Discussion

Discussion

This chapter discusses the theoretical and practical implications of the research. The reliability and validity of the results is also discussed and some suggestions for future research are given.

Theoretical Implications

This study has three types of theoretical implications. First, it broadens the range of phenomena that can be analyzed with hermeneutic tools and provides an example of applying hermeneutics to games. Second, it presents a Wittgensteinian framework for approaching the theoretical discussion of defining games. Third, this study provides tools for constructing a theory of meaning for games. These three points are discussed next.

Hermeneutics Applied

Over the course of its long history, hermeneutics has been applied to many different things. As discussed in the theory section, it was originally conceived as a tool to answer the difficult questions evoked by the proper reading of holy texts, but has since been broadened to answer many types of questions relating to understanding and interpretation.

This study provides a hermeneutical perspective on games. While the perspective is not completely lacking in game studies, this approach is still relatively rare (e.g., Aarseth, 2007; Harviainen, 2008, 2012; Karhulahti, 2012, 2014; Lemke, 2010; Lindley, Nacke, & Sennersten, 2007). This study agrees with the previous researchers on the possibilities of the hermeneutic method. While it is not desirable to try to stretch hermeneutics to cover all possible phenomena, the research shows that games are a media that would benefit from a more hermeneutical analysis. Hermeneutics may not be the tool for all possible questions on meaning and interpretation, but it certainly seems like a promising tool for understanding games.

Therefore, one of the theoretical implications of this study is to show one possible avenue for extending hermeneutics. There is a need for more real-time hermeneutics and game hermeneutics, as was discussed earlier. Real-time hermeneutics helps to understand how players make interpretations during play, and game hermeneutics helps to illuminate how games are understood as cultural objects with meaning. This study lays the groundwork for answering both of these interesting questions. The approaches to hermeneutics conceived while building a theory of game hermeneutics can also be applied to other subjects, thereby benefiting research outside game studies.

Understanding Games through Language-Games

The theoretical discussion on how games should be defined has been going on for a long time, building initially upon the works of play theorists (e.g., Avedon & Sutton-Smith, 1971; Caillois, 1961; Huizinga, 1938/1949). Since both the needs and the discourses of the participants have been very different, there has been little agreement beyond the fixation on some qualities that are seen as essential to games (e.g., Juul, 2003, p. 35; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 80).

This study provides a different approach, showing how the theory of language-games can help us understand games as being related through family resemblances. This approach enables seeing games as consisting of many related phenomena, and will be of help in the endless pursuit for the core of games. The core is nowhere to be found since it shifts in relation to what is being searched for. It is not helpful for the understanding of the medium to try to limit the cultural category of games in advance.

This approach is beneficial since it enables a theoretical openness to looking at games. Instead of trying to focus myopically on the core of games, the approach enables us to look at the similarities and to understand games in relation to other things. Seeing games in relation to experimental literature, sports, play and the wealth of digital applications can enhance the understanding of the different aspects of games.

This approach is also essentially hermeneutical, emphasizing how games are the products of their surrounding cultures and how they change together with those surroundings. Elevating the current understanding of what games are to a logical or ontological necessity needlessly emphasizes the current form of games over all the potential forms they could take. Digital games would have been impossible a century ago; augmented reality games became viable only recently. Predicting what future games are like is an exciting exercise, but such predictions should not be considered to contain normative definitions. Doing so would mean closing some doors even before they are built.

A Theory of Meaning in Games

By now, there should not be any doubt that games convey and express meaning in a variety of ways. However, the exact ways they do so is still relatively unexplored. Books had been in existence for centuries before hermeneutics was generalized into a formal theory of interpreting them. However, the questions related to understanding books did not end with the first theorists. Experimental literature still tests the limits of what it means for something to be a book, simultaneously challenging any theory that tries to explain how these texts work. Aarseth’s (1997) theory of cybertexts is an illuminating approach, showing how most texts fit within few categories of a multitude of different options.

Games have been around for a very long time, in one form or another. Yet formal approaches to understanding meaning in games are relatively new (e.g., Sutton-Smith, 1959). The current form of digital games is even newer, having taken its first steps around the same time Sutton-Smith started to look into folk play and only becoming a major cultural force much later. In order to understand digital games, we need a theory of game meaning. Building such a theory is not a small task, just as it has not been a small task to build all the theoretical tools for understanding texts.

