What is a simulation of a game?


Presentation for Philosophy of Computer Games conference, Berlin, October 14-17, 2015.


The relationship between simulations and games is unclear.

Some, for instance, claim that that games are a particular sort of simulation — e. g., “the computer game is the art of simulation” (Aarseth, 2004, online).  Others claim that simulations are a particular sort of game — e.g., “I consider simulation models to be a subset of the more encompassing game model” (Klabbers, 2009, p. 49).

In both these instances — and in many others (see Karhulahti, 2014) — regardless of whether simulation or game is given priority over the other, simulation and game are assumed compatible with one another and, occasionally, equivalent.

Or, in other words, if a game happens to be a simulation — if, for instance,we claim that racing games or sports games or war games are simulations — then this claim alone does not preclude these games from being games.  Likewise, should a simulation also happen to be a game — as, for instance, nominative-based claims might insist about Microsoft Flight Simulator (subLOGIC, 1977) and Euro Truck Simulator (SCS Software, 2008) — then this does not preclude these simulations from being simulations.

With the goal of clarifying the relationship between simulations and games, I will argue here that transforming a game into a simulation may well preclude that game from remaining a game.

In order to argue this, I will not use a conventional strategy; I will not attempt to define a simulation, and then to define a game, and then to compare and contrast these definitions in hopes of finding either critical differences or critical similarities between the two.  Rather, I will restrict this analysis to an examination of what a simulation of a game (SoG) might look like, given three possible (and mutually exclusive) relationships between games and simulations:

  1. Games and simulations are essentially distinct — i. e., games are not simulations.
  2. Games and simulations are essentially equivalent — i. e., games are simulations.
  3. Game and simulations are in some relationship other than the two above.

The extent to which an SoG within any one of these three is more likely and compelling than within either of the other two is then taken as an indication that the relationship between games and simulations within that particular scenario is more likely and compelling than within the other two.

This strategy of focusing on the relationship between simulations and games, rather than on either game or simulation in isolation of the other, offers some advantages and insights in comparison to more conventional analysis.  For instance, this strategy initially avoids having to define a game as anything other than a simulation, not a simulation, or something in between.  This strategy similarly avoids having to assign a simulation any definitive ontological status beyond a single and important one:  its semiotic function as a reference.  For, as a reference, a simulation is necessarily bound in important ways to its referent.

Presentation slides.

International Conference Series in Games and Literary Theory | Third Annual Conference



International Conference Series in Games and Literary Theory | Third Annual Conference

Hosted by Loyola University New Orleans, Department of English & School of Mass Communication

New Orleans, Louisiana USA | November 20-22, 2015

The Games and Literary Theory Conference Series addresses the scope and appeal of interdisciplinary approaches to the study of games and games’ impact on other fields in the Humanities. It began in 2012 as a PhD seminar and workshop arranged by the Department of English at the University of Malta in collaboration with IT University of Copenhagen and subsequently expanded into an annual conference. The inaugural Games and Literary Theory conference convened at the University of Malta in 2013 (https://gamesandliterarytheory.wordpress.com/); the 2nd annual conference was held at the University of Amsterdam in 2014 (http://www.uva.nl/en/about-the-uva/organisation/faculties/content/faculteit-der-geesteswetenschappen/shared-content/events/conferences/2014/11/games-and-literarytheory.html). The 3rd annual Games and Literary Theory conference is scheduled to meet in the USA at Loyola University New Orleans during November 2015.

We are particularly interested in digital game modalities and how these might be seen as reconfiguring and questioning concepts, practices and orthodoxies integral to literary theory (i.e. textuality, subjectivity, authorship, the linguistic turn, the ludic, and the nature of fiction). The conference will also explore the ways in which theoretical discourses in the area of game studies can benefit from critical concerns and concepts developed within the fields of literary and cultural  theory, such as undecidability, the trace, the political unconscious, the allegorical, and the autopoietic. Likewise the conversation about narrative and games continues to raise questions concerning the nature of concepts such as fiction and the virtual, or indeterminacies across characters, avatars and players.

