Theoretical Foundation

This chapter presents the theoretical foundation for this study. First, it presents an overview of hermeneutics with a special focus on philosophical hermeneutics. Then it examines Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language-games in order to show how meaning is created in language. And finally, it explores game studies through a discussion of the central concepts and theories used in the study of games. These are then related back to hermeneutics and language games in the final chapter, which combines these three approaches into a synthesis.

This study should be read as a part of and in conversation with game studies. What this exactly means, however, is not entirely clear. The study of games is not a specific academic discipline, but an assortment of approaches to studying games. Games are studied in a variety of academic contexts, with the philosophical being a minor one.1


Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation.2 Its roots are in the works of Aristotle and in the interpretation of the will of gods and holy texts. Understanding what the gods want is no easy task, especially when their will is represented through texts that are mediated by mere humans.

Interpreting texts in the right way is essential for the believer, but believers are not the only ones who need skills in interpretation. We want to and need to interpret all kinds of texts, because texts that are so simple that they need no interpretation are very rare. Actually, hermeneutics argues that no such texts exist and that interpretation is always necessary when texts are encountered. Philosophical hermeneutics takes this even further by arguing that interpretation is a necessary undertaking for being in the world and that interpreting is a basic human characteristic. For example, try looking at Figure 1 without interpreting it.

Figure 1: A simple geometric shape often interpreted as a religious symbol

Before we move onto discussing the specifics of hermeneutic theory, something should be said about the hermeneutic concept of ´text´. While historically hermeneutics has focused on texts in the traditional sense of the word, the concept has been since been broadened to cover all kinds of objects that require interpretation (cf. Ricoeur, 1981, pp. 145–164, 169, 197–221). Fields like archaeology, architecture and law all have different kinds of objects that must be interpreted. In this study, hermeneutics is broadened to cover a new kind of phenomenon, games.3

This should not be read as an attempt to argue that games are texts. Viewing everything as texts makes the concept of text useless.4 I argue instead that understanding games is in many ways similar to understanding texts in the traditional hermeneutic sense. This echoes Ricoeur’s (1981, pp. 197–221) argument that meaningful activity can be interpreted as a text. In other words, this study presents an argument from analogy. As with any analogy, the devil is in the details. Understanding games through theories built for something else requires understanding the relevant differences (cf. Papers 1 and 5).

What follows is not an even and comprehensive overview of the history of hermeneutics. Instead, more focus is given to the elements relevant to this study. The purpose is not to present the whole history of hermeneutics, but to give the reader enough background information before going into the details of the theory.

Classical Hermeneutics

What is here referred to as classical hermeneutics covers a period ranging from the time of Ancient Greeks to the 20^th^ century. After the era of classical philosophy, hermeneutics was mostly a matter of exegesis, the interpretation of holy texts. In the Christian tradition, theological thinkers from Augustine to Luther tried to discover how to best understand the Bible and combine its sometimes paradoxical messages into a unified gospel. At the same time, Talmudic scholars created a school of thought discussing the proper way of understanding the Torah.

A distinctive difference is made here between classical and philosophical hermeneutics, which changed the focus of hermeneutics to broader questions of understanding (Gadamer, 2006). What had begun as questions of the right way to interpret the Torah and the Bible, became a theory of human understanding.

While the history of hermeneutics is fascinating and broad, going through more than two millennia of theory would not be beneficial for this study.5 What follows instead is a conventional presentation of hermeneutics that will focus on the contributions of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and his follower Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911). This leaves out such important thinkers as Augustine, Chladenius and Droysen, to name but a few of the many contributors to hermeneutic thought (Grondin, 1994). This does not mean that understanding the history of hermeneutics is not important, as is evident from reading Schleiermacher’s and Dilthey’s thinking.

Schleiermacher considered himself the first to broaden hermeneutics into a general theory of interpreting linguistic expressions, a universal hermeneutics (Schmidt, 2006, p. 10). He saw hermeneutics as a tool for understanding every imaginable linguistic expression. Schleiermacher thought that there were two possible approaches to interpretation: the lax and the strict practice. The first concerns most instances of interpretation and can do with less demands, but universal hermeneutics proper must adopt the strict practice. The strict practice assumes that misunderstandings happen as a matter of course and a methodological approach to interpretation must be used as a safeguard against them. Only then can hermeneutics truly work towards understanding.

Schleiermacher divides hermeneutic interpretation into two types: grammatical and psychological. Grammatical interpretation is concerned with understanding language. This concerns not just language in general – e.g., English – but the specific way an author uses it. The interpreter must share the language of the author. Psychological interpretation is concerned with understanding the author’s thinking and how those thoughts are expressed (cf. Gjesdal, 2006, pp. 137–138). To do so, the interpreter must understand both the author’s personal psychology, the environment they are writing in and the subject matter being explored. Schleiermacher sees the goal of hermeneutics as “to understand the utterance at first just as well and then better than its author” (Schleiermacher, 1838/1998, p. 23).

Arrows pointing from whole to details and forming a circle
Figure 2: Schleiermacher’s hermeneutic circle

Both of these forms of interpretation happen in a hermeneutic circle. The hermeneutic circle is a concept that describes the process of interpretation. In order to understand the details of a text, the interpreter must relate them to the whole of the text. But in order to understand the whole text, the interpreter must understand the details. This forms a circle of interpretation that moves from the general to the specific and vice versa (see Figure 2). The structure of interpretation applies to both grammatical and psychological interpretation and to all levels of detail, from understanding single works as parts of the author’s oeuvre and understanding single words as parts of sentences.

According to Schleiermacher, different kinds of texts have different kinds of requirements for interpretation (Schmidt, 2006, p. 13). Everyday conversations are the simplest, requiring minimal grammatical and psychological interpretation. Original works require complex psychological interpretation but are grammatically easy to understand. Classical works are the opposite, requiring complex grammatical interpretation but less psychological interpretation. The most complex task for hermeneutics is understanding works of genius that require both complex grammatical and psychological interpretation.

Table 2: Types of interpretation according to Schleiermacher

Types of interpretation Simple Psychological Complex Psychological
Simple Grammatical Everyday conversations Original works
Complex Grammatical Classical works Work of genius

Schleiermacher’s follower, Wilhelm Dilthey, can be said to have broadened the task of hermeneutics from interpreting linguistic expressions to a methodology for the human sciences. He is skeptical of positivist methodologies in human sciences and distinguishes between explanation and understanding as different goals for the natural and human sciences. However, here we will not focus on Dilthey’s contributions to the theory of human sciences, discussing instead his theory of interpretation.

For Dilthey, the goal of interpretation is to reach lived experience, which he understood as the unitary meaning of living through an experience in all of its aspects. These are accessible to an interpreter through manifestations of life, the external and physical markers of experiencing something. Manifestations of life fall into three different categories:

  1. concepts and judgments, or larger collections of those,
  2. actions, and
  3. expressions of lived experience.

The first group consists of concepts that try to present the way things are in the world and include items like newspaper articles and textbooks. The second group, actions, is understandable because even non-communicative acts reveal a purpose behind the action. For example, seeing somebody set up a canvas and paints, we could conclude that they intend to paint a picture. The last group, expressions of lived experience, are direct expressions of one’s inner life. They can be as simple as a frown expressing disapproval or as complex as a poem or an autobiography. They can also contain unconscious elements.

Dilthey thinks that manifestations of life are understood by making analogical inferences from general cases. Single manifestations are understood as parts of general cases. However, this is not a case of deductive reasoning but rather based on analogy. The interpretive process works by the interpreter placing themselves in the situation that is being interpreted, and reverse-engineering the lived experience from its manifestation. However, the goal is not to reach the mental state of the original creator, but of an ideal person, the person whose mental states the work expresses.

Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics

The move from classical hermeneutics to philosophical hermeneutics is both historical and theoretical. The distinction should not be understood to mean that thinkers like Schleiermacher and Dilthey were not philosophical. On the contrary, they both show a deep understanding and appreciation of philosophical thought. This is especially evident in Schleiermacher’s call for general hermeneutics and Dilthey’s search for a methodology for the human sciences (cf. Gjesdal, 2006).

Instead, the move from classical to philosophical hermeneutics is more about the questions asked than the methods used. The question of right interpretation is less central to philosophical hermeneutics. Rather, it focuses on the preconditions of human understanding and interpretation.

Hans-Georg Gadamer introduces the term ‘philosophical hermeneutics’, but he uses it in relation to his teacher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s thinking is often divided into two periods, early and late, with the change in between them described as the ‘turn’ in his philosophy (Lammi, 1991, p. 489). Early Heidegger is identified especially with Being and Time (1927/1996), a difficult and influential text about the ontology of Being. 6

This is hermeneutics in a completely different sense than the one Schleiermacher and Dilthey had in mind. Heidegger questions the basic premises of metaphysics, trying to find the fundamental conditions for understanding itself. His answer is not what, but who, a questioning being that is able to question Being itself.

Late Heidegger turned to language and poetic thought in an attempt to find the underlying cause of what he considered the failings of Western metaphysics. He wrote about art and technology, trying to reveal Being in a new way (Heidegger, 1978).

