the international journal of computer game research volume 3, issue 1
may 2003
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Julian Kücklich is a Ph.D. student of German and American Literature and the author of an MA thesis on literary theory and computer games, which is available for download at (in German, English version to follow). He is an editor of the academic journal Medienobservationen, where he has also published several reviews and articles on computer games, the Internet and related subjects. He lives and works in Munich.

Perspectives of Computer Game Philology


by Julian Kücklich


Playing a game, like reading a novel, can be regarded as a form of semiosis, an interaction of signs. This constitutes the basic similarity between games and literature the following paper tries to explore. Taking the process of reading as a model for the process of playing might seem like an oversimplification, but this is not the fault of the critical analogy, but rather of our simplistic understanding of the interaction between reader and text. In order to understand this interaction properly, we must take into account the context, or contexts, in which the phenomenon of digital games is embedded. While it seems obvious that computer games fall into the category of games, which is notoriously hard to define, many of them transcend this category by virtue of their ability to tell a story. Therefore, games must be seen as part of the tradition of narrative literature as well as that of games. Furthermore, games can be seen as media, i.e. as devices that enable players to interact meaningfully with each other.

In the following paper, I will focus on the literary context of computer games. However, this does not mean that I regard the ludic and the media context as less important. On the contrary: my interest in the study of computer games from a literary viewpoint derives from their hybrid nature, from their being neither fish, flesh nor fowl, as it were. Therefore, this attempt to locate computer games in the context of literature must not be misconstrued as an attempt to "colonize" the field of digital games. Ultimately, this approach aims at establishing computer game studies as an independent aesthetic subject, rather than a sub-discipline of literary studies. The suggestions made here should not be construed as a form of "theoretical imperialism," to use Espen Aarseth’s term, but rather as a display of what literary studies can contribute to an interdisciplinary cooperation.

In the first section of this paper I will give a brief overview of attempts undertaken so far to approach the field of computer games from a literary perspective. I will then single out what appear to be the three central problems of these approaches, and try to provide solutions for them. The problematic issues I address are 1) the dichotomy of text and code, 2) interactivity and 3) narrative. Although I think that literary theory provides models to describe these phenomena, as well as a terminology that allows us to discuss them appropriately, in discussing the above-mentioned problems I rely on other theoretical concepts as well, especially from semiotics and second-order cybernetics. Thus, the approach followed here extends well beyond the field of traditional philology, while remaining firmly rooted in literary studies.


Games as Literature

Historically, there have been many attempts to regard literary texts as games. As Warren Motte (1995) points out, some of these attempts can be traced back to the likes of Plato, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein. By contrast, analyzing games from a literary viewpoint is a rather new idea. Arguably, it is only through the advent of computer games, i.e. games that feature something resembling a story, that literary studies became aware of the subject of games. This was made possible not only by the fact that computer games are more "literary" than chess, poker and football, but also by the recent inflation of the meaning of the term "text."

In cultural studies, it is by now a common practice to regard every cultural artifact as a text to be read and interpreted, whether it is a certain dress code, the layout of a city or a computer program. This view is exemplified by Ted Friedman’s 1995 essay "Making Sense of Software," in which he laments the humanities’ negligent attitude toward computer games because of their "traditional notions of textuality.". Therefore, Friedman argues, "what is needed is an analysis rooted in the distinct qualities of this new kind of interaction between viewer and text" (1995).

One of the first theorists to take up Friedman’s challenge was Espen Aarseth, who declared in his 1997 book Cybertext: "The adventure game is an artistic genre of its own, a unique aesthetic field of possibilities, which must be judged on its own terms." However, theorists from literary studies did not heed his warning against "theoretical imperialism," blindly equating a computer game’s technical levels of its code and its interface with the narratological levels of story and discourse. While such a narratological model, exemplified by the Russian formalists’ distinction between sjuzet and fabula, is hardly appropriate for describing literary texts, it becomes doubly inappropriate when dealing with dynamic textual objects, such as digital games.

It is a common fallacy to regard the code as a generative grammar of sorts that is able to create an infinity of gameplay experiences from a deep structure that is often likened to the "formula" that Russian formalist Vladimir Propp extracted from his analysis of folk-tales. In fact, this is stated as one of the reasons for the small literary value of computer games in Nicholas Montfort’s 1995 thesis "Interfacing with Computer Narratives":

"The demands of puzzle-solving interactive fictions exceed those of literary interfaces in some ways, however. Carefully directing a character to perform a series of actions requires an exact semantic interpretation of a textual command. This exactness is not necessarily a component of a literary experience of interactive fiction [...]."

