Tag Archives: semiotics

Terminological Technicalities

I recently* asked my facebook friends the following:

1. Do you prefer to use the term ‘video game’, ‘video-game’, ‘videogame’ or ‘computer game’?
2. Do you think it’s an arbitrary choice?

This was inspired by having “video game” corrected to “video-game” in compound forms (such as “video-game music”) during a review process, a correction I found a little odd. While it seems to be a matter of grammar, it did get me thinking about how even the most fundamental terminology can be up for discussion.

My readings of video game theory etc. tend to indicate that there’s no single accepted form. A lengthy treatise on some aspect of video games will sometimes discuss the matter briefly, indicating (more or less) that the author thinks each term has these or those pros and cons but that they prefer the particular term they’ll use because reasons. Karen Collins often refers to “video games audio”, David Myers chooses “computer game”, and both “videogame” and “video game” are well represented in academic discourse and the press. Each has good points and bad points. I prefer “video game” because reasons. Well, because habit really. I know I thought about it for a while when I was writing my honours thesis, but I can’t remember the details of that inner dialogue — I just know it must have happened, because until then I used “computer game”.

Anyway, I asked my friends the question above. As expected, there was a fairly even representation between “video game” and “videogame”, with a slight preference towards “video game”, and a few preferences for “computer game” or “console game”. There was fairly wide consensus that “video-game” wasn’t an option. Two editor friends pointed out that a hyphenated form is sometimes used when a compound modifies a noun, but that since “video game” is an accepted form (a head word in the Macquarie Dictionary, also accepted by the OED) the hyphenated form probably shouldn’t be used. Aside from that, the difference between “video game” and “videogame” did seem to come down to personal preference and/or local conventions, i.e. US or UK or Australian English usage norms.

The more divisive question was whether “video*game” or “computer game” was more accurate. This tended to boil down to technological factors and preferences, but there also emerged a sense that “video*game” was a conventional term that has perhaps outlived its accuracy. My friend Darvids0n made this point:

Video game is what I say, but computer game is what I mean…. Any console, handheld, phone/tablet/phablet or personal computer is now classifiable as a ‘computer’ imo, and definitely not merely a ‘video’ device. Smart TVs are even computers.

My friend Kyle made this point:

computer game – noun – a game utilizing a computer
video game – noun – a computer game with moving images

which agrees with another point made by Darvids0n:

Whack-A-Mole is not a video game but it is a computer game (arcade if you want to be pedantic)

(which makes the assumption, I presume, that the arcade game has some electronic controls behind it – probably a safe assumption for later versions of the game). In favour of using different terms based on the device on which you’re playing, another friend, Toby, said:

I use “video game” when I’m talking about something played on the TV and “computer game” for one on my computer. In any other situation I’d probably just say “game”

while Evan said:

Computer game and console game. This differentiates primarily between keyboard/mouse and controller based input. Video game is too old and non-specific for me – it’s like ‘moving pictures’.

However, Kyle counter-argued in favour of a text-based rather than device-based classification:

Is minecraft a computer game one day and a console game the next depending on how you’re playing it? No. It is a video game, plain and simple.

I see merit in both these arguments — the device on which you play can greatly affect your experience of a game, and yet if you play the same game on different devices you’re likely to get a very similar experience. Personally I think there’s a good case to be made for sticking with a conventional term like “video game” for the medium as a whole, and using more specific terms as required.

Take Osmos (Hemisphere Games, 2009) for example. This game is available on nearly all platforms — Windows, Linux, Mac, iOS and Android — and the player experience is quite similar on each aside from the user input aspect (I think the touch screens of mobile devices work best, but the mouse is just as usable). I’ve played it most on my phone so I kinda think of it as a mobile game. But on my computer it works as a computer game, with near identical visual and sonic experiences. If I were discussing the similarities between the phone and computer experiences, I could differentiate using the terms “mobile game” and “computer game”; likewise if I were discussing the differences in the haptic experiences. But if I’m just talking about Osmos as a text, the term “video game” works perfectly well.

And yet, the term “video game” does seem, in Evan’s words, “too old and non-specific” in a sense. Many computer games use moving images, but I think it’s difficult to argue that the moving images are all that sets them apart from other games (music, anyone?). Two friends called Paul contributed thoughts on this point — Paul 1 believed that the distinctions between the terms discussed were arbitrary because:

We misuse the word ‘game’ in ‘video game’ so much that being finicky about the word ‘video’ seems silly

While Paul 2 preferred the term “videogame” because:

While board games are games played on boards, you can argue that video.*games don’t require videos or games (in the traditional sense). They’re a new form of media so they ought to be given a single-word name.

