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Spécificités du jeu vidéo : l'occasion d'un questionnement épistémologique

Speaking About and Through Video Games: Towards Verbalizing a New Grammar

Parler à propos et au travers des jeux vidéo : vers la constitution d’une grammaire verbale
Alexandre Dubois


L’un des personnages les plus iconiques de l’histoire du jeu vidéo, Mario, est célèbre pour son saut. Avant même de connaître le scénario des jeux estampillés Super Mario, leurs objectifs ou leurs univers, la plupart des joueurs identifie Mario par sa capacité à sauter. Un cas loin d’être isolé puisque de nombreux autres personnages de jeux vidéo sont reconnaissables à travers l’action qui les définie : si Mario saute, Sonic court, Megaman tire et Solid Snake se cache. Puisque qu’un certain nombre de chercheurs se sont penchés sur cette caractéristique, au point d’établir une grammaire dans laquelle les verbes définissent la structure de nombreux jeux, cet article se propose de prendre ces tropes linguistiques au mot en suggérant que l’infinitif est la forme primaire desdits verbes. Faire ce choix-là permet de mettre en lumière les moyens d’expression dont dispose le joueur lorsqu’il ou elle utilise les boutons d’une manette ou d’un clavier, mais également lorsque ces boutons ne sont pas utilisés, c’est-à-dire non conjugués et à l’état de potentialités. Ce travail démontre enfin que les verbes qui se rapportent au jeu vidéo représentent des désignations venant du joueur et dirigées vers l’écran, faisant de ce dernier et de l’image qu’il contient l’objet d’un autre regard.

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1Why did a small plumber dressed in red, wearing a cap and a prominent moustache, become one of the most iconic characters in the history of video games? At first sight, Mario appears grotesque in his overalls, even more so when progressing in a world full of green pipes, turtles, mushrooms and so on. But Mario’s success is to be found in that he personifies video games, in that he gives an appearance to the specificity and inherent logic of video games—one that only finds coherence from a player’s perspective and no other. In fact, the main defining trait of Mario resides in his equally famous capacity to jump. Like many of his peers, from Sonic’s running to Solid Snake’s hiding, Mario is characterized by his prominent action, to the point of defining entire games around it. The levels and enemies in Super Mario games, for instance, are built around the verb “to jump,” allowing the players to experience as many facets of said verb as possible, thus triggering numerous interactions and possibilities within the games’ worlds. Such a verbal aspect contains a linguistic component as well, that ought to be studied in parallel with its gaming elements. Jean-François Lyotard exemplifies the connection between language and games by referring to Wittgenstein’s notion of language-games, where discourse is paired up with its defining rules. The French philosopher writes:

2What [Wittgenstein] means by [language-games] is that each of the various categories of utterance can be defined in terms of rules specifying their properties and the uses in which they can be put—in exactly the same way as the game of chess is defined by a set of rules determining the properties of each of the pieces, in other words, the proper way to move them… every utterance should be thought of as a “move” in a game (LYOTARD, 1984, 10).

3My own take follows these assumptions which link the act of speech with that of playing, while considering what other implications they may open for the study of video games. In brief, this article ponders the role and importance of a video game vocabulary based on verbs, both to point out the players’ capacity to speak through the act of play, but also to extend the scholars’ ability to speak about games. In particular, this article focuses on the understanding of a video game grammar in which verbs indicate the player’s limited yet expressive potentialities—an expressivity which culminates in an act of designation occurring via the controller’s inputs directed towards the screen. Because video games are composed of two different elements—the controller and its inputs on the one hand, the screen with the video game image on the other—the player designates the screen as being separated from the input devices, so that he or she becomes self-conscious of the act of playing and of the way the image may be looked at. This gives way to a different type of sight applied on the game’s graphic representation, a sight that proves to be in conjunction with the video game grammar in which the properties of the rules lie in their constant re-definition.

4For the purposes of this work I will set aside the debate between ludologists and narratologists and the numerous questions that deserve attention in this context: are video games to be studied for their narrative aspects or for their mechanical and semiotic aspects alone; is there a methodological approach that should prevail others (even if, for a field such as this one, rejecting any method seems paradoxical with the idea of play); the narrativity that takes place within a game’s mechanics and vice-versa. These matters being out of the scope of this study, I wish to restrict myself to the singular relationship that holds between linguistics and video games, the manner in which verbs act as potentialities and designations.

