The academic study of videogames, or at least most of the scientific approaches that I have seen about games, analyze the gaming industry as if it were an incomprehensible phenomenon. As if it were a social phenomenon that will lead humanity to ruin or something like that.
I’ve seen a lot (A LOT) of studies about the almost extinct internet cafés or the studies about the Counter Strike and other games as a defense of violence. Here, we won’t do any of that; here, videogames will be our main object of study, and I promise that I will try not to use a very academic language or immerse myself in the gaming slang.
First, allow me to explain briefly what’s Semiotics, or Semiology, for those who don’t know what this discipline is about.
Roughly, Semiotics is the science that studies signs and their presence within communication and society. Its object of study is the semiosis, what is to say, the production of signs. Both terms come from the Greek, semeio, which literally means sign.
Basically, it studies the symbolic signs that we find in discourses, texts, images, etc. For example, through Semiotics you can analyze advertising guidelines (graphic, radio, audiovisual or multimedia), or we can analyze a book, its plot and its structure.
And what’s a sign? It’s an object that “means something to someone”, and therefore it has a “meaning”.
I really don’t need to explain what videogames are, right? However, we could quickly deduce, according to the previous paragraphs, that games can be analyzed from a semiotic point of view.
This is very simple: each videogame is made up of a large number of signs that acquire meaning only through interaction with users or players. And, in turn, each game is a sign, because it acquires different meanings according to who experienced it.
I won’t give the same meaning to a videogame as my wife would. I will give as an example the famous Age of Empires (AoE), both the first and the second and their expansions.
For some people, AoE is just a strategy game, in which cities are built, armies are raised, and players wage war between each other. For other people, it’s an excellent exercise to learn tactics and strategies of the Middle Ages. For me, Age of Empires is all that and more: it’s a history lesson. And in that context, it acquires a much more valuable meaning.
Analyzing Signs within Videogames
The thesis with which I obtained my Bachelor’s Degree in Social Communication is titled “Videogames and Communication: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Bioshock Semiotic Study”. It consists of a comparative analysis between these two videogames, and was written in conjunction with my friend and colleague, Rodrigo Gusman.
I promise that shortly this document will be available to consult in this same page, but for now, I want to highlight the two main hypotheses with which we work:
- Video games can be thought of as means of communication
- Video games include values
Both approaches are based on the fact that those games we enjoy so much are, essentially, “Productions of Meaning” emitted by an enunciator, with the purpose of entertaining but, in turn, communicating a message.
This isn’t something new or something never seen before: we all know already that fiction can hide the highest teachings and metaphors. Otherwise, why do fables have a moral?
Let’s add the fundamental characteristic of videogames (which in my opinion makes them powerful teaching and / or training tools): interactivity. The author Mariano Zelcer defines games as “texts made to be used”, that is, they depend on our intervention so their history can unfold.
Each video game truly is a story; it presents “a succession of goals and stages and an objective that must be achieved” (definition also established by Zelcer). And each goal and objective that is reached, depend directly on the user’s interaction.
I know that reading definitions, statements and theory of this or that author can be tedious and boring. As I said at the beginning, I will use my background as a social communicator to make this a fun and entertaining experience.
However, I want to emphasize that there is something interesting and very important to point out: many Videogames are works with a lot of production behind, and each of their countless elements can be analyzed from hundreds of disciplines. Even the simplest videogames!
In our case, we chose Semiotics because we felt it was the most interesting approach (and more appropriate for our Thesis work, of course).
What I am trying to say is: I invite each and every one of you to think about Videogames not as a simple leisure tool, but as a complex system of signs. And, if you analyze them carefully, you will see reflected in them deep issues and questions.
Value judgments, posturing, criticism, praise, tributes and homages, hidden messages, all these and more they hide, and it’s our interaction with them the key to access them.