Olli Tapio Leino

Dr. Olli Tapio Leino is a new media scholar focusing on computer games and playable art from the perspectives of critical ludology, philosophy of technology and existential phenomenology. Olli earned his Ph.D. from Center for Computer Games Research, IT University of Copenhagen. Currently he is an assistant professor at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong.


Death Loop as a Feature

by Olli Tapio Leino


Assuming its premise in the experience of being stuck in a death loop in Fallout: New Vegas (2010), this essay theorises the possibilities of interpretation in single-player computer game play. This amounts to a critical examination of the paradigmatic approach of interpreting computer games as games accessible for analysis and critique through 'research-play'. Comparing the role of rules in the activity facilitated by ‘playable artifacts’ like single-player computer games or pinball machines to rules in traditional, or more accurately “transmedial” (Juul 2003) games, the essay questions the feasibility of considering computer games ‘games’ and suggests that a defining characteristic of ‘playable artifacts’ is to be found from the relationship between materiality and process. Situating playable artifacts in the context of post-phenomenological philosophy of technology, the essay differentiates between attitudes of player, designer, and a scholar. The essay argues that analysis of playable artifacts as ‘games’ is reductive and can be justified only from the perspectives of a player and a game design researcher. Based on analysis of how playable artifacts become meaningful through material resistance, the essay reconfirms the feasibility of the methodological programme of ‘research-play’ while calling for its re-contextualization in relation to authentic interpretation and empathy.

Keywords: interpretation, Fallout: New Vegas, ludology, bug, feature, materiality, technology, phenomenology


In this essay I attempt to shed light on the questions of interpretation in single-player computer games as played. More specifically, I theorize the possibilities of interpreting Fallout: New Vegas (2010). Even though this essay is about New Vegas and interpretation, I am not interested in players and their interpretations, but in New Vegas as presenting itself for players like myself to interpret. Thus I am not going to propose a new method for the interpretation of computer games or say anything about what New Vegas means. Instead, I am looking at computer games in a somewhat Husserlian spirit from a perspective that precedes interpretation and ask: how can ‘games’ like New Vegas be interpreted in the first place?

Questions related to interpretation were implied at the heart of the ludology vs. narratology debate. Uncertainty prevailed regarding how computer games should be interpreted. Among the questions asked were whether one should one bring in devices tuned to a narrative format or pay attention to the configurative aspects of computer game play, and, what is the extent to which it is sensible to ‘read’ into computer games meanings that transcends the games themselves. (e.g. Murray, 1997, p.144; Eskelinen, 2001). I will not delve into detail of ludology vs. narratology debate in this essay, as I am neither hoping to re-ignite it nor trying to take sides retroactively. Instead, I attempt to examine a piece of its methodological legacy most relevant to those engaged in hermeneutic projects involving computer games, namely the position that computer games cannot be read like texts or watched like films, but the scholar needs to occupy the player’s position at the centre of events. This we might call the ‘ludological doctrine of interpretation’, whose methodology is exhausted in Aarseth’s (2003, p. 5) suggestion that “to show that we understand a game, all we have to do is to play it well.”

I am interested in finding out whether the ‘ludological doctrine of interpretation’ and the methodological programme it implies are as unproblematic as they seem at first sight, especially when faced with the materiality of contemporary single-player computer games. I argue that what happens in terms of interpretation from the point onwards when the researcher has become a player is left under-theorized and the very possibility of interpretation, instead of being theorized, is taken for granted by critics, designers, researchers, players and researcher-players alike. To take the possibility of interpretation in research/play for granted is to black-box the process of interpretation. This implies normative ontological assumptions regarding the object of study and its authorial origins and masks fundamental questions regarding the relationships of materiality, process, and subjectivity whose interplay we are accustomed to approximating as ‘gameplay’.

Questions so far overlooked in the ludological doctrine of interpretation include for example the following. What are these things we call single-player computer games? Do they have rules, like games do? How do a player’s, a scholar’s and a designer’s projects of understanding a single-player computer game differ? To which extent one should pay attention to the designer’s intentions when trying to understand a single-player computer game? Is it feasible to assume that the objects of interpretation contain features that were not intended by their designers? How to negotiate the encounters with such features in one’s scholarly account? If there is more than one way of playing well, (how) is it possible for the scholar to gain insights that can resonate with the wider population of players?

I shall begin with an anecdote of my personal death loop experience in New Vegas, paying special attention the gaps in the theory of research/play it highlights. This analysis gives rise to an investigation of the ‘gameness’ of single-player computer games, which highlights a peculiar relation between materiality and process in single-player computer games which cannot be found in ‘traditional’ games. This, in turn, prompts looking at the different attitudes with which the materialities of single-player computer games can be encountered, allowing an articulation of a distinction between game studies and game design research. Finally, to complement the ludological doctrine I theorize the possibility for a framework of authentic interpretation, meaning interpretation that proceeds not through projecting an essence, like ‘gameness’, or, ‘simulation’ on the object of study, but instead considers the material game artifact as it exists.

Death Loop in New Vegas

Being a Civilization (1991) "type of player myself, preferring for example turn-based games to real-time ones and abstracted representation to three-dimensional photorealism with anthropomorphic characters, I was initially reluctant to pick up New Vegas. Based on my previous experiences of the series, I was worried New Vegas would bring me only endless clicking through dialogue only to engage me in rote exercises of hand-eye coordination. However, the promises of vast open world to explore and my previous commitment to writing an essay (not this one) about New Vegas were convincing enough to lure me into trying. After getting off Doc Mitchell’s couch, I decided that instead of taking up quests I would set out to find the namesake city. This involved traversing territory infested with aggressive creatures, talking to miners on the way, close combat with unexpectedly hostile people inside a camping trailer, etc.