Infinitive Verbs in Video Games

  • 1 The three others being “Information manipulation”; “Automated Complex Systems” and “Networked Commu (...)

5In their book Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define digital games in four traits, the first of which being “Immediate but Narrow Interactivity1.” A fighting game such as Street Fighter II (CAPCOM, 1992), for instance, gives players a limited set of inputs, confined in the number of buttons the controller displays:

6Yet within this limited interactive vocabulary, players can develop highly personal fighting styles and take part in a vast range of different game experiences. The lightning-quick response of the program, paired with the streamlined control input, contribute to the uniquely meaningful play of a well-designed fighting game (ANTHROPY, CLARK, 2011, 87).

  • 2 Espen J. Aarseth, in his book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, studies the questions (...)

7Inherently designed as limited forms of interaction, video games bring meaningfulness to the player’s inputs by way of subtraction, aiming at doing more with less. Such a characteristic entails a restricted number of tools to interact with—and the less of them, the more impactful they may get, the richer they may prove to be. In that regard, Roger Caillois defines the term “Play” by indicating that: “The game consists of the need to find or continue at once a response which is free within the limits set by the rules. This latitude of the player, this margin accorded to his action is essential to the game and partly explains the pleasure which it excites” (CAILLOIS, 2001, 8). What applies here to games also applies to video games, in which the player’s freedom—confined within limits—brings for this very reason “the remarkable and meaningful uses of the term ‘play’”. Further, it seems that Caillois hints at the association of limitation and freedom in the need to constitute a “response”—a word which brings games and language together, and which implies the acceptation of a system of rules that the player reacts to. As referred to above, Salen and Zimmerman also juxtapose games with language when referring to the “limited interactive vocabulary,” and thus calling into question the nature of the players’ inputs as means of expression. Looking to establish a critical discourse in the new field of video game theory, the two authors correlate the interactive devices of digital games with those of language. These considerations between buttons on a controller or keys on a keyboard and language would be negligible if isolated, however numerous scholarly investigations rely on linguistics tropes in order to talk about video games2.

8Among these investigations, a more recent work entitled A Game Design Vocabulary, written by Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark, expands on the necessity of establishing a basic vocabulary to ponder the role of rules in games—to that end, the authors propose a grammar where verbs would embody “any rule that gives the player liberty to act within the rules of the game. Any rule that lets the player change the game state. Any rule that lets the player do something” (ANTHROPY, CLARK, 2011, 15). In Super Mario games, the verb “to jump” corresponds to the most meaningful rule which can change the game state: the possibility to jump so to vanquish enemies, avoid obstacles and reach the levels’ ends. Mario’s main verb is also fruitful because it communicates with another verb, “to move,” so that the player can coordinate both verbs when the character needs to leap over obstacles, onto enemies, etc. This relationship between inputs reinforces the meaningfulness of interactions, and verbs appear to be experimental tools with which one may understand a game’s specific grammar and possibilities.

9Since buttons on a controller are arbitrarily linked to actions performed on a screen, one may suggest that video games rely on the arbitrariness of the sign. It follows that buttons correspond to verbs assigned by the game and through which the players interact—like linguistic signs, each video game’s verbs contain a wide array of meanings depending on how they are used. When a button is pressed, released or held, it gives way to a different meaning of the same verb, or so to say a different conjugation. Mario may jump for a short or a long time, in rapid successions or in slow stretches depending on the player’s use of the verb, re-shaping the grammar so to experience new meanings. Anthropy goes further in saying that verbs should be “robust” by constantly giving feedback: “Every interaction that the player could reasonably expect to have an effect should have one, even if it’s negative—that’s what I mean by a robust verb” (ANTHROPY, CLARK, 2011, 20). When Mario jumps and hits blocks from below, the latter are either destroyed, releasing a power-up or they may even be unbreakable if Mario is in its weakest form. In all these cases, the result of the player’s choice to jump receives an immediate feedback, whether positive or negative, so that the game’s rules reveal themselves through experimentations. Verbs not only help the player to understand the general rules of a game, but also to understand the verbs themselves—although, instead of calling them robust, I would like to suggest qualifying them as infinitives, for several reasons that I will expose throughout this article. The first one responds to the incentive of the scholarly community to link linguistics concepts with game theory, so that infinitive verbs recall a grammarian perspective. The second reason is that infinitives are unconjugated verbs which correspond to possibilities that may or may not be triggered, depending on the player’s intent. If the player decides to use a verb, it will be usable again as soon as the input is sent, coming back to its infinitive form because available to any other conjugation. A good verb relies as much on its effect onto the screen as on its dormant potentialities when the player is not using it, leaving it unspent. Infinitive verbs would thus show that there is a space of meaningful possibilities awaiting for the player in between conjugations. By way of example, we can go back to Mario’s jump which does not have any finite form nor usage—as soon as the button is pushed, the verb resets to its infinitive state and its numerous potential applications. In video games, infinitive verbs coincide with their etymology, that of the Latin infinitus which implies their limitlessness and explains the absence of any transcendental signified, of any absolute and fixed referent: “The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely” (DERRIDA, 1978, 280). Each video game grammar is composed of a limited set of infinitive verbs asking for their endless re-definition and usage, being in constant oscillation in regard to their meaning and effects. The act of play, therefore, recalls Claude Lévi-Strauss’s definition of the bricoleur as defined by Derrida:

