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Myers Signs, Symbols, Games, and Play Games/and ARTICLE Culture 10.1177/1555412005281778 Signs, Symbols, Games, and Play David Myers Loyola University New Orleans Games and Culture Volume 1 Number 1 January 2006 47-51 © 2006 Sage Publications 10.1177/1555412005281778 hosted at This article justifies the study of video games with reference to the importance of the study of representations and the study of play. Keywords: signs; symbols; games;
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  10.1177/1555412005281778ARTICLEGames and CultureMyers /Signs, Symbols, Games, and Play Signs, Symbols,Games, and Play David Myers  Loyola University New Orleans This article justifies the study of video games with reference to the importance of thestudy of representations and the study of play.  Keywords: signs; symbols; games; play W hy game studies now?The most obvious answer is the money involved. So let me deal with that onefirst.There is no doubt that the current academic interest in games and game studies isdriventoalargedegreebythecommercialsuccessofthevideogamesindustry.Therewasinfactabrief butotherwise similarsurgeinacademicinterestincomputer gamesand gaming during the early 1980s—when Atari was in its heyday, Chris Crawford’s  BalanceofPower  receivedcoveragein TheNewYorkTimesSundayMagazine (Aaron,1985), and I published my first analyses of computer games (Myers, 1984).Eventuallyofcourse,thevideogamemarketwentbustand,sothestorygoes(Kent,2001), Atari had to bury all those E.T. cartridges in the Mojave Desert. And all thegame players then went back to where they had been before: designing, playing, andwriting about games in a relatively more obscure and less convivial environment.Now, 20 years later, as the game industry reasserts prices and profit margins, weonceagainfindgamesandthescholarlystudyofgamespopularandincreasinglypop-ularized. Regardless however, games have always been interesting and appealingthings—andgameplayequallyso.So,givenanenvironmentsupportiveofgamesandgame studies, how do we best make use of it? How does the realization of computergamesassuccessfulcommercialproducts transform—eveninvigorate—theirrealiza-tion as aesthetic objects?Why game studies now? Why game studies ever  ?Two important reasons.The first reason is, the study of games involves the study of representations.Games, like literature, use conventional signs and symbols in unconventionalways. Early formalists (see Erlich, 1981) focused the study of literature on the natureof  literariness , or on those fundamental properties of literary form both derivative of and in reference to the habits and conventions of a natural language. In this same 47 Games and Culture Volume 1 Number 1January 2006 47-51© 2006 Sage Publications10.1177/1555412005281778http://games.sagepub.comhosted at  sense, what are the fundamental properties of games? What properties of gamedesigns and forms distinguish games from other, more conventional acts and objectsof human creation and culture?Surely, these characteristics involve the form and function of representationswithingames.Allgames—allplay—areafterallvirtual.Andinourcurrentageofthevirtual, games and play occupy central positions.Yet,whereasmostconcedesomefundamentalroletorepresentationalisminunder-standing and analyzing games, there has been to date little overlap between the studyofrepresentationalformandthestudyofgameform—muchlessoverlapthaninotheracademic fields involving other aesthetic domains.Linguists, semioticians, and some in philosophy of mind have most often carriedthis particular interdisciplinary torch forward. But the intellectual net is in fact wide-spread. Early exemplars of a game-related cognitive aesthetics include Jakobson’s(Jakobson&Halle,1956) analysisofmetaphorandmetonymy,Lévi-Strauss’s(1979)study of binary structures in myth and culture, Lakoff and Johnson’s (1999, 2003)insight into analogies and the srcins of language, Marr’s (1982) examination of visual perceptions and cues, and Johnson-Laird’s (1983) treatise on mental models.Otherstudiesthematicallysimilarbutslightlyclosertothestudyofgamesandrelatedentertainment forms include Bordwell’s (1989) essays on film, Csikszentmihalyi’s(1991) psychological analysis of flow experiences, Grodal’s (2003) investigation of therelationshipbetweengamesandsensations,andAarseth’s(1997) identificationof aporia and epiphany as common and fundamental characteristics of game forms.Each of these reveals how representational forms function as aesthetic objects inthe context of the creation, manipulation, and interpretation of signs and symbols.And,eachofthesestudiescanbeusefullyappliedwithinacognitiveaesthetics,whichwould correlate phenomenological experiences—fun and play, for instance—withmore objective, representational, and ultimately, cognitive forms. Game studies areposed to emphasize, articulate, and explain such a correlation, much to the benefit of cognitive sciences and cognitive aesthetics.The second reason is, the study of games involves the study of play.Ihadoccasiononthe30thanniversaryof  Games and Culture ’ssisterSagejournal, Simulation&Gaming ,towriteanarticlesimilartothisone(Myers,1999).Here’spartof what I said: What I’ve found in my review of [ Simulation & Gaming ] is encouraging: the continuedandresolutefocusonthegame-playing  process .Perhapsthisismorebyluckthandesign.Manycontributorsseemtobeeitherdedicatedgamedesignersorgameplayers—orboth.It’snaturalandexpected,then,thatmuchoftheiranalysisisbasedoneithergamedesignorplay.But,ifthisisluck,thenit’salsoserendipity,for(onceagain)itisexactly thepro-cess of play—aside from its effects—that is at the center of the whirlpool of theory inother fields. (p. 485) 48 Games and Culture  Whatotheraspectsofhumanbehavior(otherthanplay)aresocommon,souniver-sal, so pervasive, so profound, and so critical to an understanding of human nature,well-being, and self-consciousness—yet studied so seldom?Currently, play studies