Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture

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Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture

  • Chapter 2: Game Culture - Meaning in Games
  • © Frans Mäyrä & SAGE Publications

Games and Meaning

  • Games and play carry meaning - even in their pre-cultural form (e.g. animal play).
  • Culture is a system that is based on communication of meaning.
  • Our perceptions of reality are socially and culturally constructed.
  • Games make sense as systems of interaction for their players (not only as sign systems, like texts).
  • Gameplay can be understood as non-linguistic performance (cf. dance, music).

Gameplay Experience

  • Even simple games can produce rich, engaging experiences during playful interaction (enjoyable gameplay).
  • The exact nature of gameplay experience may be difficult to put into words.
  • Parts of a game (game elements) gain their specific meaning inside contexts that players themselves construct during play.
  • David Myers has called this ‘aesthetics of play’: games’ meanings rise from the performance of their gameplay.
  • Yet there are also signs and symbols in games.

Dual Structure of Games

  • Analysis of games involves the capacity to make meaningful distinctions within and among
  • games.
  • Complexity and multi-dimensionality of games is important to recognise.
  • One of the key distinctions is between games as sign systems and games as gameplay performances.
  • This leads to the dual structure of games: the ‘core’ (gameplay) and ‘shell’ (symbolic representation) both need to be taken into account while analysing and understanding games.

Figure 3: The Dialectic of Core and Shell

  • Image credits: Frans Mäyrä

Understanding the Core

  • Gameplay and representation are both fundamental structural elements of game, but different kinds of structures.
  • Core gameplay is something that is born directly from the rule set of game.
  • Rules can be written down, transferred elsewhere, and the ‘same game’ played using a different game board and playing pieces, for example.
  • Thus a game of chess is still chess, even if it is played using differently shaped playing pieces.

Understanding the Shell

  • Representation appears secondary to the core of game: being active during in its gameplay.
  • However, digital games can also be approached as parts of digital media.
  • The images, characters, storylines, sounds and music of games all contribute to the shell, or the representational layer of games.
  • The shell is where games can be interpreted to “carry a message”, and many players love or hate, agree or disagree, with games on the basis of this shell.
  • Thus, core and shell, or gameplay and representation, should be considered as equally important parts of contemporary digital games.

Internal meanings

  • In musicology, intramusical (non-referential) meanings are separated from referential meanings.
  • Similarly, games’ meanings can refer only to the game itself (internal meanings) or refer outside of the game (communication of some referential content).
  • Core gameplay is mostly internal, while the shell of the game is more likely to convey referential communication.
  • Comprehensive understanding of games’ meanings needs to take into account both game-internal and external, or referential signification.

Games and Rules in Cultures

  • Like music, one can learn to appreciate games better: games make sense within particular cultures.
  • Learning a game involves learning its rules.
  • According to Salen & Zimmerman, game rules are multi-dimensional:
    • operational rules (guidelines for play)
    • constituative rules (underlying logical structures)
    • implicit rules (proper player behaviour).
  • Implicit rules about games extend far in culture, informing the basic sense of what game ‘is’, and why and how they should be played.

Huizinga and the Magic Circle

  • Philosopher Johan Huizinga has argued that key cultural characteristics of games include that games are:
    • free and voluntary
    • separate from everyday reality
    • created and maintained by communities of players.
  • This separation (known as the ‘magic circle’ of games) situates game activities within a world of their own.
  • Games are (or, should be) only governed by the internal logic of play.

Game Dynamics

  • Dynamics means the ‘forces or motions that characterise a system’.
  • In a dynamic game, a previous move influences moves that are made after it.
  • In digital games, dynamics involve e.g.:
    • dynamics of conflict (between players, between the player and the environment, or a challenge)
    • spatial dynamics (space affects player actions)
    • temporal dynamics (time affects player actions)
    • social dynamics (social relationships affect the game system)
    • economical dynamics (money or some exchangeable game resources affect the game system).

Conventional Forms of Game and Play

  • Roger Caillois identified four main types of games, and two different attitudes of play:
    • competition games (agôn)
    • games of chance (alea)
    • simulation games (mimicry)
    • physical, ‘vertigo’ games (ilinx).
  • Two styles of play:
    • paidia (improvised free play, playful behaviour)
    • ludus (more convention based, rule-bound play).

Two Senses of Culture

  • ‘Culture’ is something that humans have and do.
  • Loaded with significance and value.
  • Traditionally means ‘high culture’: “contact with the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Matthew Arnold).
  • Current academic use is based on anthropology.
  • In this sense, culture means ‘system of beliefs, values, customs, behaviours and artefacts’ that are shared by certain people and transmitted through learning.

Cultural Roles of Games

  • Games of chance and skill have a long history.
  • There are also sport and outdoor games, card and board games, as well as building and simulation activities, such as the use of dolls and toys that have influenced contemporary digital games.
  • These popular forms of entertainment have not traditionally been considered ‘high culture’.
  • In modern society, digital games are mostly understood as part of ‘popular culture’, alongside popular movies, genre literature or pop music etc.


  • Subcultures are groups of people who have some practices, values and interests in common, and who form a distinct group within contemporary culture and society.
  • Digital game players sometimes develop distinctive subcultures of their own.
  • e.g. some shooter game fans can develop:
    • shared rituals (regular LAN parties)
    • shared language (slang of ‘fragging’ their enemies)
    • interest in artefacts and memorabilia (game boxes etc.)
    • shared space (physical and virtual meeting spaces).

Games and Identity

  • Only a small number of people who sometimes play digital games identify themselves as ‘gamers’ or game hobbyists.
  • So-called ‘casual gamers’ do not display such clear signs of their association with games as do ‘hardcore gamers’.
  • The issue of identity is further complicated by the fact that some people intensely play ‘casual games’ (e.g. solitaire) - often without considering themselves ‘gamers’.
  • Identity is produced in multiple ways, in talk and action, explicitly and by more implicit means.


  • Cultural hegemony means the unquestioned domination by certain consensus views and values (orig. Antonio Gramsci’s concept).
  • In game cultures and media, certain kinds of games appear to receive most of the attention.
  • A critic of game cultures should pay attention to this and try to uncover, for instance, the roots of why violent games receive most mainstream media attention.

Assignment: Game Culture Survey

  • Look for two kinds of game players in your surroundings: both more ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’.
  • You can also look on the Internet, but primarily try to locate real-world locations where people are playing games.
  • Write a short essay, organising your findings into a) language, b) ritual, c) artefact, d) memorabilia, and how identity is being produced.
  • The aim is to reach beyond ones personal game history and become more aware of the cultural diversity surrounding games.

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