Upon reaching the walls of New Vegas, I witnessed a skirmish between guards and rebels from a close distance and sought shelter from a nearby El Rey Motel. I ran directly to a motel room on the ground floor next to the deserted parking lot. Within a split second after I had opened the door, a bark scorpion bit me and the scorpion’s poison took its slow effect. Immediately afterwards, which I did not notice at the time as I was occupied with the scorpions, the game artifact automatically saved my progress, as it seems to do always when new locations are found. I realized that I was not strong enough to deal with the pack of bark scorpions: perhaps because I had assigned most of my points at character creation into properties I thought would be useful in social interaction with NPCs, my combat-relevant capabilities were next to none. Nevertheless I managed to finish off the closest scorpion and exited to the parking lot, where the game informed me that I started “feeling woozy”. I noticed that health was deteriorating rapidly. Worried, I ate all the edible stuff I was carrying and used all the Stimpaks to regain health to find out that they only postponed the evident death.

Having survived many deaths on my way to El Rey Motel thanks to the handy auto-save feature, I was not too worried and thought I would just have to re-play a little. However, upon being resurrected I found myself in the morning of a groundhog day " fighting the scorpion I had just killed, exiting the room, feeling woozy, eating chocolate, falling to the ground. I was stuck in a death loop. I realized that the artifact had overwritten the earlier autosave with the El Rey Motel savegame. My previous manual save in another slot was from a long time ago, when after killing three Powder Gangers right after setting out to find New Vegas I felt insecure enough to do a manual save. Without using console commands, a possibility whose existence I discovered only later, the only way out from the death loop would be to re-play all the way from the camping trailer near Goodsprings. I was annoyed.

I set out to explore the New Vegas artifact, a “tool for fun” (e.g. Parkin 2008; Adamo-Villani and Wright 2007), for purely hedonistic purposes. For me as a player, the death loop clearly is a flaw as it caused several hours of a perfectly nice Saturday evening to be wasted. If we defined a bug as a feature in the software hindering the continuation of the playing of when according to the game’s assumed logic it should continue, death loop would be a dictionary example of an in-game bug. Perhaps we should also consider it an example of “emergence”, similar to proximity mine climbing (Juul, 2002, p.325) in Deus Ex (2000) or rocket jumping (Juul 2005, p.81) in Quake III Arena (1999) but differentiated from these due to the clearly negative consequences to the hedonistic project of playing. The death loop, as an emergent bug, represented a failure for my hedonistic project.

Whereas as a player I was disappointed, to say that as a scholar I found the experience interesting would be a gross understatement: it was genuinely captivating, as it reminded me of my humble place in the human-technology circuit we may call gameplay, a circuit in which my agency competes with that of the technology (Giddings & Kennedy, 2006). Thus the death loop marked the beginning of a critical project: I ended up experiencing something to appreciate which I had to, if not give up then at least significantly alter my initial hedonistic framework of interpretation and the presuppositions that it implies, among which is the assumption that New Vegas is a “game”. I found myself in a position in which the only sensible thing to do was to reflect upon New Vegas and my involvement in the procedure of play -- as if mechanics of “counter-gaming” (Galloway, 2006, p.125) had been suddenly teased out from this mainstream AAA title like hot coffee from a Rockstar game.

These implications of the hedonistic project’s breakdown in the moment of death loop struck me as a surprise, as I had thought, based on my reading of the canon of computer game studies, that interpretation in computer games was a relatively simple and pragmatic affair. The death loop experience highlights a drawback of the ludological doctrine when faced with materiality of the artifacts we may call single-player computer games. Namely, that it stops short of leading us to an account of interpretation of these artifacts: it can understand them only to the extent in which they can be described as games.

One possible solution would be to admit that in research-play we have two layers of interpretation: the player’s utilitarian interpretation that seeks to reverse-engineer the game in order to be able to play it well, and the scholar’s socio-cultural analysis that seeks to place the game into a broader context of significance. Mosberg (2010, p.52), for example, recognizes similar processes and considers them as temporally distinct: “Once the game has become known, and has hopefully been enjoyed, a more analytical stance can be taken.” Sicart (2012) turns to Fink (1988) in order to elaborate on a similar point, the difference between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” meaning of play, former referring to relationship between parts of a whole and the latter to the meaning of the event has to its participants and spectators. A related distinction is found in Juul (2005, p.141), who suggests that actions in games have a “double meaning” -- referring to the duality between real pieces moving on a board, and for example the player’s troops invading Scandinavia.

If single-player computer games neatly embodied the prototypical properties of “games”, it would supposedly be possible to maintain a clear cut between first- and second-order interpretations, or “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” meanings, in short to concentrate on the “inside” of the game without having to think of its relation to the surrounding world. However, as the death loop example suggests, the materiality of single-player computer games can be surprisingly non-gamey. New Vegas, as a material artifact, transcends its definition as a “game” and hence any analysis that approached it ‘as a game’ could only partially shed light on that which was significant in the death loop incident. Thus, a broader framework of interpretation is needed to grasp New Vegas in terms of its materiality.

While my death loop situation may be an isolated incident and as such perhaps not a representative example of all experiences of solitary computer game play in general -- if such example could even exist -- intuitively it is inherently interesting, and hence it seems worthwhile to interrogate it further. Perhaps the ‘breaking down’ of the game of New Vegas at the time of death loop is telling of something previously overlooked about the relationship between games and the things we may call “computer games” and maybe this unfortunate incident could be used to highlight gaps in existing theory of computer games. It seems possible that what breaks down at the moment of death loop is the comfort offered to the researcher-player by the attitude that reveals the artifacts under analysis only in relation to the projected essence of a ‘game’, and thus masks the material features incompatible with this ideal. This seems like a sensible assumption as, after all, if single-player computer games are considered ‘tools for fun’, we can, in a Heideggerian spirit, assume that their transparency as such tools for fun (not unlike the transparency of hammers as tools for driving nails) becomes an opacity only after breakdown revealing their materialities. Hence, what I would like to add to the discussion on the possibility research-play is the consideration of the avenues that open up if the assumptions of ‘gameness’ or any other projected essence is left out altogether, and focus is instead locked on the materiality of single-player computer game artifacts: single-player computer games as encountered in the human/technology relationship as existing.