10The bricoleur, says Lévi-Strauss, is someone who uses ‘the means at hand,’ that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogenous—and so forth. There is therefore a critique of language in the form of bricolage, and it has been said that bricolage is critical language itself (DERRIDA, 1978, 285).

11The bricoleur takes familiar parts and uses them to invent new functions, sabotaging the common usage of tools by giving them new and different usages. One may think of the exploit of glitches and bugs in speedruns for instance, in the sense that it leads to beating a game faster than normally intended by the developers. Such exploits proceed from a mindset which takes what is “already there,” “the means at hand” but reconfigures them to attain goals. Bricolage entails the idea of re-organization and re-definition of elements within the game—especially the verbs—and culminates in their implicit critique, the critique of an accepted language through the revelation of its limitations and arbitrariness. But critiquing language is the necessary step so to bring forth its strength and possibilities. Once again, it is within the limits—and their showing—of the game’s rules that the player embraces freedom and meaningfulness.

  • 3 This verb, at the center of the game’s vocabulary, inspired many other video games which integrated (...)

12The infinitive contains yet another layer that justifies its importance. Appearing either under a bare or a full form, the infinitive may add a particle “to” before the verb itself; doing so results in a grammatical change, where the full infinitive may also function as a noun, and could embody the subject of the sentence. When Anthropy ponders the most important characters in a digital game, she refutes them as being the protagonists, the heroes and so on, because “in linear stories, we’re used to nouns—people—being the ones who develop. But the protagonists of our games, the nouns, aren’t rules” (ANTHROPY, CLARK, 2011, 15). Contrary to verbs, the nouns do not embody any rule. However, when in full form, an infinitive can be both a noun and a verb, emphasizing on the real subjects of video games’ grammar: the verbs. “To jump” would thus constitute the infinitive verb that acts as the subject of Super Mario games—relegating the character Mario to a visual coordinate for the player’s eyes, a pretense of the verb—and the subject of the player’s speech when playing. This would explain why, from a non-player’s perspective, Mario’s lore appears peculiar and nonsensical, mixing all together mushrooms, turtles, pipes, carnivorous plants, gold coins or even blocks suspended in the air, and doing so while keeping a paradoxical coherence in terms of game design. For what links these disparate elements together is the gameplay itself, the relation between verbs and their potentialities. The lore is designed in such a way that it gives the player incentives to use verbs, to learn and use the game’s set of tools, hence the design of the first enemy encountered in Super Mario Bros (NINTENDO EAD, 1985): a mushroom, that is an enemy having a shape which intimates the player “to jump” on it. Tom Bissell, in his analysis of the video game Gears of War (EPIC GAMES and THE COALITION, 2006), indicates a similar process and calls it “conceptual contrast.” Many paradoxes reside in this game’s lore, according to Bissell, starting with the fact that this is “a science fiction game that grounds its weapons in the technology of the Vietnam era and draws its architecture from Regency Britain” (Grantland, 9th and 10th paragraphs). Another example comes soon after, when Bissell states that the game’s protagonists are both “huge, ostensibly indestructible giants, and yet the vast majority of the game finds them diving toward cover with Nureyevian grace and cowering behind it like boys playing hide-and-seek.” The reason for such a dissemblance lies in the prevalence and consistency of the game’s main verb: to take cover. By pressing the A button, the player may choose to take cover so to avoid being hit by enemies shooting at the character3. But this verb does not only embody the action of taking cover, since it is also used to activate other related verbs such as getting out of cover, climbing an object (that serves as a cover), switching rapidly from one cover to another, etc. Situated at the core of Gears of War, the verb “to take cover” gives meaning to the game’s grammar, so that the absurdity rising from heavily armed soldiers getting into cover in the blink of an eye appears, in fact, coherent from a player’s standpoint.

