How Storytelling Functions in Video Games (Part 2): Defining Video Games, Stories and Play

How Storytelling Functions in Video Games (Part 2): Defining Video Games, Stories and Play

For this second entry of the series, I define some essential terms such as games, video games, and stories. It is surprisingly complicated to define these terms and I do so in order to ensure future reference to the gameplay in a video game, for instance, cannot be misunderstood or misinterpreted. In other words, you are in for a few theoretical definitions, but I promise it is quite interesting to know the difference between these terms. 

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Comments added specifically for this blog post are in bold formatting.
The following is an extract from the Thesis, Video Game Storytelling: How storytelling functions in an interactive medium (2017)

Find Part 1 here.


Games are at their core rule-based systems we can act within, and when I use the term games it will always point back to this basic premise of being a rule-based system. Another important point with games is that they, as Jesper Juul puts it, ‘provide context for actions’ (2005, 18). Exploring systems and rules is inherent in humans; it begins with play and pretend play in early childhood and develops into more cognitive play with games as humans grow up. Evolutionary psychology points towards the possible adaptive functions that are inherent in play behaviour, as a system of learning with a reduced amount of risk (Granic et. al. 2013). Further explanation concerning play is found further down. Sit with a pile of stones and I may move them around for a bit, but without context such movement becomes trivial. I may begin to pile one on top of the other and without thinking much of it, invent my own little game. The goal is to build the highest tower. My only initial rule is that it must be able to stand without my support. And so, I have to figure out how to build the highest tower with the stones I am given. This is merely a simple example, but it works to show how easily we think up games in life.

Often when we think about games today, we will think of board games, and for good reason since these have been around for thousands of years. By adding a board to the game, you add a playing field that offers context to the game and helps us understand more complexities. It also creates a standard format––so that when two people, for instance, sit down to play, they know exactly how to set up the game and what the rules are. The act of limiting gameplay behaviour to a board is an act of placing a restriction on movements, which in turn requires more creative and vital decision-making because every decision ideally impacts the state of the game (Burgun 2012, 25). Paint my aforementioned stones, some black and some white, and add a chequered space between me and someone else, and I am no longer just moving stones about but instead ready to set and play a game of chequers. This also highlights another important feature of games; they are contests. Most often such contest takes place between two or more people, or between people and the game’s system. However, game designer Keith Burgun points out that to elevate something from a contest to a game, it also needs ambiguous decision making—all the effects a decision will have on the game’s future state are unknown to the player, which renders the decision ambiguous in consequence (2012, 7).

Although I shall not refer much to games, their rule-based system that we can act within is the foundation from which video games are built upon through their programming. Having an understanding of how to define games helps distinguish them from video games.


Video Games

I will define video games as a medium with a broad and encompassing nature. As Aarseth puts it, they are, ‘software programs that can emulate any medium, including film, text/novel, graphic novel, and, for that matter, simulate board games and sports. We often commit the mistake of using the metonymic term “games” for software that in reality are integrated crossmedia packages’ (2012, 130). Aarseth highlights the unique flexible nature of video games that allows them to draw on strengths from for instance literature, with notes and letters, or film, through cut-scenes, dialogue, or quick-time events. He also touches upon the point that thinking of video games solely as games, as defined in the previous section, is a mistake. Making use of techniques from other mediums does not detract anything from the value of the video game as a game, it simply allows for a larger variety of expression.

I see video games as an inclusive medium that through its programmed structure fulfils multiple functions for the experiencer depending on the intent of the developer. I therefore suggest defining the video game as: an interactive software program that facilitates ludic play experience through a rule-based system on a binary computational device.

This definition of video games in other words also acknowledges what is often referred to as walking simulations as video games, for the most part, a stance I am more than willing to defend at any time. 

