Games and Meaning

Games hang human-crafted assets on abstract structures to give meaning to both.


There’s a sense of meaning, rather inflexible and prescriptive, that ascribes it only to the formal relationship of signifier to signified — the word to the denotation, the clothing to the fashion statement, the blush to the thrill.  There’s a contrary sense that voids meaning of meaning, makes it an ineffable, impenetrable core of subjectivity that can’t very well be conveyed or reasoned about.  We know we want meaningful experiences.  Let’s start there. Look around you.  With a little evidence from your eyes, you’re constructing a rich model of your surroundings.  You know at a glance how the floor feels to the touch.  You know what happens if you throw the screen you’re reading from against it; you won’t be doing that.  The model is the meaning of the stimulus.  Meaning is the entire body of implicit and unperformed associations: the things you feel, know, expect, or intend, yes, but especially the things that you would feel, know, expect, or intend, if some potential interaction came to pass.

Meaning is the part of the model that isn’t inherent in what you’re taking in. To draw a definitive line between sensation and meaning is pointless.  You’re not a clean processor of raw data; your eyes aren’t cameras plugged into a soul.  Because we’re composite and convoluted beings, meanings have meanings have meanings.  The sense that something has a meaning, but that you don’t know it yet?  That’s curiosity, ambition, exploration, playfulness.  And the sense that something has no meaning, even if you try to find it? That’s ennui, boredom, depression, despair.

And when you are actuated by meaning, you’re filled with purpose.  You’re driven not only by what’s out there and not only by what’s inside you, but by an elaborate, vibrant, and fractured blending of the two.  Purpose is the sense that action has meaning, and this kind of meaning expresses itself through the will.

… and Games

When players are having fun playing our games, and not just pulling the lever for another irregularly scheduled epic drop, we hope that they’re exhibiting curiosity, ambition, exploration, and playfulness.  We hope that they’re exhibiting a sense of purpose.  They also tell us explicitly that they want games to have meaning.  Every aspect of the high-level appreciation of games (games as art, if you’ll forgive the phrase) comes back to one facet or another of meaning.  It seems we’re back where we started — we want games to mean something, but we don’t know what and we don’t know how.  But there’s an in.

When I wrote that “meanings have meanings have meanings,” I might as well have said that meaning is recursive and transitive.  If two meanings both pertain to the same object, then they end up meaning each other; they also take meaning from each other.  Fabric that is rough to the touch, looks rough; a printed pattern that once looked rough no longer looks rough once touched.  A favorite song sets the mood for a time of life, and retains meaning from the memory of that time. Feeling like a spaceman in a game doesn’t come from a grand title or a big ship.  It comes from zipping around going pew pew pew and landing on alien planets.  Once that feeling is established, then the grand title or the big ship might further it, but only then.

Every video game experience starts with components the player understands already and assembles it into a more meaningful whole.  This is where most of the recent work has been done: Juiciness, polish, gamefeel, reward cycles, and the like, are ways of exploiting the most fundamental generators of meaning.  Anything that produces a response in us, however slight, by dint of our biology or acculturation, can be amplified by a process of the accretion of meaning.  The glint of a gem, like the glint of clean water, first caught your eye; now you’re a diamond miner.

It’s a curious fact, otherwise, that players don’t just extract the victory fanfare and the crawl and sit around like sots in an opium den, feeling victorious.  It’s a good feeling, but you can’t get it without doing the work.  The assets are like puppets; the game is a puppet show.  Without the meaning that the rest of the game experience gave to them, the assets elicit only a very slight response.  But that response that they do elicit is enough to start building upon.  A springy sound for a jump, a sad theme for failure, a mean looking mushroom: taken separately they’ll fall flat, but taken together they sparkle.

When a neophyte looks at an old game, or a tty roguelike, and calls the graphics ‘bad,’ old hands will sigh with exasperation.  The graphics look fine, they’ll explain.  They do their job.  It’s the game mechanics that matter.  This is to miss the point; the graphics (or the colorful letters) do their job not because the mechanics matter instead, but because mechanics are so powerful they can ascribe meaning even to a capital letter D.  And sometimes, of course, these more abstract forms let the mechanics do that job even better than more verisimilitudinous assets might do.

Where from here?

This is the intersection point that interests me most and that I will discuss most often here: How exactly do game mechanics cause assets to interact in ways that produce a sense of meaning, and how can that sense of meaning be exploited to produce known effects in the player?  The good news is that it is possible to answer, if haltingly, on the basis of established work.

There will be the question of how art assets evoke responses.  There will be the question of how game physics does its job (infinitely more interesting than it first seems!) and what makes it possible for players to project themselves into the game world.  There will be the question of how game mechanics interact in a purely abstract space, what game theory can tell us about the decisions players make, and how to design systems that let players extract.  And there will be the question of narrative, both within the context of written assets and scripted plots, and without them.

Game mechanics are a dancing skeleton, and game assets are a pile of flesh.  Stitch them together and your game will live.

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