Designating the Video Game Image

13Coming back and extending on the infinitive’s particle “to,” one may consider a few other of its grammatical functions, for in the video game field, “to” can also be a preposition or an adverb in order to indicate the relation between the player’s inputs and the screen. From the player to the game, what seems to be a particle also shows the direction of the inputs, their intent towards the game on screen. Pressing the verb “to jump” may well designate the player’s purpose as well as the destination of its intent: the re-arrangement of the game’s graphic representation on screen, i.e. the video game image.

14To ponder what happens between the player and the video game image we ought to understand first what is shown on screen from a designer’s perspective. Game designers not only establish verbs but also scenes, that is to say the space under which the verbs will be used, the images and elements the player will see and interact with. Since it is impossible to police a player’s performance, designers guide what can be done within a certain context by setting up props that will trigger possibilities rather than fixed linearities. Thus, video games may well be thought in terms of non-linear shapes, so that what appears on screen echoes what Anthropy names the “space of possibilities.” She writes: “The space of possibilities in a scene encompasses all the ways that the player has to move within the game’s shape by making choices” (ANTHROPY, CLARK, 2011, 50). By containing numerous ways to be traversed and dealt with, such a space offers to the player’s eyes not one point of focus, but several, fragmenting the act of seeing into an ability to discern multiple elements at once, all containing choices. This characteristic recalls Jean-François Lyotard’s account on painting as what cannot be linearly perceived:

15The painting is not to be read, as contemporary semiology would have it. Rather, as Klee put it, it has to be grazed, it makes visible, giving itself up to the eye like the exemplary thing it is, like naturing nature… since it makes visible seeing itself. What is more, it makes visible that seeing is a dance. To look at a painting is to draw paths across it, or at least to collaboratively draw paths, since in executing it the painter laid down, imperiously (albeit tangentially), paths to follow (LYOTARD, 2011, 9).

16This depiction of the painter shares similarities with the game designer’s intent to disseminate varied ways to look at an image, resulting in the empowerment of the spectator’s eyes, to whom sight has been given the ability to “remobilize” the artwork itself. Sight is no longer characterized by its grasp and fixation over a specific point, rather it skims through the traces left by the author and escapes any permanent understanding. Whether it is a painting, a poem or a videogame, a spectator’s graze does not settle on any one interpretation since it wishes to preserve all possible outcomes. Such a phenomenon recalls Espen J. Aarseth’s concept of ergodic: “a term appropriated from physics that derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path.” In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text” (AARSETH, 1997, 1). Following these considerations and extending them to the case of video games, I argue that a player’s input is a designation which embodies both a work and a path: the work of the player who utters, who speaks through the act of play, as well as the path his or her sight follows when pressing a button so to remobilize the game’s state. It is necessary to understand that designation entails speaking and seeing, and that both of them take effect in conjunction with one another, since video games are composed of two different elements: the controller enabling utterances and the video game image enabling a graze. Recounting André Leroi-Gourhan’s hypothesis on the function of the oldest language, Lyotard explains the act of designation by stating that:

17the first significative spoken units were uttered by a narrator who simultaneously gestured toward the corresponding painted figures during ceremonial processions followed by the tribe in temple-caverns. The hypothesis is very appealing since the function of designation immediately comes across in all its power and specificity. The latter hinges on two decisive points: speech is not uttered in the absence of the designated thing, but in its presence; and the designated thing is not a thing but a symbol which legitimately can be said from the outset to be opaque (LYOTARD, 2011, 81).

  • 4 “To take cover” proves to be a good example since it may also “cover up” an image with opacity.
  • 5 Although the camera angles can be altered depending on the player’s use of verbs and control of the (...)