From Games to Playable Artifacts

In this section I argue that playability, in single-player computer games, can be approached through a peculiar relationship between materiality and process. Furthermore, I show that while materiality and process are related in transmedial games too, in computer games materiality and process are intertwined to the extent that compromises the feasibility of descriptions that separate them. Articulating this relationship sets the premise for three arguments. It allows defining single-player computer game artifacts as a discernable set of artifacts, different from traditional games. It also sets the premise for establishing game studies as a practice separate from game design research, and, for understanding the ways in which single-player computer games can be interpreted. This relationship can be demonstrated through an analysis of the role of ‘rules’ in single-player computer games.

The affinity between games and rules seems to be ingrained somewhere between ontology and language. As we are talking about single-player computer games, it is obvious to assume that what we could describe as rules have something to do with significance of events, objects, and encounters within the computer game. In games such as Solitaire, Monopoly, and the like, rules are something the players must internalize as beliefs and hold on to in order to play the game. Once a game of Monopoly has been started, the difference between a hat and a shoe serves primarily to distinguish between individual player’s representations on the board. This and other forms of special significance of cards, tokens, and other related paraphernalia are inherited from the rules.

The rules, when held by all players, create what we might call -- for the lack of a better word -- the ‘magic’ that holds together the union of the process of playing, the subjective attitude or a “disposition” (Malaby, 2009, p.211) of the players, and the material objects serving as tokens. As soon as a player persists in denying the rules, the game falls apart. After the process has ceased, any meaning prescribed by the rules on the hat and the shoe is only potential, best conceptualized as memories of games once played. If player bears an interest in the hat and the shoe after the process has ceased, she either treats them like memorabilia or likes them simply because of idiosyncratic reasons such as liking pocket-sized die-cast zinc items in general. We may conclude that in games, rules are responsible for the unions of materiality and process that appear as significant to the players. A hotel on a plot in Monopoly is an example of such union: it has a material correlate, the red piece of plastic, and significance within the process of playing and the experience of play: it entitles its owner to collect triple rent from those landing on the property and feel schadenfreude when doing so. When the rules are denied, these unions fall apart.

The phenomenon of a single-player computer game as played, however, does not fall apart as a consequence of a change in the player’s psychological landscape: aspects of computer games exist in complete disregard of the player’s thoughts, motivations and intentions. For example, no matter what I think about an NPC in New Vegas, the NPC will remain on my screen as an NPC attending to NPC business, traceable down to materiality; pixels on the screen, memory register allocations, current fluctuations on the motherboard, quarks, strings, etc, whichever level of abstraction is preferred. (Compare: Bogost 2012, p.17-8) To explain an NPC as the NPC, there is neither place nor need for “rules” in between process and materiality: both process and materiality are firmly rooted in data. There is no “material” NPC separate from the NPC-in-the-process-of-play like there is the red piece of plastic separate from a hotel in Monopoly. While Monopoly needs its players to internalize the rules in order to to maintain the unity of red plastic and ‘hotelness’, in New Vegas materiality and process are weaved together so tight that from the player’s perspective they are inseparable as the run-time behaviour of the software and hence there is a “double meaning” (e.g. Juul, 2005, p.141) for the NPC only to the extent there is a “double meaning” for anything else materially existing in this world.

Any notion of “rules” in the description of a single-player computer game as played is a result of a benevolent inquiry into the software’s behaviour. It may be, for example, part of an account by an expert who has observed the software’s behaviour long enough to perceive patterns and make her own inferences, whether or not accurate, about the alleged rules guiding the behaviour. However, as the conditions according to which the software behaves, i.e. conditions for the game as played, are determined by code executed by the computer, the “rules” in the expert’s account are decisively different from the “rules” the players of Monopoly need to internalize and hold on to. The expert’s “rules” are means of communicating something about the software’s behaviour, and not actual constituents of game. The expert’s “rules” are not unlike the “rules” with which a meteorologist would explain why a low pressure area is superseded by a high pressure area. Even if the expert happens to be the designer of the single-player computer game in question, the ontological status of “rules” as described above does not change: though we may consider the “rules” in the designer’s description as some kind of mental models without which it would be impossible for the designer to carry out her practice, we must realize that in the process of turning the game from an idea in the designer’s mind into computer software these “rules” are lost in translation.

While one might agree that games of the transmedial sort are ‘made of rules’, and, that in the study of single-player computer games the concept of a rule may be useful as a descriptive device, it must be noted that the concept of a ‘rule’ cannot sustained as an ontological claim regarding what single-player computer games are. Since rules define how objects became experienced as meaningful in traditional games, the observation that single-player computer computer games do not have rules suggests that the explanation of how meaning emerges in traditional games from rules cannot be applied to the description of how meaning emerges in solitary computer game play. Instead, I suggest we look at the relationship between process and materiality in order to shed light on the possibility of significance.

Previously I turned to Giddings & Kennedy (2006) to suggest that apart from the human player, also the technology has agency within gameplay situation. The ‘struggle’ between the two agencies, manifested in the materiality of the computer game, is what differentiates computer games from traditional games. Allow me to elaborate on this via the Sartrean notion of resistance. According to Sartre (2005, p.505), resistance is that which makes freedom possible: “there can be a free for-itself [~ human] only as engaged in a resisting world.” In short, resistance is that due to which it is possible to distinguish between wishing and choosing. Games and single-player computer games differ in how their material existence reacts to the players’ choices. The artifacts required for the game of Monopoly do not have the ability to change their material properties, they do not resist the project of playing Monopoly: a necessity of destroying all banknotes and thus preventing the game from continuing cannot emerge from the rules of Monopoly. If banknotes get ripped into pieces over the course of a game, it is an unfortunate mishap, whose counterpart in the context of “computer games” would be a power failure. The artifacts we have called single-player computer games, however, often alter their materiality to render it hard if not impossible for the player to continue playing. Game over screens in single-player computer games, here understood as signifying situations in which the materiality has transformed so that the amount of available choices to is reduced to zero, are ultimate manifestations of what we might call resistance to the project of playing. The curtailing of available choices is the material resistance with which the artifact is countering the player’s desire to play, i.e. to exercise her freedom as the player.

