The player and the game

I will now proceed to examining the relation between player and game. Computer games are interactive, and I have previously presented a definition of this. To describe the relation between an interactive work and the reader/player leads to the curious problem described by Espen Aarseth, that a large part of literary theory uses words like labyrinthine and claim that the reader creates the text. This means that any description of the player’s part in a game, such as "the unique thing about games is that the player’s action determines the events in the game", can be answered with "but in any text the reader shapes the text through his/her interpretational work – it is exactly the same thing!" So the computer game is a literalisation of many of the terms used metaphorically in literary theory.

Different schools of theory put varying emphasis on the reader’s investment in the text, possibly the least in New Criticism, and the most in reader-response theories. Reader-response is in itself a large field, covering both Wolfgang Iser's view, that the text contains certain well-defined leerstellen (Iser 1978) and the more radical claim by Stanley Fish, that the reader (or the reader’s interpretative community) creates the entire text (Fish 1980). The hypertext theorist David Bolter claims that:

When Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish argue that the reader constitutes the text in the act of reading, they are describing hypertext. (Bolter 1992, p.24)

This is problematic since Fish and Iser do not say the same thing, and because the two descriptions of the player’s and the reader’s involvement in the game/text sound much alike but mean entirely different things. The player is active in his/her influence on the game world, and this is a conscious act, that he/she tries to get better at. The reader does not influence the text as text, but performs an interpretation/actualisation that (it could be claimed) basically works according to sub-conscious principles. The reader seldomly tries to get better at reading a specific text (which would be futile anyway if the text didn’t exist), the non-professional reader certainly does not try to consciously interpret the text as to produce a happy ending.

This terminological chaos between terms used metaphorically and literally tells that the computer game also differs from the novel or the movie in this context as well. This chapter examines the player’s relation to the game; the player’s role in relation to the structure of the game. This is in four parts:

Empathy and identification

In Moving Pictures (Grodal 1997), Torben Kragh Grodal presents that he describes as a "holistic" or evolutionary-cognitive theory of how movies and movie genres affect the viewer. Grodal's theory is in opposition to both structuralist film theory (like Roland Barthes') and psychoanalytically inspired theory (like Christian Metz). According to Grodal (and the cognitive science that be builds on), humans are characterised by that fact that we are constantly creating mental models of ourselves and others. When looking at another human (or a representation of another human) we inevitably create a mental model of that person's bodily being, of his/her goals and wishes. This is related to our basic capability of thinking about absent things, and that we can run through a situation "as a test"; without really being in that situation. This means that the image of a cup and reading the word "cup" activate the same brain centres that are activated when we see a cup in the physical world. Different sources result in the activation of the same mental image:

(Grodal 1997, p. 32)

Grodal distances himself from the ideology-critical film theory that often tries to assert that the movie/text hides the devices that construct the meaning of the text. This kind of theory has tried to identify - for example - linear narratives as the product of a specific time & ideology, often of capitalist society. Grodal claims the opposite, that the canonical narrative and (its advancing, coherent time) has an ahistoric base in a mental model:

[...] it is very probable that a story that has linear and progressive time and is centred on the experience of a single being is a mental base-model [...] (p.88)

Grodal does not claim that this kind of narrative is more "right" than forms like the exploded time of avant-garde-movies, rather that the canonical narrative form corresponds to some basic cognitive phenomena. There are other forms, but they get their meaning as sophistications from the canonical form.

The actant

According to Grodal, it is a major part of fiction that the view/reader creates a cognitive identification with one or more characters or actants, meaning that we create mental models for the situation of these characters/actants:

When the viewer’s attention has been caught, the application of a set of cognitive procedures follows. These will be labeled cognitive identification: the viewer will try to simulate the subject-actant’s perceptions. He will try, for example, to construct the field of vision of the actant by generalizing his/her own perceptual experiences into an objective and transformational model: what would I have seen if I had been in the same place as the actant? This activity presupposes the construction of abstract models for the world. [....] the viewer will try to construct the subject-actant’s emotions, affects. (p.89)

This does not mean that we attempt a complete identification, that we believe ourselves to "be" that person, just that we evaluate the relevant goals, wishes and threats. This is not exclusively connected to people, but also works in relation to animals or anything anthropomorphic. And this is essential for the experience of a movie:

When watching a visual representation of phenomena without any centring anthropomorphic actants, we often 'lose interest' owing to lack of emotional motivation for the cognitive analysis of the perceived, a fact which many makers of experimental films have discovered when presenting their films to a mass audience. (Grodal 1997, p.89)

It might then be reasonable to expect that something similar was true of computer games, that computer games were centred on one or more actants with human traits. But this turns our not to be the case. Possibly half of all games do not contain people at all, and an even larger part do not focus on human relations at all. (See "The invisible actor" where I discuss games without possible points of identification.)

