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Project Details
Funding Scheme : General Research Fund
Project Number : 11405314
Project Title(English) : Existential Hermeneutics for Playable Media: Understanding the relationship between freedom, responsibility and interpretation in solitary computer game play 
Project Title(Chinese) :  
Principal Investigator(English) : Dr Leino, Olli Tapio  
Principal Investigator(Chinese) :  
Department : School of Creative Media
Institution : City University of Hong Kong
E-mail Address : otleino@cityu.edu.hk 
Tel :  
Co - Investigator(s) :
Panel : Humanities, Social Sciences
Subject Area : Humanities and Arts
Exercise Year : 2014 / 15
Fund Approved : 195,100
Project Status : Completed
Completion Date : 31-8-2017
Project Objectives :
Present a thorough and balanced synthesis of the best practices of computer game analysis and interpretation. While there are multiple models of game analysis and interpretation focusing on different aspects of computer game play, the field lacks a thorough synthesis of these models, mapping their overlaps and focus areas. It is expected that a synthetic meta-model would be very useful to computer game scholars and critics not least as providing a common ground for debates.
Describe the experience of single-player computer game play in relation to existentialist ideas of freedom and responsibility in e.g. Sartre's account of being in the world. This allows exploring new ground in philosophy of computer games: using insights from existentialist philosophy (e.g. Satre, Fink, Solomon) for the purpose of describing the game/player relationship.
To clarify the concepts used to describe phenomena related to single-player computer games by drawing on post-phenomenological philosophy of technology. This allows bringing in material sensibilities that recognize the material affordances that make up 'playability', and thus seeing not only how 'playability' can leak into other media forms and technologies, but also how computer games can inform the conceptual trajectories of interactive art and media-archaeology, and vice versa. This contribution can inform game design and encourage innovative approaches to what computer games could be.
To provide an account of the conditions under which single-player computer games can be described as constraining their interpretations. This amounts to describing how interpretation of computer games differs from interpretation of narrative and interactive media, and, is epistemological groundwork immediately useful for game analysis and scholarship beyond this project. It can also be used to inform public policy (e.g. content rating systems). Designers of entertaining, serious, and artistic games and game-like media applications will find that this contribution can help them to convey messages using playable media.
Abstract as per original application
(English/Chinese):
Computer games have entered the mainstream of contemporary mediaculture, questioning the assumptions about a pastime of adolescent males only. Last decade has seen for example yoga-games and cooking simulations alongside adaptations of film noir aesthetics. In 2010 the global revenue generated by computer game sales surpassed that of cinema box offices. As media audiences accustomed to playability mature, we begin to find game-like interactivity in a variety of ‘serious’ fields of new media and digital technology, such as training, education and journalism. Computer games are an expressive medium and an artform. They can offer experiences as profound as those offered by film, theatre and literature. This calls for establishing an aesthetics specific to computer games and seeing value in informed readings and critiques of them. The ways in which narrative media like cinema are experienced as significant are already well-theorised. In last decades, focus of many media and culture scholars shifted to “interactive” media, which due to its seemingly empowering user position was hailed as a cause for paradigm shift. Due to fundamental differences between the ways in which narrative, interactive, and playable media engage their audiences, the theories and methodologies which apply on narrative or interactive media cannot simply be transferred to understand signification in playable media. Underlying the attempts of analysing and critiquing computer games, designing attractive computer games, using them for education, or creating artistic computer games, is a fundamental question that has not been fully answered yet: how interpretation of single-player computer games can be possible in the first place? The goal of this project is to answer this question by theorising the interpretation of single-player computer games based on a synthesis of current game analysis practices, comparative close-playing analyses of computer game artefacts, and typology creation. This project will break new ground in game studies and philosophy of computer games by using insights from existential philosophy and post-phenomenological philosophy of technology to address the relationship between, freedom, responsibility, technological materiality, and interpretation. The project will shed light on the ways single player computer games appear as meaningful to their players. It describes how the experience of meaningful play consists of individual elements present in solitary game-playing experience, including narrative structures, game-play incentives, audiovisual elements like graphics and sounds, and external rewards such as the “achievement badges”, and, how these elements relate to the core dynamic of playability.
