Games existed long before the latest era. With the advances on technology, we can now play games with devices at our homes and in our pockets. The video game sector continuously evolves, and at an enormous rate.
They provide us the means to escape our real lives. Be it the thrill of an action game, or the complexity of a puzzle game, or an alternative life of a simulation game; video games distance us from our own lives and problems.
Game production companies often use semiotics to convey feelings to players in a concise and timely manner. What are semiotics? How are they used in the entertainment sector and especially in video games? This paper evaluates how semiotics are used in various genres of video games.
Semiotic Analysis of Video Games
As defined in Reading Television, “Semiotics, simply defined, is the science of signs; how they work and the ways which we use them.” (Fiske and Hartley, 1978). Semiotics defines how a meaning is created and how that meaning is communicated. A word, a sign, a symbol creates a meaning. This meaning is subjective and relies heavily on the cultural environment and the individuality of the person receiving it. While a simple word like a ‘car’ may communicate an actual car image to the listener, it may also communicate meanings like vacation, freedom, serial production, technology and so on. The signification of the word is based purely on the receiver’s senses.
Semiotics is used in the entertainment sector as a way to communicate feelings and meanings to the receiver; a word, an image, a song creates a feeling that far surpasses the actual meaning that was relayed in the first place. People process that sign that was transferred to them and create their own meaning with their individual perception and experience.
Currently, video games are regarded as of the art forms in the entertainment sector. Video games also steadily become the next step in competitive sports, where players compete professionally. With the advancement in technology video games continued to evolve, containing more and more content, visualizations, sounds, stories and play styles.
Semiotics play an important role in communicating above aspects to the player. Gaming companies use semiotics – much like the other sections of the entertainment sector such as novels or movies – to relay certain meanings to players, which in turn makes the player want to experience the game. The commercial success of a game relies heavily on the capability of using semiotics by the game company. Each type of game creates various different feelings for players, in with semiotics is used differently as well.
The first commercially successful video game was Pong, which was produced in 1977. It had extremely simple graphics and game play, with no story involved. Pong’s immense success opened the door to the future of video games.
As video games advanced, several types of video games were created; each with its own attraction for the players. Different types of video games use semiotics differently to be able to reach the players and affect their feelings.
Simulation games provide the player to do things one normally couldn’t or didn’t find the time to do. For example, sports games where the player controls a professional player, lets the player to simulate the life of that professional player. The player then can enjoy the professional experience while never having to practice to become a professional sports player. The same is considered to be valid with all simulation games. Player can easily and suddenly become a pilot of an aeroplane, a truck driver, a police officer, a firefighter, a thief, a race car driver, or anyone one desires to be. This creates an environment for the player where one can experience the life of anyone without facing the consequences one would have to face in the real world. In this concept, semiotics must be used to create that environment for the player. The players need to feel that that environment makes sense and it is real enough to satisfy the player. Simulation games rely on the reality they present for the players.
Puzzle games let the players to adapt themselves to any situation and rise above the challenges presented before themselves. The main objective here is to create an artificial problem for the players and then let them solve that problem; which in turn provides the player a feeling of power and superiority. Semiotics, again, is used heavily. The players need to want to solve that problem and needs to believe that problem is a difficult one. A difficult problem that the player isn’t interested in, or an extremely easy problem that anyone can solve is not satisfying at all.
Role playing games where the player creates an alter ego for themselves also provide the players to experience other lives without the restriction of simulation games in terms of reality. The rules of that particular reality are determined by the gaming company, and influences the player heavily. The world that is created by the company is of utmost importance here.
Adventure games are all about the story. The player needs to care about the story and the character they are playing with. The visuals and the music score are part of the semiotics the gaming company uses to deliver a powerful story and get the player’s attention.
With strategy games, the rules of the game and the game play is important. The players feel superior about besting another player on a balanced table of events.
