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Comput Game J
DOI 10.1007/s40869-017-0045-4
Fifty Years on, What Exactly is a Videogame?
An Essentialistic Definitional Approach
Rafaello Bergonse1
Received: 14 July 2017 / Accepted: 5 September 2017
Ó Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017
Abstract During the last five decades, videogames evolved into a major component
of popular culture as well as a multi-billion-dollar industry. The medium diversified
tremendously, currently encompassing simple implementations of numeric games
on the screen of a cell phone as well as vast, persistent online worlds on last
generation consoles and PCs. In spite of its cultural and economic relevance, few
attempts have been made to define what a videogame exactly is. In this article, I
endeavour to propose an essentialist definition of videogame, that is, one structured
in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. I begin with a critical consideration
of the main theoretical approaches to the medium and the few published definitions.
From this analysis, four essential properties are defined and separately characterized. Finally, a definition is proposed, capable of encompassing the medium in both
its specificity and variability.
Keywords Videogame Videogame medium Definition Essentialist
definition Videogame variability
1 Introduction
Since their earliest beginnings in the late 1950s (Donovan 2010), videogames have
diversified tremendously. The medium has evolved into a major component of
popular culture (e.g. Jenkins 2000; Newman 2004), and the centre of a multi-billiondollar entertainment industry (ESA 2017), with production cycles for major
franchises extending for years and requiring massive financial investment and teams
of hundreds of individuals.
& Rafaello Bergonse
Universidade de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal
Comput Game J
At the same time, the flow of technical information made possible by the Internet,
the availability of low-cost or even free game creation software, the ubiquity of
game-ready devices, and the rise of digital distribution, have promoted the
flourishing of an independent videogame development scene, where creativity is not
as bounded by the perspective of financial profit as is the case with large corporate
developers (Donovan 2010).
If this cultural phenomenon that we call the videogame is part of the daily life of
millions, the object of a major industry and an ever more relevant subject for
academic study, then surely it would be expectable that its theoretical limits were
well established, and that a widely accepted definition was available. In spite of this,
few authors have even attempted to propose one.
The issue of defining videogames is complicated by three facts.
In the first place, videogames present an enormous variability, including
implementations of simple number games running on cellphones, as well as
massively multiplayer online role-playing games set across sprawling, persistent
virtual worlds. These examples, and many others, vary greatly with respect to
numerous aspects, making it harder to discern the common traits.
In the second place, there persists a tendency to approach videogames from a
game studies perspective, therefore assuming them to be essentially the latest
iteration of games. Independently of the important relations between both concepts,
this leads to a lack of concern with specifically defining videogames per se, with
considerations being rather centred on videogames vis-à-vis traditional gaming
(Tavinor 2009). This is especially unfortunate, for, as this article will show,
published definitions of ‘‘game’’ are not capable of encompassing videogames in all
their variability.
Finally, definitional matters are complicated because there exist different
theoretical approaches to the medium, which propose to analyse videogames in
light of distinct characteristics that they are assumed to possess.
In face of these difficulties, a possible reaction is to simply ignore the subject.
Aarseth (2014a), for instance, argues that there is no need for a formal definition in
order for us to study games and talk about them, even if we run the risk of
describing things that probably are not games. Another possible reaction is to
recognize definitional matters as important, but to assume that even though
videogames show recurrent properties, the complete set does not occur in all of
them, as different instances of the medium have partially intersecting sets of
qualities. This approach, based on Wittgenstein’s family resemblance approach to
defining games, was adopted by Feige (2012).
As Grant Tavinor, possibly the author that has given more attention to this
definitional matter, argues, dealing with this issue from the outset has the potential
to add clarity to what can at times be a very murky debate, as often it is not clear
what theorists are arguing games to be. In his words (Tavinor 2009: 16):
A successful definition of videogames would provide games studies with a
target of explanation. But even if gaming proves to be beyond the scope of
definition, the process of offering and criticizing definitions would
Comput Game J
nevertheless have practical and heuristic value in that we might learn a great
deal about the category, including, perhaps, the reasons for its definitional
Should we succeed in defining the set of properties common to each and every
videogame, and to nothing else, we could establish a theoretical framework with
which to approach the medium. This would greatly benefit research, both from
within a specific thematic approach (e.g. videogames and narrative, videogames as
learning tools) and across different disciplines (e.g. economy, sociology, psychology), as well as in comparative studies articulating videogames and other media. If
all approaches and disciplines focus on different aspects of the same common
subject, their results become complementary. If, on the other hand, they are focused
on subjects that only share some of their properties, their results will be significantly
harder to integrate objectively.