The apparent problem described here stems from the confusion between the interface level of a computer game and the discourse level of a narrative text rather than the "subtleness" of the textual commands issued by the player. Furthermore, a narrative must not necessarily belong to the category of literature, although the literary perspective arguably exerts some pressure to that effect. Otherwise, it is hard to account for Montfort’s disappointment with the unsatisfactory plot and virtually non-existent character development in "interactive narratives." This view is also expressed in Janet Murray’s influential book Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997): "Games generally use language only instrumentally [...] rather than to convey subtleties of description or to communicate complex emotions."

Terms like "interactive narrative" are used to designate web-based hypertext fiction, or hyperfiction, as well as computer games. This indiscriminate approach is practiced widely in the field of hypertext theory. In a paper entitled "Gore Galore: Literary Theory and Computer Games" (2002) Geoffrey Rockwell outlines a possible reason for this: "Those like George Landow who have inaugurated the field of hypertext theory tend to treat computer games as lesser forms of hypertexts assuming that what is said about hypertexts applies to computer games." In hypertext theory, this paradigm survives to this day, as a quote from J. Yellowlees Douglas’ recent book The End of Books or Books without End (2000) shows: "[D]igital narratives [the author’s term for computer games; JK] primarily follow the trajectory of Adventure, a work considered venerable only by the techies who first played it in the 1970s, cybergaming geeks, and the writers, theorists, and practitioners who deal with interactivity. Hypertext fiction, on the other hand, follows and furthers the trajectory of hallowed touchstones of print culture, especially the avantgarde novel."

An explanation both for the fact that many authors treat hyperfiction and computer games indiscriminately as well as the widespread tendency to regard games as "lesser forms of hypertext" is offered by Phil Goetz. In his paper "Interactive Fiction and Computers" (1999) he explains that the development from text adventures to graphic adventures was interpreted by many as a sign of the genre’s decline: "Mystery House was released in 1980. It had a picture for every location. [...] From then on, the trend was towards graphics adventures. [...] Fans of text-only adventures complained about the smaller scenarios, concentration on graphics to the exclusion of other issues such as plot and ease of use, and the limitation of the imagination."

This might also be the reason for recent approaches to foreground individual problems rather than trying to answer the question whether computer games can be regarded as literary texts. Jesper Juul’s thesis "A Clash between Game and Narrative" (1999), in which he analyzes narrative and interactive traits of computer games and interactive fiction, is a case in point: while narrativity might be an important characteristic of certain literary genres, it is definitely of little use in determining the "literariness" of a given text. In his conclusion, Juul notes that instead of telling a good story, "the qualities of computer games are based on entirely different factors: in computer games the player is given a liberty to explore and understand the structure of the unreal game world, and to get better at handling it" (1991).

This analogy of the computer game as a world to be explored can be traced back to Mary Fuller’s and Henry Jenkins’ essay "Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing" (1995) and even further to Marie-Laure Ryan’s 1991 book Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory. Only in the last two years, however, has it become a widely accepted paradigm. While this approach does not rule out literary ambitions for computer games, it shifts the focus from the temporal sequence of individual events to the spatial organization of the game. This has given rise to analyses concentrating on aspects such as the production of a "sense of place" (Oliver 2001), or how events are "focalized" in computer games (Järvinen 2001), to name only two examples of how this "spatial turn" has influenced computer game theory.

In summary, we can say that regarding games as literature has many advantages, but we cannot overlook the disadvantages deriving from the transposition of static theoretical models from literary studies to the dynamic field of computer games. The model of the two-level text that is often employed in literary approaches to computer games can be said to create more confusion than clarity. Regarding computer games as hypertexts in order to account for their interactivity is especially problematic. The insistence of early hypertext theorists to regard hypertext as the vindication of postmodern literary theory has done the field more harm than good, and models borrowed from hypertext theory must therefore be handled with caution. The most promising approach so far is probably the attempt to employ possible world theory as a method of comparing games and literature in a meaningful way.



This overview seems to indicate that the problems of employing literary theory in the study of computer games do not stem from the inappropriateness of such an undertaking, but rather from the use of models that are hardly sufficient to describe literary texts, and therefore entirely insufficient to analyze digital games. If literary theory is to be used in the study of computer games, it must take into account the fact the dynamic nature of these textual objects as well as the role of the player in constituting the gameplay experience. This should enable us to escape the fallacy of the two-levelled model of computer game narration and to think about ways to reconcile interactivity and narrative.


