Games and the Imagination Part I
The Primacy of the Imagination
by Richard Dare



Can you remember when you discovered video games? I can, and I don't think that my experience was much different from others who discovered games at around the same age. At nine years old I was not a logical child, technical matters were beyond me and by the standards of today I was probably the least likely person to be interested in computers but I was completely entranced by the idea of video games. Years before I got my first computer, I would make my father take me round computer shops to look at the games on offer. You probably remember the outlandish descriptions of the games on the back of the boxes, "You are Earth's last hope! Destroy the evil Zarg Empire before it wipes out humanity!" Or, "Brave the terrors of the Forest of Auria and rescue the beautiful princess!" Of course, to the trained eye, the Zarg empire was a number of small blocky shapes that stuttered across the screen, and the Forest of Auria was either a collection of ASCII characters or a short text description, but to the young mind that read these descriptions, video games were a gateway to the kinds of experiences previously only offered by dreams, books and cinema, the closest you could get to living in a fantasy world.

For me, the attraction was the promise that these games held, through their themes, characters and perspectives; the promise that a young child could explore in safety and daylight the shadowy and indistinct mental world that imposed itself on him at night. They removed the clumsy limitations of toys, the dissatisfaction that came with increasing age of realising that the dark alleyway on the corner of his housing estate was not the entrance to the world of ghosts. They satisfied his desire to return there even after he was told it did not exist.

Three years ago I was working on a design that I hoped would speed my journey into the games industry. I was thinking deeply about games and was frustrated with the tendency of the industry and the games press to talk about games only in what I call constructional terms; that is, in terms of the technical elements that make up a game such as 3D engine, AI etc. What I wanted were words that I could use to describe the experience. Despite spending hours poring through games magazines, websites and interviews I could find little referring to the experience of playing, except perhaps for playability, a term which by its vagueness proves that there has been little insight into the subjective experience of playing games.

I kept being drawn to a particular memory and had an urge to explore it, so I sat at my computer and wrote the two paragraphs that begin this article. I wanted to continue, to elaborate on this memory only to realise that I knew nothing more. But somewhere in this memory, I thought, there might be a key to a deeper understanding of games and a widening of the language we use to discuss them. So I began a personal quest to find out everything I could about subjective experience, fantasy and imagination, a quest culminating in the writing of this series, which I hope is of use and interest to gamers and developers alike.

The first step I took was to explore the games media and talk to as wide a cross section of gamers as I could, in order to see if there were any commonalties between my personal reflections and the experience of others. This research could not be called scientific by any means, but the questions and experiences I tried to explore are, I think, essential to any understanding of video games. Little is achieved by psychologists merely asking the simplistic question of whether games are good or bad for us, and the contradictory results of several studies bears this out. What is far more important is to ask, without judgement, how an individual relates to a game, to explore questions of personal meaning and imaginative response. Whatever the value of my investigations, I became convinced that an exploration of fantasy and personal meaning could lead to an opening up of the way that we think about and design games.

Widening the Language of Convention

Over the years, the games industry has evolved an impressive language of terms to describe games. This language has two main strands: genre terminology and technical (or constructional) terminology. Genre terminology describes the "type" of game and technical terminology describes the set of technologies that make up a game such as AI or 3D engine. Take a look at any games magazine and you will see most games described in these terms. Initiation into this language is essential for anyone who wants to be a developer or hard-core gamer. Many young players, keen and recent initiates into the world of gaming wield these terms as proof of their knowledge and to distinguish themselves from their ignorant, casual-gaming fellows. I should know, I was one of these initiates.

But language is a cage. This terminology, perpetuated by gamers and developers alike has the effect of shaping our perception of a game, and often determines how we design new ones. Many developers, it seems, are straining against this prison of words, sensing vague intimations of aspects of gaming outside the language of convention, but lack the concepts with which to catch these shadows and render them concrete in code.

To escape this prison, we need to look at the aspects of gaming that lie outside of it, from the ideas of children yet unversed in the language of gameplay, to the intriguing mental shadows that we, the initiated, push aside as we play. I attempted to uncover some of these aspects in my research, aspects that I'm sure many readers will recognise in their own gaming experiences.

