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Towards a Language of Video Games, Part I: Creating Meaning with Game Mechanics

by Elizabeth Goins on 09/30/19 10:23:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


With the advent of the so-called walking simulators, it became evident that story focused interactive experiences are a legitimate form of video game. It isn’t a question anymore of whether or not story elements belong in games, but of how much (or little) story is in any given game. Also, how exactly do video games tell stories? Currently, traditional approaches borrowed from film and text carry the brunt of conveying narratives in games but game designers are increasingly modifying these approaches to create solutions that are unique to ludic spaces. The elephant in the room, of course, is that video games have interaction/game mechanics and that they take place in a game space. In this article, I’d like to examine interactivity and game mechanics within the lens of spatial theory. I think video games have their own language of storytelling that is still evolving.

Game designers have long understood that there is a connection between interaction, game space and meaning making. However, there are few established media forms that incorporate interactivity to serve as exemplars. The language of video games is thus being slowly discovered through the practice of patching together game mechanics and linear storytelling methods (cinematics and text). Earlier work like Koster’s theory of fun [1]–[3], laid the groundwork by developing a grammar based on the idea of ludemes and skill atoms that describe how mechanics work. Methods such as the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework (MDA) [4] evolved which describe games as dynamic systems [2],[5] that the designer influences to construct an aesthetic. MDA directs the designer to focus first on the notion of game aesthetics, or the evoked player response, and describes a process in which mechanics are created to support an aesthetic goal. In this model, designers are able to work through ideas of concept and interaction to create game mechanics that result in player driven dynamics. The method clearly places mechanics in a role supportive to aesthetics: game mechanics are meaningful so they must be aligned to the aesthetic requirements of the design. These theories of fun broke new ground by presenting ways of thinking about how mechanics function to create player experience.

Suffice to say that creating a fun experience is not the same thing as creating meaning. These earlier theories, however, are important first steps in learning how mechanics convey meaning. We understand now that games are structured around basic components (mechanics-dynamics-aesthetics) or (rules-system-fun). We also know that narratives are constructed by manipulating three basic elements with regard to the story content: time, space and perspective. In any narrative focused media, the task is to structure these components to convey the content in a compelling manner. Space in video games has been established as representational space that is constructed by the creation of underlying game engine units like levels, maps and user interfaces (UI) [6]Time, within the game construct, is elided, compressed and expanded by manipulating player access to game levels, screens and events constructed during the development process. Perspective is connected to avatar point of view and interaction with NPCs. Thus, we see that games have the same basic structural elements to work with as film and text.

What games have, however, that film and text do not, is the player. Games exploit the run-time construction of meaning that develops between the game systems and the player. It is the interaction and mechanics unique to games which allow space, time and perspective to be manipulated by the player as part of the experience. Together, the three ludic elements of player driven interactionrepresentational space, and structural manipulation come together to convey meaning and construct narratives.


Spatial and Environmental Storytelling: Theories of Space


Spatiality and interactivity have long been considered the defining elements of video games [7]. As “representations of navigable space” [8] games have been understood through their “implementation of spatial representation” [9], and theories of real space have been applied to virtual game spaces in order to define them. Carson [10] and Jenkins [11] build on the theoretical discussions of virtual space by defining narrative models based on those used in the real spaces of theme parks. Environmental and spatial storytelling derive from the navigation of representational space and suggest that video game narratives may be classified through the ways they signify and implement space [12]. These notions forward the idea of a contested space where interplay between the design, interaction, and representational elements encountered by the player can create meaning. We can further extend this to ideas relating to the social production of real space [13] to say that virtual space, and by extension the game itself, is not an entirely pre-built experience, but an act of construction based on ideas of agency and emergent gameplay.

The representational space of LeFebvre’s triad [13], [14] is perhaps best described as a passive experience filled with sites of resistance where imagination can appropriate and change meanings. Objects located in (real) physical space are overlaid by the ideas of representational space in the minds of its inhabitants, creating malleable meaning by connecting the real space objects to symbols and metaphors. In a virtual world, however, players navigate a designed space filled with metaphorical objects and interactions. This space does not overlay a (real) physical world but rather links to it via its metaphors and symbols. Meaning is created through the dialectical tensions between the designed structural elements, virtual objects and interactivity. Ideas of socially produced spaces relating to video games have been reviewed elsewhere [7], [15].

In short, these theories forward a model that presents the experience of real space as being constructed, on the fly, by tensions between: 1.) the social ideas that influence the planners who are responsible for the physical construction and carving up of space into zones, etc.; 2.) what we do in the space, or how we negotiate and navigate; 3.) how we interpret the space and what it means to us [13], [16], [17]. We can understand how game spaces might work by applying LeFebvre’s triad (see Figure 1) to game space.