This article has two objectives. The first one is to identify and justify the set of
characteristics that are both sufficient and necessary in order to define what a
videogame is. In accordance with Tavinor (2009), this means establishing the set of
conditions that must occur for a given object to be a videogame, and that are
sufficient to separate it from all non-videogames.
The second objective is to construct and propose a definition from these
characteristics, that is, an essentialist definition.
I begin with a critical consideration of the main theoretical approaches to the
medium, and of the published definitions. I then define and justify what I consider to
be its set of essential qualities. Finally, a corresponding definition is constructed and
A final word concerning terminology: the term videogame is adopted because I
understand it is as generic as it is widely used (e.g. Kent 2001; Wolf and Perron
2014). Computer game would exclude early games that did not run on microprocessors, and console game would exclude the PC platform.
2 Theoretical Approaches to the Study of Videogames
2.1 Ludologist Approaches
‘‘Ludology’’ is a term commonly used to refer to a general conceptual approach that
opposes the assumption that videogames should be viewed simply as an extension
of narrative (Frasca 2003; Aarseth 2014b). Narrative, as a way of structuring
representation, is based on a fixed structure, comprised by a sequence of events. The
transposition of this structure to an interactive medium implies a phallacy, as the
player’s supposed freedom is necessarily sacrificed for narrative coherence.
Frasca (2003), in contrast, views videogames as a simulational medium instead of
a representational one. They are based on conditions, which, together with a visual
output, reproduce some behaviors of the systems they model. These systems are, of
course, all the innumerable phenomena and processes a videogame may represent,
from interpersonal relations to movement through physical space, to urban
Comput Game J
development. As he argues, if videogames are approached as structures composed
of simulations, players will be empowered to manipulate and understand the
reproduced systems on a deeper level. Not only will the player be exposed to
different possible outcomes for her actions (during multiple play-throughs), but she
will also gain an understanding of how different factors (both under and out of her
control) influence those outcomes. Simulation thus allows the medium to express
messages in ways that narrative cannot (and vice versa) (Frasca 2003).
On a critical stance, I find the conceptual opposition between representation and
simulation to be only apparent. Simulation, in the sense employed by Frasca, is in
fact a representation of some phenomenon that was artistically simplified in order to
focus the player’s attention on those factors the designer considers to be important.
This definition was used by Crawford (1982) precisely to argue against the use of
the term ‘‘simulation’’ in videogames. In his words, the simulations designer
simplifies reluctantly and only as a concession to material and intellectual
limitations (p. 8), whereas the game designer does so artistically. I will argue that
representation is at the base of all videogames. After all, it is the visual (and
frequently also auditory) representation of recognizable characteristics, concepts,
phenomena and processes that allows the player to mentally construct the fictional
context in which the interaction takes place (from a flat background with falling
pieces in Tetris to a post-apocalyptic world in the Fallout series).
Juul (2005) considers videogames to be composed of two interrelated components: rules and a fictional world. In this perspective, videogames share rules with
traditional games, but are different in the sense that the actions that these rules allow
the player to take are always set in a more or less coherent fictional world. It is
beyond question that fictional worlds are extremely frequent as setting to the
players’ actions in videogames. I disagree with Juul, however, in the notion that
these worlds are exclusive of the medium. The same exact thing happens with
miniature-based wargames and traditional pen-and-paper roleplaying games, where
the players share and imagine a fictional world, albeit one more limited as to the set
of rules that govern it and the visual props used to represent it (e.g. illustrations,
painted miniatures and scenery).