18Inscribed in language, designation appears as an utterance pointing out a corresponding object, a gesture towards something that is already there and that is put into light as soon as the designation takes place. If the utterance only takes effect when the designated thing is present, it means that the former and the latter are related yet separated, for according to Lyotard words are not signs but when they appear: “the designated object becomes sign. For an object to become sign means precisely that it conceals a ‘content’ hidden within its manifest identity, that it withholds another side of itself for a different glance upon it, a glance that might never be taken” (LYOTARD, 2011, 82). By designating an object, the word adopts a glance to the detriment of others so that the object acquires opacity at the same time as it is made visible when designated. To put it differently, when designation sheds light upon something it shows both a presence and an absence, since designation, in the very moment it brings one thing into relief, also intimates that “something remains to be made visible, an unseen” (LYOTARD, 2011, 82). These considerations hold true when thinking about video games, in the sense that verbs designate the screen, an opaque image which, when designated, only shows a facade, hiding content from its manifest identity. In Gears of War, the camera is situated over the shoulder of the character, and inherently hides what lies behind. Moreover, when the player decides to take cover, the camera comes closer to the character, bringing forth a more immersive perspective which narrows down the field of view. Here, pressing the button A to take cover designates an image that specifies a viewpoint and thus briefly conceals all other perspectives4. Situated within a whole game’s world, the video game image is spatially taking place in a geographical environment without being able to cover it all, so that in the same manner as cinematographic shots compose an entire film, the video game image is composed of restricted angles within the whole world it situates itself in5. When the player designates such an image, it is highlighted and grazed, that is to say traversed by a self-conscious sight aware of all the possible paths that may be taken. Visibility withholds invisibility because the game world is a structure which retains glances that may or may not be chosen. And within that structure, the player’s inputs act as a speech, an utterance withdrawing itself so to bring a new line of sight onto an image, as Lyotard explains:

19Far from placing itself before the thing and blocking it, the word dissolves in order to bring the thing into relief. Neither a substitute hiding the thing, nor itself a symbol re-presenting the thing through its own substance or form, the word is merely, in the speaker’s experience, a perforation [percée] through which the thing comes into view, a line of sight that makes it visible. There is thus indeed a distance from the word to this thing, from the utterance to its object in general—but this distance, far from being a thickness to be crossed, is the one in which the gesture points to its object; it is the depth of atmospheric space that assumes light to be the medium where seeing takes effect (LYOTARD, 2011, 82).

  • 6 This point may raise the question of designation in the case of smartphones and computer tablets wh (...)

20Do game verbs correspond to a “perforation” through which a line of sight appears, a path is drawn towards the object? At the very moment they are used, verbs seem to perforate then recede to their unspent potentials because they are at the service of a sight which remobilizes the image. For this type of sight to take effect the gesture needs to be distanced from its object—a distance that spatially detaches the player’s inputs from the screen6, and yet another distance that appears from the disparity between the player’s physical actions in the real world and the video game image. Indeed, pondering the controller’s physical presence as well as the movements of the player’s hands over it culminates in nonsense when juxtaposed to the game’s actions, for what holds together a button A and the action “to jump” if not artificial arbitrariness? Graeme Kirkpatrick argues that learning to use a controller usually does not coincide with a game’s coherence since it contrasts with the latter’s own world where these input devices do not belong to. This divergence is even more patent when some video games show pictures of the controller on screen (during tutorials for instance), resulting in the player’s detachment from the video game image. Kirkpatrick writes: “An image of the controller appears on the screen and we look at our own hands as if from a new distance… we must sense the discrepancy between our ‘real’ actions and their translation into ‘action’ in the game” (KIRKPATRICK, 2011, 106). During the 2014’s Game Developers Conference, Frank Lantz mentions a video game named QWOP, in which the player participates in a 100-meter footrace by controlling an athlete’s legs with the “Q,” “W,” “O,” and “P” computer keys. By focusing on the control of legs and by having the pictures of the fours keys directly projected on screen, the player becomes self-conscious of his or her gaming situation, of the distance between what he or she is doing and the actions in game. This operation results in the re-understanding of a simple act such as walking which becomes thought and self-aware, made difficult because deliberate, conscious. In the same manner as Lyotard coined painting as what “makes visible seeing itself,” Lantz formulates QWOP’s implicit meaning as that of “thought made visible to itself” (GDC, 11:33). Along those lines, I argue that the act of designation embodies a distance that gives way to grazing, i.e. a self-conscious sight traversing an artwork while constantly reminded of other different paths. As I previously mentioned, a video game’s grammar constituted of verbs in the infinitive form is helpful so to emphasize the word “to” as the player’s utterance which becomes a preposition, designating a direction towards the verb acting on screen. In Gears of War, each time the player is close to a wall, a picture appears at the bottom of the screen showing both a button and its corresponding action: the button explicitly appears side by side with what it triggers and recalls the two words of the infinitive—to (the button A for instance) and take cover (the symbol of the action). Constituted of two words, the full form of the infinitive exemplifies the essential separation between the act of designation and its object, so that “to jump” or “to take cover” may also mean “towards jumping,” “towards taking cover.”

