Game Worlds at the Limits and Margins of Games

Research output: Conference PapersRGC 32 - Refereed conference paper (without host publication)peer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2023


TitleDigital Games Research Association Conference 2023
LocationUniversity of Seville
Period19 - 23 June 2023


Imagine a chain of events that leads from playing fetch with a rottweiler in Grand Theft Auto V (GTA5, Rockstar North 2013) near the character Franklin’s house which ends up in a couple of passersby drowning while their poodle gets killed by the rottweiler. This paper argues that this chain of events is neither satisfyingly described in terms of ludology or in narrative terms nor in terms of existential ludology as it currently exists. We argue, that in order to describe this situation properly that it is fruitful to understand computer games not only as games, but also as worlds. A sensible reading of the fetch anecdote is somewhere in between: computer games have their particular technological specificity, which cannot be captured by referring to them as a new kind of literature, new kind of cinema, or new kind of interactive media. Markku Eskelinen observed, in the first issue of Game Studies journal, that “if and when games and especially computer games are studied and theorized they are almost without exception colonised from the fields of literary, theatre, drama and film studies. Games are seen as interactive narratives, procedural stories or remediated cinema” (Eskelinen 2001). Warning calls were heard, to protect computer games from being “colonized” (Eskelinen 2001; Aarseth 2001) by outside concepts like narrativity, storytelling, etc. In this situation, drawing the analogy from computer games to traditional “games” was a savvy move in terms of disciplinary politics: it allowed fending off the theoretical conservatives wielding considerable power through their established institutions like Literary, Film, and Media Studies departments by connecting the new phenomenon of computer games with something at least as, if not even more primal and fundamental to human cultures than storytelling: games and play (Huizinga 1998). Undeniably, playing a computer game often feels like playing a game, and, when thinking about how a computer game works, words like “rules”, “goals” and “challenges” are often useful. Ludology, as it stands, succeeds in drawing our attention to how the players’ experiences with computer games retain many of the qualities associated with the experience of game-playing, and how computer games appear to exhibit many of the qualities associated with games. However, it is obvious that the analogy to traditional games is not without problems: as computer games evolve along with other forms of contemporary media, they move further and further away from their alleged roots in traditional games: there are more and more computer games which “do not seem possible except in this digital medium" (Tavinor 2009, 21; see also Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, and Tosca 2020, 2–3). Mancala can be played with found materials like goat droppings and sand, but using these for Half-Life (Valve 1998) would prove to be impossible (Leino 2009b). Hence, it does not come as a surprise that many scholars have questioned the analogy which ludology drew between computer games and traditional games. For example, Kirkpatrick (2007, 89) noted that computer games are always “more than it seems”, and compared them to, among other things, modern dance, whereas Woods (2007) paralleled computer game -playing with mountain-climbing and Galloway (2006) framed them as a form of “algorithmic culture”. However, it is important to note that questioning the viability of the analogy between computer games and traditional games does not imply disregarding the technological specificity of computer games, but quite the opposite. Computer games are of course more than algorithmic culture, modern dance, mountain-climbing, and games. Taking these paradigms to understand computer games would be to ignore what makes computer games what they are. While one may be of two minds regarding the applicability of the notion of ‘colonising’ in an interdisciplinary context, there is something to be sympathetic of in the idea of not forcing an ill-fitting description on computer games, and staying attuned to the material and experiential specificities of the phenomenon under study. As exemplified by the anecdote about GTA5, characteristic to the kind of games enabled by digital media (Tavinor 2009, 21) is the ever-increasing richness of their worlds, not just in terms of “semiotic” but also “mechanic” elements (e.g. Aarseth 2011). This increasing richness does not, however, necessarily translate to more complexity in “gameness”. Reminiscent of Atkins’ (2006, 133) observations regarding Wipeout Pure (Studio Liverpool 2005), much of the gameplay in GTA5, for example, follows the logic seen already in Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar Games 1997). Thus, it seems worthwhile investigating whether the technological specificity of computer games could be captured by accounting not only for their “gameness”, but also for their “worldness”. In this chapter, by drawing on existential philosophy, game studies, and recent work in the philosophy of computer games (Payne 2009; Rusch 2009; 2017; Leino 2009b; 2009a; 2010; 2012; 2013; 2014; Möring 2013; 2014; Möring and Leino 2016; Kania 2015; 2017; Gualeni and Vella 2020; Vella 2021), we critique the current program of existential ludology, the term coined by Payne (2009) and put it forward as method for understanding computer game play, more specifically, play in the worlds of computer games. First, we describe three aspects of ludology, which are problematic in terms of how they frame computer games as objects of study. To broaden the picture of computer games, by highlighting the existential basis of play and games as understood in classical play theory, we propose to look at computer games through the lens of existentialism. This allows reconciling the idea of gameness with the materiality of computer games, and leads us consider computer games as worlds. With the notion of game world, we will explicate several different modes of being in computer games, and argue that playing-in-the-game-world is one way of being in computer games although not the most common one. We conclude by presenting how our method sheds new light on the ontology, hermeneutics, and criticism of computer games and the politics of play, helping to preserve play which has long disappeared from computer games.

Citation Format(s)

Game Worlds at the Limits and Margins of Games. / Leino , Olli Tapio; Möring, Sebastian.
2023. Paper presented at Digital Games Research Association Conference 2023, Seville, Spain.

Research output: Conference PapersRGC 32 - Refereed conference paper (without host publication)peer-review