Game hermeneutics would be a good candidate for a theory of game meaning, since it can be built upon earlier theories of meaning that have been extensively theorized and validated (e.g., Bernstein, 1982; Gjesdal, 2006; Harrington, 2000; Lammi, 1991; Linge, 1973; Mendelson, 1979; Weberman, 2000). That would give the theory of game meaning a solid foundation without having to reinvent the wheel just for games.

While this study does not provide a general theory of game hermeneutics, it is a step along the way towards such a theory. By taking the tools and theories provided in this study, researchers can further the understanding of meaning in games and build upon the already established foundation instead of trying to build a parallel structure.

Practical Implications

The main practical results of this study are related to designing games. Using the theoretical concepts and analyses presented in this study will enable designers to more effectively design for specific meanings. The analysis also provides ways of seeing what kind of factors affect the ways people will interpret games. This chapter discusses meaning as a game mechanic, things that games are especially good at expressing and comments on designing meaning for games.

Meaning as a Game Mechanic

Meaning is not only something that is created as an outcome of playing games. It can also be part of the game, and work as a game mechanic. One of the ways this happens can be illuminated by discussing contingency in games.

In analyzing different types of contingencies, Malaby (2007, pp. 107–108) finds games to contain four different varieties: stochastic, social, performative and semiotic. Contingency is, following Malaby’s (2007, p. 107) definition, “that which could have been otherwise, that is, that which was not necessary, in a philosophical sense” (italics in the original). In other words, contingency is the unpredictability of games. Semiotic contingency is of special interest here, but the other forms are introduced first in order to make the semiotic contingency easier to understand.

Stochastic contingency is the unpredictability produced by random processes or tools, like dice. It also covers the unpredictability introduced by unpredictable conditions, like equipment breaking, the weather changing and so on. Digital games often rely on random elements that would also be covered by stochastic contingency. Social contingency is studied by game theory, and it is the unpredictability introduced by our inability to be certain of what other people think or how they will react to situations. Performative contingency is created by the fact that humans tend not to perform equally well or predictably each time. In other words, actions may succeed or fail and it can be hard to predict which one of the outcomes will occur.

Semiotic contingency is produced by the possibility of interpreting things differently. Meaning is not a stable, inevitable thing, but may shift depending on the interpreter and the context of interpretation (e.g., Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 302, 312). Malaby (2007, p. 108) limits semiotic contingency to interpreting the outcome of a game, but here it is broadened to include the moves, actions and events of the game that are subject to interpretation. This enables discussing meaning and interpretation as a game mechanic.

One of the games that employs semiotic contingency as a game mechanic is the card game Dixit. A game of Dixit begins with one player secretly choosing a card and then stating a word or phrase describing that card. Then every other player picks a card which they think fits the description and places it into a pile with the original card. The cards are shuffled, and those players who do not know the correct answer will try to guess the original card. The game is complicated by the scoring system, which rewards the players for describing their card in sufficiently vague terms: they only get points if some, but not all, of the players get it right.

The players are free to choose any phrase to describe a card by focusing on details in the card, making allusions or using metaphors. The cards have evocative and fantastic illustrations, making them a rich source for metaphoric interpretation. This also makes interpretation a central game mechanic. The only way to win the game is by interpreting how other people will see the cards and understand the verbal clues. Because meaning is such an integral aspect to the way the game is played, programming a computer to successfully play the game would be a challenging task. It would require creating a system that is aware of the cultural context around the game and capable of reading allusions and metaphors – in other words, a hermeneutic machine.

However, there is a category of contingency that is both related to meaning and suitable for digital games: narrative contingency. It is best exemplified by the types of games discussed in this study, the ludonarrative games. Narrative contingency relates to the way a narrative will turn out in the end and what kind of twists will lead to that end. In most cases, the answer to this question is preset before the first word is read or the first frame is seen, but in interactive works like ludonarrative games the answer remains contingent. Usually ludonarrative games are not contingent in the sense that the outcome might be anything at all, but that narrative might have several endings or the ending may consist of a combination of several things.