If Heidegger’s thinking seems difficult to understand, it is because his thinking is difficult. Heidegger set out to fix the flaws in metaphysics, which he partly identified with the language being used. This led him to use new language, in an effort to find ways of describing things that were not corrupted by the old language. The profound difference of both his thinking and the language he used to describe that thinking make his works hard to follow.

However, for the purposes of this study, it is not necessary to explore Heidegger‘s thought in detail, and more focus is given to his student, Gadamer. While Heidegger is certainly one of the most important philosophers of the 20^th^ century, Gadamer takes his thinking in a direction that is more directly applicable to this study. 7

Gadamer takes Heidegger’s thought and through a rigorous critique of earlier hermeneutics, applies it to human interpretation and understanding in his magnum opus, Truth and Method (1960/2004). His concern is

– not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing. (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. xxvi)

In other words, Gadamer explores the premises and structure of human interpretation, the aware and unaware things we do and which happen to us when we seek to understand something. In doing this, he builds a theoretical framework for philosophical hermeneutics that addresses questions of understanding, interpretation, the truth in art, and the objectivity of the human sciences. This is already far removed from the original concern of hermeneutics, the correct interpretation of holy texts (Jeanrod, 1991).

Gadamer builds his theory on a critique of Kant and the Enlightenment thinkers whom he accuses of abandoning tradition as a source of knowledge:

the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies tradition its power. (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 273)

Here, Gadamer situates himself in the tradition of historical thinkers and attempts a “rehabilitation of authority and tradition” as he calls it (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 278). Understanding what Gadamer means with ‘prejudice’ is essential to understanding his thinking. For Gadamer, prejudice is not a negative thing, but a pre-judgment, and as such an essential part of all thinking. He (2004, p. 273) writes:

The history of ideas shows that not until the Enlightenment does the concept of prejudice acquire the negative connotation familiar today. Actually “prejudice” means a judgment that is rendered before all the elements that determine a situation have been finally examined. (italics in original)

He sees prejudices as the fore-structures of understanding and humans as always understanding something in a preliminary way before starting the conscious task of interpreting. Following Heidegger, Gadamer calls this ‘thrownness’ (Schmidt, 2006, p. 69, 99–101).

This process of interpretation works in the manner of the hermeneutic circle described by Schleiermacher and elaborated above (Schmidt, 2006, p. 14). The process of interpretation is not cyclical in the sense that it would always end up where it started from. Instead, the process of interpretation begins anew each time, building on the results of earlier reflection and becoming better with each subsequent cycle. In that sense a spiral may be a better metaphor for interpretation than a circle (see Figure 3).

A spiral going from prejudice to interpretation and again to prejudice
Figure 3: The hermeneutic spiral of interpretation

Gadamer emphasizes how no thinking happens outside history and a context. Recognizing our place in history and the positive aspect of pre-judgments is a central aspect of his thinking. This does not mean that the authority of tradition could or should not be questioned. However, it does mean that tradition is not inherently suspicious, as it was for the Enlightenment thinkers. Nor should Gadamer’s position on prejudice be read as espousing subjectivity in interpretation. On the contrary:

Certainly philosophical hermeneutics does not legitimize private and arbitrary subjective biases and prejudices, because for it the sole measure which it allows is the ‘matter’ [Sache] being considered at the time, or the text one is seeking to understand. (Gadamer, 2006, p. 45)

He argues that being conscious of one’s prejudices, and the fact that there is no escaping those prejudices, gives interpretations more legitimacy than blindly denying that our point of view might be less than objective. By becoming conscious of our prejudices, we can free ourselves of the “tyranny of hidden prejudices” (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 272) that would otherwise plague our interpretation.

A crucial point in Gadamer’s view of prejudice is his analysis of application. He argues that all interpretation happens in relation to some purpose and, therefore, all interpretation includes application. Here, application means the reason of interpretation. Why was the text picked up in the first place? For what purpose is it being interpreted? Answering these questions helps us understand the prejudices behind the interpretation process. For example, a historian studying legal documents looks at them for an entirely different reason than a lawyer applying them to a legal case (cf. Paper 1).

One of the central concepts Gadamer uses when discussing the context of interpretation is the horizon. He writes:

The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 301)

This should not be read as a literal visual point of view, but as a mental landscape, a context of interpretation and understanding. It reveals a metaphorically important aspect of contexts that must be taken into account when discussing interpretation. First, an interpretation always has a horizon that is impossible to overcome from that perspective. Second, as interpreters we are always bound by our horizons. Third, to understand something historical, the interpreter must acquire the appropriate historical horizon.8 While our horizon limits our interpretations, it is also a productive tool. Like prejudices, the horizon enables us to make interpretations in the first place. It is a starting point we can use to reach understanding.

While a certain horizon may limit our understanding, temporal distance helps us broaden our horizons. As time goes on and the point of view becomes more distant, more things come into view as the horizon broadens (cf. Paper 4). This is especially important in understanding historical phenomena. Understanding what something means in history, means understanding what kind of relation it has to other things in history. For example, before the Second World War, the First World War was known simply as the Great War. However, this name is less appropriate after World War II, since the second war was even bigger and more catastrophic than the first one. Historians writing about the First World War after the second one could then situate it in relation to the Second World War, effectively opening new horizons of interpretation.

Temporal distance also has a second, opposite aspect of effective history. Interpreters are part of history, but so are the objects they are trying to interpret. Gadamer explains:

If we are trying to understand a historical phenomenon from the historical distance that is characteristic of our hermeneutical situation, we are always already affected by history. (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 300)

Whenever the object of interpretation has existed in history before the interpretation has begun, it has created an effective history of earlier interpretations and meanings. These are not identical to the object itself, but an important aspect of it when interpretation is taken into consideration. It is impossible and undesirable to try to separate, for example, Mona Lisa from all earlier interpretations of it, since the earlier interpretations are a central aspect of what constitutes Mona Lisa in the first place. Those interpretations have become part of its effective history and have become permanent additions to its meaning. Again, Gadamer’s view is not that we should submit to this effective history and accept it as gospel, but that being conscious of it can give us a better chance of reaching the truth of the matter. No object of interpretation is a vessel for a single, unified meaning, but a fountain of possible meanings that may be actualized in different historical and cultural contexts.

Gadamer’s admittance of the changing nature of meaning can give the impression that truth or meaning is somehow subjective. That is not the case. Because Gadamer’s own account of the matter leaves room for interpretation, David Weberman (2000) has sought to clarify it with the aid of two new concepts: intrinsic and relational properties (see also Paper 1).

Intrinsic properties are properties that events or objects have without any reference to any other events or objects. Basic intrinsic properties are, for example, size and shape. These do not change, or change very rarely, perhaps changing the object to a different one. A car cut in half has very different intrinsic properties than a complete car. The division also changes its meaning: it is no longer a proper vehicle.

Relational properties are properties that events or objects have in relation to other events or objects. The earlier example of a war being the Second World War constitutes a relational property by implying a First World War. Other relational properties could be being a sister, not having played the original Pac-Man or owning a copy of the Truth and Method. These are all properties that can only exist in relation to other things. These properties might also change because of fortunate or unfortunate circumstances, especially over time.9

While Gadamer does not use these terms, it is this idea that underlies his theory of how objects of understanding are underdetermined or incomplete. In this context, incompleteness means that an object’s meaning is never complete or final. Because its relational properties are always in flux, no final meaning can be assigned to an object. Gadamer emphasizes the temporal aspect, but the changes in the cultural vantage point of the interpreter also change the possible meaning of the object (Weberman, 2000, pp. 55–56). We might generalize this to mean that as long as culture is going to change, our interpretations need to change as well. Reaching some kind of final understanding would require nothing less than a Hegelian end of history.

This use of Weberman’s distinction should make clear that Gadamer’s account of interpretation does not endorse subjectivism or relativism. A more apt description might be to call it “interpretive pluralism,” as it shows how meaning is firmly dependent on the context of interpretation (Weberman, 2000, p. 51). There is a meaning and truth to be found, but they are not set in stone while history marches by.10

Gadamer also makes a sharp distinction between authorial intent and the meaning of an object. While earlier hermeneutic thinkers, like Schleiermacher, identified a text’s meaning with the author’s intent, Gadamer disagreed, arguing that these need to be separated.11 For Schleiermacher, interpretation is a process of reconstruction, where the interpreter tries to reconstruct the author’s original intent. Gadamer sees interpretation in terms of recreation, with the interpreter recreating the meaning in relation to the present horizon (see also Paper 4). The author’s intent is something permanent, while an object’s meaning is always incomplete and always subject to change when the context around the object changes. This stance makes sense especially when historical events have caused a significant change in the meaning of an object, as happened, for instance, in case of swastika. It is also congruent with Gadamer’s idea of effective history.

It is impossible to discuss Gadamer’s hermeneutics without commenting on his conception of language. For Gadamer, language is the medium in which understanding happens and conversation is a metaphor for the process of interpretation (Malpas, 2013). He does not rule out the possibility of other forms of understanding the world but gives primacy to language, calling it the “medium of hermeneutic experience” (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 385). His analysis of hermeneutics is “analysis of the universal linguisticality of man’s relation to the world” (Gadamer, 1977, p. 19).