  • 7 Games belonging to the genre “First Person Shooter,” for instance, may share the same layout of ver (...)

21When pondering the question of distance and the arbitrariness of input devices over the game’s world, another consideration may appear and offer some fruitful discussions—namely, the issue regarding speed. If one acknowledges the buttons as verbal utterances, starting a new game would symbolize the entrance in an unknown grammar that needs to be learned from the player. Each game containing a specific grammar, beginning one often entails learning new verbs from scratch; and despite some common verbs that games may share, new verbs need to be learned most of the time7. This abrupt and fast way of acquiring vocabulary in games also appertains to language which, according to Lévi-Strauss, “could only have been born in one fell swoop:”

22Whatever may have been the moment and the circumstances of its appearance on the scale of animal life, language could only have been born in one fell swoop. Things could not have set about acquiring signification progressively… a transition came about from a stage where nothing had a meaning to another where everything possessed it (qtd. in DERRIDA, 1978, 291).

  • 8 Of course, there are more and more video games which contain a tutorial that gives the player a pro (...)

23If the abruptness of the birth of language may not be of the same scale than the mere start of a game, I still wish to bring up this comparison since not only it matches Lyotard’s recalling of the oldest language, from which the “first significative spoken units” embodied an act of designation, but also because entering in a game’s world implies that the controller’s set of inputs—previously insubstantial—suddenly acquires a whole array of signification. Jumping from game to game would thus resemble jumping from a set of significations to another, or, more precisely, casting aside a previous game’s vocabulary so to acquire a new one. In this light, it is not so much that the buttons on a controller are meaningless since an experienced player attaches meaning to them according to his or her gaming history; however, there is a re-acquisition that takes place each time a new game begins. I will go further by stating that, from a language point of view, starting a video game is done in media res, that is to say into the middle of things. If a game’s narration may or may not start from the beginning, what happens from the linguistic mindset is that a new game’s vocabulary appears in a swoop, handing over all of its rules and mechanics as soon as one enters a closed system that “has no other but an intrinsic meaning” (CAILLOIS, 2001, 7). Beginning Super Mario Bros for the first time, one instantly encounters the verbs jump, move and crouch; what is left to do is to learn their usage and how to master them, but since these verbs are rules which define the game itself, their signification cannot but appear all of a sudden8.


24Mario’s physical appearance and peculiar universe are that of play, an isolated activity which only finds comprehensibility within itself, within the boundaries a game set up so to define itself. In a word, Mario only makes sense within its eponymous video games, for they contain their intrinsic language and logic. As Caillois puts it: “In every case, the game’s domain is… a restricted, closed, protected universe: a pure space… The game has no other but an intrinsic meaning. That is why its rules are imperative and absolute” (CAILLOIS, 2001, 7). Infinitive verbs act as rules which give both limits and expressivity to the player, who is engaged in a skillful bricolage with the provided tools, doing more with less. Language is what enables the player’s expressivity to designate the video game image, and thus, to bring into relief an image that hides the game’s world and structure as soon as a line of sight is chosen and made visible in regard to said game. This is why designation shows as much as it hides, and helps one to understand that a game is a space of its own that restrains its totality from any one glance.