Often the player has to work in order to access the whole story. Games hide bits and pieces of narrative in journal entries, off-hand comments by non-player characters and dialogue options players may never choose. The story is there, but the player has to earn the right to witness the entirety of it by examining the environment with enough attention to detail (cf. Fernández-Vara, 2011, p. 6). In this form, gathering information about the story is a mechanic itself with the narrative being a form of reward for the player. Usually this is reserved for the bits of narrative that are not central to understanding the story, but give a wider or deeper understanding of what is going on.

An example of this is the Heart in Dishonored. It is a mystical object, literally a detached heart that has the magical power to reveal secrets. When the main character, Corvo, points the Heart towards a person, the Heart reveals secrets about them. Knowing the secrets is not necessary for completing the game, but using the Heart gives out more background information about the people Corvo is dealing with. Some of these secrets help in understanding the choices the non-player characters make in the game narrative.

A good example of the way digital ludonarrative games can use meaning as a game mechanic is the classic King of Dragon Pass. King of Dragon Pass is a narrative strategy game where you control a barbarian clan settling a new area. The game play consists of a combination of strategic choices (how much crops do I plant this year) and narrative choices (should the clan ring punish a young warrior for taking the law into his own hands). The narrative choices are presented as few options with the clan ring (chosen by the player) giving advice on what they think the player should choose (see Figure 5).

A narrative choice screen from King of Dragon Pass
Figure 5: A narrative choice screen from King of Dragon Pass

King of Dragon Pass is an interesting example, because it requires the player to adopt a hermeneutic stance to the game world. It is not enough to understand the situations in the game, but they must be understood from the perspective of the Orlanthi clan ruled by the player (Orlanthi is how the clan self-identifies their culture). Trying to lead the clan like a group of modern citizens will lead into frustration and failure. In order to succeed, the player must learn and accept the Orlanthi values the clan lives by. How many cows must be paid to the relatives of someone killed outside battle? What is a proper punishment for adultery? Or murder? What about defiling a temple, when the gods can and will punish the whole clan for the actions of the few?

The player may start the game with an assumption on how law and justice works and how people should govern themselves, but in order to finish the game successfully, they must learn what it is to be an Orlanthi. The player starts with prejudices learnt from the modern world, but must correct them in a hermeneutic circle as they learn about the game and its world. Learning what it means to be an Orlanthi is as central to playing King of Dragon Pass as learning to aim a gun is to playing many FPS games.

Things That Can Only Be Expressed With Games

In addition to the features that games have in common with other media, they are also apt in expressing ideas in particular ways. One of the ways this works is through what Bogost (2007, p. 85) calls the rhetoric of failure:

If procedural rhetorics function by operationalizing claims about how things work, then videogames can also make claims about how things don’t work. (italics in the original)

The rhetoric of failure works by creating situations that cannot be solved or won. The player may try, but the game is written into such form that winning is either impossible to begin with or that success only makes the game harder until it becomes too hard to beat. Weise (2003, pp. 10–11) describes such a situation in Fallout 2, simultaneously showing the unique rhetorical effect this has:

Although this entire sequence has a satirical appeal, it becomes rather scathing in the conversation with “Vice-President Bird” an obvious parody of real life Republican Vice-President Dan Quayle. The rule-based system here is the conversation itself. The joke is that trying to have an intelligent conversation with Mr. Bird is itself a game… a game that’s impossible to win. The player can to try [sic] reason with him by choosing seemingly “correct” responses in the conversation, but every avenue disintegrates into non-sensical rambling by the Vice-President, and the player’s options are reduced to responses like “What the hell is wrong with you?” or “You’re out of your mind!” The real gag, however, is that all Mr. Bird’s silly responses are actual statements made by Vice-President Quayle during his time in office. In other words, what the designers of Fallout 2 did was make a “Dan Quayle AI” which, the player would inevitably discover, was a raving loon unfit for any sort of political office. Of course, the fact that the player can only discover this via interacting with the Vice-President ads the finishing touch which makes this social commentary unique to videogames.

Of course, it would be possible to make this argument in other media too, by for example citing Quayle and then arguing that the quotations are nonsensical. Yet this would constitute a different kind of argument from the one Fallout 2 presents, which makes the player experience the frustration of trying and failing to make sense of Vice-President Bird.