The Games and Literary Theory conference has adopted a single-track format allowing all attendees to attend all presentations and discussions. The organizers of the Third Annual International Conference invite proposals that focus on issues related, but not limited to, any (or a combination of) the following:

– Textuality in literature and games
– Rethinking fiction after with digital games
– Characters, avatars, players, subjects
– New forms of narrative and games
– Games and the rethinking of culture
– Genre study and criticism
– Digital games, literariness, and intermediality
– Digital games and authorship and/or focalization
– Reception theory, reader experience, player experience: New phenomenologies for critique
– Gender in games, literature, and theory
– Digital games, literary theory, and posthumanism
– Representations of disability in interactive media
– Possible Worlds Theory and games
– Digital games in literature

For earliest consideration, please submit abstracts of 250-300 words as the body of an email with a subject line “GamesLit15” to Timothy Welsh (twelsh@loyno.edu) by April 1, 2015. The organizers will review proposals and confirm acceptances beginning May 1, 2015.

For information and updates, please refer to the conference website (gameslit15.wordpress.com) and twitter feed (@gameslit15).

Is Hamlet a digital game?


The objective correlative of a digital game.

Games and Literary Theory | Amsterdam | 2014


What do Shakespeare’s Hamlet and a digital game have in common?
In this essay, I examine semiotic parallels between Shakespeare’s play and digital games. I use T. S. Eliot’s critique of Hamlet in 1919 — based on Eliot’s notion of “objective correlative” — to find similarities between references and referents employed by Hamlet (in particular) and by games and play (more generally). I argue that Hamlet and digital games evoke emotion in a similar, self-referential way, and I conclude that neither is rightfully labeled an “artistic failure” (as Eliot claims about Hamlet) as a consequence.

The peculiar aesthetic properties of competitiveness.


Presentation scheduled for International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, September 3-6, 2014


Whether sports and games should be considered art is an unresolved issue.  The great bulk of the debate concerning this matter — lively at the time — took place more than twenty years ago.  During that debate, there was much agreement that sports and games have aesthetic properties, but little consensus that sports and games are art.

In this essay, I argue that unresolved issues associated with this previous debate affect sports and games equally, and that any true resolution must engage the common purposiveness of sports and games:  their competitive purposiveness.  Once this purposiveness is engaged, it is possible to qualify the aesthetic properties of sports and games using two concepts — intentionality and expressiveness — that are conventionally associated with art and the artistic. While the play of sports and games does not display precisely the same sort of intentionality and expressiveness that is associated with art and the artistic, that play has characteristics that, given some leeway, are very similar in form and in effect.  The competitive purposiveness of sports and game is then used to explain how sports and game might be most reasonably considered art, and why, in the past, they have often not been.


CALL FOR PANELISTS | Deadline Aug 15, 2014


Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities, Honolulu, January 10-13, 2015


Submission/Proposal Deadline: August 15th, 2014

Paper acceptance notifications: TBD


Panel sessions will last 90 minutes and it is the presenters’ choice how that time is split between panelists.


Identity and Play: Playing with Self in Digital Games and Social Media

Play with self and personal identity can vary over time, across media, and as a consequence of psychological and social context. Our focus in this panel will be to investigate how digital media designs and services affect the construction and maintenance of self.

The panel discussion will examine specific examples of self construction in virtual environments and how existing media designs — including, prominently, digital game designs — engage, facilitate, and, potentially, inhibit play with self. We are positioning this panel as a review of existing research.

Questions we would like to address include:

  • Is there a “networked” self? What is consistent and what is incongruous in the presentation of self across social media?
  • Is the construction of self in game-based media designs more or less gratifying than the construction of self in other (non-game-based) media designs?
  • What game design components are most critical to the construction of self? E. g.: Avatar personalization/customization? Use of “alts”? Anonymity? Guilds and/or other multiplayer components?
  • How important are traditional “social presence” features to the construction of self? How have digital media design technologies influenced the self construction process?
  • To what extent can the construction of self be algorithmized and automated? Are self construction “apps” feasible?

We would like panel participants to address broad questions such as these with reference to existing media designs and services (though accompanying theoretical speculation will also be desired and valued).