Video games can roughly be divided into two structural categories; those that mainly have an emergent game structure and those that utilise progression as game structure. The emergent structure ‘is the primordial game structure, where a game is specified as a small number of rules that combine and yield large numbers of game variations for which the players must design strategies to handle’ (Juul 2005, 5). Pong (1972) is an example of a video game with an emergent structure. Each and every game will contain slight variations depending on how you and the opposition play. A player may develop strategies for how to best an opponent, but the player cannot create a solution to the game—there is no walkthrough guide to Pong (ibid. 80). The progression structure, as the name alludes, hinges on the player progressing through the video game and completing actions defined as goals. This allows the designer of the game to control the sequence of events more closely (Juul 2005, 5). Video games tend to utilise either the one or the other as the primary structure for their framework. I will focus on video games with a progression structure. When referring to video games throughout the thesis, it will be as defined in the above.


Play & Gameplay

Part of what makes video games as a medium stand out is interactivity. This interactivity in video games is acted out through play. This is why we are said to play video games, or play board games, or even why we play a game of football, hockey, or catch. These are all interactive activities. ‘The ability to play is an innate feature of all mammals […] To play means to perform an activity for pleasure, not out of necessity, although play has survival value insofar as it trains us in important skills, from motor skills to imagination and hypothesis forming’ (Grodal 2009, 172). Moreover, play is also a state of mind in which we accept to act within a certain set of rules. Play behaviour occurs as we test these rules, discover their boundaries, test tactics, manoeuvres, actions and their consequences––in a safe environment. Video games can facilitate this play behaviour via its rules and possibility space, which is why we refer to this specific activity as playing a game and gameplay. The gameplay of a video game in other words consists of the actions and interactions made available to the player within the video game world.


Narrative and Story

Since much of this thesis concerns itself with the stories told in video games, I wish to briefly highlight the distinction between narrative and story that I find most helpful moving forward. Again, I prefer a definition that avoids unnecessary restriction of what qualifies as a story and what does not:

Narrative is widely regarded by scholars as a discourse that conveys a story; story, in turn, has been defined as a mental image formed by four types of constituents […]: (1) a spatial constituent consisting of a world (the setting) populated by individuated existents (characters and objects); (2) a temporal constituent, by which this world undergoes significant changes caused by non-habitual events […]; (3) a mental constituent, specifying that the events must involve intelligent agents who have a mental life and react emotionally to the states of the world (or to the mental states of other agents); (4) a formal and pragmatic constituent, advocating closure and a meaningful message. (Ryan 2014, paragraph 17)

A story can, of course, be delivered in a multitude of ways, including visually through film, but this does not invalidate the idea of the story as a mental image since this definition points to what stories are as we comprehend them cognitively––what our minds require to consider something a story. Ryan’s four constituents in the above offer an inclusive definition of a story that nonetheless still restricts what can and what cannot be considered a story. It is likely possible to create stories that lack one, or even several, of these constituents, but in those cases our understanding of it as a story is expected to be challenged, i.e. leaving out one of these constituents runs the risk of people not perceiving something as a story. The narrative, in turn, is how a story is delivered, i.e. the discourse.

Video games quite naturally present us with several of these constituents as a medium. They always include a spatial constituent (being the gameplay area), a temporal constituent (temporality ensuing the moment we begin to interact with the game), and a mental constituent (the video game will to some degree engage with the player, thereby making the player a mental constituent of the event). In other words, video games quite naturally facilitate our understanding of a story, and it is more a choice of discourse. What kind of world (spatial constituent) do I wish to create? What changes will ensue, and will it be via player action or outside events? Do I add other intelligent agents to the world for the player to bond with, or maybe to antagonise the player? Is there going to be a designed message with the story? Etc.

It is precisely this discourse that we shall further examine throughout the series in order to understand what makes some stories in video games successful, and why others fail. We will see why so many stories in video games are alike, but also what happens when a video game breaks with conventionality.



Aarseth, Espen. 2012. ‘A narrative theory of games’. Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games – FDG ’12: 129-133. doi:10.1145/2282338.2282365

Burgun, Keith. 2010. Game Design Theory: A New Philosophy for Understanding Games. New York, Taylor and Francis.

Granic, Isabela., Adam Lobel, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels. 2013. ‘The Benefits of Playing Video Games’. American Psychologists 69 (1): 66-78. doi:10.1037/a0034857.

Grodal, Torben. 2009. Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture, and Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Juul, Jesper. 2005. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2014. ’Narration in Various Media’. The Living Handbook of Narratology, October 7. Accessed May 31, 2017.


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