Action games create excitement among players, they are usually fast-paced with smooth transitions. While the players best each other just like strategy games, it is less about outwitting your enemy, and more about the player’s reflexes. As such, both types of games make the player feel superior, however different kinds of player enjoy action and strategy games.
One of the most recent and most successful games, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, reached popularity levels never seen before. The game pits a hundred unarmed and equal in every way players each other on an uninhabited island, and the last survivor is the winner. The game combined many elements from different genres of games and does it skilfully. Strategy and action go hand in hand where players need to calculate their next move, but also need to engage the enemy to survive. The game is also a simulation, designed to be completely realistic. The sounds in the game such as gunshots, vehicle motors, glass breaking, and waves are recorded specially to give the players a sense of reality. The feel of the gun use is designed with the help of expert marksmen; players need to pay attention to things like recoil, weapon sway and bullet deceleration. The play area on the island constantly shrinks, which gives the players a sense of urgency.
Once the players start out of the uninhabited island, they see a bombed out and depleted terrain. The windows on most buildings are broken, the vehicles are burned down. No sounds except the wind and occasional gunshots from the distance. The player immediately enters a state of danger.
In the intro of the game Red Alert 2, we come across a classic clash of the United States of America the Soviets. The screen at the beginning of the intro shows the room of the President of the United States. The room is fairly tidy, designed with normal objects, and is bright. The President himself wears a classic suit and is shaved closely. He is working on his regular day-by-day issues. That’s when the phone starts to ring.
We see the Pentagon on screen. Two attendants are working in an official manner. Like the president, they are clean and presentable. The screens in the background has flashing red lights and the sound of an alarm is constantly present. The General tells the President that there is a problem; Soviet grounds troops are pushing north from Mexico, and Soviet air forces are closing in on the United States from both the east coast and the west. The President is doubtful and asks the General to double check the situation. He then hangs up and turns his head to right and looks at the top of the table. On the top of the table we see a red telephone, Moscow with a white bold font is written on the phone. The President looks at the phone for a couple of seconds, then picks it up.
When Moscow picks up the phone, we see the Russian President and his room on the scene. The room is designed in contrast with the room of the President of the United States. It’s dark, filled with dark red furniture, is filled with cigar smoke. We see a sulky man sitting in the dark, wearing flamboyant military clothes. While the President of the United States is shown from a downwards angle, the Russian President is shot from below. This alone creates a more dangerous image of the man in our heads. The Russian President picks up the phone and speaks sternly in a thick voice. The President of the United States asks him to call their military forces back, but the Russian President disagrees. The President informs him that there will certainly be a retaliation. The Russian President looks at another man – a long man with an abnormally hostile look – standing to the back of the room, and says “Don’t be so sure, Mr. President.” in an insinuating way and hangs up.
The President then calls back the Pentagon and asks for confirmation of the attack. Upon receiving it, he reluctantly gives the order to retaliate; he seems genuinely saddened about them having to hit back. The General at the Pentagon then calls the missile team on an encrypted line. There are, again, flashing red lights in the background. We see a small glass box with “Command and Control Presidential Authorization Only” written on it. A soldier breaks the glass picks up the key in it. Just then, the phone in the room rings, and one of the soldiers picks it up. We hear an eerie sound over the phone. The scene cuts to the man we saw in the Russian President’s office. Even though it’s a landline, the phone he’s holding to his ear has a long antenna on it. The soldier listening to the sound on the phone looks hypnotized, turns to the other soldier with him in an abnormal way and draws his sidearm. The missile that were supposed to be launched against the Soviets explode instead in that United States military base. The explosion is heard over the phone in the Russian President’s office. The Russian President turns his chair to face the man on the phone and asks, “Is it done, Yuri?”. The mysterious man turns to the camera for the first time. His face is revealed, and we see cables on his bald head and a tattoo on his forehead. A man with light ice-blue eyes and blonde facial hair. He says “No, Comrade Premiere. It has only begun.” in an expressionless way, stating that the war is only beginning. We see Russian zeppelins drifting slowly and quietly on American cities, we see ominous ships carrying weapons approaching the shore. We see the head of the Statue of Liberty get blown up by a rocket, and Russian tanks drive into Texas from Mexico taking down a sign that says, “Welcome to Texas – Drive Safely!”. And then the intro is over, and we begin to play the game. We play though the missions as an American military commander, and try to win the battle Russia has unjustly started.