If interested in participating in this panel session, please contact before Aug. 15:

David Zemmels, PhD, MFA
+1 (504) 865-3632
School of Mass Communication
Loyola University New Orleans
6363 St. Charles Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70118


“A Toy Semiotics,” Revisited


Presentation scheduled for International Toy Research Association, July 23-25, 2014


In 1984, Brian Sutton-Smith published “A Toy Semiotics” in Children’s Environments Quarterly, making this claim (p. 19):

Play as a kind of assimilation has the potentiality to retreat increasingly from its original objects of reference.  The toy itself which signals the first such departure, then makes possible a series of increasingly remote responses depending on the resident fantasies within the players’ experience.

I revisit this claim in light of the explosive growth, since 1984, of games and game industries and the relatively (and somewhat curiously) lesser impact of digital media on toys and toy industries.  I examine the different impact of digital media on toys and games and attribute that difference to the different semiotic properties of the toy and the game:  the game conventionally enables and evokes rule-based meanings; the toy does not.  The unique semiotic properties and potentials of the game in comparison to the toy give games a particular affinity with digital media.

slides [pdf]

Vienna: FROG13 | Video games and authorial intent


Prelim slides >>> pdf.


On the absence of imaginative resistance in games.


Slides for the upcoming Foundations of Digital Games conference.

Upcoming: Futures of Literature.


I’ll be at the University of Malta workshop on digital games and literary theory next week.

My presentation is called How games might annihilate narratives. [Update: pdf draft here.]

The abstract.

Here I examine two specific definitions of games and narratives — from Herman’s Basic Elements of Narrative (2009) and Suits’s The Grasshopper (1978) as assumptive of formal distinctions between the two forms. I then explore the origins and implications of this formal distinction from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Ryan’s claim (in Avatars of Story, 2006) of compatibility between games and narratives is questioned in some detail, particularly as regards that claim’s emphasis of Herman’s “worldmaking/disruption” function of digital game replay. Ultimately, the essay describes the communicative and expressive functions of, respectively, narrativity and liminality as separate modes of human cognition.

The summary.

In the relative short history of digital games, games and narratives have mounted an uneasy alliance. Despite the commercial success of narrative-based games and despite considerable theoretical interest in the synthesis of games and narratives, aesthetic tension remains. And, unfortunately, most recent attempts by game designers to resolve this tension (e. g., incorporating quick-time events like those in Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, or including morally ambivalent gameplay like that of CD Projekt RED STUDIO’s Witcher series), appear no more effective in providing an enjoyable narrative experience than the more radical of strategy of switching off the game-play entirely, as offered within Bioware’s newest release, Mass Effect 3.

In contrast to the seeming inability of interactive digital media to adopt a sastisfactory narrative aesthetic, it is interesting to note that the medium of film much more quickly did so. Less than ten years after the Lumière brothers first projected Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895), Edwin S. Porter had produced The Great Train Robbery (1903). And, only ten years after that, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were household names.

In roughly the same amount of time, digital games have cycled through interactive fiction and adventure games and role-playing games and a variety of other, similarly narrative-inspired and narrative-duplicating aesthetic forms that have failed, consensually, to inspire to the same degree as their originals. Digital games, on the other hand, have had increasing influence and impact during their short history, both when packaged as narratives and when not.

I have presented here an explanation as to why this might be the case: Games and narratives exist most appeallingly as aesthetic experiences within two different modes of human cognition.

These two distinct modes — labeled here luminality and narrativity — originate within the natural history of our species and continue to influence us much in the same manner as did their original forms: one fundamentally expressive, the other fundamentally communicative. In these two fundamental respects, then, these two modes of human cognition function quite differently and independently: they interpret and understand the world around us in different ways and, as a result, offer different ways of being in that world. To be within one of these two is, simultaneously, not to be within the other — just as, analogously, to be entirely rational is not, simultaneously, to be entirely narrative.

Nevertheless, as equally modes of human cognition, these two share common functions of human semiotic systems more generally (including the transgressive function of self-reference). In these shared semiotic functions, games and narratives may yet find some aesthetically acceptable union, even if only an ironic and dissonant one.

For surely, games and narrative are not so far apart in function as raven and writing desk. And the output of one might well serve as fuel and fodder for the other. Certainly, our most aesthetically pleasing game plays and replays provide incentives for their subsequent retelling as narratives — just as, among all chess games ever played, some of these are considered brilliancies. These brilliancies may be relatively rare instances — and, when they do occur, they are governed as much by chance as design — but they occur nevertheless.