1. Text and Code

As I have pointed out above, some theorists postulate that computer games operate on two distinct textual levels: an immediate level that constitutes part of the game’s interface, and a mediated level that is comprised by the program’s code (e.g. Myers, 1991; Murray, 1997). This dual structure is assumed to correspond to the levels of story and discourse in a narrative text. While this "structuralist" conception might have its benefits, its drawbacks are obvious, the most obvious being that it fails to explain why the same game produces different "results" each time it is played.

The basic problem of this view is the fact that the player does not interact with the code during gameplay, but solely with the interface. He or she might access the code at a different point in time, and might even glean some information from this activity, but it must necessarily remain outside the experience of playing the game. Usually, the only thing the player knows about the world of the game is what is displayed on the screen. However, the player is able to learn about the implicit rules of the game simply by interacting with it for a sufficient amount of time. Thus, without "knowing" the rules of the game – and usually without being able to formulate them, albeit heuristically – the player will find out how to react in a given gameplay situation.

In order to describe this process of adaptation, I suggest adapting the model of viability from the philosophical discourse known as "radical constructivism," or second-order cybernetics. Viability, as defined by the constructivist Ernst von Glasersfeld, means that a sensation is stabilized by perception, but whether something proves viable is by no means proof of its reality. In relation to games this means that a player does not necessarily gain access to the implicit rules of the game through playing, but that he or she will find a way to interact meaningfully with the game, no matter what the actual rules encoded by its designers are. In fact, the player might even find ways to interact with the game that its creators did not think of.

The concept of viability is often explained by the metaphor of a blind man who has to walk through a forest every day. Initially, he will bump into a tree quite often, but by and by he will learn to avoid the trees, because he will have created a mental map of the forest. This map does not have to bear any relation to the forest at all, in fact it is not even necessary for the map to represent trees. Nevertheless, this representation of the outside world proves viable for the blind man, because it enables him to find his way through the forest. The player of a computer game learns to navigate through the code of the game in a similar way, although he or she will usually not set eyes on it (von Glasersfeld, 1985).

Furthermore, the concept of viability allows us to regard computer games as non-trivial machines. While a trivial machine is a device or a process whose outcome is totally predictable, non-trivial machines produce unpredictable results. The concept of viability is in fact the result of the observation that although we usually encounter only non-trivial machines, we are able to make predictions based on our past experience. Thus, we expect other people to react meaningfully when we speak to them, we expect cars to stop at red lights and we expect calculators to come up with the correct sum.

By regarding the code of a computer game as a non-trivial machine that returns unpredictable output, even when the input is the same, we are provided with a constructivist model of what Espen Aarseth would call an indeterminate cybertext. The art of making a good game, then, depends to a high degree on a careful balance of giving the player the feeling of interacting with a non-trivial machine that has some trivial features. For example, the player can usually expect his avatar to step forward or to shoot when he or she pushes the corresponding button. However, much artificial intelligence research goes into making computer-controlled characters respond in a non-trivial way to the user’s input. 

Therefore, I suggest regarding computer games as non-trivial machines with built-in trivial machines, instead of as textual objects consisting of two levels. By such a model, the unpredictability typical of many games can be explained with a much greater level of detail, and without taking recourse to outdated literary terminology. The model of the computer game as a system of interdependent trivial and non-trivial machines allows for a differentiated analysis of the individual features of a given game, thus enabling us to study its intricacies by playing it rather than by disassembling it. Furthermore, the cybernetic model suggested here is a first step toward an aesthetics of computer games based on the ways in which the player can exert control over the game, and vice versa. An aesthetics of control, as first suggested by Rune Klevjer in his paper "Computer Game Aesthetics and Media Studies" (2001), would have to take into account that there are different ways in which player and game can take control of each other.


2. Narrative

Interaction with a non-trivial machine can also be described in semiotic terms, thus allowing us a different view of the process. In Charles S. Peirce’s concept of semiosis, a sign is something which can be interpreted infinitely, a process in which the sign gains complexity and meaning. This infinite semiotic process is the way in which we usually make sense of the world, without ever actually perceiving anything but signs. The parallel to the constructivist model of perception is obvious: there is no objective representation of the world, only a constant process of meaning-making. It can be argued, then, that narrative is one of the means by which the semiotic process of playing a computer game progresses to new levels of complexity.

This means that narrative is not an inherent feature of games, but something merely implemented in a game virtually, i.e. as a possibility. The actual construction of the narrative is always done by the player by taking the signs on the interface and interpreting them further. Thus, for example, a change in the relationship between different characters, or from one state of the game-world to another, can be seen as a progression in the process of interpretation that constitutes a semiotic event. An event can be seen as a complex sign that incorporates several other signs as well their interrelations. Similarly, narrative progression can be seen as a sign that puts two event-signs in relation to each other.