In both games and single-player computer games the players are endowed with a degree of freedom -- meaning that they have the ability (and necessity) to choose between options presented. The condition of the player, who by definition desires to play, is characterized by a duality of freedom and responsibility: the game gives her a freedom of choice while simultaneously making her responsible for this freedom by resisting her project of playing. Elsewhere (2009) I have referred to this as the gameplay condition, and observed that it is not unlike what can be approximated as the human condition in Sartre (2005, 505). Admittely, players of Monopoly, too, are responsible for the freedom they enjoy as players of Monopoly but the burden of enforcing the gameplay condition rests on the players. In Monopoly the gameplay condition has no material correlates: the board, tokens, etc, are unable to resist the project of playing -- the materiality and the process are separate, held together only by players’ acceptance of the rules of the game. Players of a pinball machine, on the other hand, will be subjected to a gameplay condition with material correlates. For example: hit a particular spot with the ball and you will get extra balls with which to hit more spots, regardless of what you think about the “rules” of pinball. Let of the one balls slip through the paddles and the bumpers will go crazy, making it even harder to prevent balls slipping through the paddles. Hence, the “gameplay condition” is not specific to gameplay facilitated by computers: “the device’s ability to perform calculations at high speed nor the vibrating chips of silicon monocrystals it contains are not relevant to what we are interested in.” (Leino, 2010, p.165)

In the light of the analysis above, survival when faced with the resistance inscribed in the gameplay condition amounts to an achievement. Successful player is someone who is able to make the decision whether to continue playing, whereas a failed player will find that decision was already made on her behalf. Furthermore, the ending of a single-player computer game as played, which Aarseth (2004, p.51) suggests might correspond to a sudden unemployment, an end to a project one wished would have continued, does not seem to resonate with “winning” as we know it from the context of games. [1]

The somewhat strange definitions of success and failure and the inapplicability of “winning” in its usual sense affirm that these things like single-player computer games, pinball machines, and even some ‘interactive fictions’, are a breed different from games. Woods (2007, p.13), reserves the notion of game-playing for social activities and refers to single-player games as “automated challenges”. Others, too, have suggested that considering computer games as games might not always be the most feasible approach. Kirkpatrick (2007, p.75) suggested that “what is distinctive to the computer game form can only be partially understood by examining its game character”, and that their aesthetic analysis should take into account the physical qualities of the gaming situation, while Aarseth and Calleja (2009) referred to computer games as “conglomerate objects” consisting of not only ludic but also narrative and other features. Let us be reminded also of Sudnow (1983, p.8), who, when writing about what we may consider an addiction to Breakout!, suggested that Atari chose to call its products “video 'games' only to avoid troubles with the Food and Drug Administration.” Woods (2007, 6) suggests that the forms of play afforded by computers are not merely augmented forms of traditional game-play, but “entirely new ways of playing which have, perhaps merely by convention, been termed games.” To retain any significance in the concept of a “game” we are better off reserving it as referring to the phenomena consisting of rules and the like and finding more accurate notions with which to describe things like New Vegas and pinball machines. A terminological clarification to acknowledge the technological specificity of single-player computer “games” is long overdue.

Among the common characteristics between for example a pinball machine like Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), a single-player computer game like New Vegas or Tetris (1989), and an ‘interactive fiction’ like Dragon’s Lair (1983), is that they are all technologies, or perhaps more specifically technological artifacts. Characteristic to technological artifacts is that they are “multistable”, i.e. not made into what they are until they are brought into the range of human praxis, and, that they often afford a diverse range of possible uses. (Ihde, 1990) Conceptualising New Vegas and others as technologies is to acknowledge their multistability.

On the one hand, this allows pointing out that defining the object of study as “single-player computer games” would imply a set of presuppositions regarding how these objects can and are meant to be used. Consider for example the computer game Monopoly 3 (2002), which resembles and could perhaps be described as ‘simulating’ the original board game. However: Monopoly and Monopoly 3 are ‘the same game’ only in a benevolent description that reveals Monopoly 3 only to the extent in which it embodies the rule-set of Monopoly or “simulates” the playing of the game of Monopoly. Describing Monopoly 3 as ‘just’ Monopoly would be to overlook the effects of its technological materiality and presuppose the use-context we are familiar with from traditional Monopoly as the most important use-context.

On the other hand, as almost anything can be brought into the range of human praxis and turned into a technology, basing the definition on ‘technology’ risks turning the object of study into an unspecified bundle one may be familiar with from the tradition of Object-Oriented Ontology (e.g. Bogost 2009, 2012): a katamari in which computer games are stuck together with screwdrivers, dehumidifiers, spreadsheets, levers, and inclined planes united only in the name of ‘technology’. While there is nothing wrong with unspecified bundles, as the purpose here is to acknowledge the technological specificity of single-player computer games, the definition of the object of study should grasp those properties of single-player computer games that make single-player computer games stand out from among all technologies.

Perhaps, instead of talking about single-player computer games, or, about technological artifacts in general, we would be better off talking about playable artifacts, defined as follows:Playable artifacts can be distinguished from games by the inseparability of process and materiality, and, can be identified as a subset of all technological artifacts based on their ability to evaluate the user’s choices and open up or delimit freedom of choice accordingly, in other words by their ability to impose the gameplay condition on their users. It should be noted that this definition does not prescribe a use-context but is a descriptive account of the properties of a materially existing object: one can comfortably say that a playable artifact is like this or that, without having to negotiate the ambiguous. relations between process and materiality, or, ideas and existence, as is the case with transmedial games.

Regardless of the said differences between games and playable artifacts, it would be unwise to disregard the popularity of a colloquial reference to ‘playing a single-player computer game’, which certainly resonates with how the experience feels like. Hence, it should be noted that although analysis of single-player computer games as existing does away with the essence of ‘gameness’ it does not imply disregarding the lived experience of that which one might approximate as ‘playability’ (through which one could, perhaps, empirically arrive at a notion of gameness.) Considering a single-player computer game like Monopoly 3 a “playable artifact” is not to say that the primary, most popular, or, under many circumstances the most meaningful context of use of Monopoly 3 would not correspond to what we know about the gameplay of traditional Monopoly. Simply put: while playable artifacts are not games, they offer experiences that are not unlike experiences of playing of a game, in that both one is held responsible for one’s freedom as a player. This experiential similarity opens up multiple avenues for scholarly enquiry. For example, attention could be paid to the implications of the responsive technological materiality manifested in the differences between gameplay afforded by computer technology and gameplay afforded by for example a set of cards and tokens on a board. Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that a scholarly account of Monopoly 3 ‘as a game’ would be loaded with presuppositions. In the next section, I shall elaborate on this point in order to explore the extent to which these presuppositions can be justified for different purposes.