Weise comments that this form of satire is unique to videogames, but that again depends on how videogames are framed. It could also be possible to use the rhetoric of failure in other interactive media, like electronic literature. However, in that case we might also be willing to call such literary works games.1

Customers queuing for food at McDonald's
Figure 6: Happy customers in McDonald's Videogame

Other games use a similar rhetoric. The anti-advergame McDonald’s Video Game by Molleindustria has the player in charge of the fast-food chain McDonald’s, controlling all aspects of the business from agricultural production and slaughtering of animals to food service and marketing (see Figure 6). The game promises that through playing it,

You’ll discover all the dirty secrets that made us one of the biggest company [sic] of the world.

The rhetoric of failure shows the player how running McDonald’s in an ethical manner is impossible. In order to make the company profitable, it is necessary to employ tactics from an array of unethical means from media spinning and firing angry employees to giving growth hormones to the cows and clearing an indigenous tribe’s village to make room for cattle and soy fields.

Again, this is different from criticizing the fast-food chain in any other media. Extensive written reports about the harmful nature of their business practices could be written, but these would have a different effect than experiencing the rhetoric of failure first hand. The player may start the game with noble intentions of running the business in an ethical manner, but they will need either to compromise their morals or see the company fail. The rhetoric of failure argues that McDonald’s is run in an unethical manner because there are no other options. Experientially that is significantly different from reading a written criticism or seeing a documentary about the practices of the fast-food company.

Missile attack among civilians
Figure 7: The aftermatch of a missile attack in September 12th

Another game that uses the rhetoric of failure is September 12th: A Toy World.2 It uses a very simple, yet effective, rhetoric. Groups of civilians walk around in a town that also contains armed figures identified as terrorists (see Figure 7). The player controls a targeting reticule that can be used to launch missiles into the town. If the missile hits a terrorist, the terrorist is killed. However, any civilian hit by a missile is also killed in the explosion. When other civilians happen upon the bodies of dead civilians, they bow down to mourn those that died – and turn into terrorists themselves.

Because there is a slight delay between clicking a mouse button and the missile hitting its target, and because the explosion is bigger than a terrorist, it is almost inevitable that the explosion kills more than just the intended target. Any attempt to quell the flood of new terrorists created by the effects of the previous attack only ends up creating more terrorists. The rhetoric of failure argues that attempting to use missile strikes against terrorism creates more problems than it solves. The player may again start with the best of intentions, only to realize that the tools at hand do not allow for the problem to be solved. The only solution is to adopt other tools.

The rhetoric of failure is not the only form of expression that is typical of games but rarely found in other media. Paper 5 describes a form of focalization that provides the player with access to the player character’s actions, but not to their motivations. The game can present clear goals for the player to pursue, while reserving some of the reasons and justifications for doing so. This allows games to make the player feel complicity in a way that other media have a hard time producing. This could be seen as a variant of the rhetoric of failure, tentatively called here the rhetoric of ethical failure.

Loading screen with the text 'A dying enemy won't drop his weapon until he's dead'
Figure 8: A loading screen from Spec Ops: The Line

For example, the military shooter Spec Ops: The Line follows Captain Martin Walker’s slow descent into depravity as a series of unavoidable and necessary steps. The game tries to turn the tropes of modern military shooters into a narrative of ethical failure (Heron & Belford, 2014, pp. 16–18). The enemies attack in endless waves and must be killed in order to proceed. Walker and his companions start out with tactical precision and the goal is self-defense, but eventually they become accustomed to the killing and finally revel in it. Walker’s statements of neutralizing an enemy turn into aggressive shouts. Violence becomes an end, not just the means. Heron and Belford (2014, p. 18) describe the distinction between the player’s intentions and the actions they guide Walker to make:

The nature of the game is such that it becomes an intensely disquieting experience after a while. We do not control Walker—at best we point him in a direction. We are responsible for driving him, and yet we may find ourselves repulsed by what he does.

However, the game is not content with maintaining that distinction. Soon it starts hinting that the player is complicit in Walker’s actions by guiding him deeper into the violence. This is done through meta-textual commentary on the game’s loading screens (see Figure 8). In the beginning of the game, the loading screens contain standard textual summaries of the events of the game, but by the end of the game, their tone has shifted. One loading screen asks:

How many Americans have you killed today?