In spite of the frequency with which fictional worlds feature in videogames, I find
this term problematic. Many videogames are very abstract in the representation of
the relations, spaces and elements at play. Could the fictional context of a digital
implementation of Tic-Tac-Toe adequately be called a world? What about that of a
Sudoku game? Rather than worlds, videogames such as these provide the player
with a context for interaction: a set of elements, and the rules for their interaction
and manipulation. Many times, these contexts are depicted in such a concrete
manner and with such a level of detail that the player associates to them the
perception that what is seen on-screen is part of a larger world (e.g. Super Mario
Bros. games, role-playing games such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt). This does not
happen universally, however, and it is because of this that I prefer the term context
instead of world. All videogames include a fictional context; in some of them, this
context includes the representation of a fictional world.
In his theory of videogames, Juul (2005) drew upon several earlier theories of
gaming in order to define what he named the ‘‘classic game model’’. This is a set of
Comput Game J
six properties shared by games in traditional media for the last 500 years, allowing
him to define a game as:
a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different
outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to
influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome,
and the consequences of the activity are negotiable.
He then focuses his attention on videogames in particular, considering the ways in
which the new medium maintains its proximity to these properties, but never
distilling his considerations into a definition. This is understandable, as he assumes
that videogames are ‘‘the latest development in a history of games that spans
millennia’’. If so, then it suffices to define what games are, and then to consider in
which ways the new development is innovative.
Games have been a part of human culture for thousands of years (Peterson 2012),
and it is undeniable that different characteristics of traditional games are ubiquitous
in videogames. Independently of the similarities, however, any definitional
approach to videogames must be focused on their specificity. I therefore consider
the definitions of ‘‘videogame’’ previously put forward by different authors, and
consider definitions of ‘‘game’’ only when their proponents assume that they also
apply to videogames. All these definitions are tested by assessing their capacity to
encompass the spectrum of variability existing across the videogame medium.
Using this approach, I will now consider each of the elements in Juul’s definition
of (classic) game.
First, the question of the very nature of videogames: are they rule-based systems
as (traditional) games are? All videogames imply statements, functions and
conditions (i.e. rules) that govern the interaction between player and machine. But
all, without exception, also imply the visual representation (either in pictorial or
textual form) of a fictional context in which these rules apply, as Juul himself
underlines so well. Moreover, all videogames without exception require a third
component at all times: a player, as Juul (2005) himself makes clear when he states
that a theory of videogames can be described as an intersection between ‘‘games as
rules and games as fiction, and the relation between the game, the player, and the
Rules, conditions, and visual representation can only configure a fictional context
when subjectively perceived, mentally represented, and ultimately acted upon by a
player, i.e. during interaction. It is for this reason that I argue that the essence of the
videogame as a medium lies not in the rules, the fictional context, or the player, but
on the interaction itself, of which all three are necessary components. A videogame
is, at its most essential, a particular mode of interaction.
All other properties in Juul’s definition are related to game outcomes. Unlike
classical games, videogames do not necessarily have clear outcomes (in the sense
that the game ends in a definite way). Juul gives SimCity, The Sims and online roleplaying games (e.g. World of Warcraft) as examples.
Videogames do not necessarily attribute a value to the outcome of the player’s
actions within the game world (in the sense of being positive or negative, better or
worse, win or lose). Instead, many games leave the valuing of at least a large portion
Comput Game J
of the outcomes of the player’s actions to the player herself. The most evident cases
are open-ended games such as the aforementioned SimCity and Minecraft (in its
‘‘creative’’ mode), where the player is free to craft, build and manage as she sees fit,
and not with reference to a score meter or a final goal. Other examples are Grand
Theft Auto V, Fallout 3 or Dragon Age: Origins, which give the player many
choices regarding which characters and factions to align with, who to kill, help, rob
or ignore, without assigning value to each of them.
The question of player effort is also worthy of discussion. In videogames where
the goals are left to the player to define, is it pertinent to speak of challenges
requiring player effort? Let us assume, for instance, that I am playing The Elder
Scrolls V: Skyrim. However, I am not interested in doing quests. I want to buy a
house, find a spouse, adopt a child and live by crafting, enchanting and selling
weapons and armour. The effort I invest into achieving a given goal is defined by
me, as a function of the particular goals I define. I may only be interested in
gathering alchemical ingredients all across the game world to become as powerful
an alchemist as I wish, and simply run away from all fights, which will require very
little effort indeed when compared to the multiple available quests. When situations
such as this are considered, the element of player effort loses its universality. In
these cases, the factor that justifies the personal investment on the part of the player
is not an effort-requiring challenge. It is another element that Juul (2005) also
identified: an emotional attachment between the player and the outcomes of her
actions within the context of the game.
