve (cf. Caillois, 1961, pp. 43–56). Even if one agrees with his normative assertions, it is worth questioning whether this is a fruitful approach to understanding play.

The line of thought reaching from Huizinga and Caillois to modern day is the basis for the way scholars in game studies often portray the history of their field. While many of the concepts still used in game studies (e.g., the magic circle) originate in this line of research, this of course leaves out many other approaches to play and games that scholars do not consider as compatible with or relevant to modern day game studies. At least four such approaches are easy to name:

  1. The anthropological study of folk games, exemplified by the work of Brian Sutton-Smith (1971; 1959, 1997).
  2. The study of play in psychology (e.g., Winnicott, 1971).
  3. Mathematical game theory that begun with the work of John von Neumann (e.g., Neumann, 1944/1953).
  4. The study of animal play (e.g., Fagen, 1981).

While this list is probably lacking in many respects, it shows how broad the phenomena of play and games are and how hard it is to cover all of the necessary ground.5 Play and games are not just one thing but a broad array of related things (cf. Paper 2). Sutton-Smith (1997, pp. 4–5) shows just how many by compiling a list of 189 different forms of play, ranging from Dungeons & Dragons and daydreams to dancing and getting laid (see Table 1). Not surprisingly, the list also includes play-forms that many would consider games. Of note is also the amount of play-forms that are not simply a frivolous waste of time but significant forms of culture or social life. And counter to the dominant view of play as something that children do, many of them are unsuitable for children. I will conclude this discussion of play with a quote from Ellis (1973, p. 22):

The perplexing problem of how to define play will only be resolved by continually regenerating new definitions that fit current concepts of play behavior.

This study tries to discuss a form of “play behavior” that is relatively modern: digital videogames. As was stated above, play in general is a persistent phenomenon. However, not all of its forms have been around for an equally long time.

While understanding the intellectual environment for this research is important in order to comprehend the arguments, identifying the background of the phenomenon it comments upon is also informative. For this reason, a brief history of digital games is presented next.

Table 1: Forms of play according to Sutton-Smith (1997, p. 4–5)

Category Forms of play
Mind or subjective play dreams, daydreams, fantasy, imagination, ruminations, reveries, Dungeons and Dragons, metaphors of play, and playing with metaphors
Solitary play hobbies, collections, (model trains, model airplanes, model power boats, stamps), writing to pen pals, building models, listening to records and compact discs, constructions, art projects, gardening, flower arranging, using computers, watching videos, reading and writing, novels, toys, travel, Civil War reenactments, music, pets, reading, woodworking, yoga, antiquing, flying, auto racing, collecting and rebuilding cars, sailing, diving, astrology, bicycling, handicrafts, photography, shopping, backpacking, fishing, needlework, quilting, bird watching, crosswords, and cooking
Playful behaviors playing tricks, playing around, playing for time, playing up to someone, playing a part, playing down to someone, playing upon words, making a play for someone, playing upon others as in tricking them, playing hob, putting something into play, bringing it into play, holding it in play, playing fair, playing by the rules, being played out, playing both ends against the middle, playing one’s cards well, playing second fiddle
Informal social play joking, parties, cruising, travel, leisure, dancing, roller-skating, losing weight, dinner play, getting laid, potlucks, malls, hostessing, babysitting, Saturday night fun, rough and tumble, creative anachronism, amusement parks, intimacy, speech play (riddles, stories, gossip, jokes, nonsense), singles clubs, bars and taverns, magic, ham radio, restaurants, and the Internet
Vicarious audience play television, films, cartoons, concerts, fantasylands, spectator sports, theater, jazz, rock music, parades (Rose Bowl, mummers’, Thanksgiving), beauty contests, stock-car racing, Renaissance festivals, national parks, comic books, folk festivals, museums, and virtual reality
Performance play playing the piano, playing music, being a play actor, playing the game for the game’s sake, playing New York, playing the fishes, playing the horses, playing Iago, play voices, play gestures, playbills, playback, play by play, player piano, playgoing, playhouses, playlets
Celebrations and festivals birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween, gifting, banquets, roasts, weddings, carnivals, initiations, balls, Mardi Gras, Fastnacht, Odunde
Contests (games and sports) athletics, gambling, casinos, horses, lotteries, pool, touch football, kite fighting, golf, parlor games, drinking, the Olympics, bullfights, cockfights, cricket, Buzkashi, poker, gamesmanship, strategy, physical skill, chance, animal contests, archery, arm wrestling, board games, card games, martial arts, gymnastics
Risky or deep play Caving, hang gliding, kayaking, rafting, snowmobiling, orienteering, snowballing, and extreme games such as bungee jumping, windsurfing, sport climbing, skateboarding, mountain biking, kite skiing, street luge, ultrarunning, and sky jumping