The Primacy of the Imagination

During my conversations with gamers old and young, I found (with younger gamers in particular) that the primary factor in attracting many of them to a game was its premise; the experience alluded to by its characters, themes and imagery. Here a player chooses a game because it allows him to experience a particular fantasy, of being a racing driver, adventurer or soldier. This fact seems to be well known to the copy writers of game advertising and packaging, who in most cases, tend to emphasise the themes, characters and plotlines in a game rather than its constructional description, although many games for hard-core, initiated audiences will focus on describing the game in terms of its genre history, as displaying more polygons than Quake III or having better volumetric lighting for example. This emphasis on the internal history of the video game can be a disadvantage, I feel, as it shuts out the uninitiated and promotes the limiting ideal of a game as a mere collection of algorithmic special effects, which as I hope to prove, is not the case.

This concept of the primacy of an underlying fantasy is given more weight if we read old games magazines from the early to mid eighties and look at how games were described when today's constructional and genre-based terminology was still in formation. Apart from the quaint clumsiness of such early terms as the "platform-and-ladders" game, there seemed to be much more of an emphasis on the themes, tasks and characters, in some cases evoking scenes of such unparalleled adventure that a young reader would be hard pushed to discern a game's genre were it not for the accompanying screenshots, and would probably be greatly disappointed when he actually got to play the game. This shows that the development of constructional and genre terminology has been valuable, not least in giving players a shorthand way of knowing what to expect from a game. But it also demonstrates that a gamer lacking the concepts with which to enclose his experience will respond to a game with a much greater portion of his imagination.

The underlying fantasies that a player has about a game may be of a general theme, such as the desire to win a race, be a soldier or rescue a princess, or they may be more complex and specific. Gamers may desire to experience a particular interplay between certain types of character, such as between a man and his evil relative, as with Zidane and Kuja in Final Fantasy IX. They may want to explore the interplay between two opposing concepts, such as the fight between democracy and tyranny in a strategy game, or the balance of good and evil in Black and White. Or commonly, to experience a particular character in a particular situation, such as the popular theme of the lone warrior in a post-apocalyptic world. Some gamers will often think primarily in terms of theme, choosing games that reflect a particular imaginative concern irrespective of genre.

Younger gamers often see game characters and situations as imaginatively real, and see far more in a game object than the older, jaded eye. For example, one of the older Zelda games has an enemy which splits itself up into blocks, which fly around the screen and reform. The experienced player knows that it is a collection of blocky sprites, and in playing will regard the situation as a matter of timing his attacks, avoiding the blocks and finding a safe position. In other words he will see the situation as a system, paying only a little attention to the enemy as a character. But one young gamer described this enemy to me, in excited terms as a sand monster who turned himself into a sandstorm to attack the player. It seemed that he focused more on the monster as a character, seeing it as a being to be contended with rather than as a system to be negotiated.

In older, more knowledgeable gamers too we can see the primacy of an underlying fantasy. More than one gamer has admitted to me that he plays Civilization because he likes the idea of ruling a nation, waging war and taking over the world. One gamer of my acquaintance told me how he enjoys playing Civilization in a certain way, to create a situation where there are two main world powers in the game, himself and an opponent, both with advanced levels of technology. He would then plan a massive campaign against his enemy, creating an all-or-nothing war to end all wars. So in many games, a fantasy might "kick in" when their playing pieces become arranged in a certain way, creating a situation or process of interest to the gamer.

With developers we could say that one of the reasons why they often rehash the same old game ideas is not because they can't think of anything better, but because they want to create an ever more perfect representation of a particular fantasy or experience. The imaginative realm has often been a prime force in games design. The renowned designer of the Mario and Zelda games, Shigeru Miyamoto, has admitted that he draws inspiration from childhood memories of exploring the caves and forests of the countryside around his home (Poole, 2000).