Gadamer bases his analysis of interpretation on his theory of language. Gadamer argues that to understand something, we must enter into a dialogue with it. He writes:

Thus we return to the conclusion that the hermeneutic phenomenon too implies the primacy of dialogue and the structure of question and answer. That a historical text is made the object of interpretation means that it puts a question to the interpreter. (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 363)

While application required questioning in a different manner, asking questions from the object being interpreted, a genuine understanding requires a dialogue between the interpreter and the object of the interpretation. When this is successful, the interpreter reaches what Gadamer calls a “fusion of horizons” (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 305). The horizon of the interpreter and the object being interpreted fuse, creating an understanding of the subject at hand. This fusion also brings prejudices to the fore and gives us a chance to refute them by comparing what we expect to find with what the object is actually saying.

Play also forms a part of Gadamer’s (2004) hermeneutics. For him, play was a central metaphor for the ontology of the work of art. Because of Gadamer’s interest in the artwork as a structure that frames the aesthetic encounter, he focuses on play as a structure rather than action. This leads Leino (2010, p. 71) to conclude that Gadamer is “perhaps the first ludologist.” Gadamer (1960/2004, p. 102) writes:

When we speak of play in reference to the experience of art, this means neither the orientation nor even the state of mind of the creator or of those enjoying the work of art, nor the freedom of a subjectivity engaged in play, but the mode of being of the work of art itself.

This frames Gadamer’s interest in play as being part of his theory of aesthetics. However, he does seem to try to say things about play in general, and his thoughts occasionally seem to mirror those of Caillois and Huizinga, whose ideas were presented in the introduction.

Gadamer places play prior to the subjectivity of the player. Losing oneself in the act of playing is not an aberration, but a fundamental part of the nature of play: “all playing is a being-played” (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 106). He (2004, p. 105) also views play as something larger than just human action:

It is obviously not correct to say that animals too play, nor is it correct to say that, metaphorically speaking, water and light play as well. Rather, on the contrary, we can say that man too plays. (italics in the original)

Play is a to-and-fro movement, a playful mode of being, exhibited by nature, animals and humans, and necessary for the appreciation of aesthetic objects. This perspective seems to place games much closer to the realm of art than is generally thought (cf. Smuts, 2005).

Gadamer is convinced that art can be used as a tool for revealing the truth about the world. However, for him the truth found in art is neither a singular, static thing nor a neutral logical proposition. Again, Gadamer is fighting against the weight of the history of thought, which has long equated art with the false and the deceitful. Gadamer argues that art is a way of revealing the truth instead of concealing it. He (2004, p. 84) writes that

art is knowledge and experiencing an artwork means sharing in that knowledge.

This is knowledge of a different kind than the one gained from scientific research. Instead, it can help answer questions connected to what it is to be human and how we should relate to the world. Gadamer (1986, p. 18) writes:

The kind of truth that we encounter in the experience of the beautiful does unambiguously make a claim to more than merely subjective validity.

This does not mean that the truth found in art is comparable to the one discovered in science. It is meaningless to compare them, since they are of different type and reveal different parts of the world in different ways.

Gadamer follows Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics in formulating his view that works of art are mirrors of the worldviews embedded in them. This should not be confused with the artist’s subjective intention of what they were trying to convey with the work. Gadamer refers instead to the worldview represented by the artist when doing art.

To understand life during the industrial revolution in 19^th^ century Britain or the experience of war in Germany during the Second World War, one can turn to the writings of historians or one can consult the works of art that depict those periods. The understanding derived from the works of historians and artists are not in competition, but present different perspectives on the same phenomenon.

Philosophical Hermeneutics and the Critique of Gadamer

Other researchers in hermeneutics that could be relevant to the present study but who are not dealt with at length here are Edmund Husserl, Jürgen Habermas and Paul Ricoeur. Of all the researchers in philosophical hermeneutics I have chosen to mention these three because of their significant influence on the field and their dialogue with Gadamer.

Husserl is considered to be the founder of phenomenology. His work was influenced by Wilhelm Dilthey and he had a big influence on Heidegger who worked as Husserl’s assistant for a time (Beyer, 2013). Gadamer is also familiar with Husserl’s work both directly and through Heidegger’s influence.

Jürgen Habermas is a renowned philosopher and sociologist who has had a significant influence on social theory. Habermas has tried to build a hermeneutically informed theory of social structure, drawing upon critical theory, Marxist thought and psychoanalysis (Mendelson, 1979, p. 46). Gadamer and Habermas had an extended dialogue over the years, which influenced the philosophical views of both thinkers.

Habermas criticizes Gadamer for his views on language and tradition. He claims that Gadamer overemphasizes the role of language and fails to properly distinguish between things that exist in language and things that are merely reflected by it, like labor and domination (Mendelson, 1979, p. 64). Gadamer has attempted to answer, for example in a later supplement to Truth and Method, but his concept of language does seem to run into problems with the previous distinction.

A central point of Habermas’s criticism against Gadamer is Gadamer’s positive view of tradition. Habermas argues that Gadamer’s view does not leave enough room for social criticism or for properly critical hermeneutics (Mendelson, 1979, p. 64, 67).

Combined, Habermas’s criticism of Gadamer focuses on his worry that hermeneutics as a theory for the social sciences does not provide proper tools for critiquing structures of oppression (cf. Gadamer, 1975). If hermeneutics is content to describe “what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing” (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. xxvi), it cannot work as a tool for emancipation.

While Gadamer is interested in the conditions of understanding, Habermas tries to theorize and formulate the preconditions of a society free of domination. While a very valuable endeavor, it is not relevant to understanding games, and Habermas’s value to the present study is mostly related to his critique of Gadamer.12

Paul Ricoeur is another important hermeneutic philosopher, known especially for his work in phenomenology and hermeneutics. As with Habermas, it would take a lengthy treatise to do justice to the breadth of Ricoeur’s work. Instead, the focus will be on the elements that are most relevant to the questions explored in this work.

A notion especially relevant to the current study is Ricoeur’s idea of interpreting any meaningful action as a text (Ricoeur, 1981, pp. 197–221). He analyses the structure of action and finds that action and text share a similar structure. The analogy is based on the concept of speech-act, a bridge between action and language (Austin, 1962). Ricoeur argues that actions become embedded in both actual documents and in history as a document of all things that have happened, and can be then read from that document as if from a text.13

This is important for the current study, which tries to do a similar act of objectification by analyzing games as texts, or at least using tools originally meant for texts. Unlike games, actions do not have a permanent aspect to them, other than in the sense argued for by Ricoeur. This makes analyzing games potentially easier. However, games also have an impermanent aspect to them since gameplay is not something that persists in time. This will be discussed in more detail below, but for now it is enough to note that games are played, and that playing is an important aspect of their meaning.

There is also a large number of other thinkers that criticize and comment on Gadamer in a variety of ways but are not presented in detail here. Their criticisms, however, merit mention.

Gadamer has been criticized for neither discussing epistemology nor providing a methodology despite the title of his most important book (Lammi, 1991, p. 489). The original proposed title, Fundamentals of a Philosophical Hermeneutics, was perhaps more descriptive in this sense than Truth and Method (Schmidt, 2006, p. 95). Gadamer is not trying to formulate a methodology for interpretation or a theory of truth, but to describe the preconditions for human understanding.

Some scholars have also noted that Gadamer’s critique of previous hermeneutic thinkers may not have been the most generous reading of earlier research (see e.g., Gjesdal, 2006, pp. 133–134; Harrington, 2000, p. 493; Pettersson, 2009, p. 17). He reads the history of philosophy with the intent of applying it to his own project, which perhaps explains the one-sidedness of the interpretation. It is also in line with his conviction that interpretation necessarily contains an aspect of application.

Gadamer’s view on how interpretation works is not universally accepted. While Gadamer argues that authorial intent is not to be confused with the meaning of a work of art, some thinkers disagree. For example, E. D. Hirsch espouses a view based on authorial intent (Barthold, 2014). This leads to another disagreement: Gadamer argues that because the meaning of a work is not tied to the author’s intent, it is always in flux, potentially changing when the horizon changes. To Gadamer, this is not a subjectivist or a relativist position, since the meaning is always tied to a specific frame of reference, within which it can be determined. Hirsch (1967, p. 123) disagrees, arguing that Gadamer confuses meaning (author’s intent) with signification (reader’s interpretation), a distinction Gadamer would recognize but dismiss as not significant regarding the question of artistic meaning.

The hermeneutic tradition is too long and broad to adequately cover in one chapter. Instead, this chapter has focused on some specific aspects of hermeneutics and particularly the philosophical hermeneutics of Gadamer, whose thoughts on language, interpretation and play are especially valuable for game studies (e.g., Karhulahti, 2014; Leino, 2010; Sicart, 2009). His thoughts are applied to games at the end of the theory chapter.

Wittgensteinian Philosophy

One of the central strands of research in this study is Wittgensteinian philosophy. Since this is far from unambiguous, it needs to be clarified. This is done in two ways: First, by distinguishing between early and later Wittgenstein. Second, by discussing how later Wittgenstein has been read in numerous ways, for example by philosophers such as Kripke and Winch.

