Video game structural analysis

What is a video game?  Many different definitions could be offered, but structurally, a video game is a sporadic collection of text, video, and sound interlaced with sections of player control.  Schools of game study exist which propose a focus on either the media elements or the interactive elements.  Indeed these two groups of elements possess very distinct properties, yet when placed together they offer a very peculiar final product.

To demonstrate this I will first account for the interactive elements of a video game, then the aspects borrowed from film and literature.  In the course of examining these things I hope to demonstrate that an asynchronous nature exists between them.

Interactive elements

To choose is to value, and to value is to impose one’s values upon something.  This insight has been given to us in the abstract by phenomologists such as Sartre, and as it specifically applies to video games, peculiarly enough, by Ebert.  The true consequence of this chain of reasoning, that all value is extrinsic and therefore the world lacks its own meaning, cannot be understated in terms of importance.  The interactive elements of video games are a peculiar issue, in that they have the same form as the world.  They allow and in fact require choice.  Hence it should appear quite plainly that the interactive elements of video games, much like the world, lack intrinsic meaning.

Assuming this at the outset, it seems no more difficult to pronounce that games are not art than it does to suggest that enjoying them can be legitimate.  After all, they are simply one phenomenon in the world amongst many, and most people wouldn’t claim that enjoying the world is illegitimate.  However, a game is something more.  It is also a representation of the world, or at least a world.  It achieves this result in a capacity wholly distinct from other forms of media, which possess a fixed textual significance and hence do not capture (at least not as purely) the necessity for decision that the world presents to human beings.  Hence in the interactive structure of video games we see two phenomenon.  The first is a lack of meaning, the second is a strong literary sense of verisimilitude stemming directly from the first phenomenon as an unavoidable consequence of its structure.

If this was the extent of what games were, then there would indeed seem to be no reason to criticize them.  However, games also include elements of plot and story.  Therefore they possess, in a very unique capacity, a fixed textual significance.  That this textual significance renders videogames an inaccurate representation of reality should be readily apparent.  The existence of choice persists, but the significance of choosing disappears.  By combining interactive elements with story-telling elements, the player is able to have both action without consequence and consequence without action.  The former is composed of the interactive elements.  The latter, of the elements of traditional media.

Traditional aspects

To criticize the media elements borrowed from those traditional storytelling methods known as film, literature, and music independently of their use in the overall structure of video games, would in fact be to criticize these media themselves.  I fear that such an action is outside my range of abilities at present, although I do not discount the possibility of doing so.  What is worth noting about them is that they are descriptions, and in the absence of choice they are merely descriptions.  That a person can impose their own values upon these descriptions and hence experience pain, sadness, joy, or anger from these media simply demonstrates that textual meaning is a phenomenon separate from values.  Where then does the structural shortcoming of video gaming become apparent?

To begin with, we must recognize that it is possible to describe values.  Particularly, the values of others.  In traditional media, the leap from description to emotion often stems from empathy.  We relate to a character because we understand their values, and hence their pain becomes apparent.  Then as a result of disliking the suffering of others, we experience pain ourselves.  Insofar as games contain traditional media elements, this mechanism is thoroughly intact.  However, it starts to become peculiar in that we have another way of interacting with at least one of the characters.  We control them.  Hence we see two different methods of identification emerging in two different spheres of the structure of the game, and these methods of identification are thoroughly at odds.

It is of course impossible for a character to have values given from a textual description and also have values given to them by the player, as an avatar for the player themselves.  A character can be presented in either descriptive terms, as external to us, or they can be an empty shell which we use to interact with a world and assign our own meaning to it.  A game asks us to have it both ways.  This is symbolically incoherent.  And yet, not only is it present in virtually all games, it is even applauded as lending additional meaning or significance to the medium of games.  This is of course absurd, and it should be trivial to recognize that the advocates of such a position are living in bad faith.  To accept such a description as a video game typically provides as possessing the highest level of literary verisimilitude, is to deny the essence of what makes people human, and for that matter, the very foundations from which meaning and values stem.

This is not to say that games are devoid of textual significance, but rather that the standard fashion in which games ask us to empathize with their characters is fundamentally flawed and symbolically incoherent.  There are of course a wide variety of different game structures, and hence the above is instantiated in degrees and not black and white terms.  It is my belief that games are at their purest when they are either devoid of character development, or else this development is viewed from the eyes of a player character who is themselves left undeveloped.  That all of this should demonstrate why games do not adapt well to movies should be quite clear.  It is impossible to represent in film what games represent.  By means of the symbolic significance of interaction, and by means of the incoherent synergy between game and traditional media elements, they are a wholly unique medium.


In any honest analysis of a game, one must recognize the fixed textual significance of the game not simply in terms of itself, but also in terms of what this says of the interactive elements of a game.  In essence, one must recognize that this textual significance has dire implications for the sense of agency provided by the interactive elements of the game.  It has a pronounced tendency to render both the interactive and the traditional media aspects of the game as dishonest representations, and hence to render the product on the whole as such in equal measure.  To the extent that there is any synergy between the distinct elements of games, it is a lie, and not even a semantically coherent lie.

Therefore, if one must speak of video games, it can be either ludologically or narratively, but not both at the same time unless in derision.

~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on November 3, 2009.

One Response to “Video game structural analysis”

  1. […] and psychological models, and my assessment of the relative merit of fiction along phenomenological lines.  In Popper Selections, the eponymous author never takes explicit aim at Sartre, choosing instead […]

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