Figure 1: Le Febvre's Triad including reference to game elements


Interactivity and the Representational Game World

Application of LeFebvre’s triad to a game (see figure 1) shows us that players negotiate the environment, the perceived space, through their preferred method of approach. That is, they have a choice about which path to take or building to enter. The actors and objects encountered in the virtual world are symbols and metaphors conceived of by the game designers. These are interpreted and connected by spatial practice to representational space. In other words, the game creators design a world that the player must navigate through interaction/mechanics and interpret through linking to ideas and external knowledge. This builds on ideas like those presented in the MDA framework by forwarding the notion that the objects and art of the game (representational space) exist in a dynamic relationship with player action and the underlying design and structural units likes maps, boundaries, gates, levels and UI.

As an example, let’s consider a hypothetical game where the player needs to pause the game in order to level up. In our game, the player can press button X at any time and that will open a UI and allow them to “sleep” and level up, apply buffs, etc. Alternatively, they can wait until they encounter a bed in the game that allows them to access the UI, sleep and level up. Are these the same experience for the player? Do they convey the same meaning? Both access the same UI and both connect to the sleep metaphor to enable leveling up. However, I would argue that they are not the same. The button X method is extra-diegetic: it is practical and efficient, one might imagine that this method could be used to keep pacing up, or allow players to focus on the action elements of the game. The second method, on the other hand, is diegetic and connects more to the ideas represented by the bed and the environment within which it is placed. One might use this method to slow the pace and allow the player a break from the action, or to focus on story elements that build ideas of place, character and narrative themes.

In Ico [18], the only way to save is to sit on a stone couch with Yorda (Figure 2) to bring up the save screen UI. The interaction is begun by pressing the general action button. The action of pressing the button links to a diegetic action of sitting and resting with Yorda that supports the themes of the game. Of course, the decision to restrict access to save points is often tied to design decisions regarding game play, but the design of the save point itself is a function of the story elements. Thus, the conceived space, created by the designers, structures how the player can negotiate the environment (spatial practice). In this case, the player has no choice about how to save, instead their agency exists  in the representational space where they link the couch metaphor to their own meaning and construct the final experience and story.

Figure 2: Saving the game requires finding a couch and sitting in Ico


In some games the designers cater to the different player types by allowing them to choose between the extra-diegetic and the diegetic. Alternatively, there may be no diegetic means of accessing UIs. How do these decisions impact the narrative and themes of the game? Do they undermine player experience or support it? Are games missing opportunities to build meaning by not including diegetic access to UIs? By thinking about game elements in terms of the spatial triad, the negotiation of the world and meaning creation are clarified and we can understand better how a narrative is constructed between designer, environment and player action. When applied to game spaces, the spatial triad helps us understand how players might construct experience so that designers may more fully leverage the potential of ludic storytelling.

This is the first part of a pretty large essay that I’m chunking out into smaller sections. My goal is to apply some of the theory from academic research to practical design application. This is all very much a work in progress as I struggle to reconcile these two worlds so I very much appreciate any feedback!

This is also posted in my blog


Works Cited

[1]          R. Koster, “A Theory of Fun 10 Years Later,” GDC Vault. .

[2]          R. Koster, Theory of Fun for Game Design. Sebastopol, UNITED STATES: O’Reilly Media, Incorporated, 2013.

[3]          “The Chemistry Of Game Design.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 27-Sep-2019].

[4]          R. Hunicke, M. Leblanc, and R. Zubek, “MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research,” in In Proceedings of the Challenges in Games AI Workshop, Nineteenth National Conference of Artificial Intelligence, 2004, pp. 1–5.

[5]          K. S. Tekinbas and E. Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2003.

[6]          E. Goins, “Structuring Digital Game Stories,” in Interactive Storytelling, 2018, pp. 265–269.

[7]          M. Nitsche, Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds. The MIT Press, 2008.

[8]          J. H. Murray MIT Press, Hamlet on the holodeck: the future of narrative in cyberspace. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.

[9]          E. Aarseth, “Allegories of Space. The Question of Spatiality in Computer Game,” in Cybertext Yearbook 2000, M. Eskelinen and K. Raine, Eds. (Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä, 2001.

[10]        D. Carson, “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry,” Gamasutra, 2000. .

[11]        H. Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” in FirstPerson: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, N. Wardrip-Fruin and P. Harrigan, Eds. MIT Press, 2004, pp. 118–130.

[12]        H. Jenkins, “Narrative Spaces,” in Space Time Play, 1 edition., F. von Borries, S. P. Walz, and M. Böttger, Eds. Basel: Birkhäuser Architecture, 2007.

[13]        H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991.

[14]        G. Charnock, “Lost in Space? Lefebvre, Harvey, and the Spatiality of Negation,” South Atl. Q., vol. 113, no. 2, pp. 313–325, Apr. 2014.

[15]        J. Harrington, “Infra-Ordinary Rewritings: Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp as an Introductory Study,” in DiGRA ’18 - Proceedings of the 2018 DiGRA International Conference: The Game is the Message, Turin, Italy, 2018, p. 13.

[16]        G. Bachelard and J. R. Stilgoe, The Poetics of Space, Reprint edition, 1994. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

[17]        D. Harvey, “Space as A Key Word,” presented at the Marx and Philosophy Conference, Institute of Education, London, 2004.

[18]        F. Ueda, Ico. SCE Japan Studio, Team Ico, 2001.

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