Early Wittgenstein and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

The first important distinction is between the early Wittgenstein of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) and the later Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations (1953/2001). These two are usually discussed separately, almost as if they were written by different authors, for the views presented in them have very little in common. I will give a short overview of the Tractatus, as it should enlighten Wittgenstein’s later thought. The Tractatus famously states that it

deals with the problems of philosophy and shows, as I believe, that the method of formulating these problems rests on the misunderstanding of the logic of our language. Its whole meaning could be summed up somewhat as follows: What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent. (Wittgenstein, 1922, p. 23)

It then proceeds to state seven main theses, each supported by clauses and sub-clauses. Together they present what Wittgenstein at the time views as the solution to all problems philosophy has with the world and its relation to language. The seven main theses are as follows:

  1. The world is everything that is the case.
  2. What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.
  3. The logical picture of the facts is the thought.
  4. The thought is the significant proposition.
  5. Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth function of itself.)
  6. The general form of truth-function is [p, ξ, N(ξ)]. This is the general form of proposition.
  7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (Wittgenstein, 1922)

With the Tractatus, Wittgenstein purports to have established a theory of language that tells philosophy what can and what cannot be meaningfully discussed. In early Wittgenstein’s theory of language things like aesthetics, ethics and metaphysics are just confusions in language (Biletzki & Matar, 2014). Having solved all philosophical problems, Wittgenstein left philosophy and focused his interests elsewhere.

The Tractatus inspired members of the Vienna Circle to develop a philosophical movement that has been called both logical positivism and logical empiricism (cf. Creath, 2014; Passmore, 1943). They were interested in creating a unified language for science, based on an empirical approach to the world. This language would then serve as the logical basis for science. While some of the premises of this quest were problematic, they have had an enormous influence on the development of philosophy of science and related fields (Creath, 2014).

Later Wittgenstein and Philosophical Investigations

About a decade later, Wittgenstein returned to philosophy and began to see problems with the perfectly logical account of language given in the Tractatus. Several decades of philosophical work led to Philosophical Investigations (1953/2001), which was published only posthumously in 1953. Philosophical Investigations consists of two parts, the first of which was put together by Wittgenstein in 1946 and the latter of which was added later by its editors.

The book is formatted in a manner similar to the Tractatus in that each paragraph is numbered, but unlike the Tractatus, the book does not have a hierarchical structure and each paragraph follows the previous one in numbering. The style is also very different from the Tractatus. While the Tractatus is written like a list of self-evident statements, Philosophical Investigations has a dialogic style with several voices and sudden juxtapositions of different ideas. This is one of the reasons why it is not often easy to say what Wittgenstein actually thought of a particular issue.

Because of the difficulty of his style, Wittgenstein’s writings have attracted many different readings and interpretations, and doubt about the coherency of his thoughts (Norris, 1983, pp. 38–39). The most influential of these have formed traditions of interpretation that disagree on some central points on how Philosophical Investigations should be read. It is common to refer to an interpreter of Wittgenstein with a compound of their names, like Kripkenstein for Kripke and Winchgenstein for Winch (cf. Stern, 2004, p. 157). This is to remind the reader that the comments are not aimed at Wittgenstein but Kripke’s or Winch’s reading of him.

This study does not try to do the discussion on Philosophical Investigations justice by going through all of the readings, but instead focuses on using some of Wittgenstein’s ideas (for more on how Wittgenstein has been read, see e.g., Goldfarb, 1985; Kremer, 2000; Wilson, 1998). Some of these readings will align with Kripkenstein, some with Winchgenstein, and no great effort has been made to keep these separate. The purpose of this study is not to present an exegesis of Wittgenstein or his commenters but to study games, and Wittgenstein happens to be a useful thinker on issues related to definition, meaning and rules.

Meaning as Use

Later Wittgenstein and Philosophical Investigations have a much messier view of language than the Tractatus. The clear distinction between things that can be spoken about and things that must be passed over in silence is gone, and Wittgenstein views language much more clearly in relation to its use. He writes:

For a large class of cases of the employment of the word “meaning”—though not for all—this way can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. (Wittgenstein, 1953/2001, para. 43)

Wittgenstein opposes the earlier approaches to meaning that place meaning either in some objective space or inside mental representations. This section seems to suggest that philosophers should not try to figure out the meaning, but look at the actual uses of a word. This has interesting implications on how Wittgenstein views definitions. Paper 2 discusses the implications of this to understanding game definitions in more detail, but a short overview of Wittgenstein’s thoughts on the matter is provided here.

In Wittgenstein’s view, definitions should be viewed in terms of family resemblance. He uses games as an example, asking what is common among all the things that we call games. The answer is, he tells us, nothing. Instead

we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. (Wittgenstein, 1953/2001, para. 66)

This is the basic idea Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances. Instead of there being a common core of attributes that define games, they form a family of related things. There are no central attributes, but rather the similarities are overlapping and crisscrossing.

Language-game is Wittgenstein’s term for “almost any practice in which language is involved in some way, any interweaving of human life and language” (Stern, 2004, p. 88). Language-games are the patterns of activity that are defined by family resemblances. Wittgenstein (1953/2001, para. 23) lists examples of language-games:

  • Giving orders, and obeying them–
  • Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements–
  • Constructing an object from description (a drawing)–
  • Reporting an event–
  • Speculating about the event–
  • Forming and testing a hypothesis–
  • Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams–
  • Making up a story; and reading it–
  • Play-acting–
  • Singing catches–
  • Guessing riddles–
  • Making a joke; telling it–
  • Solving a problem in practical arithmetic–
  • Translating from one language into another–
  • Requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying–

There are very few areas where human life and language do not interweave. Unlike the earlier Wittgenstein, who tried to define language in terms of logical propositions, the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations seems to view language in relation to the social life around it, the forms of life language is used in. Wittgenstein (1953/2001, para. 23) writes:

Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a life-form. (italics in original)

Forms of life are the many varied contexts language is used in, ranging from social rituals like greetings to larger scale social institutions like religion.

Coincidentally, this view of language is very close to how Gadamer views language. Both thinkers see language as deeply culturally and contextually conditioned and a shared medium of understanding (Connolly, 1986).

The Rule-Following Paradox

As part of his discussion on language, Wittgenstein also considers rules and rule following. He develops the rule-following paradox in an extended attack against the idea of a private languages (Stern, 2004, pp. 180–181).

The clearest formulation of the rule-following paradox is: a rule does not tell you what counts as following the rule. In other words, for that you need another rule. To interpret that rule, you need another rule, and this would seem to continue recursively and infinitely.

Wittgenstein (1953/2001) goes through many examples, but the clearest is that of a mathematical formula. If you were asked to start from 1 and continue adding 3, you would probably form the following series of numbers: 1, 4, 7 and so on. Anyone following you doing the addition would probably conclude that you understood the rule of “adding 3.”

However, should you continue the series with 10, 12, 14 and so on, they would probably change their mind and think that you misunderstood the rule. They could repeat the rule and ask you to try again, but if you again repeated the same mistake, referring back to the rule would not help. The rule of “adding 3” does not tell you how to add 3. Now, another rule could be devised, telling you that “adding 3 means that you continue the series 10, 13, 16 and so on” but again, there would be no guarantee that you understood that rule. Maybe you would again revert to your earlier way of following the rule, starting with 21, 23, 25 and so on. You could again claim to have followed the rule. Wittgenstein (1953/2001, para. 201) expresses it as follows:

This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if any action can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here. (italics in original)

Now, one way of reading this is to see the problem as an infinite regression where any rule needs to be explained with a new rule which explains how to follow that rule. Another is to follow the course established above, with Wittgenstein seeing meaning as a matter of use, and see rule-following as a social practice (Stern, 2004, p. 180). Distinguishing between following a rule correctly and making a mistake is not a logical but a practical question. Rule following is not determined in isolation but as a social practice, where whether somebody follows a rule is decided by whether other people recognize them as following the rule.

This has been a very short introduction to Wittgenstein’s notion of language-games, but it should provide enough context for the reader to understand the rest of this study. His thoughts on rule-following are useful when rules are later discussed, but it is his theory of language that is most relevant to this study. Early Wittgenstein can serve as an example of a theory of language that is not useful for discussing the issues of meaning dealt with in this study. We need to turn to the later Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations and understand language through language-games to appreciate and make sense of the breadth of things that are considered games. Wittgenstein’s ideas on definitions are applied later in this study on the issue of defining games.

Game Studies

Chapter 1.3 contained a brief discussion on game studies, but that chapter did not include any theoretical discussion on the concepts and theories used in this study. This chapter covers game studies, presenting a theory that is necessary for understanding the results and discussion that will follow later. The topics covered here include procedurality and emergence, rules, the magic circle, players, and the relation of games and stories.

Procedurality and Emergence

As was mentioned in the introduction, procedurality is one of the central concepts used when discussing games. Procedurality implies that games are made of processes. Even when designing games that are objects or artifacts, the designer is implicitly designing the processes that are embedded in that object. While there are many different senses of ‘process’ and ‘procedurality’, the one most closely related to game studies comes from computing, the platform all digital games run on, but is generalized to apply to all kinds of processes besides digital ones. A very broad description of procedurality is given by Bogost (2007, p. 3):

processes define the way things work: the methods, techniques, and logics that drive the operation of systems, from mechanical systems like engines to organizational systems like high schools to conceptual systems like religious faith.