A Brief History of Digital Games

This chapter follows one of the standard ways of presenting the history of digital games by focusing on games as historical objects and presenting them in chronological order. Less consideration is given to the people and processes behind these objects. An alternative narrative of these events might focus on the important people behind the early development of the medium, like Willy Higinbotham, Steve Russell, Ralph Baer or Nolan Bushnell (Malliet & de Meyer, 2005). Or it might focus on the cultural forerunners of games that show how digital games did not spring from nothing, but came to fruition following earlier cultural forms and through gradual technological advances (Huhtamo, 2005). It is sometimes easy to forget that digital games did not spring from the genius of the first developers. They have both mechanical and cultural precedents.

An interesting example of an early mechanical game is El Ajedrecista (The Chess Player), manufactured by Leonardo Torres y Quevedo in 1912 (Montfort, 2005, p. 76; Randell, 1982).6 It precedes most examples of automatic, interactive games by decades. It was an automaton, capable of playing a limited form of chess against a human opponent. The first version used a mechanical arm to move the pieces, but some years later Torres made a version of the game that used magnets underneath the board, making it seem as if the pieces were moving on their own.

One of the important predecessors of videogames is the slot machine, and the penny arcades they were often found in (Huhtamo, 2005, p. 4). They formed the cultural assumption on what it is like to interact with game machines: place a coin and be entertained for a minute or two. The pinball machine was also an important forerunner of gaming machines. Pinball machines rely on similar kind of interaction than the first videogames. I write “rely” instead of “relied” because they are still very much in use, even if they are mostly superseded by other games.

When arcade game machines later appeared, they followed the pattern established by these earlier machines. They were only rarely placed in locations meant for children. An arcade machine in a penny arcade or in a bar was for the entertainment of adults, even if that did little to keep children from playing with them (Huhtamo, 2005, p. 10). Mechanical games were followed by electronic games, which used analog technology to achieve similar purposes.

The first games created on digital computers were not meant for entertainment but served serious purposes. A digital computer, the Ferranti NIMROD, capable of playing the game Nim, was actualized in 1951, but the game was originally designed for digital platforms already in 1941 (Donovan, 2010; Redheffer, 1948, p. 343). Nim was a simple game of picking up tokens, but the game logic was based on binary numbers, making it perfectly suited for a computer.

An early example of a graphical electronic game was the Cathode-ray tube amusement device, a plan for a missile simulator from 1947, which was unfortunately never realized (Wolf, 2012, pp. 1–2). Another computer game using a cathode-ray tube for graphics was called OXO or alternatively Noughts and Crosses, following the traditional version of the game. It was created in 1952 by a doctoral student of Cambridge University. It ran on the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC), which was also the opponent in the game.

Computing was quickly adopted for commercial purposes, and in 1955 the American Management Association was involved in developing the Top Management Decision Simulation, a learning tool for corporate executives (Wiemer, 2011, p. 5). It was still a relatively simple simulation and could have been run without the use of a computer. It was soon followed by other management simulations, like Business Management Game and Top Management Decision Game, both in 1957 (Keys & Wolfe, 1990, p. 310).