Games are deeply linked with other forms of imaginative play with game characters and themes influencing play away from the computer. In older gamers we can see this in the number of websites devoted to popular game characters such as Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII and the popularity of game related action figures, animated movies, comics and models. There is also the interesting fact that some players enjoy dressing up as their favourite video game character. According to writer Steven Poole, the Tokyo Game Show has a best costume contest for visitors who turn up in game related garb (Poole, 2000). Evidence enough to convince us that games can evoke a strong emotional and imaginative response and be a great influence on the inner life of a player.

Another related quality (and this is a purely personal reflection) is what I call "emotional resonance", the indefinable emotional impact that can be felt upon seeing a certain image, character or person; that unusual feeling of an image being "more real than real". This aspect of experience has fascinated me from an early age, especially the way that no matter how much you analyse the image in question, no matter how much you research its background or its semiotic relations, you get no closer to pinning down the meaning of its resonance. Many video game images have this quality, along with those in movies and other forms of art, as well as the natural world.

Not all gamers report these kinds of experiences. Some stick unreservedly to a constructional view of games, some ignore character and storyline and concentrate instead on the kinetic experience of playing or the cognitive manipulation of game objects and puzzles. Most gamers, it seems, sway between two different modes of playing, The first is an extroverted mode, where the players emphasis is focused more on the kinetic experience of playing and winning than on storyline or character, and on social gaming where the emphasis is more on the group doing the playing than the game itself. The second is the introverted mode of playing, where the game acts as a catalyst or facilitator for the gamers own feelings or imagination. Here the player imagines himself into the game. It is important to point out that these are just rough working categories, and describe modes of playing, not types of player. An individual might move from one mode to another depending on the game and situation.

Another reason why some people might not report or acknowledge these experiences is because of our society. We live in a society which is profoundly extroverted, where inner experiences are often regarded as pathological aberrations, or waved away as being "only psychological". In schools, introversion is regarded as a problem to be fixed rather than a natural tendency; no teacher has ever suggested that a boisterous, extroverted child should spend more time in quiet reflection, except perhaps as a punishment.

The games world itself is not immune to such closed mindedness. I remember in the early nineties, reading a magazine review of that groundbreaking RPG , Eye of the Beholder. The reviewer spent the entire first page of his review denouncing role-playing fans, who in his eyes were a bunch of asocial misfits. He then went on to declare the game an all-time classic.

This kind of prejudice, as well as reflecting a simple lack of empathic understanding, has its roots in a wider social trend. It is fashionable in our culture to cultivate emotional distance and cynical detachment, to not let slip that we are moved, certainly not by an ephemeral, commercial medium such as the video game. Another factor is our attitude towards fantasy itself. The epic and magical worlds adored by western gamefreaks and eastern otaku are often derided as vessels of mere escapism. It is no wonder that these experiences remain in the shadows of both the mainstream games industry and of society as a whole.


Whatever the prejudices of our society, it is clear from this evidence that underneath the surface there is a complex, imaginative relationship between a player and a game, a relationship that underlies the literal and technical aspects of a game and merges with the players world and inner life. That these experiences inform the work of many developers is not disputed, but the fact remains that they do not yet form a part of mainstream discussion, nor have they been integrated into the common language of games design; an integration that may transform the entire field.

So how do we integrate these experiences? Without a full psychological investigation we can only speculate on the nature of these experiences and how they relate to games, and given the status of video games in the mainstream eye, such an investigation is unlikely. But we can go some way in understanding these experiences by relating them to ideas already existing in psychology. In part two of Games and the Imagination, Approaching the Imagination, I will explore some of these ideas and their relation to games design.


Poole, Steven, Trigger Happy, The Inner Life of Video Games (2000, Fourth Estate)

About The Author

Richard Dare develops games for Smartphone and PocketPC. He would be very interested in hearing from anyone who would like to discuss his ideas or take them further. He can be contacted at:

© 2004 Richard Dare

Discuss this article in the forums

Date this article was posted to 6/22/2004
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Featured Articles

© 1999-2011 All rights reserved. Terms of Use Privacy Policy
Comments? Questions? Feedback? Click here!