At its most basic, a process is a script or a collection of rules for how something is done, be it a mechanical engine, a social organization or a digital game. These processes are defined by the game rules or, sometimes, by external factors like physical laws, social agreements or cultural assumptions. Processes in games are created by somebody to do something:

To write procedurally, one authors code that enforces rules to generate some kind of representation, rather than authoring the representation itself. (Bogost, 2007, p. 4)

But after the processes have been created, they take on a life of their own and interact with other processes and players. This leads to emergence, the birth of unseen combinations of things happening, based on the simple rules that were authored (Dormans, 2011, p. 1). Juul (2002, p. 324) defines emergence as follows:

Emergence is the primordial game structure, where a game is specified as a small number of rules that combine and yield large numbers of game variations, which the players then design strategies for dealing with.

A good example of emergency is the traditional game Go, where the rules define simple interactions of placing black and white stones on a board one after another. While the rules are simple, the interactions they create are complex, so complex that the number of legal positions in Go is almost impossible to compute (Tromp & Farnebäck, 2007, p. 84).

Other games have other types of emergence, most often deriving from social interaction. Any game that has players is going to produce unexpected results since it is hard to predict how people behave, especially in groups. That is part of the charm of playing social games. Massive multiplayer games are going to be even more unpredictable since the amount of players and the possible interactions between them is even larger.

Emergence is not a special feature of games, but appears anywhere where rules are combined. A good example is Raymond Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (original title: Cent mille milliards de poèmes), a combination of ten sonnets that have the same rhyme scheme and rhyme sounds, so that they can be combined to produce the hundred thousand billion poems promised in the title. Combined, they produce more text than anyone could ever read, but they can still be printed in a book, with the pages cut into ten different sections that can be turned independently.


Processes are based on rules that humans, computers or other actors follow and enforce. Rules are often seen as a defining feature of games: “If there is one certainty in game studies, it is that games involve rules” (Deterding, 2013, p. 165). Some scholars even identify games as their rules (e.g., Parlett, 1999, p. 3). Rules, however, are not easy to define. An explication of how rules work in games needs to at least account for different types of rules.

According to Searle (1969) rules can be divided into two categories of regulative and constitutive rules.14 Regulative rules “regulate antecedently or independently existing forms of behavior” (Searle, 1969, p. 33). These are the rules that are applied to regulate all kinds of human behavior, from bans on theft to the rules of etiquette.

In comparison, constitutive rules “constitute (and also regulate) an activity the existence of which is logically dependent on the rules” or in other words, “create or define new forms of behavior” (Searle, 1969, pp. 33–34). Conveniently, Searle’s examples are games like chess and American football.15 For example, a checkmate in chess assumes the rules of chess – it is impossible to make a checkmate outside chess. In other words, a checkmate is logically dependent on the rules of chess. This is echoed by Bernard Suits (1980, p. 30) who thinks that in games “rules are accepted for the sake of the activity they make possible,” a formulation very similar to Searle’s constitutive rules.

It is apparent from Searle’s examples that games have both constitutive and regulative rules. Constitutive rules are what are generally referred to as the rules of the game. These are the rules that define how the game is intended to be played, what constitutes as playing that game.

However, player behavior during play is also regulated by other rules than the formal rules laid down in manuals and rulebooks, or even computer code. The social rule of “let your little brother occasionally win” might overcome the formal rules of the game in guiding player behavior or even the rules as they are written down. A handicapped player might be given more resources, time or relaxed rules, even if the written or coded rules mention nothing of such things. Sometimes these rules for handicaps are included in the constitutive rules, but they may also rise out of necessity or convenience.

Somewhere around regulative rules there is also another, overlapping category of rules. Games are also regulated by a large amount of implicit rules. These might take the form mentioned above, taking handicaps and social relations into account. They are also constituted by cultural contexts and tradition in a manner similar to that discussed in the earlier chapter on hermeneutics. Games may also be used to make some implicit rules more explicit by setting the games rules against or parallel to social rules and conventions (Poremba, 2007, p. 772).

Game scholars seem conflicted on whether computers can be said to follow rules. Researchers more focused on the computational or systemic nature of digital games seem to have no problems with computers following rules (e.g., Eskelinen, 2012, pp. 253–258; Juul, 2005, p. 55, 58–59). Scholars with a more social scientific approach seem to see rules as something people follow, with computers doing something else (e.g., Deterding, 2013, pp. 166–167; Mosca, 2011, p. 8). This might work, for example, by the programmer following rules and implementing them in algorithms for the computer. Game scholars’ difference of opinion highlights the different ways of understanding how rules work and what they are. A good way to discuss this is to focus on how rules are learned. Here, we ought to keep in mind Wittgenstein’s thoughts on rules previously discussed in this study. If we consider following rules a social practice, then computers are unable to participate in that social practice and therefore are not following rules. It would also be possible to consider the rules computers follow a special case of rules, for example what Juul (2005, pp. 61–64) terms algorithmic rules.

In most cases, we don’t learn new games by carefully going through the rules over and over until we know them by heart. This would be unnecessary with games like Tag or Tic-Tac-Toe,, where the rules are simple enough to start playing almost immediately, and it would be impossible in digital games where the rules are only rarely apparent to the player. Instead we usually approach games with the intent of playing and learn the rules in order to do so. Deterding (2013, p. 171) expresses it thus:

the meaning of any rule is the practical capacity to ‘go on’ that is mutually intelligible within a community as ‘following the rule’.

It is worth noting that it might not even be clear whether we have learned the rules of a game before we try playing it. Only when that knowledge is tested in practice, it becomes clear whether we understood the rules or not. Rules are learned only to the extent that they are needed for playing, and clarifications are sought in situations where it is not apparent how to continue. In informal social play, like Tag, clarifications are asked from other players. In digital games, the answer is usually sought first from the game itself by trying out different things. If that does not work, players turn to alternative sources like other players, game guides or help files.

If I need to figure out how far my digital avatar can jump, I can simply try. To find the most effective weapon against an enemy, I can try several to see which one works best. The exact rules behind the game’s logic are not important to me until knowledge of the way they affect my performance becomes important to proceeding in the game. Well-designed games are very good at communicating whether a certain tactic can be used to ‘go on.’

Using the distinction mentioned above, it could be said that what the previous paragraph describes is not actually about following rules, since it is not a matter of social practice. With digital systems the arbiter of correct rule following is the system upholding the rules (cf. Myers, 2010, pp. 18–19). Computer systems are usually very vocal about any errors they encounter. The player does not get to choose whether to follow the rules or not, since they are not up for negotiation.

The two possible exceptions to this would be some kind of changes to the game and multiplayer games. A mod, a cheat or a console command could be used to change the rules of a game, making them up for negotiation after all. Another way of framing such changing of the game is to see it as breaking the rules, since the game has been changed from the original state – the rules defined by the designer are no longer in effect (Consalvo, 2007, pp. 90–91). The second example is multiplayer games where players are able to use the commonly shared game to establish social contracts on how the game is played, what is acceptable and what is forbidden (Myers, 2008, pp. 6–10). These rules are closer to the everyday rules social scientists usually discuss and should be understood in a similar way.

In both of these cases, following rules only makes sense in a certain context. One can only play Tag in a game of Tag with other people, and overcoming enemies in a digital game only makes sense in a digital game with enemies. These contexts are necessary for figuring out what following a rule means.

The Magic Circle

One of the central concepts game studies has borrowed from the cultural historian Johan Huizinga (1938/1949, p. 10) is that of magic circle:

All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Huizinga makes no distinction between a playground, a magic circle and a temple, viewing all of them in similar terms. In fact, a magic circle is only one of the many forms of “temporary worlds” identified by Huizinga. A similar formulation of spatial separation in play is given by Riezler (1941, p. 511):

An area of playing is isolated by our sovereign whim or by man-made agreement. Things within this area mean what we order them to mean. They are cut off from their meanings in the so-called real world or ordinary life. No chains of causes and effects, means and ends, are supposed to connect the isolated area of play with the real world or ordinary life.

The concept of the magic circle was popularized in game studies by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in their influential book Rules of Play (2004), where it received the form most game scholars are familiar with (Stenros, 2014, p. 149). In their simplest formulation, the magic circle is “where the game takes place” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 95). For them, the magic circle is the boundary between play and non-play. It is in Salen and Zimmerman’s work, where the concept of magic circle is for the first time applied mainly to games.

Often, the magic circle is understood in a spatial sense as the actual playground or playfield, a boxing ring, basketball court or a sumo ring. It is in this very sense that it is applied to the boards used in board games. It is also extended metaphorically to virtual playgrounds and virtual worlds. However, in addition to the spatial sense it has at least two other meanings as the social framings of play and the playful mindset of the players (Stenros, 2014, p. 173).16 Stenros calls these three senses the arena, the magic circle of play and the psychological bubble. In his choice of terms, he shows what he considers the primary meaning of the term ‘magic circle’. All of these concepts may be of use to game scholars as long as they are kept separate from each other.