Games took a step back towards entertainment in 1958 when Willy Higinbotham created Tennis for Two (Malliet & de Meyer, 2005, p. 23). It used an oscilloscope as a screen and was simply a way of showcasing the technology to the visitors of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

One of the best known steps in videogame history is the creation of Spacewar, which was created for the PDP-1 mainframe at MIT in 1962 (Malliet & de Meyer, 2005, p. 24). It started a long lasting trend of science fiction in computer games and featured multiplayer gameplay by having two players play against each other. It is also notable that Spacewar was not based on any pre-digital game but could only be played on a computer (Aarseth, 2001a). A networked version of Spacewar was created in 1969 (Wolf, 2012, p. 211).

The first arcade videogame, Computer Space, was created in 1970 (Malliet & de Meyer, 2005, p. 25). It took inspiration from Spacewar but was playable on an arcade cabinet and the purpose of the game was commercial. It was an important event in two ways: it continued the tradition of the slot machine and it moved videogames from the realm of research and technology to the realm of commercial entertainment.

Computer Space paved the way for Atari’s first game, Pong, which was released in 1972 and become both a commercial hit and an outstanding cultural phenomenon. It was first tested in a bar close to Atari’s headquarters, but early on there were plans to spread it to venues that were more friendly for children and families (Montfort & Bogost, 2009, p. 9). This happened more concretely when Atari released the home console version, Home Pong, in 1975.

Atari was however not the first to reach the home console markets. That was accomplished by Magnavox with their home console Odyssey in 1972. In addition to six cartridges, it came with cards, dice and scoreboards, showing how the console was placed in the same continuum with board games. A total of 27 different games on 11 different game cards were created for the Odyssey (Winter, 1996). It was a commercial success, selling more than 300 000 units before being superseded by later models (Baer, 1998).

Colossal Cave Adventure, also known simply as Adventure, was first created in 1976 and served as the model for many early text-based adventures (Montfort, 2005, p. 10). These text adventures featured a textual introduction and provided answers to almost-natural language commands, like “GO IN.” The purpose of Adventure was to explore the textual landscape that was based on a real cave in Kentucky and solve the puzzles it presented.

While earlier videogames had shared the notoriety of arcades, the first videogame to cause widespread media panic was Death Race, published in 1976 (Kocurek, 2012). While there was no official licensing involved, it was largely based on the movie Death Race 2000 from the previous year. The game consisted of up to two players driving their cars over small gremlins which turned into tombstone-obstacles when dying. While the gremlins were presented as monsters in the marketing material, players driving over small humanoid shapes were too much for people concerned about the apparent violence in the game. The public outcry made the game a precedent in later discussions regarding videogame-related violence, but it also helped to fuel the game’s sales.

One of the games to continue in the footprints of Adventure is Zork, programmed at the MIT in 1977 (Montfort, 2005, p. 97). It is the most well-known and successful textual adventure game, despite being only an incremental advancement over earlier games such as Adventure. Zork was later ported to different home microcomputers and released commercially (Montfort & Bogost, 2009, pp. 44–45).

The first digital games were created by professionals with access to mainframes or, a bit later, by college students using university-owned computers. They did not create games for children, but for themselves. While some of the games would have been playable by children, games like Zork required both access to expensive hardware and an ability to comprehend and produce text.

The year 1977 saw big changes for games. It was the year of the first videogame industry crash with only Atari, Coleco and Magnavox remaining on the market (Wolf, 2012, p. 80). It was also the year when Atari released the Atari VCS, starting a serious competition with Magnavox for the position of the leading home console. At the same time, mass marketed home computers started appearing on the market.

The next year the development of the immensely influential Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) began. The online version was created in 1980 (Wolf, 2012, p. 217). It followed the path laid out by Adventure, but the addition of multiple players made it a precursor of future multiplayer games, like Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORPG). The text-based game allowed people from different locations to play together, making MUD the first online multiplayer game and a basis for a genre of games called simply MUDs.

1978 was also the year when Japanese Namco’s arcade Space Invaders was created (Montfort & Bogost, 2009, p. xi). It was brought into the United States that year. It featured a layout similar to Atari’s 1976 Breakout,, but was graphically more complex. The iconic aliens have since become an influential element of popular culture. An Atari VCS version of the game was created in 1980.

