Remarks on Video Game Analysis

Jan-Hendrik Bakels, Lars Dolkemeyer, Björn Hochschild, Christopher Lukman, Thomas Scherer, Raphael Schotten, Alexander Wiese


Across the following pages, we want to present a collection of thoughts on academic video game analysis, making a plea for a more central role the actual experience of gaming should inhabit in the field of video game studies. At the same time, these thoughts are the result of a working group on video games based at “Cinepoetics – Center for Advanced Film Studies” situated at Freie Universität Berlin. In this group (2018 – 2024), scholars with film and media studies backgrounds have played and analyzed video games as well as engaged with theoretical texts from the field of game studies and beyond. The group aimed to transfer theoretical and methodological approaches from film and video analysis to the field of video games while at the same time discussing, testing, and adapting approaches from video game studies. At the heart of the group’s work were analytical colloquia, where we first played parts of a game together before engaging in a joint analytical discussion. In this way, we approached games as different as RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2 (2018), WII SPORTS (2006), DOOM (1993), HOMEWORLD (1999), ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON (1999), GRAN TURISMO 7 (2022), MONUMENT VALLEY (2014), HORIZON: CALL OF THE MOUNTAIN (2023).

This working paper aims to collect and condense some of the thoughts and questions about video game analysis that have been discussed within our group. On the one hand, this represents a step back from the concrete game analyses we conducted, in order to recall and document the more general methodological discussion strands of our colloquia for future analyses. On the other hand, the aim of this paper is to share our preliminary thoughts with other researchers addressing similar methodological challenges. Therefore, these insights do not constitute a finite and coherent research framework, but rather a field report on our experience-based approach to video game aesthetics and poetics.

The act of video gaming can – in our view: should – be conceptualized as a fleeting process which develops between players and games. But if so, how can we analytically describe the feelings and meanings that emerge in the process of play? We want to argue that game studies researchers should more often include comprehensive descriptions of particular game moments in their research in order to include aesthetic and poetic reflections on the actual experience of gaming (as a crucial addition to the analytical reconstruction of rules, plots or mechanics) in their academic reasoning. Hence, game researchers must elaborate on their own subjective experience of a particular game, while not abandoning the ambition to produce a general knowledge of specific games. Since the meaning-making of games cannot be found solely in the representations of the game – the core premise of our approach –their meaning must be discovered in experiential acts of play. At the same time, individual experiences are always embedded in culture, senses of community, and affective sensibilities emerging from the engagement with specific games – calling for a theoretical, historical, and cultural contextualization of particular gaming experiences.

We have chosen to structure the research perspective and respective challenges sketched out above along fundamental questions that accompany all of our analytical studies of playing video games:

What do you play?
Why do you play?
What’s the scope of your play?
How does the game let you/lead you to play?
What is your play-setting (and setup)?
How do you record/observe play?

We envisioned the potential audience for this paper to be students and other early career researchers interested in the aesthetic dimension of video games. To this end, we have refrained from providing an overview of game analytical literature and discussing particularities. Instead, we opted for a more general tone of advice – not from a position of certain knowledge, but rather addressed to ourselves as much as to others.

Cinepoetics Working Group “Games”, Berlin, Spring 2024

What do you play?

Describe how the game unfolds as figurations of time and space and focus on the particularly surprising, (un-)pleasurable, interesting moments.

Player experience transcends individual experiences insofar as they are fundamentally intersubjective and communal. Although not everyone will feel frustrated in the same way, the feeling of frustration brought forth by various elements of the DARK SOULS series is an integral part of the game. It is interesting how these games integrate moments of frustration into a larger aesthetic experience. Describing of what parts the aesthetic experience is made up and how they converge into a larger whole provides us the poetics of a game. Audiovisual design, narrative, play mechanics, music, and architectural design all partake in the creation of aesthetic experience and are therefore all worth studying in their relation to one another. Taking the particularly fascinating moments as a point of departure can be a good entry-point into the analysis since these are the moments in which the games unfold with strong aesthetic effect.