In a game like Space Invaders, it does not make sense to claim that you cognitively identify with the small green spaceship: A technological object is not something you generally identify with (unless anthropomorphic), and since a space ship is presumably neither intelligent or capable of emotions or perception, we do not try to create a mental model for it. The two-dimensional space in Space Invaders is not created to call on mental models of human action in the world, and we can generally assume that the player does not have previous experience space ship experience. It is clearly not a question of being the space ship. The answer is, of course, that you control the ship, but at the same time make a mental investment in the safety of this ship. In common sense terms it would be that you undertake a job, and the game evaluates your performance. In cognitive terms you activate something that seems both more abstract and more basic than creating mental models for a person: You deem an object (the space ship) important, deem some other objects (the enemies) disposable and evil. You then protect the important object as long as possible. This seems to be a common tendency to protect oneself against enemies, why the game feels more important than what one would expect. Loosing a space ship is referred to as "dying".

Since Space Invaders is a game, there is another connection between the player and the game: Games are as such characterised by an evaluation of the player, and to play Space Invaders means that you are subjecting yourself to an evaluation. The reader of a story can hope for a good ending, but is after all not evaluated depending on how Moby Dick ends. The ending of a game can have consequences for the player's self esteem and socially. Being good at a computer game is basically a positive thing socially.

The problem faced by of a more thorough discussion of identification in computer games is that computer games have very different protagonists/actants, and that some games do not even have a central character to control. To make a brief list of games with protagonists: Space Invaders (space ship), Battle Zone (tank), Pac Man (yellow "mouth"), Elite (offscreen person changing between space ships), Missile Command (offscreen, controlling three rocket batteries to protect some cities), Frogger (frog), Centipede (space ship? in a garden), Donkey Kong (small man - Mario), Zork (the main character - "you", in textual representation), Qix (small square drawing lines), Journey (all members of the rock band Journey), Pengo (penguin), Jungle King (Tarzan), Marble Madness (marble), Pole Position (car seen from the outside), Daytona (car / driver), 1942 (aeroplane), Star Wars (Luke Skywalker - view from the space ship), Bomb Jack (small man that can fly), Robotron (robot), Track'n'Field (athlete), Rampage (monster), Burger Time (chef making burgers), Descent (space ship from the inside), Doom (man, inside view, face represented on the bottom of the screen), Tomb Raider (woman - outside view), Myst (the reader of a book - "you" - inside view).

From this list follows that the relationship between player and protagonist varies between games. Generally the protagonist seems to be a character that would normally have positive value. But the drawing square in Qix does not have a special predefined value, and the monsters in Rampage destroy buildings and eat humans - hardly positive. The human actors on the above list are clearly heroes fighting against evil. It would seem that the protagonist is usually a positive character, but this is not always the case.

The eye of the actant

Computer games are almost exclusively set in a space. This space is almost exclusively in two or three dimensions. Games are usually about navigation in this space. The space need not be graphically represented, but can be a textual construct like in Adventure. Most often you control an actant in this space, but this comes in many different variations. The classical action game has a visible character moving in a two-dimensional space. This space can be seen sideways (Space Invaders, Donkey Kong) or from the top (1941, Frogger). In this relationship between player and actor, the player has information of the game world that the actor physically can not have. We might assume that this lessens the identification with the actor. In narratological terms we would say that such a game is unfocalised; the world is not seen from the viewpoint of a specific person or with the knowledge of a specific person (Genette 1980, p.189-194). In the newer three-dimensional games, the viewpoint is a central perspective, always placed within or just besides the actor. This means that the player has the same amount of knowledge that the actor has - which gives us focalisation. To see from inside a set of "eyes" seems to increase identification with the actor; you "are" to large extent identical to this actor. But this effect seems to work contrary to the way it works in movies. Grodal is critical of Montgomery's movie Lady in the Lake:

The whole film, except the narrator sequences, is shot using 'subjective camera'; the effect, however, is not an intense 'subjective' identification with the protagonist but, on the contrary, a feeling of alienation, because there is no objective model, a body, on whom to anchor feelings of identification (and there are not - as in real life - any body-sensations to anchor the objective model of the self). The 'subjective' camera view cannot therefore be experienced with complete cognitive and emphatic identification by the viewer: it is experienced as the view of an alien. (p.115)