In 1978 Atari released the forerunner of future graphical adventure games called Adventure, named after the game that inspired it (Montfort & Bogost, 2009, p. xi). This Adventure was intended as an adaptation of the earlier text-based Adventure, but because of the limitations set by the Atari VCS, it differed vastly from the original. The complex text descriptions were replaced by graphics and the interaction was limited to moving the joystick.

Namco created the arcade game Pac-Man in 1980 (Montfort & Bogost, 2009, p. xi). It was only fairly successful in Japan but extremely successful in the United States, becoming a cultural icon in both gaming and popular culture. Atari released a VCS version of Pac-Man in 1982 but the port was not very successful because of hardware limitations.

A significant change in the game industry took place with the great videogame industry crash of North America in 1983 (Wolf, 2012, p. 81). Developers native to North America met with problems, opening the doors for Nintendo who published the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in North America in 1985 (Consalvo, 2006, p. 124). The console was originally published in Japan as the Nintendo Famicom two years earlier. A substantial amount of Nintendo’s marketing was targeted at children. While this was certainly nothing new, as games had been marketed in toy departments before, Nintendo was met with unprecedented success. Nintendo had already managed to penetrate the North American market through Midway with Donkey Kong in 1981,, but the development of the NES secured them a permanent foothold across the ocean (Malliet & de Meyer, 2005, p. 29).

The main body of videogame manufacturing moved to Japan, with Nintendo, Sega and later Sony producing and publishing successful home consoles. It was not until the beginning of the 2000s when Microsoft challenged their rule by producing a home console, the Xbox. This does not mean that there was no videogame industry outside Asia. On the contrary, the 1980s was a time of global growth for the videogame industry, with most of the forms of gaming we know today having their predecessors in this era. While the console manufacturers were from Japan, making games was not limited to Japanese companies. Neither was it limited to consoles, as the development of computer hardware made computer gaming an option. Home computers, like Commodore 64, Atari 400/800 and Apple II, ran games that were ported from arcade machines, but also completely new ones that were developed especially for these platforms. Many classics, like Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness that started the Ultima series in 1981, were first released for home computers.

The 1990s were a time when games moved from two to three dimensions and the genres that were not already established in the 1980s were created. While games have moved in incredible strides since the beginning of the videogame industry, the updates have since been more incremental. There are new input methods, the graphics are better and designers have become better in all aspects of design. However, regarding the aspects relevant to this study, much has remained the same. The basic forms of interaction, meaning-making and interpretation have remained similar.

Perhaps the biggest change since the 1990s has been the creation of massively multiplayer games and the adoption of high-speed online communication methods. Games are more social than ever and these social processes affect how they are interpreted and how players interact with them. These features are unlikely to disappear and will probably form an even more integral part of future gaming.

This has been a very brief history of games. Hopefully it provides the necessary context for understanding what this study is about. Next, a brief overview of game studies is presented.

A Brief Look at Game Studies

‘Game studies’ is not an old discipline, if it can even be considered a discipline. At the most informal level, it might be defined as the study of games. That, however, is not entirely accurate, since there is research that studies games without being part of the tradition of game studies. These studies use games in order to understand some other phenomenon (e.g., Hoeft, Watson, Kesler, Bettinger & Reiss, 2008; Seijts & O’Farrell, 2005).

The year 2001 saw the founding of Game Studies, a journal dedicated to the study of games. In the editorial, the Editor-in-Chief, Espen Aarseth, described it as the “Year One of Computer Game Studies.” As was shown earlier, this was hardly the first time games were studied academically, but this was the first time that they were the focus of an academic field of studies, or at least something that aspired to be a field of studies. However, there have been few tools for studying games and no consensus on the concepts used. Like Aarseth (2001b) writes:

Computer games are perhaps the richest cultural genre we have yet seen, and this challenges our search for a suitable methodological approach. We all enter this field from somewhere else, from anthropology, sociology, narratology, semiotics, film studies, etc, and the political and ideological baggage we bring from our old field inevitably determines and motivates our approaches. (italics in the original)

This “baggage” has led to disagreement and, sometimes, fierce battles on the terminology and methods used to understand and discuss games. Videogames consist of all kinds of things from code to story and signs to players. In order to understand the complex phenomenon of digital games, all of these aspects must be taken into account and a diverse set of tools must be used (Mäyrä, Holopainen, & Jakobsson, 2012, p. 296).