Furthermore, narrative progression in computer games must always overcome the game’s resistance against the player’s attempts to make sense of it. This seems to correspond to Roger Caillois’ category of agôn, or competitive play, which is part of any game-like activity.  According to Marie-Laure Ryan, this category "is largely restricted to the literal domain. In a computer game, the purpose is clearly to win, and the way to win is to defeat enemies" (183). Semiotically speaking, this resistance corresponds to Peirce’s category of secondness, or "outward clash." In Peirce’s system of categories, secondness is the sensation of the world’s "objectness" before it is interpreted, and thus changed to the state of thirdness. A sign in the state of secondness is incomplete and unstable, and can only be stabilized by interpretation.

A game can thus be conceptualized as a system of signs that resist the player by virtue of their secondness. When they are interpreted in the process of playing, some of them become more complex, while others remain in their incomplete state. The process of interpretation necessarily leads to the existence of event-signs, which are then put into relation by narrative-signs. This whole process takes place on a level that cannot be located within the game, but exists merely as a projection of the player’s mind.

In this model, narrative is something that unfolds because of the player’s attempts to make sense of the game. The state of basic resistance, or secondness, is necessarily unstable, since the player cannot help but interpret this state, thus causing the semiosis to change to the state of thirdness. From then on, the process of semiosis is reiterated through the three states, attaining new levels of complexity in each step. The change from one level of complexity to the next is necessarily perceived as a narrative sequence. In other words, a sequence of unrelated events is automatically interpreted as (and thereby transformed into) a narrative in order to enable it to be mentally processed.


3. Interactivity

To fully understand this concept of narrative, we must take into account the means by which the player is allowed to interact with the game. In most computer games, excluding only games of pure skill such as Tetris, this is achieved through the player’s avatar, or main character. Different games feature different kinds of avatars, from the god-like figures in games like Civilization and Age of Empires, represented only through the mouse pointer, to parties of several characters in roleplaying games, and to "internal focalizers" in first-person-shooters such as Quake (in narratological terms, an "internal focalizer" corresponds roughly to a first-person narrator). In any case, there is a component of the interface that allows players to identify with the events unfolding before their eyes.

This component closely resembles the concept of the model reader, as developed by Umberto Eco (1987). The model reader is conceptualized as a reader who is ideally suited to actualize a given text according to the author’s intention. This is to say that reading as literary text requires a certain level of "skill," just like playing a computer game. Of course, it hasn’t been very fashionable in literary studies of late to speak of the author’s intention, and it should therefore be stressed that the author’s intention is merely one of several textual strategies at work in any given literary text. The manifestations of the model reader can be found within the text, in the form of the choice of a language, presuppositions, specialized vocabulary and other signals such as addressing the reader directly. In computer games, we can assume a model player that is created by certain features of the game such as the level of difficulty.

If the player elects to play a game according to its rules, she will fulfill the requirements of the game only to a certain degree. This means for a game to be enjoyable and suspenseful it is a necessary precondition to put up resistance to the player’s attempts to "solve" it. While this might sound like a rather trivial statement, it seems to be the key to understanding the process of interaction in a computer game. For the model player is not a player that is able to master the game at the first attempt, but a player whose abilities expand in the process of playing. This gradual expansion of the player’s abilities is usually rewarded by the discovery of a new level, or new territory to explore. It is therefore the player’s desire to become the model player of the game that enables him or her to identify with the avatar, and thus to interact with the gameworld and make progress in the game, which in turn is perceived as narrative development. Narrative and interaction must then be seen as mutually dependent, rather than concepts that cannot be reconciled.



As I hope to have shown, literary studies can contribute to the emerging field of computer game studies in more than one way. While philological approaches have often been dubbed "narratologist" in the past, thereby reducing the discipline to just one area of research, recent work in this field suggests that there is more to literary theory than just narratology. In fact, games and literature have more in common than it might seem at first. However, this does not mean that we can transfer the models from literary theory to digital games without first assessing their appropriateness to the task at hand.

But what is the task at hand? It seems as if we have not made much progress in establishing a model of how players interact with computer games since the first attempts in the mid-nineties. Nevertheless, many theorists have now turned to individual aspects of digital games, rather than working on an overarching theoretical framework. Although it seems to have abated by now, the methodological struggle between "narratologists" and "ludologists" seems to be one of the reasons for this tendency. Apparently, the concepts discussed in this debate are considered either "too hot" or "too cold" to be addressed in a meaningful way. Thus, the concepts and terminologies of narratology and ludology are either used indiscriminately, or avoided altogether.