Playing Design Research

Sartre (2005, p.82) suggested that part of condition of a free human being is the necessity “that we make ourselves what we are". Moran (2000, p.362) asserts that according to Sartre,

there [is] no blueprint for human existence […] Rather, we must face up to the dizzying formlessness and groundlessness of our existence […] The only possible meaning a life has is that given by living it, and therefore the challenge to live authentically is the highest human challenge.

In Sartre (2005, p.70-94), authenticity stands in contrast to inauthenticity, or more accurately “bad faith”, which is a kind of self-deception under which one, for example due to external pressures, denies the necessity -- freedom, that is -- to choose between options presented. While, admittedly, world is a world and New Vegas is a playable artifact, it seems that the concepts of authenticity and bad faith can shed light on the modalities of interpretation afforded by New Vegas. It also seems that the difference between authenticity and bad faith can help us understand the different motivations with which playable artifacts are approached within the wide circle of computer games research. Let us elaborate on this point.

We may try to describe New Vegas as allowing its player to “make herself” against the playable artifact: the player is able to take up projects and, thanks to the resistance of the New Vegas artifact, be properly responsible for the outcomes her choices. For example: I wanted to take on the project of seeingNew Vegas, so I stepped off Doc Mitchell’s couch and embarked on the journey through treacherous territory, died several times, was resurrected, reached a motel near the city wall, was autosaved and stung by a scorpion and thus got stuck in a death loop. For me as a player New Vegas is a game, and I have learned quite a lot already about the rules “according to which” I see it operating and am able to make assumptions on how it works. I assume that taking up quests is important, that the dialog contains useful insights and I might even engage in the ‘cargo cult’ type of interpretation, assuming that the artifact behaves according to a coherent set of rules.

Initially, we might think that the death loop posed a problem for this interpretation, as it does not make any sense whatsoever within the world of New Vegas. Knowing how complex computer game software is these days, when making sense of the death loop I take into account the possibility that the designers have made mistakes. Especially the features which go against the grain of the assumed ‘game logic’ or ‘diegesis’ remind me of this possibility. Death loop may be a strange anomaly but it is not an ephemeral glitch like a visual artifact caused by something along the graphics rendering pipeline. Death loop has ramifications to my project of playing and its origins are perfectly imaginable, perhaps traceable to a slip in a quality assurance procedure. As a player, by considering New Vegas artifact a game I am able to bracket its multistability, rule out all the other possible uses of death loop and see meaning in it as a bug. Hence I make assumptions not only about the rules implemented in the software but also about rules intended by the designers and the object of my interpretative attempts is thus much larger than New Vegas as it actually exists and against which I have to make myself.

In this utilitarian mode of interpretation I reverse-engineer the artifact in order to find out what the designers wanted me to do at the given moment. I am not “making myself” against the artifact as it exists, but giving in to what I think I am supposed to do. As a player I am in effect assuming that there is a ‘plan for my existence’ (e.g. Moran 2000, p.362) underneath the materiality of New Vegas, put there by the designers -- a grand scheme of things against which I am to make sense of events, objects, and encounters.

To say that players of computer games engage in reverse-engineering is not a statement regarding the preferences of an individual player, or a suggestion that some players might do so. Bartle’s (1996) categories do not need to be supplemented to include a type whose playing style is characterised by reverse-engineering. Instead, I am merely observing what it means to play a computer game: to survive as a player, I, you, all of us, must find out what the designers wanted us to do in a game. If we fail to figure this out, we are most likely to get stuck or find ourselves in front of a game over screen. Thus, as a player, I am not unlike a person with a religious conviction to occasional cause, who interprets the world inauthentically in bad faith according to god’s purpose seen in whatever happens around her. My gameplay-religion survives Pascal’s wager, as I find that by choosing according to the assumed plan I am rewarded in a variety of ways, for example with an indication that I have passed a quest or with achievement badges of various kinds.

This utilitarian mode of interpretation characterizes the “playing” of New Vegas in the style officially sanctioned with achievement badges and the like. A pointed and timely question, resembling those asked by Sicart (2012) in his criticism of “proceduralism”, is whether the intricacies of this kind of activity characterized by reverse-engineering of the designer’s intentions from the often dysfunctional materiality can be captured with the notion of play, which is often considered as implying if not a social dimension at least free association and imagination. Woods’ (2009) parallels from single-player games to Sudoku-solving and mountain-climbing come to mind as relevant. Another question is whether this particular interpretative attitude is unproblematic for games research.

While the utilitarian inauthentic attitude certainly is useful for me as a player, it distorts my interpretation, as it in fact implies a version of the “authorial intent fallacy” (e.g. Wimsatt and Beardsley 2005; Barthes 1967). While authorial intent fallacy refers to the assumption that a text’s meaning can be uncovered by looking at its author’s intentions, perhaps the fallacy at play in game studies can be described as resembling what Ihde (2008, p.19) has referred to as a “designer fallacy”: “the notion that a designer can design into a technology, its purposes and uses.” For example, if a tactic working anywhere else in New Vegas according to the assumed rules does not work in a particular location, it would be tempting to conclude that one has found a bug. This type of argument is problematic not only because it claims based on a collection of accidents to access an essence, but also more specifically because as it assumes underneath the game artifact to be an ‘ideal’ game that was intended by its designers as working without ‘bugs’ according to the assumed coherent set of rules. That this ideal game does not exist (Leino, 2010, p.119; Aarseth, 2011, p.66) poses a problem: if we allow ourselves to interpret single-player computer games as what they are not, it appears only a matter of preference whether for example Tetris is about suburban homelife (cf. Murray, 1997, p.144).