Perhaps the best-known example of methodological disagreement is the infamous ludology–narratology debate around the turn of the millennium. It concerned a disagreement over what would be the best tools for understanding games, and what assumptions about games those tools would entail. The debate is presented in more detail in a later chapter, as it highlights some aspects of games discussed later in this study. The ludology–narratology debate is also an excellent example of the problem mentioned above, with researchers coming from different fields and with different assumptions commenting on the issue (cf. Paper 4).

Regardless of differences in opinion on how games should be studied, game studies is united by the belief that games are something special. They are not simply variations of something else but a thing of their own, a thing worthy of academic study. It might even be that the disagreements and struggles with self-identification are a normal part of an academic discipline trying to define itself (Lowood, 2006).

In 2005 the then Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) president, Frans Mäyrä (2005) presented three theses for game studies:

  1. There needs to be a dedicated academic discipline for the study of games.
  2. This new discipline needs to have an active dialogue with, and be building on of existing ones, as well as having its own core identity.
  3. Both the educational and research practises applied in game studies need to remain true to the core playful or ludic qualities of its subject matter.

While these suggestions did draw some criticism, they seem like a reasonable way forward. Bogost (2006, p. 5) criticized the three theses of the notion that there is, or should be, a “core” to game studies and that such a core “privileges the ludic over the literary” (see also Keogh, 2014, p. 3; cf. Mäyrä, 2008a, pp. 6–10). Games are a complex phenomenon, and looking for a common core of all games may not be a path worth taking (cf. Paper 2). Bogost’s suggestion is instead to focus on how games express things, an approach adopted here.

The Study of Meaning in Games

Game studies have begun to cover the territory of games, but much remains uncovered. Researchers from different fields have different interests, but many would benefit from a consistent account of the structures of meaning in games. This would also help with the self-identification of game studies as a discipline.

Efforts to study meaning in games have been made with a range of approaches. One of the most influential is the so-called “proceduralist school” (e.g., Bogost, 2007). This approach emphasizes the procedural elements of games and how those elements affect the way games convey meaning (e.g., Bogost, 2007, 2008; Treanor, Mateas, & Wardrip-fruin, 2010; Treanor & Mateas, 2011). This approach is most likely influential because it addresses qualities only present in games and shows how procedural systems can create meaning. There are other researchers that use a similar approach which is not directly related to the proceduralist school, even if this term is sometimes broadly applied to anyone interested in the processes that constitute a game (e.g., Juul, 2005; Wardrip-Fruin, 2009; Weise, 2003).

There are also other approaches that highlight the special qualities of games, approaches that focus on the material and digital basis of the game, like platform studies (Jones & Thiruvathukal, 2012; Montfort & Bogost, 2009) and software or code studies (Montfort, Baudoin, & Bell, 2012). These approaches show how games are not simply abstract systems but require a material basis on which to run. Sometimes it makes all the difference whether the game is run on a home console, a personal computer or an arcade machine. These machines have different affordances that affect the way the game actualizes on that particular platform.

Other approaches focus on the interactions around the games, on the people who play them (Hamari & Tuunanen, 2014; Mäyrä, 2007) and the culture(s) surrounding them (Boellstorff, 2006; Mäyrä, 2008a, pp. 13–27). Not all players are identical and different people play different games. Playing in different cultures presumes different things about the nature of play, the role of play in life and what is appropriate to simulate or represent in games.

Some approaches borrow tools and concepts from other fields of research such as narratology and literary studies (Aarseth, 2012; Calleja, 2013; Simons, 2006). These approaches emphasize that games do not just contain meaning; they also contain texts and tell stories. The strength of the approaches that borrow from narrative studies is in their ability to explain how concepts like the metaphor apply to games (Begy, 2011; Möring, 2012). Others have argued that games require a literacy of their own (Gee, 2004).

