Concepts for Videogame Criticism

This page is a collection of recurring ideas that have coloured how I think about games, along with links to the posts where I’ve developed and applied them.

I wrote some notes about this page in a blog post. If you landed here somehow then do check out the browse page to see my most recent writing.

Depiction and representation

Depiction and representation are to a certain extent in contrast with one another.

A photograph might depict a state of affairs because even without learning any conventions of interpretation you can see what the state of affairs is. A written sentence represents a state of affairs but doesn’t depict it because you must know how to read it in order to know what that state of affairs is.

If you can recognise the state of affairs in a photo using the same capacities you would use to recognise the state of affairs itself then the photo is depicting that state of affairs, and not merely representing it.

These concepts help shed light on the nature of videogames as a medium. We can say that cinema can depict visual images and movement, whereas literature can only represent those things. Similarly, games can depict things that other media can only represent. I posit three: control and decision, physical interaction, and social interaction.

I picked up these concepts from the philosophy of art, which I taught for a little while a long time ago.

Introduced in Depiction and Representation

The Freeman problem

The Freeman problem is a tension in story games between the typical demands of narrative and the typical demands of interactive games. Specifically, interaction demands player freedom, which is in tension with the demand that narrative be authored. (We presume that the player of the game is not the author of the narrative. Perhaps merging those two roles would be one way to resolve the tension.) Cf. The hero problem.

Introduced in Two Problems for Interactive Stories

The hero problem

The hero problem is a tension in story games between the typical demands of narrative and the typical demands of interactive games. It is perhaps a special case of the Freeman problem. Specifically, it is the tension between a typical narrative of success and typically failable game mechanics. Cf. The Freeman problem.

Introduced in Two Problems for Interactive Stories

Ludonarrative dissonance

This seems to be a favourite clever-sounding term for aspirational games scholars. All the same, it does get at a really important idea. It’s the thematic incongruence between the playable elements of a game and its superficial narrative.

To show how much overlap of terminology there is even just on this site, consider that this might be expressed as a dissonance of:

  • procedural rhetoric and narrative rhetoric
  • system and metaphor
  • systemic content and metaphoric content
  • (if we want to go really old-school) “gameplay” and “graphics” or “story”

Introduced in “Ludonarrative” is not a Noun: Is Wikipedia… Wrong?!

System and metaphor

If the system is the part of a game which is a structured arrangement of inputs and outputs then the metaphor is everything sitting on top of that, presenting the system to the player and dressing it up with some kind of superficial theme or content. For example, if Luigi is just like Mario but green then that difference exists only in the metaphor. If Luigi jumps higher than Mario and reaches new areas then that difference is in the system.

Things get muddy between these two if you consider hard cases like Luigi being sky blue and so not visible against the background of a level. Although that could be seen as a simple change in the metaphor just as before, this time it seems that we lost a part of the output of the system — a crucial bit of feedback to the player. Therefore these two concepts can’t easily be considered in isolation from one another.

Introduced in System and Metaphor

Systemic and metaphoric content

Metaphoric content is part of the meaning of player action which is contained (primarily at least) in the metaphor and not the system. For instance, changing a player-character costume, if it has no affect on the way the game plays (it’s not noticed by other characters, it grants no special abilities, etc.) is an act which only has metaphoric content. (Note that this doesn’t mean it has no meaning; it just tells us where the meaning lies.)

In contrast, equipping an item that grants faster movement (e.g.) is an action with systemic content because its meaning exists in the system of the game.

Introduced in What Do These Buttons Do?

Narrative rhetoric and procedural rhetoric

Narrative rhetoric is the very “un-gamey” notion of rhetoric, storytelling, or message that is included in most games. We could say that it’s expressed in the metaphor, or that it is the “narrative” part of ludonarrative dissonance. I think it’s safe to think of it as the superficial story in a game.

In contrast to narrative rhetoric, procedural rhetoric is the very “gamey” notion of rhetoric, storytelling, or message that games have in virtue of being interactive. We could say that it’s expressed in the system, or that it’s the “ludo” part of ludonarrative dissonance. In slightly vaguer terms, It is what a game says using its gameplay.

I got these terms from Jordan Shapiro, who notes that he got “procedural rhetoric” from Ian Bogost.

Introduced in Narrative Rhetoric and Procedural Rhetoric


Player-centrism is the prioritisation of the player in game design or interpretation.

It has traditionally been a feature of game worlds that they are fundamentally and essentially traversable by the player character. I take that as a manifestation of player-centrism in design.

For a higher-level example, a game might have a narrative of player-character success or exist mainly to make a player feel good or have fun.

Player-centric interpretation, on the other hand, treats a game merely as a thing to be played, and therefore as incomplete when not played. This can exclude or limit an understanding of games in which they might have artistic value in principle, without actually being interacted with, or in which the player is not supposed to be entertained. (Mattie Brice covered this well, and she’s who I first got the term from.)

Introduced in It’s Not Your World Any More

Player-character identity

Player-character identity is the condition of player and character sharing perspective, knowledge, and abilities.

If the player sees the world through the eyes of a character, only has knowledge of the game world that the character would also have, and has abilities within the game world completely aligned with the character’s abilities, there is a strong identity between player and character.

If the player differs from the character in some of these regards then the identity is weakened. Weakening player-character identity can make for interesting differences in how we interpret the actions of a character. For example, if the player has knowledge that the character can’t — such as visibility beyond obstacles due to a third-person camera, or information from on-screen prompts — then the character, in acting on that knowledge, would appear to have exceptional awareness or judgment, or perhaps some sort of sixth sense or supernatural power, or just fantastic luck.

Player role

I found myself thinking about player role because I realised that the player of a game doesn’t always have a character in the game world. I had previously considered that if there is a player character then that represents what you can do in the game: if your character’s a stealthy spy then you’re going to be doing stealthy spying. But if there’s no player character, then what are you in the game world? You’re a “role”, I decided, and that role is kind of a collection of powers that you have in or over the game world.

This realisation opened up the notion of player character to be more than just what you do in a game. The player character could now be a manifestation of player role in the world of the game — or it could deliberately not be such a manifestation, which is an intriguing avenue of creative exploration in game design.

That line of thinking led directly onto my ideas about player-character identity.