Nevertheless there seems to be agreement that the view-from-within in 3d games increases identification. This is possibly because a view panning autonomously is an unknown (and uncomfortable) experience, but to look out from a set of eyes and be able to control the direction of your gaze is a well-known cognitive-physical experience. It simply corresponds to a basic experience of the world. But there is a problem with computer games where you see through some eyes: That the body is not represented, and that you miss the feeling of its extent in the game world. (The utopia of virtual reality is partly an answer to this problem.) But the feeling of controlling the view is sufficient to make up for this. In some games like Daytona or Tomb Raider you can choose between an inner and an outer view, and this choice seems to be a weighing of the identification emphasised by the inner view and the extra information acquired by the outer view - to see the extent of the body in the game world. In narratological terms this can be compared to the difference between a story focalised on the main character and an unfocalised text with a (more or less) omniscient narrator. Some games shift effortlessly between these two states.

Tomb Raider (Eidos Interactive 1997) is famous for having introduced the outer view in the 3d-shooter genre. From the assumption that computer games are primarily played by men, it is interesting that the protagonist of Tomb Raider is a woman. We might also assume that there are some aesthetic question at stake - that a watching female body is connected to libidinous joy for men - but female protagonists are much rarer in games than in stories. So there seems a logical connection between the outer view and the female protagonist - as a player you "are" not the main character to a very large extent. The relation between player and heroine is characterised by a certain "being" Lara Croft, but also by a more distanced identification. Lara Croft is a character you presumably care for as somebody else, but at the same someone you are, and this kind of play with gender and identity is presumably a source of pleasure.

In interactive fiction, the graphical games construct space with graphics, other games will use both text and graphics. In text-based games there can only be textual markers of space. This does not necessarily have that deep implications for the game - the same mental space can be built using different sources. In just about all textual interactive fiction, the game proceeds as a dialogue with a not easily identifiable narrator that addresses the player. The level of knowledge basically corresponds to games with inner viewpoints; you only register what the actant would register.

The invisible actor and the abstract game

Movies and other stories are largely about humans (or anthropomorphic things) that the viewer/reader identifies with cognitively. As Grodal pointed out previously, it basically is boring to view/read fictions without anthropomorphic actors. This is not true for computer games. Games with no actors represented on screen have appeared throughout the history of the computer game. Many of these have been extremely popular. An early example is Missile Command (Atari 1980), where a number of cities are attacked by missiles that you then have to destroy using rockets from three missile batteries. The player is the not represented on screen as an entity or actor, but only sees the results of his/her actions. It would be possible to create a "job description" for the player - a soldier controlling missiles; a typical hero. It is harder to understand Tetris, where you must combine a series of falling bricks.

Missile Command (Atari 1980) Tetris (Atari's 1986 version.)

Tetris does not have a visible actor either, and it does not seem possible to construct any actor controlling the falling bricks. We are clearly dealing with non-anthropomorphic material, only a few falling bricks. According to Grodal's previous remarks about movies, this would be radically uninteresting. But Tetris is incredibly popular, and nobody is disputing its status as a computer game. In the less abstract Lemmings (Psygnosis 1989), a number of small men walk blindly ahead, facing obstacles and dangers. It is the role of the player to guide them to an exit so that none (or as few as possible) are lost. But is not clear why this is so nor who the protagonist is.

But how can computer games be abstract and without points of identification, and yet be interesting? - No matter how variable or even absent the protagonist in computer games, there is always one constant: The player. It is probably true that the reader/viewer need an emotional motivation for investing energy in the movie or book; that we need a human actant to identify with. This is probably also true for the computer game, only this actant is always present - it is the player. The player is motivated to perform a cognitive analysis of the game's situation because the game is a task that the player has undertaken as a real-world person. And this is why a computer game can be much more abstract than a movie or a novel.

The body and the motor skills

While a movie does activate different motor schemas in the viewer as part of the viewer's cognitive work with analysing the characters, the viewer still remain passive in their seats. As Grodal points out, the voluntary nervous system is suppressed, but the involuntary nervous system is still active - causing tears, sweat, raised pulse etc. in the viewer.