What is still lacking is an account of meaning in games that covers the phenomenon from the whole range of aspects that need to be taken into account, from culture to the player to the game. It is not even clear what “meaning” means for different scholars in game studies.7 For example, for Juul (2005, pp. 191–193) meaning is tied to questions of moral evaluation, to good and evil.

The proceduralist approach makes a convincing case for a comprehensive approach, taking into account the special features of games that affect how games create meaning. However, it is firmly based on the ludological approach to games, mainly considering them as systems. Sicart (2011) argues that it does not take play into account sufficiently:

The main argument of the critique against procedurality has to do with its lack of interest in the player and play. Many of the games produced and analyzed under the proceduralist domain are visually playful, thematic parodies of the mundane and absurd, from airport security to oil economics. But these games are seldom playful in a mechanical, procedural sense: these are single player, puzzle or resource management games, with only few “operations” available to players, and a very limited space of possibility in which players can express themselves.

The hermeneutic approach adapted in this study has long considered play as a part of the process of interpretation, and may therefore help in bridging systems and play (Gadamer, 1960/2004, pp. 102–110; Mäyrä, 2008b, p. 4). While this study does not answer all the relevant questions or provide a theory to end all theory, it paves way for an approach that provides meaningful answers to questions of meaning, with some important caveats that are presented next.

Objectives and Research Questions

This study was born out of the desire to understand how games create meaning and the belief that hermeneutics would be a useful tool for finding an answer to that question. In the beginning, this seemed like a question awaiting an answer, but as the research continued, it turned out to be a broad collection of interrelated questions instead of a single question.

How do games create meaning? The answer is a bit more complicated than was originally anticipated. That is why the included papers take stabs at the question from different perspectives, trying to map out the borders of the territory being explored. Whenever the research closed in on a border, there was more territory yet to be found and mapped.

To make sure that the research did not get entirely lost in the territory, some restrictions had to be set for it. This study is focused on what Aarseth (2012, p. 130) calls “ludonarratives,” phenomena that combine both game and story elements. My use differs slightly from Aarseth’s, and I discuss ludonarrative games, not just ludonarratives. Instead of presenting an exact definition of ludonarrative games at this point, I will discuss the concept in more detail in a later chapter (2.3.5), which also contains an explanation of why my use differs from Aarseth’s. The examples of ludonarrative games that I discuss include games like Fallout 2, King of Dragon Pass and Spec Ops: The Line. These are all games that combine game elements and story elements. Ludonarrative games have the cultural referents that make hermeneutic analysis conducted in this study possible. Understanding the games discussed in this study would not be possible without taking their narrative aspects into account.

While one of the papers in this study deals with role-playing games (Paper 3), most are focused on digital games. This does not mean that I consider digital games to be somehow better than non-digital ones, but they are certainly more visible in the contemporary culture. While board games and role-playing games are noticeable cultural phenomena, it is hard not to notice digital games. However, there is a danger of seeing games only through the lens of digital games (cf. Linderoth, 2011). As Stenros and Waern write:

Game studies would benefit from acknowledging that digital games should be studied as a special case of games rather than the other way around. (Stenros & Waern, 2011, p. 1)

This study tries to acknowledge this “digital fallacy,” (Stenros & Waern, 2011, p. 1) and sees all games as a collection of related phenomena (see Paper 2). However, most examples are still drawn from digital games.

One of the reasons game scholars choose digital games as examples is that they have permanence not found in many other forms of games. While play is a fleeting phenomenon, digital games still have permanence in the sense that the scholar can return to the game and still find comparable, if not identical, things. Digital games are also reasonably easy to document, because they run on platforms capable of capturing everything that happens on them. Not all games are like this. Montola (2012, p. 74) has studied what he calls “ephemeral games,” which are more difficult for the scholar to access (see also Frasca, 2001, pp. 178–180). Larps (Live Action Role-Playing Games) are usually played only once, and even if repeated, they might change significantly from one instance to another.8 Capturing role-play is easier in the digital environment than it is in the physical world, and the boundaries around play are clearer (cf. Harviainen, 2012, pp. 77–79). Digital games can also easily be more complex than analog games, since much of the processing and note-keeping is taken care of by the system.