Play is process. To understand it as a process, we need to ask how a game unfolds. When does a game build up tension? When does something begin? When does it develop into something more complex? When does something culminate? As a process, to play means to perform a game’s spatio-temporal dynamics. HOLLOW KNIGHT, for example, is a game about navigating a labyrinthine underground structure. The farther one wanders into the world, the bigger the feeling becomes that we are only a very small part in a disorienting world. So, as we increase our time within the world, the world turns out to be much bigger than we are. Most level designs radiate hostility and after hours within the game, a feeling of loneliness is evoked. Game-specific relations of time and space create different experiences of ‘being-in-a-game-world’. Describing these relations thus enables a first basic understanding of a certain game’s poetic of thinking and feeling.

Why do you play?

Playstyle and research questions depend on each other.

While a game may set boundaries for interactions, playing means an exploration within and beyond these boundaries. No playthrough can represent the multitude of experiences a game may provide. Similarly, your analysis should not try to capture a game in its entirety. How you understand the game should be guided by your research interest or question. This is true for both your method of analyzing and playing the game. Rather than questioning what may be the “right” way to play a game, reflect on why you play the game the way you do. How does your playstyle help to answer your research question? What affordances does the game provide to foster a certain playstyle? 

Do not worry if your definition of “play” or “game” for your current object of analysis does not account for every game or style of play. These definitions are heuristic tools rather than ontological categories.

Playing THE SIMS (2000), for example, was never restricted to maximizing the income of the household or having a successful career but always equally included performing social experiments (e.g. stealing all pets in a neighborhood), rebuilding personal living spaces from one’s memory (e.g. the home of a deceased relative) or using cheats to play out the most luxurious lives.

What’s the scope of your play?

The scope of play and your research question are mutually dependent.

Do not limit your understanding of scope to the spatial and narrative dimensions of a game’s places, landscapes and story. The scope of the game and the scope of your play each consist of different dimensions. On the one hand, games can offer a variety of axes of extension and limitation. The scope of an immersive sim will extend on other vectors and to other degrees than the scope of a classical Jump ‘n’ Run game. The scope of play on the other hand can be focused or expansive, goal oriented or explorative, adversarial to or resonating with the affordances of the game, and so on. Approaching the inner and outer limits of a games’ mechanics and trying to transgress or break these limits can reveal aspects that let you form an idea of how the game thinks its world and its world’s laws. Is it possible to open the game up beyond that which seems to be intended? Can the gaps and crevices in the mechanical and narrative spaces of the game be made interesting for a poetological analysis? Depending on your research question, the in-depth engagement with certain aspects of the game’s scope can be more helpful than exploring its spaces and its story. You don’t have to have an encompassing knowledge of the narrative and/or game mechanics in LIFE IS STRANGE (2015) to discuss the experience of photography within the game. Trust your intuition as a player and researcher on when you have reached a point of saturation of meaning and significance and keep your research question in mind to decide when to stop playing the game. Reflect on the scope of your play in your analysis and be transparent about it.

How does the game let you / lead you to play?

Try to experience the game in its own rhythm.

Playing a game is an experience that unfolds between the game and the player. Understanding the game as an entity, this experience is created by yourself and your style of playing and also by the game itself. Try to engage with the game and its experiential coordinates: How does it feel to play the game and what may the game itself contribute to that experience? Is it gloomy or funny? Is it bright or dark? How does it influence your way of playing? Do you play the game in a fast or slow pacing and why is that? Your way of playing may also change during your time and progress. When your skill develops, you may perceive some pattern of the game in a different way e.g. experience synchronicity instead of resistance; you may get used to the menus and interfaces and perform certain tasks in a faster pacing for example. How does that change your experience of playing? Does the game feel different now compared to the first hour(s) of playing?

There may be obvious affordances and rhythms of the game, like moving forward on a given path in a Jump ‘n’ Run game or finding the fastest line in a racing game. But are there any counter-affordances? What happens to your experience of playing if you act counter-intuitively? Refuse to move forward, explore besides the path. How does your encounter with the game change?

What is your play-setting? (& setup?)

There are no (theory) agnostic approaches – just a lack of disclosure of the presuppositions you’re working on.