The magic circle is a contested concept, leading some researchers to criticize it or to deny its value altogether as a concept (Consalvo, 2009; cf. Juul, 2008). Because it is extended metaphorically, it is not always clear what it refers to. The three senses of the magic circle found by Stenros (2014) often mingle, making it unclear which aspect of the circle is being referred to.

There are also forms of play that toy with the boundary or try to expand or break it in some way. These include pervasive and brink games, and the concept of bleed. Pervasive games expand the magic circle spatially, temporally or socially by having the games happen in large areas, over large stretches of time or without clear boundaries between players and non-players (Montola, 2005). They let reality pervade play or vice versa. Examples of these kinds of games are Alternative Reality Games (ARG) like I Love Bees.

In comparison, brink games play with the boundary by pitting implicit social rules against implicit or explicit game rules (Poremba, 2007, p. 772, 774). They explore what is socially accepted by using games as an alibi for actions that would normally be socially forbidden or frowned upon. An example is the game Twister where the game rules dictate that the players have to get closer to each other than is normally socially acceptable.

Some forms of role-playing aim for what has been called bleed (Montola, 2010, p. 2). Bleed is a form of brink play. Bleed can be divided into types: bleed in and bleed out. Bleed in happens when the player’s life outside the game influences the game and bleed out takes place when the player’s life outside the game is influenced by the game. Feelings of hopelessness, fear or other strong emotions are acceptable and often desirable when playing games that aim for bleed.17 The motivation for this type of play is similar to reading books or watching movies that evoke strong negative emotions but nonetheless form a gratifying experience.

There are also situations or contexts in which society recognizes the existence of the magic circle. Probably the most important of these are sports. Lastowka (2009, p. 386) notes how it is usually illegal to punch somebody, but inside the boxing ring one is expected to do so:

Violent and powerful physical attacks against another person, which are normally forbidden by law and social norms, become the obligatory and consensual mode of conduct. At the same time, polite and acceptable behavior—polite conversation—would be a gross breach of decorum.

The social norms around boxing dictate what is acceptable within the boxing ring, and society respects those norms by not prosecuting a boxer for the violence they commit within the ring. There are other contexts where the magic circle of play precedes everyday social conventions, like in relation to April Fools’ Day pranks and festivals.


Understanding players is a central part of understanding play and, subsequently, understanding meaning in games. However, understanding players is not a simple issue. People play games for a variety of reasons and motivations. Player studies is one of the ways used in game studies to untangle these issues and come to a broader understanding of players and their differences and similarities.

Players are often discussed on the basis of player types or typologies. These might be geographic, demographic, psychographic or behavioral (Hamari & Tuunanen, 2014, p. 31). Some typologies have become common parlance regardless of the lack of research. A good example is the distinction between hard-core and casual players. This distinction is based on the perceived difference between people who play games that require more effort and skill, and people who prefer games that are easily approached and learned (cf. Sotamaa, 2007, p. 459). Some typologies are based on psychological theories of personality types that are applied to players (e.g., Bateman, Lowenhaupt, & Nacke, 2011).

Probably the earliest systematic theory of player types is Bartle’s (1996) study of MUD players. Following an informal discussion with other MUD-players he summarized different player types into achievers, explorers, socializers and killers. These types differ in their preferred style of play with achievers pursuing game-related goals, explorers exploring the virtual world, socializers communicating with others and killers imposing themselves upon others. Bartle’s model has been used extensively since.18 This might be problematic, since it is based on an informally gathered set of impressions from a MUD.

Fortunately, research into player types did not stop with applications of Bartle’s model. Hamari and Tuunanen (2014) review the field of player typologies and synthesize their findings into five motivations or orientations: achievement, exploration, sociability, domination and immersion. It is easy to notice that they are very similar to the original types suggested by Bartle. This means either that Bartle’s original findings were surprisingly accurate or that researchers in game studies have had a hard time distancing themselves from his model (cf. Bartle, 2014).

Bartle (1996) already notes that it is important to distinguish between player types and actual players. Actual players may share traits of multiple types and move between them in different contexts and at different times. Typologies should not be read as hard categories that define players, but as typical forms of behavior that players may participate in. However, studies of player typologies do claim that these are relatively stable categories.

Another way of approaching players is to discuss them as groups by studying communities of players. Warmelink and Siitonen (2011, p. 9) review studies of player communities and find that they discuss player communities with a variety of terms: guild, community, group, network, organization, team, raid, party, clan and social formation or unit. All of these terms emphasize how players are socially connected to other players. This approach emphasizes the social nature of play and sees players through the social organizations they form. This might be especially useful for games of highly social nature, like MMORPGs.

While paying attention to the social nature of play is important, this study focuses on players from the perspective of hermeneutics, which highlights the intersubjective and the cultural at the expense of the social. This is not an excuse to ignore the social nature of play and meaning, and in hermeneutic theory these are discussed in relation to the context of interpretation.

This study takes an approach developed by Aarseth (2007) and based on the implied reader model of literary studies and Gadamer’s notion of play. Aarseth (2007, pp. 131–132) writes:

For the humanist game scholar, whether engaged in close playing analysis of a single game, or trying to make sense of games as a complex, multifaceted medium with a huge repertoire of genres, the player is a necessary but uncontrollable part of the process of creating ludic meaning, a function that is created by the gameplay as well as co-creator of it.

This approach differs from the empirical social sciences in that it does not look for actual players and their actual play like the approach presented earlier. Instead, the player is a theorized but mandatory part of the system of play. The game sets certain expectations of what the player should or can do, and these guide the implied player onto a pre-set path.

The concept of implied player aligns well with the Gadamerian framework presented earlier in this study. Gadamer’s work was also the inspiration for the reception aesthetics of Wolfgang Iser (1976/1990) and Hans Robert Jauss (1982) who theorized the implied reader.

Aarseth (2007, p. 132) also emphasizes that players are occasionally able to transgress the assumptions made regarding the implied player. Players can break rules, exploit bugs and otherwise refuse to co-operate with the game. However, these moments are rare in the larger picture of play, the majority of which follows the rules. The moments of transgression are there to remind us that we have some say in play, but mostly we join the implied player for the ride.

Regardless of the approach taken, game studies seem relatively united in assuming that games require players. Leino (2010, p. 61) writes:

As long as we are concerning ourselves with games, the player’s involvement is a necessity already on a conceptual level: to conceive something as a game necessarily implies filling the position(s) of the player(s) with something, that is, conceiving something as the player(s) of the game.

However, there has also been discussion of zero-player games. Zero-player games are either games where the player only participates in the setup, games played by AI’s, games that are completely solved or hypothetical games that are unplayable in practice (Björk & Juul, 2012). They seem to contradict the assumption that games need players. The easy answer would be to claim that they are, in fact, not games. A more sensible stance is perhaps to accept them as a special type of games, games that have zero players.

Zero-player games are an interesting phenomenon, but excluded from the focus of this study. Some of the ways zero-player games create meaning are probably similar to the meaning-making ways of the games concentrated on in this study. Most of them probably are not, since the hermeneutic framework emphasizes the interplay of the context and the interpreter. At least in this study, the player is an important part of the meaning-making process.

Games and Stories

The relation of games and stories has been a longstanding issue within game studies. It would take a much longer study to go into detail about all the different senses of “narrative” and “story.” Narratology, literary theory, aesthetics, psychology and other disciplines have many different definitions for these concepts. It would not be beneficial for this study to go through all of these alternatives in order to pick the best. Instead, this study builds upon earlier narratively oriented work within game studies.

Early game studies formed schools of thought around the issue, usually known as the ludology-narratology debate. This debate was summarized by Jenkins (2002) as follows:

At a recent academic Games Studies conference, for example, a blood feud threatened to erupt between the self-proclaimed Ludologists, who wanted to see the focus shift onto the mechanics of game play, and the Narratologists, who were interested in studying games alongside other storytelling media.

Along the way, some of the debaters have questioned whether games and stories could be productively combined at all (Juul, 2001), while others have argued that “stories are just uninteresting ornaments or gift-wrappings to games” (Eskelinen, 2001). The discussion has also been labelled as a misunderstanding (Frasca, 2003; cf. Pearce, 2005). Looking back at the issue, it seems that there has been a genuine disagreement on some aspects of games and stories, but also that a large part of the writings were never in genuine dialogue.

Regardless of how one values narrative studies in relation to game studies, it is undeniable that narratology has been used to understand games and it is likely that it will also be used for that purpose in the future. The relation of games to stories might be thorny, but it is also a productive relationship: games have been used to convey narratives, some of them different from the previous narrative forms (cf. Ryan, 2002, pp. 594–595). I will later argue that there are ideas that can only be expressed through games, and some of those ideas are narrative.

Recognizing the relation of games and stories is also important for this study, because it relies on the concept of ludonarratives (Aarseth, 2012). Instead of defining the concept in detail, Aarseth describes it in relation to different kinds of games. He analyses Oblivion, Façade, Fahrenheit, Half-Life 2 and Knights of the Old Republic as ludonarratives. Aarseth (2012, p. 130) argues that:

It is thus fruitful to give priority to neither games nor stories, but rather to base the model in the primary reality that spawned both, and that they both are part of, in somewhat different ways.