While some of the insights from this study could be generalized to also cover abstract games, it remains largely a territory better left for someone else to explore (e.g., Begy, 2011). Abstract games lack many of the features discussed in this study, and while creating an abstract hermeneutics might be possible, such a task is not attempted here. Another type of gaming excluded from consideration here is meta-gaming (Huvila, 2013).

How do games create meaning? If I learned something from philosophy, it is this: getting the right answer requires asking the right questions. Much of philosophy has been about figuring out how to ask the right questions and some philosophers have even seen the clarification of the language we use to do so as the sole task of philosophy (Wittgenstein, 1922, p. 39). While I do not share this notion, it does have some merits when discussing a new area of inquiry, like game studies.

Is the question of how games create meaning the right question? The problem here is not that it is a bad question, but that it is a complex question. It hides other, more specific questions. A good answer to the first question requires good answers to the more specific questions. The specific questions covered in this study are the following:

  1. What are the preconditions for understanding how games create meaning? (Paper 1)
  2. How should games be defined and delimited? (Papers 2, 3 and 4)

These more general questions prepare the theoretical framework for discussing meaning in games and show how hermeneutics is a valuable tool for game studies. With a preliminary answer to these more theoretical questions, the focus then shifts to a more specific problem. Because the focus of this study is in ludonarrative games, the theoretical framework built to answer the previous questions is then applied to a specific question about ludonarrative games:

  1. How do ludonarrative games create meaning? (Paper 5)

As chapter 4.3.4 discusses, this is done to cover a larger territory of meaning than a strictly hermeneutic approach would have allowed. However, the question of narrative meaning is closely related to the hermeneutic approach, as narrative games are more likely than abstract games to require the kind of complex hermeneutic analysis this study builds a theory for.

I have listed the most relevant papers after each question, but since the themes are interrelated, other papers also touch upon the issues mentioned. Answers to these research questions are presented later, in chapter 3, and then discussed in the following chapter.

As can be seen from the previous list, the question of what we understand as games is central to understanding them as things that are interpreted. This is also where the philosophical background of this work can be seen: much of the work is focused on trying to come up with the right questions to ask.

Research Process and Structure

Research for this study was mainly conducted at the University of Jyväskylä, with a short visit of six months to the University of Aarhus. Studies at Aarhus informed especially Paper 5.

This research began in 2010 with a change of discipline from philosophy to digital culture. While this was a logical change of focus given the topic of the study, it necessitated learning a new set of theories, approaches and discourses. While some of these carried over from the research for my master’s thesis, most of it was acquired by reading through papers published in and around game studies.

This study consists of five research papers and this introduction. The five papers are listed in the beginning of this study and can be found after the introduction. This introductory part clarifies the background of the research conducted in the papers and summarizes their content, giving a more rounded view of the issues that are discussed in the papers. While the papers try to answer specific questions, this introductory part combines those research questions into a logical whole.

The introductory part consists of four sections. In the first section I presented some background for the study, and defined the objectives and scope of this study. These preface the actual theoretical discussion of the subject.

The second section presents the theoretical foundation, starting from hermeneutics and continuing with a presentation of game studies. The chapter shows how these two have been previously researched and combines them into a theoretical framework for this study.

The discussion of hermeneutics is divided into two chapters, to classical and philosophical hermeneutics. This presentation follows one of the traditional ways of presenting the history of hermeneutics (Gadamer, 2006). After the theoretical background, some hermeneutic methodology is presented, with a special focus on the aspects of hermeneutics most relevant to the current study.

The exposition of hermeneutics is followed by an exposition of game studies. Elements of games, like procedurality and rules, which are central to this study, are analyzed in more detail. The chapter on game studies ends with some consideration of players and more detail on how games and stories relate to each other.