It questions the actions taken for Walker’s quest, which was originally about gathering information, then about saving American lives and finally only about finding absolution through revenge. A later loading screen accuses:

This is all your fault.

Since the comment is meta-textual, it is directed at the player, not just at Walker. In addition to the change in tone, the text starts directly questioning the player’s choices. The loading screens use the meta-textual level to comment on the ethics of killing:

To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.

By stating that all the killing done in the game is harmless, the game ironically questions the player’s actions. Is the killing harmless? The game never provides an answer, but by posing the question to the player it forces them to ponder the ethics of the game. The commentary is very aware of the medium that is being used for delivering the comments:

The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?

Videogames are not real and thereby the killing does not matter, the game again suggests with an ironic undertone. Heron and Belford (2014, p. 18) argue that the only ethical choice left to the player is to stop playing, which can also seem like a problematic argument for a videogame to make.

For the purposes of this study, it is irrelevant what the ethics of Spec Ops: The Line is. The important part is that it seems to be posing an ethical question, and it does so in a way that is hard or impossible to do in another medium. While Spec Ops: The Line relies on the narrative structure of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as a ludonarrative game it necessitates complicity from the player in a way that is impossible to achieve in literature.

In order to make its point, Spec Ops: The Line uses a sophisticated approach that is aware of operating on several levels at the same time. Narratively, it follows a storyline that has already been captured in multiple media, relying both on the cultural reading of the events it portrays and the allusions to earlier depictions of similar events. In a reference to American military campaigns, the game is set in the Middle East instead of the Africa of Heart of Darkness.

However, as shown by the quotes above, the game is also very conscious of its nature as a game. It uses the standard mechanic of the games of its genre and a set of familiar tropes from cover-based shooting to endless waves of interchangeable enemies that seem to appear out of nowhere. The main character is a standard American hero-soldier that commonly stars in the military shooters. Spec Ops: The Line uses these genre assumptions consciously, highlighting the assumed heroic nature of these kinds of quests in one of the loading screens at the end of the game:

Do you feel like a hero yet?

Considering the actions the player has to take in order to reach that point in the game, there is only one possible answer. The use of multiple layers of meaning, from the cultural status of the American hero in the Middle East to the nature of the heroic main character in most action shooters, necessitates a complex hermeneutics that takes into account all these levels and their interplay. The horizon of interpretation is necessarily complex, as it must account for a diverse set of cultural contexts from military politics to videogame tropes. It is also difficult to see this message conveyed in any other media, partially because it is a message so wrapped up in being about videogames. However, this does not restrict it completely into the confined territory of things only relevant to videogames, as it manages simultaneously to engage in a discourse about the nature of choice, heroism and morality.

Designing Meaning

Games do not present or convey certain meanings or values simply because they are games, although the structures of the media affect the ways those meanings or values can be transmitted. Games embody the values and choices of the people that made them, the culture that surrounds them and the prejudgments of the people playing them.

Being aware of how interpretation works helps to better design meaning. This includes an understanding of how cultural prejudices work and how tradition can be both a source of knowledge and a limit to one’s perspective. This study has not focused on the practical design challenges, so not many practical tools for design have been introduced. Instead, it has focused on the conditions for interpreting games, leaving the design of practical tools to others. However, based on the research done here, some guidelines and suggestions can be given.

One of the central strands going through this study is the argument that trying to understand all games through a single filter is going to do more harm than good. Games are a cultural category that is constructed of many types of phenomena, and not all of them can be understood in the same way (see Paper 2). Therefore the guidelines given here pertain mostly to ludonarrative digital games and less to other forms of games. The suggestions should be framed through language-games: the more a game resembles a ludonarrative digital game, the more likely it is for the suggestions to remain valid.

The five guidelines or theses for designers discussed in this chapter are:

  1. The designer does not get to choose what a game means.
  2. The context of interpretation matters.
  3. Interpretation happens in a circle and prejudices matter.
  4. Borrowing techniques from other media is possible, if you know how to adapt them.
  5. Games are better suited for expressing some things than others.

First, the designer has some influence on what a game will mean, but they are not the sole authority on its meaning. One of the things Gadamerian aesthetics shows is that meaning is not something predetermined by the artist, but something that grows out of the interplay between the artwork, the interpreter and the context (Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 115, 157). Asking the artist what they meant with an artwork can be informative, but they do not have the final say on the work’s meaning.