Aarseth (2012) seems to view digital games as containers that contain all kinds of things, games included. Ludonarratives are hybrid objects that contain both games and stories, and maybe something else too. This study uses the concept of ludonarrative games, but in a way that differs slightly from Aarseth’s usage.

Aarseth (2012, p. 133) warns against exactly this kind of metonymic labeling for what he terms “ludonarrative software.” Games may be found within these ludonarrative software, but in addition to games they also contain other types of things, so calling them simply games is misleading. He (2012, p. 130) writes:

What also needs to be realized is that story-game amalgams primarily is [sic] entertainment software, works that contain many forms of media content and because of their computer-based, Turing-complete existence can emulate any kind of semiotic genre, including, of course, traditional stories. Calling works like Max Payne or FallOut 3 [sic] games or stories is a metonymical shorthand usage of the terms that confuses and obscures the composite makeup of these creations.

Aarseth (2012) has a more specific understanding of games in mind, using the concept to refer only to the ludic parts of the ludonarrative software. However, according to the Wittgensteinian definition of games used in this study, games are many things, but what makes them games is the shared understanding of their “gameness,” their network of shared family resemblances. The metonymic use is interesting because this study is interested in the meaning-making of that metonym. Views on what are games will differ and change, but this does not give theorists the authority to rule what should and what should not be considered as games. This is, of course, not what Aarseth (2012) is trying to do, and recognizing that digital games are composites of different media forms is a valuable observation.

In Aarseth’s (2012) usage, “ludonarrative game” would be a redundant or misleading concept. However, because this study views games slightly differently, this distinction seems necessary. Ludonarrative games differ from abstract games because of their narrative content. It might be enough to follow Aarseth’s (2012) use and write solely about “ludonarratives,” but this term seems to obscure the main interest of this study: games. Therefore the concept “ludonarrative games” is preferred. The following analysis continues without focusing on the exact ontological categories that are packed into the concept of ludonarrative games. The exact composition of ludonarrative games is unimportant since this study focuses on the meaning created through this form.

Not all games are ludonarrative. While most games contain at least some representational aspects, they are not necessarily narrative. Games could be seen as forming a continuum with abstract games in one end, narrative games in the other and representational games in the middle (Figure 4). Games do not necessarily need to be classified this way, and this should not be read as an ontological claim. This distinction is made to make following the analysis easier. On those terms, this study is mostly interested in the narrative end of the continuum. However, it would be completely valid to focus on games on the other end of the continuum. That would simply require a different theoretical focus and methodology (e.g., Begy, 2011).

A line from abstract to narrative games
Figure 4: A continuum from abstract to narrative games

This chapter has not tried to cover the entirety of game studies, but has instead commented on different interests within game research. The purpose of this overview was to focus on specific aspects of game studies that, combined with the theoretical approaches presented earlier, help us understand meaning in games better. Next, a synthesis of these theoretical approaches is presented.

Theory Synthesis

Together the aforementioned theoretical approaches form the basis for understanding the rest of this study. The approaches presented earlier are synthesized in this chapter in three ways:

  1. By showing how Gadamer’s view fits in with Wittgenstein’s views of language.
  2. By showing how interpretation works in games.
  3. By showing how Gadamer’s ideas of aesthetics relate to games.

These three are not the only issues discussed in the previous chapters, but they are the most important issues for understanding the rest of this study. This chapter synthesizes the different theoretical approaches used in this study to form three main lines of thought.

Understanding Language

As was already mentioned above, Gadamer’s views on language are quite close to the views of later Wittgenstein (Connolly, 1986, p. 272; Malpas, von Arnswald, & Kertscher, 2002, p. 34). Gadamer (1977, p. 126) even wrote about Wittgenstein in a very positive manner. Both view language as inherently social and central to making sense of the world around us. While Wittgenstein is mainly interested in the nature of language, for Gadamer the project of making sense of language is a way of making sense of understanding. Combining both views allows us to make sense of rule-following and issues of meaning in games.

Both Wittgenstein and Gadamer share the idea that language only makes sense in a particular context. Wittgenstein calls these contexts forms of life, while Gadamer terms them horizons.

Forms of life are the social contexts in which language is used. Different social contexts call for different forms of life as the needs are different. These lead to different types of language-games being formed and being useful. The word ‘know’ is useful in different ways for a fisher and an epistemologist, even though both of them might use it (cf. Paper 2). The fisher and the epistemologist live in different forms of life which makes their language-games differ.

Wittgenstein’s forms of life can be compared to Gadamer’s horizons. Like forms of life, they also stem from the social history of things which Gadamer calls tradition. Gadamer (1960/2004, p. 303) writes:

The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never absolutely bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving. Thus the horizon of the past, out of which all human life lives and which exists in the form of tradition, is always in motion.

Understanding language and people necessitates understanding the living world around them and the social conditions of their life.

As discussed above, Wittgenstein’s arguments against rule-following are an effective argument against the idea of private languages. Instead of being the mental constructions of individuals, languages are socially constructed and shared.

Arguing against the private nature of language, Wittgenstein also happens to help Gadamer make an argument against the view according to which the meaning of a work is determined by the author’s intent. If one agrees that at least linguistic meaning is socially constructed, it is hard to argue that poems and literary works were somehow determined by the mental intentions of the author instead of the social process of language use of which the work is a part. As Connolly (1986, p. 274) writes:

But at least in the case of literary interpretation Gadamer is on firm ground, and the language-game approach helps us to see why. On the Wittgensteinian view it is not for philosophers to say a priori what poetic meaning is or whether poems can be given a final, uniquely correct interpretation. Such questions must be addressed to the practice of the literary community.

The philosopher can give no rules on how a work of art is to be finally interpreted and the author has no more say in this. It is for the readers to establish what a work means. To do so, they use their surroundings to make sense of the work and consult the horizon they share with other people.

Incidentally, hermeneutics may also help answer a potential problem in Wittgenstein’s thinking. Norris (1983, pp. 34–58) argues that the criticism from the deconstructive side of literary theory has shown the problems of Wittgenstein’s view of language. While hermeneutics is not free of the criticism from deconstructionists either, in this case it may stand on a firmer foundation. Norris (1983, pp. 36–37) argues that Wittgenstein relies heavily on metaphor, while not giving an adequate account of what metaphor is or how it works. Incidentally, metaphor is one of the central themes of Ricoeur’s thinking (Dauenhauer & Pellauer, 2014). Ricoeur argues that metaphors are ways of renewing language and producing new ways of seeing the world. Perhaps, this is the way forms of life change and evolve.

This study has used the word ‘meaning’ liberally, but so far has not tried to define it. By now, it should be clear what is meant with the word. Combining Wittgenstein’s ideas of meaning as use with Gadamer’s idea of horizons shows how language is shaped by the context of use. Meaning is therefore understood in this study as the socially constructed, contextually conditioned sense or significance given to things.19 To be clear, it is the thoughts, actions and expressions of human beings that ultimately construct this sense, but this does not mean that humans are free to choose what things mean. Meaning is the result of a hermeneutic process in which humans are only one part, with the object and context also having a definite say on the result.

Game Hermeneutics and Real-Time Hermeneutics

As discussed above, procedural rhetoric has proven to be an influential and compelling approach to understanding how games and other procedural systems persuade and make claims. Bogost (2007, p. 3) defines procedural rhetoric as follows:

Procedural rhetoric, then, is a practice of using processes persuasively. More specifically, procedural rhetoric is the practice of persuading through processes in general and computational processes in particular.

He goes on to elaborate a theory of how processes can persuade. The core idea, however, is both simple and convincing. Users acting upon processes are also acted upon by those same processes. Processes guide their actions and weigh their options in certain ways. To continue playing the game at least some of the premises of those processes need to be accepted.

While that is a fascinating area of research, this study is more interested in the other side of the coin: When processes persuade, how are they interpreted? More specifically, how does that apply to ludonarrative games? What other factors are relevant? The issue of meaning in games will be discussed in more detail below, together with the results of this study. This chapter presents an overview of how the theoretical approaches used in this study can be combined to answer questions of procedural hermeneutics.

There is a crucial distinction to be made between two types of hermeneutics applicable to games. These two types could be called game hermeneutics and real-time hermeneutics. Game hermeneutics is a more traditional type of hermeneutics, interested in games as objects that need to be interpreted in certain historical contexts. It would be useful, for example, when looking at how the character of Mario has changed from the early days of Super Mario Bros. to the present. Here Gadamer’s thoughts on the contexts of interpretation are useful.

However, another type of hermeneutics is also relevant to understanding games. This real-time hermeneutics is more concerned with the processes of interpretation that are active when the player plays. This is the sense in which Aarseth (2003, p. 5) uses the concept of real-time hermeneutics:

While the interpretation of a literary or filmatic work will require certain analytical skills, the game requires analysis practiced as performance, with direct feedback from the system. This is a dynamic, real-time hermeneutics that lacks a corresponding structure in film or literature.

