Games are the Argument

The Meaning is There

It’s a pun you see, because it’s people arguing over games…

Fourteen years ago (in 2003), Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Eric Zimmerman wrote a book on game design entitled Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. In one of the later chapters they talk about the idea that games are ‘cultural rhetoric,’ by which they mean that games, like any form of art, are not isolated things. They are made in a particular time and culture. Because of that they reflect the ideas of that culture. Tekinbaş and Zimmerman assert that this is true regardless of the intent of the developers making the game. The devs may be making the game to make a particular point, or not, but either way the content of the game is influenced by the world that its developers are living in. Since it’s a pretty solid premise and generally understood to be true of all forms of art, I’m going to accept it and try to take the line of reasoning a step further.

I have stated before that I think that all games have meaning in the same way that all books have meaning: they say something, or really, they say many things. They say what the author is trying to say on the surface, they may say something deeper that the author is trying to say through metaphor, and they have that level of cultural rhetoric that Tekinbaş and Zimmerman talk about in relation to games. It’s easy to see that a book like Animal Farm is about animals struggling to learn how to exist and rule themselves, but also about the human struggle against a tendency toward totalitarianism, and also about the tensions in the world when Orwell was writing. Those layers of meaning might be less evident in a random romance novel or detective story, but they are always there.

Games always have at least three levels of meaning.

To me it feels self evident that the above is true for games as well. A game like Spec-Ops: The Line is clearly about a soldier’s struggle with the horrors of war. But it’s also about how players relate to FPS games and how the tropes in those games often go unexamined even when they are problematic; and also about the cultural struggle that games are going through to find their place as art and as entertainment; and also about the cultural shifts around core games and their traditional players. As with romance or mystery novels, those kinds of meaning may not be as evident in, say, Super Mario Brothers or Tetris, but again I think that it’s clear that they are there.

Ok, so fine… but where does that get us, and if I am just saying that games can have as much meaning as books, then why is it worth talking about?

It’s worth talking about because games are not books. While they share those layers of meaning, games have a quality that books don’t have. You PLAY games. When you read the layers of meaning in a book, you experience them at a layer of remove. I’m not saying that books aren’t immersive! I’ve lost my share of days to innumerable wonderful stories, and cumulatively those stories had profound effects on me. But reading and playing are fundamentally different.

The act of playing a game goes beyond experiencing the setting and story of a game; it includes interacting with that game’s rules. It means making choices and actively participating in creating a playing of the game.

To the degree that a game’s rules and mechanics are in line with its meaning, playing the game is participating in acting out the rhetoric contained in the game. So… that’s a pretty boring sentence, but it’s an important one. Let me try again. Books can present a logical argument; games provide a ludological argument. Still boring? Yeah, and now I’m making up words too… but think about it. The implications are profound.

Games can put you in a situation constructed to present you with a problem, and limit or influence your choices so that you choose to solve the problem in a way that makes their point. If they do it well it feels like you making the choice, not the developer forcing you into it. For instance, in the tutorial section of Spec-Ops: The Line the player comes across an enemy soldier that they have shot but not killed. They are in great pain and screaming for help. The only option presented is to press X to crush their head with a melee attack. It’s pretty crude and transparent, but it makes the argument that that’s the only option that character had. At the end of the game the player is confronted with a long string of their actions, and is forced to admit that the character has become a monster through the choices they, the player, have made. As the lead writer Walt Williams says in his interview with ArsTechnica, “We were trying to create a game design and a narrative that goes with it that the way that the player was feeling about the game was going to mirror the way that Walker was feeling about the mission and the events within the story. Yes, it’s a war game, and it’s about war because you’re a soldier in conflict. But it was always designed to be more a game about playing games and who we are as gamers and our relationship to the games we choose to play.”

“That’s what I think makes the story of Spec Ops so effective, walking into a game that’s not going to embrace you and completely bend to your will. It’s a game that is in fact going to be opposed to your will, and it’s going to walk you through an experience that is tailored for you not to like it.”

— Walt Williams

Not a lot of games are intentionally operating on this level, so for most games the effects are not so different than reading a story about the events of the game would be. But when a game is aware of this design principle you get games like Train, or This War of Mine, or Middle Passage, or Virginia. Games that you can feel trying to change your mind about something, or show you something that you haven’t seen before.

But even the low level existence of this design principle — the recapitulation of cultural rhetoric — is important. If you look at the kinds of games being made, it may provide the answer as to why. For instance, why have survival games caught on so strongly with core gamers? Look at what the rhetoric of that kind of game is, look at the demographic it appeals to. I go into that at length in my article Rise of the Killers.

I tend to think a lot about social justice issues, and the concept I have been outlining has some pretty significant implications in that arena. It means that while games can be fun, they are never ‘just for fun’. It means that games that make important arguments have more power to change the minds of their players than pretty much anything else besides lived experience…and some work being done with embodied VR experiences may even come close to that.

While this may be interesting to everyone in terms of understanding how the games they play affect them, it’s particularly important to developers who bear the responsibility for the games they make. I spend most of my writing time trying to tell developers that what we are doing is important, and that we should think deeply about our designs. I hope this helps to make clear why that is so important.

So, all of that is very interesting, but at this point it’s not a lot more than speculation and theory on my part. If you are about to go post an angry ‘Show me the proof!’ in the comments, don’t bother. This is just my opinion and something to think about. I’m happy to debate the merits of my arguments of course, and I would love nothing more than to have the time and resources to do some real research around the topic. But for now I’ll settle for articulating the theory.



Video Game Designer (Poptropica), Board Game Designer (Fall of the Last City), Asst. Prof. (Northeastern University), Speaker (GDC, ECGC, BFig, Pax, DevCom)

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Chris Barney

Video Game Designer (Poptropica), Board Game Designer (Fall of the Last City), Asst. Prof. (Northeastern University), Speaker (GDC, ECGC, BFig, Pax, DevCom)