Only the property of negotiable consequences now remains to be considered. I
consider this criterion to be of no consequence towards defining what videogames
are, for two reasons. Firstly, every human activity has real-life consequences, as it
requires the time and energy of the person performing it. In this sense, all
videogames have non-negotiable consequences. Secondly, there are many other
activities that would, according to this criterion, have negotiable consequences. I
can take my car for a drive on a weekend (no consequences), or race it in a
competition (monetary consequences). I can make videos and post them on
YouTube to share something with friends (no consequences), or to earn an income
(monetary consequences). Negotiable consequences are not an essential, defining
property of videogames; at the most, they can be a criterion for identifying activities
that, by necessarily having major non-negotiable consequences, do not constitute
videogames. Such are the cases of political elections (as referenced by Juul) and
military conflict.
In sum, the analysis of Juul’s (2005) classic game model allow us to define two
essential properties of videogames: a fictional context, and an emotional attachment
between the player and the outcomes of her actions within this context. I will
elaborate on both later on.
2.2 The Narratologist Approach
The so-called narratologist approach draws from the theoretical background of
narrative studies in order to approach videogames as a new kind of narrative
structure (Murray 1998; Jenkins 2004). If we consider ‘‘narrative’’ to roughly mean
Comput Game J
a representation of sets of events, chosen for their contribution to an unfolding plot
with a beginning, middle, and an end (Tavinor 2009), it is clear that numerous
videogames involve narratives. These may be structured in a rather linear fashion,
with the eventual cutscenes serving to contextualize the gameplay sequences and
directing the story towards one single outcome (e.g. The Curse of Monkey Island;
Tomb Raider) or in a nonlinear fashion, with multiple storylines and possible
outcomes (e.g. Dragon Age: Origins).
Even through narrative features on countless videogames, it does not do so
universally across the medium. Many videogames have no plot at all, such as Tetris,
Slither.Io, dress-up and make-up games (e.g. Cuties Candy) or the online modes of
first-person shooter franchises like Battlefield or Call of Duty. It is true that all of
them can be analysed as representations of sequences of events in time. If, however,
we would take that to suffice as a narrative, then CCTV footage of someone parking
a car or a film of someone making a cup of tea would also be valid examples
(Tavinor 2009).
The above given notion of ‘‘narrative’’ implies that the plots and the events that
structure them are defined by videogame designers, independently of the player. The
player has only the choices of which plots to protagonize (e.g. the multiple quests
and questlines in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) and whether or not to follow a
particular plot to its conclusion. This is what James Paul Gee calls the designer’s
story, in order to contrast it with the real-virtual story: the unique, personal
trajectory that results from the combination of the real-world player and the fictional
character(s) she controls. The latter is unique because, in their trajectories, no two
players will have done the same actions in the same order and in the same way. This
second narrative is more important that the designer’s story, because it is to it that
players attach their fantasies and desires (Gee 2006).
Even if we adopt this more personal notion of ‘‘narrative’’, there are many
videogames where the player does not control any type of character, such as Tetris
or digital implementations of Chess.
Independently of our chosen definition, narrative cannot therefore be considered
essential to the medium.
3 Published Definitions
Crawford (1982), started his early and visionary consideration of the medium of the
videogame by defining what a game is. He arranged videogames (adopting the term
computer games) side by side with other types of games, and concluded that a game
can be defined, independently of its medium, as:
A closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality.
I already argued against the notion of the videogame as a system, and in favour of it
being more adequately regarded as a particular mode of interaction. Let us analyze
the remaining components of this definition in order to assess if they qualify as
essential properties.
Comput Game J
Crawford (1982) states that games are closed because their structure is complete
and self-sufficient: the rules cover all contingencies encountered by the player. They
are formal because they have explicit rules.
