Deeper Meaning and Form in Video Games
by Jonathan Mak

Initially, this essay was written for an English project, however, I thought others might find it interesting. Thus, I took a couple minutes out of my life and converted it to HTML. For the most part it is in its original form, but I think I might have changed a word and fixed up some formating ;). I hope you enjoy it and of course any comments are always welcome. EMAIL: WEB:

Well, enough of that, read on and be enlightened... or not ;) (heh heh heh).

With the explosion of computers and technology, video games have developed into a multi-billion dollar market in the entertainment industry. Many see these games strictly as forms of unenlightened, recreational past-times. As with films however, that would be a false pretence. A more detailed examination of video games and literature will no doubt reveal the similarities between them. Parallels can be drawn simply because both are forms of art. Additionally, literature, when broken down to its fundamentals, share many of the same characteristics as video games. Knowing that, one may begin to see the different perspectives offered through video games to discuss literary concepts in a new light. Due to its intimacy though, video games may not be regarded for any intellectual significance, but there remains great potential in them to effectively explore the many philosophies studied in literature.

The definition of art is murky and clouded, yet there appears to be a general consensus in that art exists as some form of personal expression. Using this description, one can see how video games fall into this category. The personal expression of the game designer (the author) is communicated through several different outlets. For one thing, the pixels on the screen are analogous to the pigments that a painter uses. Both are composed together to create an aesthetically pleasing image on some sort of surface. A game developer may also choose music and sound effects to convey expression in the form of audio. In addition, both elements perform together to create an ongoing awareness or emotion. For example, Dark Earth1 uses dark, murky graphics, in combination with slow, mysterious music and sounds to create an impression of sadness, darkness, and disruption.

Some philosophers may also claim that works of art perform a social function. Edmund Burke Feldman states that this is true when "it is created to be seen or used primarily in public situations [or] expresses or describes social or collective aspects of existence as opposed to individual and personal kinds of experience."2 the first point mentioned is deeply rooted in most multi-player games. An example is Everquest3 or Ultima Online4. For thousands of players, these games cease to be mere pixels on a monitor. Instead, they become part of believable, virtual worlds where infinite events may occur. The game becomes a gateway, allowing players to participate in a universe which contains public situations created by its participants. For instance, in Ultima Online, players join clans, socialize, etc. When they find a rival gang, these players band together in their clans to eliminate them. That is a public situation.

The second method is used in a wide variety of games. An example is Conflict5, where players govern Israel and wage war with its neighbouring countries. From a different viewpoint this may be interpreted as an expression of the never ending wars in the Middle East -a collective aspect of existence. In Nuclear War6 (released during the Cold War), players use propaganda and nuclear weapons to dominate the world. This reproduced the fear of nuclear warfare and paralleled the mass propaganda that occurred at the time. Moreover, the player not only observes this collective experience, he actively participates in it. Thus, Nuclear War is another example of collective expression. It should be clear now, that video games exists as a form of art.

Knowing that, a similarity between literature and games is readily apparent: they are both art forms. Yet similarities do not end there. If literature were dissected to reveal its basic fundamentals, one would no doubt see that video games are remarkably similar. After all, what is literature? Aristotle explains that they "are all in their general conception modes of imitation."7 Games too, are modes of imitation. The player though, does not merely observe the imitation taking place, he becomes the imitator as the player controls the character on the screen. For example, in Wolfenstein 3D8 one imitates a spy escaping from prison. As the game continues, however, he may begin to feel the same trepidations that a real prisoner would have. The levels begin to exhaust the protagonist/player as he arduously runs through endless corridors while avoiding enemy gunfire. This type of imitation can be seen in works of literature too. In Heart of Darkness9, Marlow, the protagonist searches laboriously for a man named Kurtz. His journey towards the goal is comparable to Wolfenstein 3D in that both protagonists are forced through a long taxing journey.