This is even truer with games for two reasons. Firstly, games are usually made in teams. Even the games with auteur-designers who try to control the overall vision are products of collaboration. It is a combination of many visions, all building into one product. If the game is well made, those visions match and produce something greater than the sum of the visions of individual makers. If not, the result is a conflict of clashing visions, all building up their own meanings, which may nonetheless result in something that is interesting in its own way. Additionally, the player(s) will necessarily act within the game and affect the way it plays out (cf. Sicart, 2011). Trying to limit this in service of some greater vision will not end well, but can instead act as a source of meaning if used well. The previous chapter gives some examples on how that might work.

Second, the context of interpretation makes a big difference on how the game will be interpreted. The context does not consist only of the physical location of play, but also of the cultural and historical surroundings. Playing Pac-Man in a museum is significantly different from playing it in an arcade when it was initially released. Playing it in a Japanese arcade will be different from playing it in an American or a Finnish arcade. The game may be the same, but the meaning of playing it is not.

The context of interpretation also includes application, which is the purpose of the interpretation (e.g., Gadamer, 1960/2004, p. 305). A cultural critique of a game will contain different things than a game review, and understanding the differences in application will help in understanding how to relate to these texts. This matters for the designer since they cannot control how the game will be interpreted. Instead, they must be willing to welcome, or at least accept, the multitude of different interpretations. Understanding the purpose of different interpretations can help in forming expectations of what they will say.

Third, interpretation does not happen in an instant or only after playing. Instead it takes place throughout the game. The player enters the game with prejudices formed by their previous experiences of games and life, and then tests these prejudices against the game to see whether they hold true. This can be used for surprises, like in Spec Ops: The Line where the game initially confirms the player’s prejudices, but then uses those same prejudices to subvert the initial interpretation of the game. The experience will be significantly different with a different set of prejudices. For this reason, making assumptions about the player can be dangerous. Incorrectly identifying the cultural prejudices of the player can make the experience of playing a game confusing or even offensive.

Furthermore, understanding the cyclical nature of interpretation helps in designing meanings that gradually unfold to invoke the desired effect. Rather than building upon the assumed initial prejudices of the player, designers can intentionally use the structure of the hermeneutic circle to first introduce elements that are then used to build upon later. This can also be formulated in the inverse: players will necessarily use what has happened previously to frame what happens later, whether this was intended or not. Good design will take this into account.

Fourth, the designer does not need to re-invent the wheel when making ludonarrative games. There are well-established techniques and methods that work in cinema and literature, and that can be also used in games. For example, game designers may directly benefit from understanding perspective, narration and granularity, and how these contribute to the meaning conveyed by the game (see Paper 5 for some examples). These techniques do need some translation in order to work effectively in a new media. They were not built with games in mind and so may not accurately reflect what happens in games. That is why we need research on how the translation is done.

Fifth, although game designers can borrow tools from other media, games are better suited for expressing some things than others. Because of the procedural and interactive nature of games, they work best when the expression tries to use these features instead of going against them (cf. Bogost, 2007, pp. 44–46). The examples in the previous chapter all use the fact that they are games as a way of conveying the meaning they try to convey. If they were trying to make the same argument in some other media, they would be better off using a different rhetoric. Games are better at conveying things that consist of processes and parts that move to-and-fro and that need to be interacted with in order to be grasped. Conversely, games are worse when it comes to strictly linear narratives and conveying large amounts of factual information. This has direct consequences for example on how educational games should be designed.

Overall, these five points mean that games are similar to other media when it comes to meaning, but they still have some factors that make them sufficiently different to require designers to think differently than authors or directors.

Evaluation of the Results

This study presents a new approach, combining philosophical hermeneutics with game studies. This favors certain aspects of games, most importantly structures that relate to meaning. However, the approach marginalizes other aspects, like players, material components and visual representation. It does not follow that the results are not applicable beyond the examples discussed here, but there are certainly limits to the possible application of the results.