This is also true of the medium of the videogame, in which the already described
fictional context incorporates all these properties. This context exists only in the
mind of the player, where it forms when the visual stimuli produced by the machine
combine with her own subjective representations, values and perceptions. It is
because of this that the fictional context associated to each videogame is also a
subjective representation, exactly in the sense that Crawford (1982) adopts in his
It remains to be considered whether these fictional contexts universally represent
subsets of reality. As Crawford (1982) notes, the medium involves artistically
simplified representations of real phenomena. But what subset of reality is
represented when a spell is cast or a dragon fought in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,
or when a giant bipedal war machine is battled in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom
Pain? In these, and countless other cases, something else is happening: elements
from what we recognize as sensory reality (e.g. reptile, bat wing, guns, robot) or
from out collective imagination (e.g. the concept of an immortal soul) are abstracted
and recombined with the purpose of representing something that does not actually
exist in the real world, but that we nevertheless recognize by contrast with what we
know. We know mushrooms and the way bipedal creatures walk in the real world,
so we have no trouble understanding goombas, Mario’s abundant enemies in New
Super Mario Bros.Wii. We know the body plans of lions and eagles, so we have no
trouble imagining griffins as we face these creatures in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
I would therefore argue that videogames do not represent subsets of reality:
rather, they employ abstraction and recombination of real properties and elements to
represent fictional contexts where interaction can take place. Sometimes, these
contexts only include processes and phenomena that occur in the real world (e.g.
FIFA 2016). Often, they do not.
Frasca (2001) admittedly endeavoured to define the term videogame in its
broadest possible sense, as including:
any forms of computer-based entertainment software, either textual or imagebased, using any electronic platform such as personal computers or consoles
and involving one or multiple players in a physical or networked environment.
This definition, later also adopted by Newman (2004), is based on three elements:
the purpose of entertainment, an electronic platform, and the existence of at least
one player.
I find three issues in this definition requiring critical consideration.
Firstly, the ontological issue of what type of being a videogame exactly is. Frasca
defines it as a piece of software, which is in essence equivalent to the rule-based
system proposed by Juul (2005). I already argued against this approach.
Secondly, the important matter of purpose, which Frasca assumes to be
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It is undeniable that, historically, entertainment has been the purpose behind the
videogame industry. That, however, does not make it into an essential quality, the
same being valid for other auditory and/or visual media.
A medium is a means by which communication can take place. Any message
communicated through a given medium may produce impressions on its recipient.
When these impressions have the result of captivating her attention and interest, the
message is entertaining.
Commercial videogame companies are, by their very nature, interested in using
their chosen medium to create a product that is entertaining to a large number of
people and, hence, commercially successful. The message expressed through this
medium is, therefore, tailored so as to entertain the player. This is its fundamental
However, a creator may employ the same medium with other purposes. Frasca
(2003), referring to ‘‘advergames’’ (games designed to promote brands and
products), notes that advertisers use entertainment as a means, and not as an end.
Likewise, an author may use the medium with purposes of personal expression, be it
aesthetical or ideological. Also in this case, entertainment is, at the most, a
secondary purpose.
In sum, entertainment may or may not be the end sought by the game designer.
Therefore, it cannot be deemed essential. The misconception associated to thinking
otherwise has two negative practical consequences: it constrains the capacity of
creators to explore the medium’s emotional, ideological and pedagogical potentials
(Crawford 1982), and it promotes the idea that videogames are ‘‘just for fun’’, as
already noted by Koster (1999) or Newman (2004), thus justifying the lack of
seriousness in their treatment.
Finally, Frasca’s definition is too broad, having no regard for the interactive
nature of videogames. It would include a virtual guide to a museum, as well as a
movie on a DVD, as both can be considered to constitute entertainment software.
Salen and Zimmerman (2006) considered games in general in their work, of
which digital games (computer, console and other electronic games) are considered
to be a subset. This approach, made clear by the statement ‘‘the qualities that define
a game in one media also define it in another’’ is similar to Crawford’s (1982) and
Juul’s (2005), in that games are considered to be the core concept needing
After analysing and comparing eight published definitions of game, Salen and
Zimmerman (2006) propose the following:
a game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by
rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.
I already addressed the ontological issue of the videogame as a system defined by
rules, and the question of whether videogames universally have quantifiable
outcomes. Therefore, only the matter of conflict remains.