In addition Aristotle describes the function of a writer as someone who does not "relate what has happened, but what may happen, -what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity."10 This also holds true for game developers since he must foresee the possible actions that each player may take and create probabilities according to that. For example, in King's Quest VI11 the player is able to enter the castle in disguise or use a mystical object to create a hole in the wall. Both are possible, and thus the developer must take that into consideration.

Literature might also "deal with such complex questions as the value of human life and the sources of human ideals and aspirations."12 Games may also contemplate these issues, although in its current state, it may not be as obvious. Fallout13 is an example. In its introduction, it describes war as never changing. It also comments that the "spoils of war was also its weapons." These are all ideas revolving around human life. Also, when the quest comes to an end, the leader banishes the player, perhaps leaving him wondering if the knowledge he possesses really is that harmful. The thought-process that runs through the player's mind is the result of the game dealing with values in human life (in this case, the power of knowledge).

Besides simply achieving what literature already is, video games may also present ideas in a different perspective. One major difference is the simple fact that a game is interactive whereas a piece of written literature is not. Interaction helps the player to establish an intimate relationship with the characters in the game. Instead of reading about them, the player can converse, observe, and otherwise socialize with the individuals. These intimate relationships that develop may provide more potential for an emotional response. For example, in Planetfall14, Janet Murray, senior researcher at M.I.T., describes the death of the robot Floyd, as pivotal " at this point the game changes... without Floyd's company the player becomes lonely and bereaved. The memory of Floyd the Robot's noble self-sacrifice remains with players even years later as something directly experienced."15

Interaction does not work alone though. Many films are based on pieces of literature. They replace words with visual imagery, music, and sounds. For example, Apocalypse Now16 places Kurtz in shadows while playing chaotic music in order to express the barbarian within the man. A game also possess the same quality as films. Its pixels fuse together to create visual imagery while the sounds and music is generated from the sound card. Thus, a may game may also create a heightened experience as it combines the techniques used in films along with the emotional attachments that are constructed between characters and the player through interaction.

Aside from recreating experiences that literature writes of, they may also recreate experiences directly within the player himself: unlike every other medium that comes before it, the interactive medium can make a point to people by actually making them go through something.17 For example, man's power thirst is experienced in Civilization18. The game provides the player with complete control over a nation. He may win by either signing peace treaties with neighbouring countries while being the first to construct a spaceship, or he may decide to conquer the world through militaristic means. When players decide to attack and dominate the world, they are experiencing first hand that power thirst, although they may not immediately realize it. Another example is how the theme of savagery is displayed through first-person-shooters such as Quake19 and Doom20. Here the player is transported into a world of mass carnage. The player becomes a representation of savagery as he slaughters other creatures and players without remorse or vindication.

Though the definition of art is vague and unclear, video games still fit many theorists' opinions of it. With both video games and literature existing as forms of art, a similarity between them may be observed. Moving past the similarities, video games differ in that they offer an alternate perspective in which to explore the many themes and motifs presented in literary works. They also possess great potential in expressing the thoughts and ideas of mankind. Although video games, in its current state, may not immediately display the characteristics discussed, man "must consider the potential, not the actuality"21 that video games may offer. Through the many years, literature has developed into a brilliant art form. Hopefully, video games may also develop into the same splendour.


1. Microprose. Dark Earth, 1996/1997.

2. Feldman, Edmund B. Art as Image and Idea pg. 36.

3. Sony Entertainment. Everquest, 1998/1999.

4. Origin Systems. Ultima Online, 1998.

5. Virgin Mastertronics. Conflict, 1990.

6. New World Computing. Nuclear War.

7. Aristotle. Poetics pg. 17.

8. Id Software. Wolfenstein 3D, 1992.

9. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness/The Secret Sharer.