25Moreover, in the presence of a confined system, it remains to ponder the separation between the non-game’s space and the game’s one. If there is indeed a limited space for play, how does one delimit the limits? To put it differently, how does one begin in media res when the system contains no beginning nor end? I would suggest that there is a fundamental designation at stake in these questions, one that brings into relief not so much the image, but the game itself. That specific interactivity—the one which initializes a game as a separated activity and space—does not belong to the game’s world yet remains essential so one may enter it. For the only way to get into a game is through a designation which perforates and gives a line of sight, a primary verb—to start—which stands alongside video games since their young existence. “Press A to Start” is the digital formulation of an oral agreement between players, allowing a game to begin and recalling the arbitrariness of the sign that appertains to language. In the end, “to start” gives a game its function and perforates its restricted space at high speed, that is to say the speed of a verb in between significations and which belongs neither to the rules it designates nor to the space it addresses.

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AARSETH, Espen J., Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

ANTHROPY, Anna, CLARK, Naomi, A Game Design Vocabulary: Exploring the Foundational Principles Behind Good Game Design, Crawfordsville, Addison-Wesley Professional, 2014.

BISSELL, Tom, “The Art and Design of Gears of War”, Grantland, published online on 09/12/2011, consulted on June 1, 2017. URL:

CAILLOIS, Roger, Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barash, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, [1958] 2001.

DERRIDA, Jacques, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago, The University of Chicago press, [1967] 1978.

JÄRVINEN, Aki, Games without Frontiers: Methods for Games Studies and Design, Tempere, Acta Electronica Universitatis Tamperensis 701, 2008.

KIRKPATRICK, Graeme, Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game, Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 2011.

LANTZ, Frank, “Hearts and Minds”, GDC Vaults, published online on 12/19/2014, consulted on June 1, 2017. URL:

LYOTARD, Jean-François, Discourse, Figure, trans. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, [1971] 2011.

LYOTARD, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis, The University of Minnesota Press, [1979] 1984.

SALEN, Katie, ZIMMERMAN, Eric, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, London, The MIT Press, 2004.


CAPCOM, Street Fighter II, Super Famicom, Capcom, [1991] 1992.

EPIC GAMES and THE COALITION, Gears of War, Xbox 360, Microsoft Studios, 2006.

NINTENDO EAD, Super Mario Bros., Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo, 1985.

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1 The three others being “Information manipulation”; “Automated Complex Systems” and “Networked Communication” (SALEN, Katie, ZIMMERMAN, Eric, 2004, 87-88).

2 Espen J. Aarseth, in his book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, studies the questions of language and games, among other matters. On a similar note, Aki Järvinen, in his work Games without Frontiers: Methods for Games Studies and Design, refers to game mechanics as verbs (see 263).

3 This verb, at the center of the game’s vocabulary, inspired many other video games which integrated a cover system in their mechanics, with more or less success.

4 “To take cover” proves to be a good example since it may also “cover up” an image with opacity.

5 Although the camera angles can be altered depending on the player’s use of verbs and control of the “camera” in some 3D games, it does not change the fact that the player will only have one limited perspective at a time.

6 This point may raise the question of designation in the case of smartphones and computer tablets where the player touches the screen, meaning that the input is done directly on it. In effect, it does not change the separation that still exists between the input and the image since the latter still needs an input that is exterior to it. What it may be interesting to ponder is the function and status of the screen itself, in contrast with the image. In that specific case, the screen seems to be a new device for inputs, separated from the image it projects.

7 Games belonging to the genre “First Person Shooter,” for instance, may share the same layout of verbs, such as aiming, shooting, reloading and so on, usually corresponding to the same set of buttons so as not to restrain the learning curve of their grammar. There is also a wide array of games containing common verbs such as “to jump” or “to run” for instance.

8 Of course, there are more and more video games which contain a tutorial that gives the player a progressive learning curve, but tutorials are short and condense numerous verbs in a limited span of time.

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Référence électronique

Alexandre Dubois, « Speaking About and Through Video Games: Towards Verbalizing a New Grammar », Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #23 | 2018, mis en ligne le 10 octobre 2018, consulté le 28 octobre 2020. URL :

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Alexandre Dubois

is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota focusing on poetry, geography and theology, but also on video game studies. His dissertation project, in short, examines how nineteenth-century French poetry developed a sacred and unconquerable space in opposition to imperial expansionism, epitomized by the growth of international railway networks. He published two articles: one entitled "Le nihilisme intégral" in a collective volume at the Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre (2017); another one called "Dire 'Adieu' au 'Génie' - Le sacré des lointains chez Rimbaud," in Parade Sauvage (2017), the leading journal on Arthur Rimbaud.

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