Ihde (2008, p.24), following Pickering (1995), uses the notion “dance of agency” to offer a realistic account of how multiple parties, including designers and consumers, negotiate their respective encounters with the dizzying formlessness of existence. "Dance of agency" refers to how authorial control bounces between multiple designers, the general public, and the sociocultural context around the designed item in the process of objects being manufactured into what they are. Ihde (2008, p.24) argues that individual technologies “seem potentially to contain multiple uses or trajectories of development”,and, that “designer intent can be subverted, become a minor use, or not result in uses in line with intended ends at all” (Ihde 2008, p.22). Locking our attention on one mode of use or a trajectory of development assumedly intended by the designer, for example the officially sanctioned styles of gameplay, would seem justifiable only if the goal of analysis was either simply to proceed in one’s project of gameplay in the officially sanctioned style, i.e. “playing” -- or -- to further the craft of designing technologies that facilitate the sanctioned styles of gameplay, i.e. “game design research”.

The design researcher and the player are similar in that they follow the ludological doctrine: they reverse-engineer the game in order to find the blueprint for the player’s existence. The cosy relationship of players and designers is echoed in game design writing. Pedersen (2003, p.89) suggests that studying existing games and playing “games from the best to the near best” is necessary for acquiring satisfactory basis for game design practice, whereas Fullerton, Swain and Hoffman (2004, p.2), even more fittingly, suggest that the “role of the game designer is, first and foremost, to be an advocate for the player. The game designer must look at the world of games through the player's eyes.” From the perspectives of both player and designer, it makes perfect sense to consider New Vegas a game, and, inherit from this consideration a range of concepts -- including that of a bug -- and normative assumptions -- including that of games being created for the purpose of being experienced as fun. However, as I have shown, this implies making simplifying assumptions about the authorial origins of the artifact and reduces it from being multistable into having a pre-defined usage.

Conventional, or perhaps more accuractely Kuhnian (1996) “normal” game design research -- which keeps honing the tools to produce always ‘even better’ games based on a generally agreed-upon paradigm -- can assume features of functionality as features of aesthetics. Consider for example a dysfunctional game which, no matter how successful as an ‘artwork’, appears as a ‘bad’ game from the perspective of conventional game design. From the perspective of game studies this would compare to calling for example Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist publications ‘bad books’ because with their sloping lines of text with inconsistent formatting they do not fit the conventions of traditional literature.

Game studies has for long maintained a close relationship with game design research, even though this relationship is seldom made explicit. However, establishing a difference between these two practices is of paramount importance, especially when it comes to playable artifacts that situate on the fringe of what is considered acceptable given the conventions of computer games. An approach that sweeps bugs, glitches, and other dissonances under the rug in search for an imagined harmony that existed perhaps only in assumed designer’s mind if anywhere can illustrate only a bleak future for the more artistic approaches to the tradition of computer games, for example for any attempts to implement “counter-gaming”, described by Galloway (2006, p.125) as games which attempt to critically reflect on themselves through for example creative use of glitches.

Luckily, based on what has been laid out so far, the projects of game design research and game studies can be described as separate. Unless I am doing game design research, my object of study is not the ‘ideal game’: i.e. the assumed designer’s assumed intentions fallibly manifested in the playable artifact, but the playable artifact as it exists in the world. Eskelinen (2004) lists “print narratology, hypertext theory, film or theater and drama studies” as traditions that cannot be applied directly on computer games. We can add “game design theory” to Eskelinen’s list and observe that a scholarly interpretation of New Vegas as a game would be no different from previous “colonising attempts” (Aarseth 2001) featured in the history of computer game studies.

Not accepting the affinity between game design research and game studies frees games scholarship from the burden of assumptions that might be useful for game design (e.g. the existence of rules, goals, challenges, fun, etc) but appear unacceptably reductive and normative from a non-design perspective. In authentic encounter with the death loop we are lost and without an explanation: from the non-design perspective that does not make unjustifiable assumptions regarding authorial origins we can only recognize the death loop as dizzying formlessness pure and simple, which we must to accept as a feature, however unpleasant it might be, among the other features of the artifact, with all of which we, as players and scholars, just have to cope. Should we want to “understand” it, we need to look beyond the projected essence, to come to terms with the fact that the playable artifact known as New Vegas does not exist as a game, but it simply exists.

Giving up the projected essence of ‘gameness’ seems to shed light also on game design research, prompting a parallel to be drawn with visual and time-based arts. These have engaged in exercises that embrace randomness, chance, accident, and unevenness of material (e.g. Ham 2009) and these exercises seem to have moved the practices past the cult of the artist as a virtuoso who has complete control over plastic material. Perhaps the encounter with the dizzying formlessness that is New Vegas can not only highlight the disparity between game studies and game design research, but also invite us to consider a foundation for a more interesting game design research, one whose problem space was not restricted by the projected essence of ‘gameness’. Perhaps it was possible, in the design of playable artifacts, to adopt strategies that can make creative use of the “dance of agency” (Pickering, 1995) between materiality, players and designers instead of attempting to structure it with conventional choreographies that enforce the “cult of the individual designer” (Ihde, 2008, p.26), in our case a game designer allegedly capable of taming the infallibly dysfunctional technological materiality that will always reinstate its agency through death loops and similar anyway.

Existential Hermeneutics for New Vegas

So far I have established that playable artifacts are distinctively different from games, due to the linkage between materiality and process we can describe in playable artifacts but not in games. I have suggested that considering playable artifacts as games is useful in the contexts of both playing and designing these artifacts, but doing so for the purposes of game studies would not be justifiable, and, that design of interesting playable artifacts would benefit from dismantling the scaffolding of ‘gameness’. While a discussion on the implications of this argument to game design deserves an essay of its own, what remains to be explored here is the possibility of authentic interpretation (i.e. without recourse to projected essences of for example ‘gameness’ implied in the ludological doctrine or ‘simulation’ in the procedural rhetorics tradition) rooted in the materiality of playable artifacts while resonating beyond the individual scholar’s subjectivity. Given that many of us have first-person-experiential evidence of playable artifacts being experienced as meaningful, and, that the preceding analysis has shown that accounts of how traditional games offer themselves to be experienced as meaningful cannot be applied on the analysis of computer games, a question remains: how to describe, based on authentic analysis of their material existence, the ways in which playable artifacts prescribe meanings to the events, objects and encounters within themselves?