Another action game, Tomb Raider, relies heavily on its main character, Lara Croft. The character Lara Croft was created in 1996. Since then, there have been a total of eleven Tomb Raider games and Lara Croft evolves with each game. The first Lara Croft was designed to be different from what is expected from a female attraction. She was designed to be as British as possible. She was well educated, a strong woman who travelled all over the world. She didn’t run from danger. With technological advances and due to production companies, Lara Croft’s sex appeal was increased with each passing game. She was given a curvier look, and her style and behaviour were changed to be more feminine.
She was given an hourglass shaped body. Her clothes became more revealing to have an increase on male players. She is what one would call an alpha female, the game is purposefully designed to show that Lara is both physically and mentally strong, and is able to beat many male villains. Her combat and weapon skills are off the charts.
We will review the trailer of one of the Tomb Raider games, Rise of the Tomb Raider. The trailer was published in 2014. The trailer transpires after the events of the last game, Tomb Raider. The information the viewer gets from the trailer – independent on whether the viewer knows about the recent events or not – is rich enough for assuming Lara Croft is in some kind of trouble.
The viewer is never openly told that Lara Croft is receiving therapy for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but this assumption is immediately made through auditory and visual information shared in the trailer. We see a middle-aged white male in a suit, he has glasses and a notepad. He talks about Lara’s progress, which tells us Lara is somewhat troubled and has to take steps towards a more stable state. The therapist’s office is filled with expensive furniture. This tells us that the man is a successful doctor, he has attained a number of high paying patients that need his professional wisdom. Couldn’t the therapist be of any other cultural background – as opposed to white – or even be a female doctor? The successful white male doctor stereotype, while too obvious and perhaps offensive, get the point across in a timely manner. Trailers especially need to be short and concise, and need to tell the viewers the story in a limited amount of time. As such, using stereotypes is beneficial from a time standpoint. They are used as a symbol or sign to deliver a feeling to the viewers: This doctor is obviously successful and knows what he is doing. Just a couple of seconds is all that is needed to convey this message.
The therapy session implies that Lara Croft has been through some rough times. And since Lara is a strong female lead, the situation that has made this session a necessity must also be beyond what a normal human could endure. The camera focuses on Lara’s feet, where she keeps tapping them anxiously. Her body language and her hand gestures also show only too clearly that she is extremely uncomfortable being there. They all indicate that Lara has been broken, and she’s not her usual strong and confident self. The fact that Lara still wears boots and a cape instead of regular casual clothes means she has not let go of the past yet. Even if she is back in the civilized world, she has yet to let go of her defensive posture. She won’t let her guard down; her survival instinct is still there.
In the trailer we see Lara killing a man with a bow and an arrow. The fact that she targets his head implies that her purpose was to kill the man, and not just wound or incapacitate him. She lets go of the arrow without hesitation, as if killing a man has no moral significance on her. This killing is probably not a one-time situation and has happened several times before. Her quiver is almost out of arrow which leads us to this interpretation.
The flashbacks that we see on screen and the monologue of the doctor creates an intense contrast in the trailer. The flashbacks serve for the purpose of showing off elements of Tomb Raider gameplay for those new to the franchise; they also show us Lara Croft’s split past. In the monologue the doctor tells her that she needs to take steps into the outside world – meaning that she shouldn’t live such a secluded life and find something to do with her life or maybe find some new friends – but we see Lara running away from a bear and jumping off a cliff to save her life. Her idea of an outside world apparently differs that of the doctor’s. As the doctor urges Lara to find a hobby and explore new horizons, we see Lara hanging from the side of the cliff, and beyond that cliff is a horizon filled with storms and lightning bolts. The doctor’s words feel so meaningless compared to her actions, and that actually is the selling point of the game: Lara horizons differ so greatly from an average person, she is exceptional and exciting.