It is explicated even more clearly by Buse (1996, p. 167) who contrasts it with a hermeneutics searching for the truth:

Success in a video game demands a rigorous interpretative process: not a hermeneutics aimed at unveiling the truth, but a rapid scanning of specific signs and situations prompting the best possible “moves,” which in turn guarantee the continuation of the story.

The player makes the interpretations needed to continue playing the game. Often these interpretations will serve the gameplay in trying to gauge the optimal approach to the problems presented by the game. However, as Sicart (2009, pp. 111–112) points out, that is not the only goal the player may have. He focuses on the ethical dimension of decision-making, but the player may also have other relevant interests. For example, players of role-playing games may try to choose the most appropriate course of action for the type of person they are playing.

As a media for expression, games are not unique in requiring real-time interpretation. Other kinds of interactive media from interactive fiction to interactive works of art also require these kinds of interpretative techniques. However, games seem to be the only media where this hermeneutic is at the core of their being. One can imagine fiction and art without real-time hermeneutics, but not digital games as a medium. Some games do not require real-time interpretation, but most do.

Karhulahti (2012, 2014) takes the idea of double hermeneutic from the theory of social sciences and applies it to games. In the theory of social sciences this double hermeneutic refers to the way theories of social reality inform people of their surroundings and thus give them tools to change that reality. A theory that tries to describe social reality may end up changing it. Karhulahti (2012, p. 20) describes how this double hermeneutic applies to digital games:

Yet the way in which players interpret videogames differs critically from interpreting most other cultural objects. As the act of game play—the ongoing interpretation of the game—involves configuring the videogame object itself, the altering interpretations affect not only the interpreter’s understanding but the interpreted as well.

The double hermeneutic of games means that players need to continually make interpretations of the game, while also acting on those interpretations. Therefore, those interpretations are also turned into applications, as the player configures the game. However, games are also good at refuting wrong interpretations by making the player fail (cf. Paper 1).

There is also the limit-case of interpreting stories within games. That may require both real-time hermeneutics to keep up with the game mechanic and make relevant narrative choices, and the more deliberate game hermeneutics of contextualizing the story elements into the larger cultural context. In that sense, ludonarrative games are a hermeneutically interesting example.20

Gadamerian Game Aesthetics

This chapter applies Gadamer’s ideas on aesthetics to games. The game aesthetics discussed in this chapter do not deal with the traditional questions of beauty that are often associated with aesthetics. The approach here is instead to apply Gadamer’s thoughts on truth in art to the issues of game studies. Instead of the question, “Are games art?” (Smuts, 2005; Tavinor, 2009), the focus is on what kind of truth games reveal about the world or what kind of “claim to truth” do games have (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 84).

What kinds of truths can games tell us? As long as the games in question are ludonarrative, they contain the same forms of expression as cinema and literature, bound into one object which shares qualities of both. However, games have properties that neither cinema nor literature has and these properties affect how and what kind of truths games express.

While interactivity is not unique to games, it does set them apart from most literature and cinema (see Paper 1 for more on interactivity). While the interpretative relationship between a work of art and the person interpreting it has in some cases been dubbed ‘interaction’ (Jensen, 1998, pp. 188–189), the term is perhaps better reserved for works such as games that are interactive in a different manner.

The interactivity of games means that encountering a game is different from encountering a static work of art. While all works of art have a chance to tell us something about ourselves, games, perhaps, excel in this. In order to play, the player must act, make choices and see what kind of consequences those choices have, while the game evaluates some of those choices (Leino, 2010, p. 127). Often those choices are trivial, but games also have room for exploring more complex choices, like for example ethical questions (Sicart, 2009, p. 123). Not all games support this equally, but again, ludonarrative games have the frameworks required to make ethical and existential questions meaningful.

However, games are also procedural. To play a game, the player must become a part of the process of playing.21 While the player interacts with the game, the game also interacts with the player.22 The processes of the game guide the player towards some and away from other actions and choices in a manner described by procedural rhetoric (Bogost, 2007). The processes of the game are not neutral, but contain values and persuade the player to see the world in a certain light. Through their processes games reveal truths about the world – in the Gadamerian sense of aesthetic truth. Some examples of games that use player choice and procedurality to express things are explored in chapter 4.2.2.

For Gadamer, the truths revealed by works of art are not stable and static but subject to change over the course of history. In elaborating on Gadamer’s theory, Weberman (2000, p. 54) argued for a distinction between intrinsic properties that do not (or very rarely) change and extrinsic properties that are subject to change. Games complicate the issue further since even their intrinsic properties may change. Digital games have some fixed limits to their mutability, defined by the code that controls their execution. However, as the player is necessarily part of play, even the intrinsic properties do not guarantee that the contents of the game are always identical, or even significantly similar.

This becomes truer as the number of players increases. The interactions between players create emergent interactions that are next to impossible to fully predict from the constraints set by the code. Some interactions will be more likely than others: a game that revolves around shooting as a central mechanic will involve a lot of shooting on most plays. However, players may find ways of using the game in ways that the designers did not foresee (Myers, 2010, pp. 18–21). These ways of playing may become more important than the ways the designers initially intended.

The truths multiplayer games reveal about the world are even less in the hands of the creators than in most works of art. The social interaction between players may become more meaningful than the constraints and affordances created by the designers. The designers can try to take this into account, and design for emergence to begin with (Dormans, 2011).

This chapter has shown how the theoretical approaches used in this study fit together and complement each other. Together they help form a more comprehensive picture of how games should be understood. Now the combined theoretical framework can be used to discuss the results presented in the papers in more detail. The next chapter presents the results from the included papers.

  1. For philosophical approaches to game studies, see e.g., Sageng, Fossheim and Larsen (2012), Sicart (2009) or Tavinor (2005, 2008, 2009). This list is necessarily lacking, as “philosophical approaches” is quite large a category. 

  2. When discussing hermeneutics, it is customary to do it in two languages by using the original, often German, terminology to complement the primary language. This is done at least in part because of the difficulty of translating the terminology accurately. However, this study forgoes the custom for the sake of readability. Readers interested in the original terminology can follow up the references in this chapter. 

  3. For previous work in game hermeneutics, see e.g., Aarseth (2007), Harviainen (2008, 2012), Karhulahti (2012, 2014), Lemke (2010), Lindley et al. (2007). For work in hermeneutics in computer science, see e.g., Capurro (2009), Mallery, Hurwitz and Duffy (1987). 

  4. Cultural studies experienced what is commonly referred to as the ”textual turn” in the beginning of the 1970s that saw “text” used as an analogy to understand for example psychological and social phenomena (e.g., Brockmeier, 2009, p. 218). 

  5. For readers interested in the history of interpretation, see Grondin (1994), Jeanrod (1991), Whitman (2000). 

  6. Heidegger’s academic work is sometimes questioned on the premise that he joined the National Socialists in 1933. It is claimed that his sympathies cast his whole philosophical project in a suspicious light. For a review of this discussion, see Thiele (1997). 

  7. Gadamer is occasionally subject to the same suspicion of Nazi sympathies as Heidegger. However, in Gadamer’s case these suspicions seem unfounded (Grondin, 2003). 

  8. Compare to Ricoeur (1981, p. 208): “A work does not only mirror its time, but it opens up a world which it bears within itself.” 

  9. Weberman (2000, p. 55) also argues that relational properties are not simply epistemological but ontological properties of things. 

  10. Some post-structuralist and deconstructionist theorists might challenge the existence of truth and meaning, but as this work is not concerned with this meta-discussion, the task of answering them is left for other researchers. 

  11. Ricoeur (1981, pp. 200–201) argues that this is especially true when discourse turns into text. 

  12. Habermas can also be applied to studying games. See e.g., Balzer (2011). 

  13. This form of argument is used by Montola (2012) and Harviainen (2012) to show how larps can be studied. Montola relies on Searle (1969) and the speech-act theory, Harviainen applies Ricoeur (e.g., 1981). 

  14. Salen and Zimmerman (2004, p. 130) use a similar distinction but call them ‘operational’ and ‘constituative’ (they do not comment on how ‘constituative’ is related to ‘constitutive’). The following discussion proceeds as if Searle’s distinction was unproblematic. For an account of the problems it has, see Cherry (1973). For a sociological criticism of this distinction, see Deterding (2013, pp. 165–167). 

  15. Searle’s (1969) ideas on speech acts have also been used to study digital games (Cardona-Rivera & Young, 2014). 

  16. Suits (1980, p. 38) calls the playful mindset the ‘lusory attitude’. 

  17. As Montola (2010, p. 1) points out, play that aims for bleed is a very effective criticism against the idea that games are always supposed to be fun. 

  18. Google Scholar lists 780 references. 

  19. Paper 5 uses the more limited concept of ”meaning-effect” in referring to the cognitive effects certain meaning-making tools can be used to induce. 

  20. Karhulahti (2012, p. 24) discusses adventure games as interesting hermeneutic examples of games where time constraints are usually not an issue. He notes that it might be useful to understand them as interactive comics. 

  21. Compare to “all playing is a being-played” (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 106). 

  22. Sicart (2009, pp. 116–117) applies Gadamer in analyzing the ethics of computer games. He calls this to-and-fro movement of interpretation “the ludic hermeneutic circle”.