The approach taken in this study relies on several perspectives that share a common goal but vary in methods. Papers 1 and 2 focus on understanding games on a very general level. They comment on what games are from a hermeneutical perspective. Paper 3 applies those insights into a particular case of role-playing games. Paper 4 takes a meta-approach, applying hermeneutics to the discussion on games and narratives, instead of commenting games directly. And finally, Paper 5 focuses on specific aspects of ludonarrative games and shows how they work as tools for meaning-making.

The papers move on three levels by commenting games, specific aspects of games and the academic discussion on games. While this provides a varied and comprehensive overview of the issues discussed here, it leaves gaps that need to be filled in future research (cf. 4.4). As was already mentioned above, this study does not provide a comprehensive theory of game hermeneutics, but focuses on providing a foundation that can be built upon with further research. Additionally, there are some possible pitfalls and challenges for the approach taken here. These are discussed next.

Combining Philosophical Hermeneutics and Wittgenstein

This study revolves mostly around two philosophical figures, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein. While it is argued here that their thinking is compatible, even complementary, this argument is not explored in great detail. The argument is based on established work (Connolly, 1986; see also Paper 2), but research might reveal that there are aspects to their thinking that would be difficult to reconcile.

However, while the possibility of irreconcilable differences remains, this study is not concerned with an exegesis on either Gadamer or Wittgenstein. Unless further research shows that there are some contradictions in their approaches that would undermine this study, the exact nature of how their approaches are compatible is not relevant regarding the argument presented here. Considering that both thinkers view language as inherently social, it is unlikely that such incompatibilities exist. While their theories of language and interpretation remain interesting in their own right, applying and further developing their research is the primary focus of this study.

Applying Text-Theory to Games

As discussed in the theory section of this study, hermeneutics has traditionally been a theory of interpreting texts. It started with holy books and then gradually extended to all kinds of texts. There should be serious reservations about using a theory of texts to understanding something like games because of the differences between the two media. A theory of texts applied to games needs to account for the interactive, procedural parts of games (e.g., Aarseth, 1997). Furthermore, when applying textual theory to games, the addition of visual representation needs also to be addressed (Treanor et al., 2010, pp. 225–226).

Fortunately the hermeneutics invoked here is not simply of the textual variety. Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics makes claims mainly about three things: the structure of understanding in general, historical understanding in particular and the ontology of experiencing artworks. The hermeneutics of history is of lesser interest in relation to this particular study, but both the hermeneutics of understanding in general and the ontology of artworks informs the way this study approaches games. Additionally, as was mentioned before, this is not the first time scholars of hermeneutics have extended hermeneutics beyond texts. Researchers like Ricoeur and Habermas have studied subjects like metaphor and communication with the aid of hermeneutic theory (Habermas, 1984; Ricoeur, 1975/1993).

However, this study must still meet the challenges of applying hermeneutics to a multimedial, interactive medium. As mentioned above, this study relies on Aarseth’s (2007, p. 132) concept of implied player, in turn borrowed from the implied reader theorized in literary studies. The approach limits this study by making the player a theoretical construct rather than an empirical part of the research. Actual players are complex and contradictory beings, while the implied player is a more defined collection of actions and expectations. Therefore, the arguments presented here should not be read as claims about empirical players but as claims about games and their modes of operation.

Application to Games without Narratives

This study has focused on ludonarrative games, but some of its insights can be applied to other games. Ludonarrative games are not the only games that need to be interpreted (cf. Begy, 2011). However, using the theories presented here to games that are not ludonarrative requires some special precautions.

The analysis of the hermeneutic process largely relies on the concept of ludonarrative games. Therefore, it will not be pertinent to abstract games that lack the cultural and narrative aspects on which this analysis has focused. Instead, analyses of abstract games need to concentrate more on the form and the processes of the game (Treanor et al., 2010; Treanor & Mateas, 2011). This does not make hermeneutic analysis useless, just less relevant.

The Gadamer-based remarks on the structure of understanding are significant to all games since they are philosophical arguments about human understanding, not about games. Additionally, the discussion on game aesthetics has aspects that are relevant to all kinds of games. The historical nature of interpretation will necessarily affect how games will be interpreted as part of culture. This is true even of abstract games if they take on a cultural significance, like for example Go.

The language-game approach taken to game definitions in this study is also relevant to all kinds of games. Regardless of their exact features, games will be grouped based on those features and the similarity of those features. What are considered important features for certain types of games is a cultural, contingent quality.