Regardless of the terminology chosen, video games can differ markedly from other forms of games even to the point where the definition of “game” is a relevant discussion. It’s possible that the terms “digital game” or “electronic game” create a subset of “game” sufficiently different from other game forms and sufficiently encompassing of the diversity found in games on computers, consoles, mobiles and tamagotchis. Some do use these terms, and I have to admit the reasons seem compelling, but not quite compelling enough to overcome convention. It’s nice when people know what you’re talking about immediately, and “ludomusicology” is a term that tends to use up many of the explainings. Or, perhaps we could follow my friend Andy‘s advice:

People should start saying vig for [VI]deo [G]ame. Along the same lines as movie for moving picture. I’ll inform the President of Games about this.

All in all, it was an interesting discussion. And it relates to a number of different discussions I’ve come across through my studies — ludology versus narratology, “semiology” versus “semiotics”, the rise and significance of mobile gaming, etc.  If you have any further thoughts, let me know in the comments or on the socials.


*Because I started writing this post in 2014 it’s probably best to consider this term in the cosmological time scale



My article “Meaningful Play: Performativity, Interactivity and Semiotics in Video Game Music” has been published in Musicology Australia, the journal of the Musicological Society of Australia. It follows directly from a paper I gave at the Performative Voices conference at the University of South Australia in 2012, and which I also gave (slightly revised) at the Ludo 2013 and MaMI 2013 conferences.

From the abstract:

Through an understanding of interactivity as a performative act, we can treat the musical experience of gameplay as the text to be studied—a text the player has a non-trivial role in creating. The player’s unique series of actions during gameplay evolves into an interpretation of the designers’ complete, preconceived game experience. Similarly, although music is received in a series of unique contexts during gameplay, the player’s actions shape the music into an interpretation of the musical experience envisioned by the composer… Video game music exhibits a twofold semiosis, the analysis of which must contextualise both the music’s initial composition and the player’s interactivity in relation to the complete musical experience.

The article can be found online here. If you have institutional access, go have a read!

Satisfaction in abstraction

I’m increasingly aware of a preference I have for the study of abstractions. In its current form, this is manifesting as an enjoyment of musical semiotics, which I’ve been studying for thesis and prospective article purposes. This isn’t a new thing for me, I think. When I started to find undergraduate physics too hard because I’d forgotten how to do integral calculus in the year between school and uni, I majored in pure mathematics instead. I’ve always found the application of mathematical models to real-life situations a bit challenging; on the other hand, algebra for algebra’s sake is satisfying, pure geometry or topology fascinates me, and set theory permeates my thinking about anything quantifiable.

Musical semiotics is a little controversial. On the surface of it, music doesn’t seem able to convey meaning; you can’t say, for instance, that middle C signifies a tree, or love, or the number 231. On the other hand, you could say that music can convey meaning within the external framework of a shared musical pedagogy. In that instance, a perfect cadence could convey a sense of satisfaction if there’s a socially-acknowledged precedent of perfect cadences representing satisfaction. But if this is the case in the Western tradition, there’s nothing to say it must hold in other musical traditions. Furthermore, some have argued that it’s possible to distinguish between a ‘meaning’ and a ‘significance’; that is, what a thing means in and of itself, and what significance external factors can give it in people’s minds. It’s fairly broadly accepted that music can connote — it can be made to signify something within its immediate context — but can it denote, or refer to something outside itself? Some say “yes” and some say “no” (and it sometimes seems that each answer is also followed by “of course, that should be obvious”).

This is barely scratching the surface of the question of musical meaning, let alone how (and if) music in games is meaningful. I know it is meaningful, at very least through its context within the audiovisual text, and I’m pretty sure there are even multiple ways in which it can bear meaning. But proving this in my thesis is shaping up to be a significant (and hopefully quite satisfying) challenge. I’m part way there with my current work, but every new text I read seems to open up further avenues for investigation. I guess I’m just glad that I can include some abstract theorising in my studies. Being able to look beyond the texts I study to the bigger issues, the things that inform, shape and permeate all such texts, and even beyond those things to the small glimpses one gets of how humans work through what they create; this is what, for me, makes this study worthwhile.