電腦遊戲已經成為當代媒體文化主流的一部份,並且被視為一種表達的媒介與藝術形式。為此,我們須要建立一套專門針對電腦遊戲的美學觀,並從與此有關的論述與批評中找到價值。現時已有很多理論,探討觀眾如何認真看待諸如電影之類的敘事媒體,但對於詮釋與電腦遊戲的理論卻十分稀少。透過探討當今遊戲分析、詮釋與批評的最佳範例,本計劃旨在綜合出一個存在主義對電腦遊戲的觀點,以填補上述的理論空隙。
Realisation of objectives: The project has looked at a number of approaches to the topic of interpretation in computer games, and, brought these perspectives together by using ideas concerning drawn from existentialist philosophy. The project has demonstrated how computer games can be conceptualized as ‘worlds’, or, computer game play as phenomenologically similar to ‘being in the world’. This has cast new light on hermeneutic paradigms that presuppose the nature of the object ‘as’ something, e.g. as a ‘game’, as a 'story', as ‘computer software’, as ‘virtual space’, as ‘simulated embodiment’, as ‘art’, or as ‘object of emotions’, etc. They now all appear to be sustainable only in a very benevolent sense: nothing in the materiality of the so-called computer game necessitates these modes of description. The “playability” of the so-called computer game objects does not depend on these, but, rather, on the dynamic of freedom and responsibility: that we are responsible for our own freedom as players of the game. This is the same dynamic which, according to the existentialists, characterizes our being in the world in general. Thus, it appears that this ‘worldness’ of computer games prevails as a sustainable paradigm for the interpretation, analysis, and critique of computer games. The ways in which computer games offer themselves to be interpreted by players can be described as a function of their worldness: there is content that is absolutely critical for player’s persistent being as a player of the game (i.e. survival), and, content, which is in this respect trivial. By making some of the content critical and some trivial, the game can constrain the player’s possible interpretations of the game. As this mechanism depends on there being the possibility of the player surviving or not surviving, we cannot describe it in how films, TV, and other traditional media offer themselves to be interpreted by their audiences. Thus, interpretation in computer games differs from interpretation in other media. Furthermore, regarding the relationship between playability and interpretation, there is a significant difference also between traditional analogue ‘games’ and the so-called computer games. The previously described mechanism is hard-coded in the technological materiality of the game, and transcends individual players and playings: i.e. it does not depend on the player’s attitudes or preconceptions toward the object. Regardless of whether we approach Tetris ‘as a game’ or ‘as a technology’, the same mechanism constraining our interpretation prevails. Thus, in the interpretation of computer games, the technological materiality takes precedence over any ‘gameness’. Same cannot be said of a group of found objects which may be used to play a game: Mahjong tiles, for example, have their in-game meaning only if being benevolently used for a game of mahjong. This casts critical light on the paradigm of ‘transmediality’ as used in computer game studies, referring to the assumption that games can effortlessly move between media.
Summary of objectives addressed:
Objectives Addressed Percentage achieved
1. Present a thorough and balanced synthesis of the best practices of computer game analysis and interpretation. While there are multiple models of game analysis and interpretation focusing on different aspects of computer game play, the field lacks a thorough synthesis of these models, mapping their overlaps and focus areas. It is expected that a synthetic meta-model would be very useful to computer game scholars and critics not least as providing a common ground for debates.Yes100%
2.Describe the experience of single-player computer game play in relation to existentialist ideas of freedom and responsibility in e.g. Sartre's account of being in the world. This allows exploring new ground in philosophy of computer games: using insights from existentialist philosophy (e.g. Satre, Fink, Solomon) for the purpose of describing the game/player relationship.Yes100%
3.To clarify the concepts used to describe phenomena related to single-player computer games by drawing on post-phenomenological philosophy of technology. This allows bringing in material sensibilities that recognize the material affordances that make up 'playability', and thus seeing not only how 'playability' can leak into other media forms and technologies, but also how computer games can inform the conceptual trajectories of interactive art and media-archaeology, and vice versa. This contribution can inform game design and encourage innovative approaches to what computer games could be.Yes100%
4.To provide an account of the conditions under which single-player computer games can be described as constraining their interpretations. This amounts to describing how interpretation of computer games differs from interpretation of narrative and interactive media, and, is epistemological groundwork immediately useful for game analysis and scholarship beyond this project. It can also be used to inform public policy (e.g. content rating systems). Designers of entertaining, serious, and artistic games and game-like media applications will find that this contribution can help them to convey messages using playable media.Yes100%
Research Outcome