The third section presents the results of this study, going through the research questions presented in the previous chapter and relating them to the results achieved in the papers. A summary of the results synthesizes the three distinct questions related to understanding meaning in games into a preliminary answer on how meaning in games should be understood.

The last section provides a discussion of those results and gives suggestions for future research. First, some theoretical implications are discussed. Second, some practical implications are considered. Third, the reliability and validity of this study is assessed. Finally, some recommendations for further research are provided.

While this study does not explicitly rely on playing games as a source of data, playing – and to a lesser extent, making – games has still informed the research.9 I have played hundreds of digital games, board, card and role-playing games, and a number of live-action role-playing games. To put it in different terms: when I have not researched games, I have been playing them on platforms that reach from the digital to the physical.

Aarseth (2003, p. 3) argues that the best way to research games is by playing them. While Aarseth means a very specific way of playing for research, one could say on a more general level that understanding games certainly requires playing them. How seriously would a scholar of literature be taken if they did not read books? Or a researcher of cinema, who did not watch films? Not all scholars of play need to be professional players, but some playing experience certainly helps. A person who reads a lot is called “well read.” A person who studies games should perhaps be “well played” (Davidson, 2009, p. 1).

I prefer certain kinds of games, and this is reflected in the kinds of games I use as examples and to some degree in the games I analyze. The first digital game I vividly remember playing was Super Mario Bros., probably at the beginning of the 1990s. I may have tried other games before that, but after Mario, there was no going back. While I have owned only a few of the platforms published since, I have at least tried most of them. That also shows something of how most of my early gaming was organized: when I played Mario, I was not playing alone, but at a friend’s house. This is a trend that has continued since. It is easy to forget that games did not suddenly become social with today’s multiplayer technology, even if in the early days the word often meant passing the controller around.

I will not elaborate on my tastes any further, since the details are mostly irrelevant for this study. However, I will note that I have never been an active player of MMORPGs, and thus there is very little analysis of those kinds of games in this dissertation. MMORPGs have additional meaning-making processes that are dependent on the large social groups that play them. As such, they are better studied with tools for example from sociology and communications research.

However, this study does discuss role-playing games to an extent. One of the papers (Paper 3) focuses solely on this form of play. I have played role-playing games more or less regularly since 1995 in table-top, digital and live role-playing forms. This is why they often appear as examples in my writing and in many ways exemplify the prototypical ludonarrative game I write about. The difference between these types of role-playing games and MMORPGs is perspective and scope: the focus in my study is on the individual interpreting their surroundings, even if the surrounding is social.

More recently, I have become interested in game development. Realizing the potential of games to say and do things, and inspired by the passionate people around me making games, I have also focused more of my attention on how the objects of my interest are made. It has hopefully given me a more well-rounded view of what I research.

  1. The word ‘ludology’ is derived from the Latin ‘ludus’ for play (Huizinga, 1938/1949). It is sometimes used as a synonym for game studies, but often takes a more specific meaning of studying games from a game-centric perspective. 

  2. This study uses the terms ‘digital game’ and ‘videogame’ interchangeably. Both terms should be understood as referring to games on consoles, computers and other electronic and digital platforms. 

  3. This is of course an overt simplification of Protestant theology. For the original, more fine-grained version of this argument, see Weber (1905/2011). 

  4. Another line of research related to German idealism, but separate from Huizinga, is the hermeneutic approach to play, e.g., Gadamer (1960/2004, pp. 102–110), Ricoeur (1981, pp. 185–190). See chapter 2.1 for more on this approach. 

  5. For work not discussed here, see for example Walz (2010, pp. 41–48) on Buytendijk’s work on play. 

  6. Randell (1982, p. 6) seems to incorrectly state the year as 1911. 

  7. See 2.2.3 Meaning as Use and 2.4.1 Understanding Language for how meaning is understood in this study. 

  8. Larp is a form of physically enacted role-play. See e.g., Paper 3 and Hitchens & Drachen (2008, pp. 10–11). 

  9. For an example of playing research, see e.g., Karppi & Sotamaa (2012).