Salen and Zimmerman (2006) use the term conflict in a rather broad sense, so it
applies to videogames where two or more players compete directly against each
other (Street Fighter II), and those where the conflict is between the player and the
system itself (e.g. a crossword puzzle; Tomb Raider). Crawford (1982) also argues
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that conflict is an intrinsic element of all games. I would argue otherwise, as there
are many instances of videogames without conflict of any form, such as the already
referenced Minecraft in its creative mode, Sim City, and dress-up and make-up
games such as Cuties Candy. Conflict, therefore, cannot be considered to constitute
an essential quality.
After proposing their definition, Salen and Zimmerman (2006) list four traits that
are most robustly (in the words of the authors) associated to digital games: an
immediate, but narrow (in terms of types of input and output) interactivity;
information manipulation; automation of complicated procedures, and (in the case
of multiplayer games) networked communication. With the exception of interactivity, none of these can be considered essential towards defining the medium.
Tavinor (2009) tried to define videogames in terms of necessary and sufficient
conditions. He thus proposed that:
X is a videogame if it is an artifact in a digital visual medium, is intended as an
object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through
the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule
and objective gameplay or interactive fiction.
As he explains, his definition is based on two conditions (the digital/visual media
condition and the entertainment condition) and a disjunction explaining how the
former condition instantiates the latter: rule and objective gameplay, and interactive
I agree with the digital/visual medium condition, and I already argued against the
entertainment condition. Only the disjunction remains to be considered, and I will
argue that two already discussed essential properties render it unnecessary. These
are the fictional context for interaction that is inherent to each and every videogame,
and the emotional attachment between the player and the outcomes of her actions
within this fictional context. These two are essential and universal. Rules and
objective gameplay and interactive fiction are but the approaches developers have
employed to make them come together time and again.
4 Essential Properties
Having reviewed the published conceptual approaches and definitions, I now
describe what I propose to be the set of essential properties of videogames.
4.1 Visual Output on an Electronic Display
An electronic display includes both analog-based devices (such as the television sets
of the 1980s) and the current digital signal televisions and monitors. As Tavinor
(2009) already discussed (referring to a digital visual medium) making this visual
element explicit is necessary in order to separate videogames from other products
such as numerous toys and electronic games. Some form of video display has been a
property of the medium from its early beginnings, as is the case of Willy
Higinbotham’s 1958 oscilloscope-based Tennis for Two or the 1962 MIT-based
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Spacewar! (Donovan 2010). Other modes of sensorial output are the auditory (game
music and sound effects) and the haptic (e.g. the vibration on the controller).
Auditory output is at the present extremely elaborate, but if we regard the whole
spectrum of variation of the medium since its beginning, it must be considered to be
of a lesser importance. Many videogames could be played with the sound turned off,
whereas the same is not true for the visual display.
4.2 Strong Interaction
The notion of interaction is central to all videogames and is referenced in every
discussion on the nature of the medium. When I define videogames as interactive, I
mean simply that they involve a bilateral input–output relation between player and
machine (extended to include other players in the case of multiplayer games), so
that, on any given moment, the player’s previous actions influence the visual
patterns produced by the machine, and those visual patterns influence the player’s
following actions. This is what Lopes (2001) defines as ‘‘strong interaction’’ as
opposed to ‘‘weak interaction’’, the latter referring to those media where the user
can define which structure to be accessed or the order in which different structures
are accessed, but cannot change the properties of the structure itself. An example of
this would be a DVD movie (Newman 2004: 26).
4.3 A Fictional Context
Interaction must occur within a context that, in the mind of the player, confers a
meaning to the cycle of action-reaction iterations in which she and the machine are
involved. This context is fictional only in the sense that it is not real, independently
of whether the elements of reality that may be represented within it are related to
actual people and events.
Independently of the enormous variability that can be found across the medium,
all videogames share this essential property. In each and every case, the machine
responds to player action in an iterative way. This process builds, in the mind of the
player, the subjective representation (in the sense used by Crawford 1982) of a
closed and self sufficient set of objects and concepts, as well as of the relations
between these objects/concepts and her own actions. This mental representation,
corresponding to Juul’s (2005) fictional world, is invariably based on the
abstraction, recombination and even negation of real properties (e.g. hard, green),
objects (e.g. mountain, ball), and concepts (e.g. death, vulnerability).