An encompassing ontological definition of the video game remains an impossibility – and in effect, there is no such thing as the method or perspective for video game analysis. As much as video game studies as a field can benefit from further discussions on its subject matter(s), robust analytical categories, the potentials of different theoretical schools as well as the relations between these school’s perspectives, in the end every outcome of such discussions must stay rooted in awareness regarding the field’s inherent need for plurality – it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. With regard to the single analysis, comparative analyses and so on, this leads less to a common understanding of analysis in video game studies than to an imperative need for every analytical argument to firstly reveal its central ‘coordinates’: Which cultural background characterizes you – and therefore your analytical reasoning? Is there / are there (a) characteristic(s) with regard to your analysis’ historical situatedness? And how may those relate to the historical situatedness of your subject matter’s production? Apart from these larger cultural-historical aspects, even seemingly minor contextual factors of your analysis should be made transparent: What hardware are you playing on? Are there different versions of the game you are analyzing, and if so: which one are you playing? Did you play the game in its entirety (if the game in question allows for a positive answer to this question), and if not: to which parts of the game are you referring? Last but not least, your analysis should – of course – refer as elaborately as possible to the theoretical, epistemological and methodological perspective it addresses its subject matter in. That should also include a reflection on which aspects of play acts, game passages, etc. your particular perspective highlights. That way, different perspectives with regard to the same subject matter become graspable, making it easier to relate them and their observations.

How do you record / observe play?

Hands-on Analysis Tools & Experiences

Find different game-specific modes of recording play for your analysis. Leave room for structured recording as well as for your intuition. Creating screen captures of your play sessions can be useful, especially if you want to create clips and screenshots later on. However, the mere reproduction of a playthrough will usually not replace other ways of taking notes that are better adapted to your analytical interests. It can be helpful to keep track of impressions and observations simply with a pen and notepad while playing, but every mode of ‘live’ recording can also be a distraction from the actual experience of playing. Let yourself be surprised by unexpected connections and inspirations that arise from your notes, your sketches of maps and paths, your screenshots and clips, or your protocols of game events. Find ways of arranging and visualizing your data that will help you answer your research questions and support your argument. Do not hesitate to discard even large amounts of your data if you find they do not immediately contribute to the question at hand. Focus on those parts that really matter for your work. As you limit your analysis to certain aspects or sections of a game, consider all available resources to grasp these aspects. These resources might go beyond playing the game yourself: Online resources such as Let’s Plays, walkthroughs, forum threads, social media, maps, or offline resources such as handbooks, guides, and magazine articles might open up different perspectives on your subject. They may also help you to reconnect your research with other aspects of the game that you initially put aside.

Over the course of the working group, we have explored a range of various modes for joint play sessions and analytical discussions. There is no ‘right approach’, but each mode is suitable for different games and will reveal different aspects. Playing a game or a level individually beforehand and then meeting for a discussion allows the most in-depth engagement with a game in a suitable setting. Different play styles can unfold and enrich the discussion significantly. On the other hand, each participant needs a copy of the game and the appropriate hardware, and the level of engagement among the participants can vary to a great degree.

Playing together in a screening room and passing the controller was the most used mode in our group. The group shares part of a playthrough as a common experience and can refer to the events in the discussion. A person familiar to the game is required to choose the segment for the close-gaming sessions and has to introduce the group to the game if the selected part isn’t the beginning of the game. In our experiences different genres lend themselves to this mode of analysis to varying degrees: e.g., skill-based games can be intimidating to be played in front of a group and horror games can quickly lead to humorous evasive behavior. The parts of the game that are played together have to be curated carefully, since a session of a few hours can only provide narrow insights into most games. Different combinations of games and modes of play will be productive in different ways. It may be perfectly sufficient to play a huge open-world game in a short session, if you are interested in a very specific mechanical aspect, while you may need to spend dozens of hours in order to grasp the development of its overarching principles.

The most important resource in an academic context, however, will be the joint analytical discussion. Coming together to exchange thoughts and observations on mutually played games is an invaluable source of inspiration.

© 2024. This work is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.