Major findings and research outcome: This project has demonstrated that the artifacts we previously called computer games are not best described as "games", as we know the concept from traditional play theory. 'Playable artifacts' would be a much better term. This is because their technological-material nature constrains interpretation in ways which we cannot describe in traditional games. While some playable artifacts can be interpreted 'as games', (e.g. football on PlayStation), this is by no means necessary across the full range of playable artifacts. Different playable artifacts afford different 'levels', of interpretation and knowledge-discovery. (See the paper in the proceedings of Philosophy of Computer Games 2016). This has a number of repercussions. Conceptualising playable artifacts as 'games' still prevails as the paradigm within computer game studies. It is understandable given how the field has evolved, but appears not only romantic but also dangerously misguided. First: it can give us only a partial description of the ways in which computer games are meaningful. Second: it overlooks the ways in which playable artifacts and their players are intertwined in the structures of neoliberal society. A free-to-play clicker "game" is a cash-extracting machine with questionable material morality, inasmuch as it can be played as-a-game. An aspiring electronic sports athlete playing LoL concerns herself with self-fashioning and acquiring social capital as much she does with entertainment and pleasure. (see the paper in proceedings of Philosophy of Computer Games 2014, and the article published in Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds) Furthermore, through a comparative study of various kinds of Mahjongs, the project demonstrated that the technological materiality of playable artifacts is multistable: it affords a range of projects among which 'playing the game' is only one. (see the article published in Games & Culture, and the paper in the proceedings of Philosophy of Computer Games 2015) The project also looked at computer games interpreted not by players themselves, but by observers and onlookers, by drawing on the study of performances. Playable artifacts appear not only as objects which can be used in a performance, or as 'stages' for a performance, but they also provide the existential baseline for experiencing empathy toward the performer, which, in traditional performance is derived from the fact of both the performer and audience being humans. To be able to appreciate a gameplay performance, we must know what is it like to 'be in' that game. (See the paper in proceedings of Philosophy of Computer Games 2017 conference)
Potential for further development of the research
and the proposed course of action:
The project has already sparked two funded GRF projects, which both build on the findings of this project. First of these is a project on gamification. It seeks to find out whether the 'worldness', and the associated mechanism of constraining interpretation, which are characteristic to computer games, can be found in reportedly successful applications of gamification, and, what this tells us about the nature of applications of 'gamification' as games. This provides a critical perspective on gamification and allows us to discuss its true potential among all the marketing hype. Second of these is a comparative study of competitive computer game play in game arcades, and, in the context of electronic sports (eSports). It builds directly on the findings pertaining to the relationship between freedom and play from this project (PoCG 2014, JVWG article), and, on the questions of interpreting other people's gameplay (PoCG 2017 paper). Among other things, this new project seeks to find out whether it is feasible to describe the activity in game arcades as 'play', and, that in eSports contexts as 'work'.
Layman's Summary of
Completion Report:
This project sought to describe how interpretation works in computer games. Traditional games and computer games have a number of similarities,but also significant differences. Not least of the differences is the presence of narrative in computer games. Thus, it is not surprising that computer games are often described as some kinds of hybrids, inviting us to interpret them simultaneously as 'games' and as 'stories'. This, however, appears somewhat accidental: why just these two domains and not others? Computer game players, not unlike humans in the world, discover objects, events, and encounters, some of which are important to their lives than others, and which leave lasting memories. Their experiences cannot be reduced to either the game-like logic of interpretation relying on winning or losing, or, the narrative logic relying on empathy toward the characters: the 'hybrid' approach to game interpretation alone is not viable. We sought to complement it by using existentialist philosophy and examining the similarities between 'being in the world' and 'playing a computer game'. We found out that by considering computer games 'as worlds', it is possible to fuse together the sometimes conflicting paradigms of computer game interpretation, and, describe how players interpret computer games.
Research Output
Peer-reviewed journal publication(s)
arising directly from this research project :
(* denotes the corresponding author)
Year of
Publication
Author(s) Title and Journal/Book
2015 Olli Tapio Leino  "'I know your type, you are a player' – Suspended Fulfilment in New Vegas" in: Game Love: Essays on Play and Affection. Jessica Enevold and Esther MacCallum-Stewart (eds), McFarland, ISBN: 0786496932, USA, 14 January 2015, pp 218-242 
2016 Sebastian Möring, Olli Tapio Leino  ‘Beyond games as political education—Neo-liberalism in the contemporary computer game form.’ Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, Volume 8, Number 2, 1 June 2016, pp. 145-161(17) doi.org/10.1386/jgvw.8.2.145_1 
2017 Wirman, H. & Leino, O.T.  From Manual to Automated to Digital: On Transmediality, Technological Specificity, and Playful Practice in Mahjong. Games & Culture 1-21 OnlineFirst. SAGE. doi.org/10.1177/1555412017721840 
Recognized international conference(s)
in which paper(s) related to this research
project was/were delivered :
Month/Year/City Title Conference Name
Istanbul <∞ min to Oasis of Happiness: Promises of Freedom and Play in Pocket Planes  Philosophy of Computer Games 2014 
Berlin Who should I call if no one shows up to pick up the dead? #movingout”- On gameness, materiality, and meaning in Cities: Skylines  Philosophy of Computer Games 2015 
Malta STONE+LIFE=EGG – Little Alchemy as a limit-idea for thinking about knowledge and discovery in computer games.  Philosophy of Computer Games 2016 
Krakow Chaos at the Europoort: Performance, Empathy and Materiality in Euro Truck Simulator 2  Philosophy of Computer Games 2017 
Other impact
(e.g. award of patents or prizes,
collaboration with other research institutions,
technology transfer, etc.):

  SCREEN ID: SCRRM00542