As we know, computer games are based on the influence of the player on the game world, and this happens through keyboards, mice and so on. This means that the player presumably constructs mental models for the actants in the games, and at the same time actually is forced to act motorically. In games with non-anthropomorphic actants or two-dimensional games, these mental models are created from data less complex than in movies; the graphics in games are basically less detailed than the images in movies. (Text based games do have the possibility of describing with the same level of detail as the novel.) In game like Tomb Raider, with a visible human actant in a three-dimensional world, the modelling is for a more full bodily presence than when moving the space ship in Space Invaders. But on the keyboard you can only control the movement of Lara Craft using very simple parameters: four directions, jump, duck, fire. So there is a difference between the mental model of the actant's body and the limited possibilities actually given to the player. From this follows - and this is the interesting part - that the player first generates a model of the actant's presence, then uses this as a basis for a choice of motorical action which must be executed with much simpler options than the mental model prescribes, and finally actually acts motorically using the interface.

There is a variable degree of connection between the supposed possibilities of the actant and the actual possibilities given to the player. In a driving game like Daytona (the arcade game) the game is controlled with a steering wheel, meaning that the player ideally performs the correct motorical actions. In Tomb Raider the possibilities of control are very limited compared to what a body can normally do. The same thing goes for Doom, except that the game is deliberately run in a pace sufficiently high that the more advanced motorical capabilities of the player are suppressed in favour of basic patterns of escape and attack. In Space Invaders the problem is perhaps minimal - it seems plausible to have a space ship / cannon that can only move left and right, and the player doesn't have a mental model for space ships. The largest discrepancy is in a game like Myst, where you supposedly are present in the game world, but where all the possible interactions in practice are done by pointing and clicking with the mouse.

It seems that any wish of movement that cannot be executed through the interface results in that the player moves physically: It is common to see players unable to escape a shot in Doom duck physically. The physical body acts as a receiver of "overflowing" motorical impulses, even though trained players tend to be able to suppress this and focus exclusively on the possibilities offered by the interface.

Game and cognition

These observations show us that games vary radically, and that they are very different from the narrative media. Computer games can be very abstract and still have mass appeal, because the player has reasons for playing that differ from why the reader reads a novel. This is also tells us that the creation of a computer game involves thoughts and insights regarding all cognitive capabilities and preferences of humans. There is, we might say, nothing outside the program. By this I mean that game design is an art that demands the combination of all technical possibilities with knowledge of how humans perceive the world, as well as experience from all aesthetic fields.


In Reading for the Plot (Brooks 1984), Peter Brooks claims that plot is as such connected to desire, both in the sense that plots are often about desire, and in the sense that desire is central in the plot's production of meaning. The reader has a desire: narrative desire to reach the ending, to finish and consume a work. A desire to relieve the tension created by the beginning of a story:

Desire is always there at the start of a narrative, often in a state of initial arousal, often having reached a state of intensity such that movement must be created, action undertaken, change begun. (p.38)

Brooks is heavily inspired by the Freudian understanding of desire as a tension looking for its resolution. The desire of the text is in constant danger of a premature ending. Meaning: There is a constant danger that the protagonist reaches his/her goal too soon or is definitively prevented from reaching that goal, thus ending the story.

If we refocus on computer games, the most obvious point is probably that the player faces two premature endings: one of loosing your lives too early, one that the game is actually too easy. Books have only one ending and they are - generally - physical objects. This allows the reader to know the size of the book; you do not fear a premature ending in that sense. Unlike this, computer games are immaterial, and as reader you do not know how much is left (unless this is explicitly marked by the game).

It is clear that games contain something that makes people play them. This is a desire that takes place within a narrative frame that is often only hinted at. But in the game this tends to work with an inverse logic compared to the novel. In the novel, the ending is yet unknown and you read to find out more about it. In the action game, the good ending is already known: You have to save the Earth, the princess, yourself. The bad ending is failing to do so. As a player you desire to actualise this good and well-known ending. You wish to understand the structure of the game, the mechanics by which the game world develops. And you desire the agility needed to use your understanding of the game structure to actualise the good ending.

So the driving desire of computer games does therefore not seem to be the narrative desire that Brooks discussed, but to other kinds of desire that often work in relation to a narrative frame but doesn't presuppose it: One is the desire for structural understanding, the desire to know the relations and mechanisms that make one specific action have a specific consequence. The other is the desire for performance, the desire to reach the agility and motor skills to use the understanding of the game structure to reach a perfect performance.

Death: Hierarchies of knowledge

When a game ends, it always involves that the player steps out of character, and ceases to identify with the protagonist (if there is a protagonist). In the traditional computer game, this is accompanied by information on the score of the player. So the player leaves his/her role as a player and assumes an exterior, evaluation viewpoint on the game that has passed.