More reasonably, then, the relationship between games and narratives might only be so distant as that between Morlock and Eloi, both still recognizably human, but only capable together of producing mulish offspring.

More about the relationship between games and narratives.

For a game to inspire specific retellings, to be narratively designed, it must involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing, but fulfilling a concrete goal. It cannot therefore be about aligning three tokens on a line on a game board, nor about kicking a ball into a net. But it can be about stealing cars or using cars to chase bank robbers.

— Marie-Laure Ryan, Avatars of Story, 2006, p. 193

Does this make sense? It doesn’t seem to.

‘Aligning three tokens on a line’ and ‘kicking a ball into a net’ are, to my mind, clear instances of concrete goals. However, Ryan’s claim is clearly that ‘stealing cars’ is a concrete goal and ‘aligning three tokens on a line’ is not.

Explanation 1. In order to make sense of this, let’s assume that perhaps this means to say that the concrete goals of narratives, as opposed to the concrete goals of games, are of a special sort of concreteness: a concreteness that is part of the human condition. Thus, stealing cars would bring with it the expectation, in the world in which we as humans live, of repercussions. Someone would miss their cars and come looking for them. Likewise, using cars to chase bank robbers would imply that we would wish to capture the bank robbers and that the bank robbers would wish not to be caught. In both cases, we might infer something about the goal-seekers from their goals; and we would infer this based on the assumption of a common human condition among those who infer (us) and those who we infer about (the goal-seekers).

On the other hand, ‘kicking a ball into a net’ gives us little to go on regarding such inferences. Did the ball wish to be kicked? Was the kicking done in order to improve the kicker’s calf muscles?

We just don’t know.

So, perhaps this would work: concrete goals are part of the human condition; non-concrete goals aren’t.

Explanation 2. But then, upon reflection, it is also unclear that this version makes any sense. Because, as Ryan notes, ‘stealing cars’ in a game is what the game’s goals are about — not what the game’s goals are. In fact, it is fairly important (to our personal human conditions) that the game goal of stealing cars be something distinct from the (truly) concrete, non-game goal of stealing cars.

So, perhaps, in order to make sense of this, we need to assume that the concrete goals of narratives, as opposed to the concrete goals of games, are of a special sort of concreteness: something like (but not really) the concreteness associated with the human condition. So, stealing cars is not really stealing cars, but it is about stealing cars — and being about the human condition is close enough to the human condition to be concrete.

So, perhaps this would work: concrete goals are about the human condition; non-concrete goals aren’t.

Explanation 3. But then, upon reflection it is also unclear that this version makes any sense. Because, after all, although we know that the game goal of ‘stealing cars’ is about stealing cars (that one is easy), what about stealing (instead of aligning on a line) three tokens? Is that about stealing cars? Or what about stealing three cars in order to align the three cars on a line? Is that still about stealing cars?

Or what about drawing little car pictures on the three tokens (or attaching little wheels to them) and then aligning them, or stealing them, or doing something else with them entirely? What would that be about exactly?

And, if it is unclear what a game goal is about, then how can we know when one game goal is about the human condition and another game goal isn’t?

Maybe we should just chuck this whole human condition thing entirely.

Explanation 4. Maybe what it means is this: For a game to inspire specific retellings, to be narratively designed, it must involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing (period).

This would be okay with me because, among other reasons, it is okay with Suits. Suits’s definition of a game (well, game-playing, actually):

to play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity

— Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper, 1978/2005, pp. 48-9

In this definition, the purpose of games is not just winning or losing but “bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules” — and Suits goes to great lengths (believe me, he does) to distinguish between winning a game and “bringing about a specific state of affairs.”

So, if we are to go with Suits’s definition of a game — I’m going with it — then all games involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing. And, then, extending this definition to Ryan’s claim takes her claim to mean that all games inspire specific retellings and are narratively designed.

But then, of course, the whole point of Ryan’s claim is that some games (those with concrete goals) inspire narrative stuff and other games (those with non-concrete goals) don’t inspire narrative stuff.

So that doesn’t make much sense either.

Explanation 5. Games are one thing, and narratives are another thing.