Ludo-Narratological Hermeneutics

This study combines game studies, hermeneutics and narratology in a manner that leaves all of their nuances and distinctions mostly unexamined. However, in building a solid foundation, those distinctions can be crucial. It would have been also possible to focus on simpler examples by analyzing only the hermeneutic dimensions of games while leaving the narratological unexamined. As a hermeneutic theory of games, it would have been narrower, but perhaps more solid.

Instead, the approach taken in this study combines both hermeneutic and narratological approaches in order to cover a larger territory, thereby gaining in breadth and applicability. Observations on meaning-making tools would have been also more limited with a strictly hermeneutic approach, as that aspect of the study relies heavily on narratological studies.

However, combining the study of narrative to hermeneutics is hardly unique (cf. Pettersson, 2009). One of the key hermeneutic philosophers, Paul Ricoeur, has combined his work in hermeneutics with writing about narrative and narrativity (Dauenhauer & Pellauer, 2014; e.g., Ricoeur, 1981, pp. 274–296). Using Ricoeur’s philosophical work has already been adopted in games studies for examining game narratology (Chen, 2014).

Recommendations for Further Research

Future research can build upon the theory established in this study to further the understanding of interpretation of games. This can be done in several different ways.

The hermeneutic theory discussed in this study focuses mostly on the philosophical hermeneutics of Gadamer. However, he is not the only hermeneutic thinker whose work can be applied to games. The works of hermeneutic philosophers like Habermas and Ricoeur can also be relevant (e.g., Balzer, 2011; Harviainen, 2012). Integrating the different branches of hermeneutic philosophy into game studies would broaden the scope of available analytical tools. Ricoeur’s (1975/1993) work on metaphor and Habermas’ (1984) research into communication would both surely present insights not discussed in this study. It is also likely that, despite their age, the works of classical hermeneutical thinkers (e.g., Schleiermacher, 1838/1998) would contain theoretical insights that would be possible to apply in game hermeneutics.

Combining the perspectives of different hermeneutical approaches would be the first step in building a more comprehensive theory of game hermeneutics. However, that would only be a single, albeit necessary, step in that direction. Other compulsory steps would still need to be taken. Research into game hermeneutics will also need to focus on issues that are specific to understanding games. In many aspects, games are like other media, but they have some specific features that they do not share with most other types of media. For example, a better understanding of the implied player (Aarseth, 2007, p. 132) and its effects on the preconditions for understanding the ways games create meaning would benefit the theory of game hermeneutics. Perhaps taking the example of procedural rhetoric would help here (e.g., Bogost, 2007). As a theory, it manages to combine the long tradition of rhetoric with a new approach to procedural systems.

The designers of games would also benefit from building more tools for creating meaning. The theoretical work on perspective, narration and granularity helps in using those particular aspects of games to create the meanings the designers desire to convey. However, those three aspects are only a limited part of the creative palette games can utilize. Further exploration of the possibilities of using creative tools from other media, and applying them to ludonarrative games, would require more research. Promising avenues need to be distinguished from dead ends. Furthermore, there are obstacles that need to be overcome for the translation of meaning-making tools from other media to games. The differences between games and other media need to be bridged with theoretical work.

However, that is not the only possible way of broadening the approach taken here to game hermeneutics. Another possible approach would be to try to expand game hermeneutics beyond ludonarrative games. That would require a careful analysis of the critical aspects of the context that survive in more abstract games. Abstract games do not have the ludonarrative structures analyzed here. The analysis of more abstract games would be possible, perhaps, by focusing on Gadamer’s (2004) philosophical arguments on the ontology of understanding, although that is certainly only one possible approach.

  1. Crookall, Oxford and Saunders (1987, p. 152, 161) argue that simulations are a safe way of experiencing failure. In contrast, they do not see games as simulations exactly because there are consequences for failure in games. They seem to be mostly concerned with games like poker, where losing means losing money. Other scholars argue that part of why games are enjoyable is exactly because they are a safe place to fail (cf. Juul, 2013, p. 4).

  2. The introductory text in September 12th states that it is not a game, but a simulation. For the current purpose, the distinction is irrelevant.


Jonne Arjoranta

Written by

Digital philosopher at the University of Jyväskylä


Updated