10. Aristotle. Poetics pg. 1.

11. Sierra On-Line, Inc. King's Quest VI, 1992.

12. Landy, Alice S. The Heath Introduction to Literature pg. 6.

13. Interplay. Fallout, 1997.

14. Infocom. Planetfall, 1983.

15. West, Neil. "The Way Games Ought to be." Next Generation, June, 1998.

16. Paramount Pictures. Apocalypse Now, 1979.

17. West, Neil. "The Virtual History Lesson."
May 10/99.

18. Microprose Software, Inc. Civilization, 1991.

19. Id Software. Quake, 1996.

20. Id Software. Doom, 1993.

21. Crawford, Chris. The Art of Computer Game Design, 1982.


Internet Sources:

Crawford, Chris. "Similarities With Other Media."
May 11/99.

Crawford, Chris. "A Better Metaphor for Game Design."
May 11/99.

Crawford, Chris. "Fundamentals of Interactivity."
May 11/99.

Crawford, Chris. "Asymmetric Interactive Relationships."
May 11/99.

Crawford, Chris. "Towards a Linguistic Approach to Game Design."
May 11/99.

Crawford, Chris. "My Definition of 'Game'."
May 14/99.

Crawford, Chris. "It Ain't Art."
May 14/99.

West, Neil. "The Virtual History Lesson."
May 10/99.

Video Games:

Atari Games Corp. Gauntlet II, 1986.

Blizzard Entertainment. Warcraft II, 1995.

Broderbund & Evryware. Ancient Art of War, 1984.

Id Software. Doom, 1993.

Id Software. Quake, 1996.

Id Software. Wolfenstein 3D, 1992.

Interplay. Fallout, 1997.

Infocom, Inc. Planetfall, 1983.

Infocom, Inc. Zork I: The Great underground Empire, 1981.

Microprose Software, Inc. Civilization, 1991.

Microprose Software, Inc. Dark Earth, 1996/1997.

Master Designer Software, Inc. Defender of the Crown, 1986.

New World Computing. Nuclear War.

Nintendo, Inc. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, 1992.

Nintendo, Inc. Tetris (for Nintendo's Gameboy), 1989.

Origin Systems, Ltd. (an Electronic Arts Company) Bioforge, 1995.

Origin Systems, Inc. Ultima Online, 1998.

Sierra On-Line, Inc. Half-Life, 1998.

Sierra On-Line, Inc. King's Quest 1: Quest for the Crown, 1990.

Sierra On-Line, Inc. King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, 1992.

Sierra On-Line, Inc. Police Quest: in Pursuit of the Death Angel, 1987.

Sirtech Software, Inc. Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games, 1996.

Sony Entertainment, Inc. Everquest, 1998/1999.

Virgin Mastertronics. Conflict, 1990.


Aristotle. Poetics.
Dover Publications, Inc.
Mineola, New York, 1997.

Barrasch, Moshe. The Language of Art.
New York University Press.
New York, New York, 1997.

Crawford, Chris. The Art of Computer Game Design.
Published in 1982 but is now out of print.
Downloadable from

Conrad, Joeseph. Heart of Darkness/The Secret Sharer.
NAL Penguin, Inc.
Broadway, New York, New York, 1983.

Duvignaud, Jean. The Sociology of Art.
Granada Publishing Ltd.
New York, New York, 1972.

Essic, Robert N. The Visionary Hand: Essays for the Study of William Blake's Art & Aesthetics.
Hennessey & Ingalls, Inc.
Los Angelos, 1973.

Feldman, Edmund B. Art as Image and Idea.
Prentice-Hall Inc,
Eaglewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1967.

Herz, J. C. Joystick Nation.
Little Brown & Company.
New York, New York, 1997.

Kennedy, X. J.,
Gioia, Dana,
Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 6th Ed.
Harper Collins College Publishers.
New York, New York, 1995.

Landy, Alice S. The Heath Introduction to Literature.
D.C. Heath and Company.
Toronto, Ontario, 1996.

Stephen, Leslie.
English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century.
Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.
Henrietta Street, London, 1955.


West, Neil. "The Way Games Ought to be."
Next Generation.
June, 1998.


Coppola Francis. Apocalypse Now.
Paramount Pictures, 1979.

Copyright 1999 by Jonathan Mak
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Date this article was posted to 6/7/2000
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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Game Design

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