Learning to survive New Vegas is to learn to differentiate between that which can be doubted and that in which we must believe. This development is not unlike how we, when growing up, learn to cope and operate with other objects. According to Sokolowski (1999, p.45):

After finding we were mistaken in some instances, we gradually introduce the dimensions of illusion, error, deception, or “mere” appearance. We gradually come to know that things are not always as they seem; a distinction between being and seeming comes into play[.]

For example, while constellations of individual trees in the Mojave Wasteland area in New Vegas are often helpful in getting one’s bearings, any insights on the general types of trees in the landscape are both directly and indirectly irrelevant to my survival -- no troves of potentially useful objects are hidden under any particular type of tree. The dissimilarities between bullets, on the other hand, is crucial: having stocked up on .357 bullets while carrying only a 9mm pistol evidently leads to my inability to defend myself. Nothing happens if I consider the types of trees as “mere appearance”, but the consequences of considering the types of bullets as “mere appearance” are fatal.

Despite the types of trees not having any special significance to me as a player of New Vegas, I might still hold particular types of trees in special esteem -- perhaps they remind me of the white birch trees of Northern European landscapes I am familiar with -- and subsequently prefer to stay in areas where trees of the particular type are in abundance. Someone with a biographical history similar to my own might share the association and understand my preference, but it would be unwise to assume this to be the case to any large proportion of New Vegas players. The belief that .357 bullets fit into a .357 Magnum but not into a 9mm pistol, however, is shared by most, if not all, players of New Vegas. We can assume so because while nothing happens if I vary my beliefs concerning the birch tree lookalikes, the New Vegas artifact will take identical measures of resistance to correct any misguided interpretation of bullet compatibility regardless of whoever is playing.

Here we have a way of distinguishing between two kinds of interpretations of playable artifacts. Idiosyncratic interpretations are those that are not enforced by the materiality of the playable artifact, whereas intersubjective interpretations are those that the materiality of the artifact forces upon its players, i.e., on those whose desire to play is strong enough to survive the resistance with which the game artifact counters the project of playing. My interpretation of birch tree lookalikes in New Vegas as beautiful thus is idiosyncratic, whereas my interpretation of .357 bullets as not fitting into a 9mm pistol is intersubjective. Here we should be reminded that only the most minimal assumption about the player is facilitating the analysis above; that she desires to keep playing. Should we be willing to expand the assumptions about the player, the realm of intersubjective interpretations would expand accordingly, possibly enough to account for judgements of taste, all of which remain idiosyncratic based on the minimal assumption about the player.

Many interpretations involved in New Vegas as played relate to a particular finitude unfolding from the New Vegas artifact. As a textual machine New Vegas affords to be unfolded, through emergent actions and via numerous different paths, into a multiplicity of “finitudes”. Elsewhere I (2010, p.272) have used Sartre’s (2005, p.631) notion of finitude in an analysis of GTA: San Andreas (2004) to illustrate the difference between the atemporality of a game artifact and the limitedness of an individual playing in which every choice made has excluded other options. Similarly, in the following I employ the notion of finitude to refer to what might be colloquially referred to as one “playing”.

While I may be the only to experience a particular finitude of New Vegas as played, involving the encounter with the bark scorpions at El Rey Motel who put me in the death loop, the artifact affords other finitudes to unfold for me and for other players. Common to all such finitudes is that they have unfolded against the very same materiality of the New Vegas playable artifact barring the differences in players’ computer equipment. All finitudes have started at Doc Mitchell’s couch, after which the players have faced the choices of helping Sunny Smiles to get rid of annoying coyotes, freeing Ringo from imprisonment at the Goodsprings Gas Station, etc, wandered off to exercise their freedom to explore the emergent possibilities in the allegedly “open” world of New Vegas before ultimately, if they were patient or interested enough, being herded into one of the numerous yet pre-defined endings. Aarseth (2012, p.132) has referred to this kind of games that afford a diversity of finitudes between a pre-defined beginning and ending as “creamy middle” games. It is possible that the events after Doc Mitchell’s couch in New Vegas are without parallels in the empirical world, not unlike events that might occur for example when exploring the realm of Ferelden in another creamy middle game Dragon Age: Origins (2009). For the description of these potentially unparalleled events, the distinction between idiosyncratic and intersubjective is rendered useless: intersubjective validity of an interpretation of an unparalleled event would remain only a potentiality. What could be said about the modalities of interpretation of the possibly unparalleled events in the emergent ‘creamy middle’ of New Vegas?

According to the ludological doctrine, games need to be ‘played well’ in order to be understood. Given that survival against the resistance amounts to success, it is obvious that New Vegas affords more than one way of ‘playing well’. There is a multiplicity of finitudes that can unfold against the New Vegas artifact, with potential similarities only in the beginning and the end. The overwhelming amount of potential ‘ways of playing well’ compromises the feasibility of the ludological doctrine of interpretation: given the limits of our own existence we cannot possibly access all the possible finitudes upon New Vegas.

In an ontological analysis of games, Aarseth (2011, p.66) suggests that “a game session is the result of combinatorially determined choices both on part of the player and the game”, and describes there being a difference between “a general play session” and “particular” play sessions, the latter being what players routinely encounter and the former something they can never access. In their article on game studies methodology, Consalvo & Dutton (2006) acknowledge the hardships involved in the attempt of an exhaustive description of “all interactions” within a computer game based on their observations, as follows:

The expansive, changeable nature of gameplay in many titles, it may make it impossible (or just implausible) to consider recording or finding (and analyzing) every possible interaction with which the player is presented.

