Video Game Theory: How to use Discourse

Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community. 

I promised last week to do something a little less abstract. We’re not going back into analysis mode just yet – I’ll look at some rules next week, though – because I’d like to say a few things about one of the parts of our model that is usually hard for gamers and game developers to grasp fully. I’m talking about discourse.

Remember, the model looks somewhat like this:



So, discourse is the frame around the game that highly informs the interpretive act. If you look back over my analysis, you’ll find that I usually invoke discourse to refer to certain assumptions that can be counted on as being made by people used to playing games.

That is to say: you’d be forgiven for thinking that my position is that discourse is mainly genre. This, however, is not the whole picture.


Geek culture

Firstly, the game-specific discourse that influences our interpretation of games is not limited to rules and systems. There is plenty of game or geek culture in there as well. Look at the hero of last year’s surprise hit Shadow of Mordor, Talion. His family is killed and he then performs a series of assassinations, trying to work his way to the top of an evil organisation where the person responsible sits. This is a concious and narratively potent reference to Assassin’s Creed 2 – from which game Mordor borrows a bit of mechanics as well. Talion even has a tutorial where he learns to stealth kill by sneaking up on his wife and giving her a kiss, reminiscent of the weird little Ezio-as-baby moment at the beginning of Assassin’s Creed 2.



Pop Culture

Secondly, there is a broader pop culture discourse that is readily accessible for most people who play games. Arguably, the most central system of pop culture discourse is the visual language of American film, which is evident in many of the formal elements in Shadow of Mordor. The editing of the initial flashback scene where Talion’s family is murdered is mirroring effective film cutting almost to a fault. Take a look:



A good example is the sequence from 1:50 to 2:05 that uses repeated objects across narrative cuts, fading of background to indicate movement of mind and time, camera movement around a character illustrating the character thinking – all staples of American film language.



Thirdly, there is a broad layer of discourse that is not predicated on the place games have in the cultural landscape – that is, culture that is something other than pop cultural, geek cultural, or mechanic/genre conventional. This is the level of the common culture of the audience, which is dictated mainly by what society they have been brought up in.

In Shadow of Mordor, it is assumed that the audience is familiar with broadly Western conceptions of the soul, the afterlife, memory, fact, justice and vengeance. When Talion’s companion Celebrimbor is searching for the truth behind his lost memories, he is participating in a Western cultural narrative that truth exists, that memory is important to the identity of a person and eventually that there is meaning in attempting to achieve justice for injustices long forgotten.



This is pretty hard to show with a video clip, but essentially it is the same as when Tolkien’s original books were clearly drawing on Christian – specifically Catholic – sources, but simply assumed the ability to recognise it from his audience, without having to be as on the nose about it as C. S. Lewis was in his contemporary Narnia books.

This third layer of discourse is usually the hardest for game developers to draw on, and with good reason. The abundance of geek cultural and pop cultural product enables us to dig into this part of culture and become experts on our niche, usually to the detriment of a general cultural knowledge and insight. Ian Bogost puts it pretty well here.


Summing up

So to sum up, the category of discourse covers four layers:

  1. The genre conventions of games
  2. The broader gamer culture
  3. The broader pop culture
  4. The broader culture

Learning to control references and formal elements pointing to and exploiting each of these four layers is key to influencing the interpretive act of players in a way that helps developers say what they want to say.

Next week: rules!


I’m an associate professor at the Dania Academy of Higher Education in Grenaa, Denmark. We offer two AP level educations focused on game development, one for programmers and one for designers. I teach a flurry of different analytical disciplines, and I will be blogging about various forms of analysis from gameplay and narrative analysis of games to marketing analysis and even occasionally object oriented analysis in relation to game development. My focus is on making analysis a practical skill. I hope to produce insights and lessons for use in further design, rather than analysing for pure fun and knowledge – though that certainly also has its place. Oh, and a warning: I have a weird background for games – philosophy and the study of religion – which may bleed through from time to time. I will try to blog at least once a week – always on Thursdays, occasionally also on Mondays.

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