When the doctor says that he thinks Lara isn’t taking care of herself, there is a sudden change in Lara’s movements. Her feet she had been tapping anxiously stop and stand firmly on the ground. She once again becomes the confident Lara that we know and love. The music score of the trailer reaches its height, the colour of the scenes changes from a depressed grayscale to a vibrant orange one. Then we see Lara’s face for the first time, the audience feels as if her true self is at last shown on the trailer. Up to this point, we saw Lara but we didn’t feel close to her. Now we see that she finds herself, she is back to her usual strong, confident, purposeful self.
Lara Croft is the symbol of inner strength against tough adversaries – be it dangerous enemies or inner demons of the soul – and of overcoming them. Most people would aspire to be as strong as Lara, and can relate to her inner diversity. Her progression in the trailer, while short, is something wide audiences will find solace in.
The trailer is filled with information for the prospective buyers of the game. Every action scene in the trailer is actual gameplay of the franchise. Lara running, jumping off a cliff, holding on at the last second to escape certain death, and disposing of her enemies with arrows and other means. While this is a sequel of the previous game and the franchise is really popular, the trailer will inform those new to Tomb Raider what the premise is about. They will quickly understand the type of the game and the things they will be able to do in it.
In conclusion, the trailer delivers what it’s supposed to. It delivers the key points of the game, introduces new players to the franchise and tells about Lara’s inner struggle in an extremely short amount of time. The audio and visual techniques the producer company allows them to transfer feelings to the viewer over such a short trailer.
Video games are not only produced through language, audio and visuals, but through story, signs and the world the player interacts with. As with other sections of the entertainment sector, video games need to deliver a message to its audience and video game companies use semiotics to that in a non-obvious and timely way.
Delivering messages by using visualization is a widely used and greatly researched branch of the science of idea imposing.
Video games have millions of followers. This translates to millions of people that can be influenced by video games. Video games are just another medium of message transfer such as television and newspapers. The post-war era is wordlessly expressed in Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. The message delivered to the viewers when the hardworking all American Rocky faces the drug-induced artificial Russian boxer Ivan, can also be delivered to us in a single video game intro that spans four minutes. The game Red Alert 2 mentioned in the paper transfers the rift between the USA and Russia only too clearly with the use of semiotics. We encounter the same message in advertorials, movies or newspapers.
Lara Croft’s story is another prime example of semiotics using gender and cultural stereotypes. In the trailer we have analysed how some parts of the story were never told openly but conveyed to us in the form of stereotypical messages or symbols and signs.
John Fiske and John Hartley “The signs of Television” in reading Television, New York: Routledge, 1989. Pp. 37-55.
Compagno D., Coppock P. and Jansson M. 2010. The Semiotics of Video Games. https://vdocuments.site/the-semiotics-of-video-games.html
Ferdinand de Saussure. “Nature of the Linguistic Sign” in Paul Cobley ed. Communication Theories Volume 1, New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp. 259-264.
Christophe Bruchansky The Semiotics of Video Games. http://bruchansky.name/artwork/the-semiotics-of-video-games/
Eduardo Neiva and Carlo Romano “The Semiotic Immersion of Video Games, Gaming Technology and Interactive Strategies” The Public Journal of Semiotics I(2), July 2007, pp. 31-49 http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.869.8632&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Berger, Semiotic Analysis. https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/5171_Berger_Final_Pages_Chapter_1.pdf
William Huber “Critical theory and analysis of videogames” USC School of Cinematic Arts, CTIN 462 https://web-app.usc.edu/ws/soc_archive/soc/syllabus/20111/18375.pdf
Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds – Pubg
About game: https://www.playbattlegrounds.com/overview.pu
Tomb Raider – Lara Croft:
About Game: https://www.tombraider.com/en-us
Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8nC-RnETd0