It is by no means my intention to revive this debate, but I think it is necessary to keep in mind that the theoretical work in this field is far from completed. While I think that the wealth of research on individual aspects of computer games is an important indicator of the discipline's increasing maturity, key issues still remain unresolved. These issues cannot be tackled by one discipline alone, but must be dealt with in an interdisciplinary effort. Literary studies can supply some of the building blocks of such a theory, but they must be integrated into a framework that spans all the disciplines involved in the study of computer games.

The theoretical concepts sketched above are first attempts at theoretical tools that are interdisciplinary in nature, although they cannot deny their philological roots. Take, for example, the concept of semiotic resistance as a means of narrative progression. While this model is rooted in narratological analysis, relying on concepts such as events and narrative time, it incorporates terminology borrowed from semiotics as well as traditional game theory. Furthermore, it acknowledges the possibility of regarding the same process from different theoretical perspectives, thus adding depth to the model.

As the term "building blocks" suggests, this is an attempt to engage others in the playful process of formulating a theory of computer games. As Espen Aarseth has suggested, the field of game studies is itself a playing field, and like all playing fields it is contested territory. In formulating these ideas for a philological theory of computer games, I am aware of trespassing into the field of other disciplines. In doing so, I hope to provoke a reaction, in which my theoretical building blocks are pushed to an adjoining field, transformed into something else, or replaced by something new. It is my hope that this process will ultimately evolve into something that transcends the individual discipline's boundaries, and allows us to speak about games in truly appropriate terms, instead of vague metaphors.


Works cited

Aarseth, Espen (1997): Cybertext. Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Caillois, Roger (1958): Les Jeux et les hommes. Paris: Gallimard.

Douglas, J. Yellowlees (2000): The End of Books–or Books without End? Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Eco, Umberto (1987): Lector in fabula. Die Mitarbeit der Interpretation in erzählenden Texten. München: Carl Hanser. Edition Akzente.

Ehrmann, Jacques (1968): "Homo Ludens Revisited". In: Game, Play, Literature. Ed. by Jacques Ehrmann. Yale French Studies Nr. 41. New Haven: Eastern Press

Friedman, Ted (1995): "Making Sense of Software". In: CyberSociety. Computer Mediated Communication and Community. Ed. by S. Jones. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Fuller, Mary and Jenkins, Henry (1995): "Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing" In: CyberSociety. Computer Mediated Communication and Community. Ed. by S. Jones. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Goetz, Phil (1999): "Interactive Fiction and Computers". Online document available at:

Iser, Wolfgang(1983): "Akte des Fingierens. Oder: Was ist das Fiktive im fiktionalen Text?". In: Funktionen des Fiktiven. Ed. by D. Henrich and W. Iser. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.

Järvinen, Aki (2001): "A Doom with a View. Introducing Ludological Premises." In: Computer Games and Digital Textualities. Copenhagen: IT University of Copenhagen.

Juul, Jesper: A Clash between Game and Narrative. M.A. Thesis 1998. Online document available at:

Klevjer, Rune (2001): "Computer Game Aesthetics and Media Studies". Paper presented at the 15th Nordic Conference on Media and Communication Research, Reykyavik.

Montfort, Nicholas: "Interfacing with Computer Narratives – Literary Possibilities for Interactive Fiction". Online document available at:

Motte, Warren (1995): Playtexts. Ludics in Contemporary Literature. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.

Murray, Janet (1997): Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, The Free Press: New York.

Myers, David (1991): "Computer Game Semiotics". In: Play and Culture, No. 4

Oliver, Julian (2001): "Polygon Destinies. The Production of Place in the Digital Role-Playing Game." In: Cosign 2001 Proceedings, Amsterdam: CWI.

Platt, Charles (1995): "Interactive Entertainment", Online document available at:

Rockwell, Geoffrey (2001): "Gore Galore: Literary Theory and Computer Games". In: Computers and the Humanities, 36 (2), 345-58.

Ryan, Marie-Laure (1991): Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Ryan, Marie-Laure (2001): Narrative as Virtual Reality. Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

von Glasersfeld, Ernst (1985): "Konstruktion der Wirklichkeit und des Begriffs der Objektivität." In: Einführung in den Konstruktivismus, edited by Heinz Gumin and Armin Mohler. Munich: Oldenburg.


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