If the player’s subjective mind is a fundamental component of this fictional
context, the other component is completely objective, structured, and with clearly
defined boundaries. It is the set of instructions that defines all the possibilities of
action available to the player and all the (visual, auditory, haptic) results she may
possibly obtain. Nowadays, these instructions take the form of computer code, but
earlier examples of videogames had them set into the hardware itself (e.g. Pong).
Nothing may happen in the fictional context that is not previously defined by
these instructions, and it is because of this that they define a rule-based system (Juul
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2005), or a closed formal system (Crawford 1982) over which the player’s mind will
construct a subjective context for interaction.
It is, of course, here that resides the role and power of videogame designers.
Their work allows players to participate in a meaningful and emotionally rewarding
process of interaction. In order for this interaction to be maintained in time,
however, another essential property of videogames must express itself.
Players must develop a personal attachment to the outcomes of their actions.
4.4 Personal Attachment to a Fictional Outcome
In all videogames, the player acts so as to cause a specific outcome, because she
personally wants that outcome to take place. This personal attachment, which Juul
(2005) included in his classic game model, is the factor sustaining the interaction
that lies at the heart of all videogames. As such, it must be considered an essential
There are different ways in which a player may develop a personal attachment to
the fictional outcomes of her actions, and they frequently occur in combinations.
While it is not the purpose of this article to discuss them exhaustively, eight
examples are described below.
4.4.1 The Player is Intellectually Stimulated by the Relation Between Real
Phenomena and Their Virtual Representation
The transition from real phenomena to more or less abstract representations is
frequently done in a manner that is intellectually stimulating to the player. This is
the case, for instance, with skills systems (e.g. Dragon Age: Origins), crafting
systems (e.g. Minecraft) or the way different phenomena (e.g. technological
progress) are represented in games such as Civilization. In all these cases, the player
is given an artistically simplified and easily understandable model of something
much more complex, which she can explore and interact with. This is a crucial
factor in the appeal of videogames in general (Crawford 1982).
4.4.2 The Player Finds Identification with the Characteristics of the Game World
This identification may be aesthetical and/or conceptual (the themes, ideas, values
and references associated to the game world are appealing to the player). Many
videogames are attractive in both respects, featuring worlds that are both visually
attractive and rich in fictional lore, references, and often critiques to real-world
issues. Examples are the futility of modern capitalist societies (Grand Theft Auto V),
or racism and discrimination (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Bioshock Infinite).
In many cases, it is the general theme of the game world that finds identification
with the player, as is the case with vampire themes (Vampire: The Masquerade—
Bloodlines) or zombie themes (Dead Island: Riptide).
Comput Game J
4.4.3 The Player Derives Emotional Satisfaction from the Representation of her
Actions Within the Fictional Context of the Videogame
The fictional actions a player may perform within the context of the videogame, and
the manners in which these actions are represented, are a frequent source of
emotional satisfaction. In many cases, satisfaction is related to sensations of power,
resources and control. Examples are enemy takedowns in Deus Ex: Human
Revolution or Hitman: Absolution, or combos and finishing moves in Mortal
Kombat. Other satisfaction-producing examples are the acquisition of wealth and
powerful items/weapons (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), romantic relationships
(Dragon Age: Origins), athletic abilities (FIFA 2016), driving (Daytona USA), or
dancing and musical performance (Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero).
4.4.4 The Player is Attracted to the Exploration of the Game Space
Videogames frequently exert an attraction related to the exploration of space. This
may occur whether this space is a vast and detailed tridimensional world (The Elder
Scrolls V: Skyrim; The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), a sequence of two-dimensional levels
(e.g. Super Mario games), or even a sequence of single-room stages (e.g. Street
Fighter II, Bubble Bobble). In all these cases, the player feels a desire to uncover
new areas, with their potential experiences, challenges, and rewards. This attraction
can be found in examples from as early as Will Crowther’s Adventure (1976) or
Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth: World of Doom (1979).
4.4.5 The Player is Stimulated by the Challenge to her Skills
The challenge to the players’ skill set is a component of varying importance in
videogames. In many cases, skills such as reaction time and eye-to-hand
coordination dominate gameplay (Tetris, Street Fighter 2), whereas, in other cases,
cognitive and puzzle-solving skills assume the main role (e.g. The Curse of Monkey
Island, Zork: The Great Underground Empire). When I considered Juul’s (2005)
classic game model, I justified that player effort (as demanded by the imposition of a
previously defined challenge) was not an essential property of videogames.