When introduced, Doom was famed for two things: The revolutionary 3D graphics and the explicit violence. Less acknowledged was the new development that the game was not based on points, and the player thus not evaluated on an absolute scale. Doom also introduced that after the moment of death, the screen continued to display the view from the eyes of the dead body. In a classical game, the world "GAME OVER" is displayed, after which one is sent back to the title screen. In Doom, the view from the dead body is kept until you click to play again - automatically directed towards the opponent that killed you. So death gives you information, both on how you died and what happened afterwards. Again you step out of character and acquire another view on the events, and again you gain additional knowledge.

The novel has a corresponding hierarchy of knowledge, where the protagonist in principle has the least knowledge, the explicit narrator more (if this is not identical with the protagonist); the implicit narrator has the most knowledge. To receive a story where a fictive person dies always involves a kind of bonus: additional knowledge on death. So death in the computer game and death in stories share a link to the gaining of knowledge.

There are many variations on this in the computer game. In the classical action game, the player controls an object seen from the outside in two-dimensional graphics. Death does not change the viewpoint, but the object disappears. When the last life has been lost, the game disappears from the screen. In Doom you keep your view, but in a dead body. In the game Descent, the view is moved out of you spaceship to watch it explode; in Unreal, the view moves out and you see the protagonist fall dead. In interactive fiction, you are similarly notified the reason of your death. "You have been eaten by a grue.", says Zork. To my knowledge, in no games is the view moved in when you die.

Death in the computer game is the other death, the death of fiction. The death you survive and learn from.


Computer games have a bad reputation for many reasons, one of them being the large amount of time that you can spend on them. This is logical - we should not waste our time. But we also live under a cultural idea of the endless work, of books you can read and read and never tire of.

The endless text can be a religious work like the Bible - obviously common in the Christian world. The same idea also works for many canonical works like those of Homer, Dante, or Ovid, or even modernist works like Ulysses or The Wasteland. Contrast this with the term trash novel, implying that a book is disposable once read (since you read for the plot). The works that you supposedly can keep on reading are also the ones that you "can be good at": Ulysses, the Bible; texts where your ability to remember and interpret them is often evaluated.

The surprising part is that the notoriously "low" computer game lives up to this much more than novels tend to. The dominant mode of receptions of narratives is one-shot, but games are inherently something you play again, something you can get better at. It is slightly surprising that games are actually critiqued for this. The theatre-inspired critic and software designer Brenda Laurel doesn't like games that you can keep on playing:

[...] In Parker Brothers' "The Empire Strikes Back", the objective is to destroy as many of the Imperial Walkers as possible before they reach the power plant and blow up the planet. However, as science fiction author Harlan Ellison observed in an unpublished review of the game, it is not possible to meet that goal because the bad guys just keep getting better - an affliction shared by many video games. "The lesson", moans Ellison, "is the lesson of Sisyphus. You cannot win. You can only waste your life struggling and struggling, getting as good as you can be, with no hope of triumph." One might speculate that this incredibly frustrating feature of game design contributed to the decline of the video-game genre in 1983 and 1984. (Laurel 1991a, p.107)

Brenda Laurel's main goal is that of creating software that fit Aristotelian ideals, so her point is understandable. However, unfinishable computer games are still very popular (witness multi-player games), and the 1980's crisis in the video game industry (where Mattel and Coleco left the market) must be attributed other factors (Calica 1998). There is a clear commercial interest in games that are finished in 4-5 hours - the player will need a new game more frequently.

It then appears that trying to add a significant story to a computer game invariably reduces the number of times you're likely to play the game. Literary qualities, usually associated with depth and contemplation, actually makes computer games less repeatable, and more "trashy" in the sense that you won't play Myst again once you've completed it. There's no point. This does not mean that Tetris is an endless work that can always be reread and always sheds new light on the world - for we usually do not see computer games as statements about something else. But it seems paradoxical that introducing a narrative reduces the number of times you play the game.

In the way it is used, the computer game is closest to the mythical narrative. In a discussion of Superman, Umberto Eco (1979, p.107-124) describes the mythical as characterised by repeatability: The audience of the Greek tragedy already knows the story. The modern novel or movie is only received once, since the primary aesthetic device is the relative unpredictability of the events. One important difference between computer games and the mythical narrative is that the mythical narrative can be repeated because it is assumed to shed new light on the world - the mythical represents a universal law. The computer game is repeatable because it shows more of itself every time, because the player gains experience and gets better at the game. But unlike the mythical, games are not seen as saying something about the world.