While both accounts of the unattainability of exhaustive description are plausible, it should be noted that the search for justification for the acknowledgement of the impossibility of exhaustive description does not need to depart from the level of existence in general: any materially existing object we may perceive transcends our experiences of it -- in case of a playable artifact this is regardless of the richness of interactivity or complexity of its combinatorial system. This, however, is a problem only for analysis that seeks to objectify its target or assumes that an exhaustive description is possible.

Sokolowski (1999, p.152), writing about the possibility of intersubjectivity, suggests that it is possible to understand the realm of intersubjectivity by focusing on the “world held in common”, the relations individual subjects have to the world and to the things they possess in common. Possibility for this kind of approach hinges on the acknowledgement of the objects’ transcendence:

I realize that when I see the object from this angle, the others do actually see it from some other angle, an angle that I would possess if I were to move where they are. (…) I appreciate the object as transcending my own viewpoint. (Sokolowski 1999, p.153)

While supposedly I am not the only one who has been caught in a death loop in New Vegas, the particular finitude was private to myself. I realize that the death loop has featured on other finitudes and others have had different experiences of it altogether: consider for example someone who had invested considerable amount of time and effort in progressing through the quests before being stuck in the death loop but never saved the progress manually. It is not unimaginable that the losing of this investment would have resulted in the player throwing the keyboard and mouse off her hands in anger, uttering a nasty word in the process. I can certainly relate to this experience: had I followed a similar path, I would most likely have been similarly annoyed. Personally, I found the death loop quite interesting as yet another feature in the contingency of the playable artifact to be mapped, and perhaps other explorer (Bartle, 1996) or flâneur (Benjamin, 1968) types can relate to my experience.

Regardless of the lack of parallels for individual death loop situations, it is likely, that others who know the gameplay condition of New Vegas -- who colloquially speaking ‘have been there, done that’ -- may understand what I am talking about when I am talking about my death loop experience.

While the finitudes of gameplay upon New Vegas are private to the players, I and other players do share a “world in common”, the gameplay condition, against which the finitudes can unfold, hardcoded in the materiality of the playable artifact. Perhaps some qualities of these worlds in common can be communicated across individual players, not unlike as humans we are able to understand notions like “hot”, “cold”, “mother”, “child”, etc. It seems that the way in which playable artifacts prescribe their contents as meaningful can be described as not so different from the way in which objects in the world in general appear as having properties that we may interpret as meaningful. It should be noted, however, that each “world in common” offers its own condition to be shared and hence requires a vocabulary of its own.

The kind of analysis, which proceeds to understand the possible finitudes based on understanding their shared condition, seems to necessitate some form of an attitude we might call ‘empathy’ on the scholar’s behalf. It should be noted that empathy, here, does not refer to a sharing of emotion or feeling the emotion on the other’s behalf, as is often the case in discussions regarding emotions and computer games (e.g. Perron, 2005; Frome, 2007), but to a certain sensitivity, receptivity, or even “solidarity” (Solomon 2006, 71) toward how other players might interpret their private finitudes unfolding against the shared condition. It is, however, unclear whether this attitude is different from the attitude we exercise constantly in our everyday lives to cope with other people. If playable artifacts and their intricacies become experienced as meaningful in ways that resemble those of other objects in the world, perhaps also a shared understanding of playable artifacts would proceed according to lines we are familiar with as humans. The limits of such “empathetic understanding” and the possibilities for a “special hermeneutic of empathy” (Agosta 2009) in the context of interpretation of playable artifacts are natural directions for further discussion but deserve an essay in their own right. Hence I shall simply preliminarily note here that perhaps empathetic analysis of the material conditions against which the finitudes of gameplay unfold can fill the void left by the departure of essentialist and objectifying strategies in the methodology of game studies.


I begun by asking how ‘games’ like New Vegas offer themselves to be interpreted in the first place, and proceeded to problematize the ludological doctrine of interpretation. This led to an account of single-player computer games as playable artifacts, which rendered questionable the assumption of the ‘gameness’ of single-player computer games. A variety of answers to the original question have been proposed. Players embark on a hedonistic project to interpret New Vegas as game, reverse-engineering the artifact in order to find out the blueprint it contains for their existence. Game designers can justify such interpretation too, given that their intentions are to design games, after all. Scholars, it was argued, cannot project an essence of ‘gameness’ on the artifact, as it would imply a designer fallacy and reduce the multistability of the artifact so that the artifact is visible only to the extent it manifests or lacks the essence of ‘gameness’. However, interpretation that builds on existence rather than essence is possible. This essay has demonstrated the possibility of not only idiosyncratic but also of intersubjective interpretations of New Vegas as existing, and suggested that empathy is required to bring the others’ accounts of gameplay into the realm of intersubjectivity.

Giving up “gameness” as projected essence does not imply ignoring playability as experienced in the encounters with playable artifacts. What has been suggested here is merely a shift from prescribing the object of study to allowing the kind of playability that is peculiar to computer games to manifest and then catching it with concepts that carry the least presupposition. Hence, as a conclusive remark it should be noted that it is neither possible nor necessary to discredit the feasibility of the methodological programme implied in the ludological doctrine of interpretation. For the empathetic analysis highlighted in the previous discussion, it is still ultimately necessary to occupy or to have occupied the player’s position at the center of events. If ‘playing well’ means continued survival, as proposed before, playing the game well remains a requirement: having ‘lived’ the condition against which the finitudes of gameplay unfold is a necessary basis for an empathetic understanding. As a methodological guideline, the ludological doctrine is relatively unproblematic indeed. However, some minor readjustments are necessary: as an amendment following from the previous discussion on the differences between player/designer’s and scholar’s hermeneutic projects I suggest that ‘playing not so well’ is equally necessary to facilitate authentic and empathetic analysis of the dizzying formlessness of a playable artifact as existing. The gameplay condition cannot be understood without exploring its other side, the side which the player might perceive as unpleasant and the designer as faulty. In other words, for authentic analysis, dying and getting stuck in death loops are as necessary as are winning or completing a game.



I thank Bjarke Liboriussen for his constructive feedback on a draft of this essay.



[1] Here is relevant to mention Smith (2007, 42), who after empirical studies concluded that computer game players do not necessarily “play to win.” It is unclear, however, to which extent this was a consequence of the game being a computer game.



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