Nonetheless, most videogames do include this component to some degree, and the
excitement and pleasure derived from overcoming these challenges is a recurring
source of emotional attachment.
4.4.6 The Player is Attracted to the Competitive Element of the Game
Many games include competitive elements to different degrees, and players are
frequently attracted to the emotional stimuli those elements provide. These games
display an enormous variability, including sports and racing games, first-person
shooters, strategy-based games or fighting games. In several cases, single-player
videogames include multiplayer online modes that expand their appeal through this
competitive element (e.g. Grand Theft Auto V, Uncharted 4).
Comput Game J
Even in games where the interaction is not centred on confrontation between
player-controlled characters, there frequently exist elements allowing for a
competitive approach, such as timers and scores that quantitatively rate player
performance (New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Tetris), a levelling system that quantifies
the experience and capabilities of the characters (Dragon Age: Origins), or player
ranking systems (Battlefield 1).
4.4.7 The Player Feels an Emotional Attachment to the Characters and Their
Personal Contexts
The representation of characters in games is subject to variable degrees of
abstraction and simplification. On one extreme of this spectrum are games wherein
the characters’ personalities and backgrounds are extremely simplified or even
nonexistent. This is typically the case with arcade games such as Space Invaders,
Pac-Man or R-Type, where the identification between player and characters is
essentially aesthetical. On the other extreme of the spectrum, however, characters
have a well-defined identity and backstory, as well as a personality that is displayed
throughout the course of the game. This is the case, for instance, with The Last of Us
or Life Is Strange. Also on this end of the character simplification and abstraction
spectrum are RPGs such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Dragon Age Origins.
Videogames such as these allow players to develop a stronger emotional connection
to the characters they control or interact with, and a correlative emotional
attachment to the outcomes of their own actions.
4.4.8 The Player Identifies with the Narratives in Which her Actions Take Place
The personal identification of players with the narratives in which their actions are
contextualized is often a factor of emotional attachment. This is equally valid
whether we consider the designer’s stories, i.e. plots constructed by the designers
independently of the actions of the player, or real-virtual stories, those unique
personal narratives produced jointly by the real-world player and the virtual
character(s) (Gee 2006).
5 Conclusions: Defining What Videogames Essentially are
All that was said before can now be synthesized into five premises.
A videogame is a mode of interaction between a player, a machine, and
possibly also other players.
This mode of interaction is mediated by a fictional context, by means of
which it is attributed meaning by the player.
This fictional context is formed in the mind of the player through recognition
and interpretation of visual patterns in an electronic display, as well as of the
relations between these patterns and the player’s actions, input to the machine
using some form of apparatus.
Comput Game J
Both the visual patterns and their relation to the player’s actions are defined
by a set of objective instructions, either in the form of computer code running
in the machine, or built into the hardware itself.
Interaction is sustained by an emotional attachment between the player and
the outcomes of her actions within this fictional context.
In accordance with the above stated premises, a videogame may now be
synthetically defined as:
a mode of interaction between a player, a machine with an electronic visual
display, and possibly other players, that is mediated by a meaningful fictional
context, and sustained by an emotional attachment between the player and the
outcomes of her actions within this fictional context.
This definition is not intended to be prescriptive, as the medium may evolve in
the future in directions hitherto unconsidered. It has, however, the important quality
of encompassing the whole spectrum of variability that videogames have developed
since their beginning, from the most abstract to the most concrete, and from the
simplest to the most complex. It is meant as a conceptual radiograph of the medium
up to this point in time, evidencing what elements are at its core, and ignoring those
that are not. In this way, it overcomes the shortcomings of previously published
definitions by ignoring properties that, although frequent, cannot be deemed
essential. Examples are the imposition of definite outcomes requiring player effort,
and the valuation of these outcomes (Juul 2005); conflict (Salen and Zimmerman
2006); or the purpose of entertainment (Frasca 2001; Tavinor 2009). Continuing to
sustain our conceptual approach to the medium on these elements can only result in
less objective knowledge, as well as potential constraints to the creative freedom of
Acknowledgements The author would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their comments
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