are often deemed synonymous with child developmentstudies;andtoooften,theoriesofplayremainnarrowlyfocusedwithindevelopmentalmodels that for all their insights fail to consider seriously the implications of wide-spreadandcommonadultplay.Surely,playisnotsocharacteristicofthehumanchildas it is the human species.Gamestudiesclearlydemonstratethatgameplayisacross-generationalphenome-non,andindeed,definitionsofgames,basedonverycuriousandsometimesparadoxi-cal distinctions between rules-bound and rules-free systems (see Klabbers, 1996),portendrevisionandtransformationofourconventionalunderstandingofrules-basedsystems of all sorts: governments, economies, cultures.Sutton-Smith(2001) hasbeeninfluentialinextendingthestudyofplaybeyondtheboundaries ofchildeducationanddevelopmentbyemphasizingaspectsofgamesandplay—rough and “dark” play, for instance—that have been discounted by develop-mentaltheorists.But,earlierstudies(Caillois,1961; Huizinga,1955) equallydemon-strate the degree to which games and play are universal characteristics of humanbehavior and essential to an understanding of human experience.And of course, here the study of representations and the study of play are stronglyconnected. The study of representations emphasizes formal properties of games; thestudyofplayemphasizescontextualandfunctionalpropertiesofthosesameaestheticforms. One of the more intriguing potentials of game studies is to closely study thisconnection and in the process, perhaps resolve some of the more vexing problems inrepresentationalismandphilosophyofmind.ProminentamongtheseiswhatHarnard(1990) termed the symbol grounding problem: an information processing dilemmabasedontheparadoxicalimplicationsofanendlesslyrecursivesemioticprocessoper-ating without a clear and common reference—or ground—to some objective correla-tive or “other.”Ithaslongbeenmycontentionthatproblemsandanomaliesassociatedwithhumansemiosis—such as the symbol grounding problem—do not result from flaws of thoughtorlogicbutratherarenecessaryandinevitablecharacteristicsofhumanrepre-sentationalforms. Gamestudiesmaywellhelpspecifysuchproblems moreclearly—aswellashelpuscometosomedeeperandmorecompleteunderstandingoftheincor-rigible nature of their at best, partial solutions. Final Comments Whileemphasizingtheimportanceofthestudyofplaywithin GamesandCulture ,I would also like to acknowledge a debt to an elder journal: Play & Culture . Play&Culture ,alongwiththe  JournalofPlayTheoryandResearch andcurrently, Play & Culture Studies , have long been published by the Association for the Study of Play (TASP; Each of these publica- Myers / Signs, Symbols, Games, and Play 49  tions has been an important outlet for research on games and play that prior to therecent game studies boom did not always clearly fit within conventional academictracks or disciplines. In those earlier, less convivial environments, TASP conferencesandconventionsprovidedaninterdisciplinarygatheringspotforscholarswhosework nowservesasmodelandinspirationforthewritersandeditorsof  GamesandCulture .Irememberearlyinmyresearchcareerbeingsurprisedanddelightedtofindsuchasympathetic and active group of play scholars. Many important resources—HelenSchwartzman’s(1978) Transformations ,Gary AlanFine’s(1983) study of Dungeons& Dragons role players in Shared Fantasy , Alan Aycock’s (1993) analysis of chessplayers, and Sutton-Smith’s long-running thoughts and theories of play (see Sutton-Smith & Pellegrini, 1995)—srcinated (and still srcinate) within the conferences,correspondences, and publications of TASP.There are of course many other, equally important influences on the current jour-nal. In particular, I should mention Simulation & Gaming and its assorted and linkedassociations—Association for Business Simulation and Experiential Learning, Inter-national Simulation and Gaming Association, Japan Association of Simulation andGaming, North AmericanSimulationandGamingAssociation,andSocietyfor Inter-culturalEducation,TrainingandResearch—thatcontinuetomotivatewidelyanddis-tributeinternationallyrigorousscholarlyanalysesofgamesandgame-relatedtopics.In lieu of and in dedication to such precedents as Play and Culture and Simulation& Gaming , I am pleased to be a part of this newly focused effort to formalize gamestudies. References Aaron, D. (1985, December 29). Playing with apocalypse. The New York Times , pp. SM22-SM23.Aarseth, E. J. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic literature . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UniversityPress.Aycock, A. (1993). Derrida/Fort-da: Deconstructing play. Postmodern Culture , 3 (2). Retrieved May 1,2005, from, D. (1989).  Making meaning: Inference and rhetoric in the interpretation of cinema . Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press.Caillois, R. (1961). Man, play, and games . New York: Free Press.Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience . New York: HarperPerennial.Erlich,V.(1981).  Russianformalism:History,doctrine (3rded.).NewHaven,CT:YaleUniversityPress.Fine, G. A. (1983). Shared fantasy: Role-playing games as social worlds . Chicago: University of ChicagoPress.Grodal, T. (2003). Stories for the eye, ear, and muscles: Video games, media, and embodied experience. InM. Wolf & B. Perron (Eds.), The video game theory reader  (pp. 129-156). New York: Routledge.Harnard, S. (1990). The symbol grounding problem. Physica D , 42 , 335-346.Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture . Boston: Beacon.Jakobson,R.,&Halle,M.(Eds.).(1956). Fundamentalsoflanguage .TheHague,theNetherlands:Mouton& Co.Johnson-Laird,P. N. (1983). Mental models: Towards a cognitive science of language, inference, and con-sciousness . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Kent, S. L. (2001). The ultimate history of video games: From Pong to Pokémon and beyond: The storybehind the craze that touched our lives and changed the world  . Roseville, CA: Prima.50 Games and Culture
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