Theoretical Framework 2. Video Games As Fiction, Rules & Media


In my last article, I examined the basis for video game theory as it has sprung from narratology and ludology.

Narratology is the basis for understanding video games as fiction, whereas ludology is the basis for viewing video games as rules.

The dichotomy becomes important later when I examine theories for understanding sound in games.

This article will examine video games as fiction, rules, (trans-)media, and artifacts in more detail, focusing on the work done by video game researcher Jesper Juul.

So let’s dive in.

Defining (video) games

In Half-Real (2005) (link to Amazon), Juul defines games as such:

A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable

Juul 2005: 36

Juul breaks the quote down, and I’ve done so as well and added a few more details below:

  • Rules: Games are rule-based systems.
    • As such, the rules need to be unambiguous as possible.
    • The rules of video games must be so well-defined that a computer can uphold them.
  • Variable, quantifiable outcome: Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes.
    • Rules must make different outcomes possible in games.
    • The game’s goal is designed in such a way that it’s clear what the desired outcome is.
      • In chess fx, the desired outcome is to win by chess mate, not make a cool move with the knight.
  • Value assigned to possible outcomes: The potential outcomes of a game are assigned a positive or negative value.
    • In Pac-Man, the goal is to enter the hi-score list. The best possible value is to beat the current hi-score and be number one.
    • What’s a desirable outcome is sometimes found in the trailer for the game or on the box (fx you need to defend the earth against aliens).
    • Sometimes the desired outcome is only implied (fx you know you’ll get attacked by zombies, so it’s probably a good idea to defend yourself).
  • Player effort: The player exerts effort to influence the outcome.
    • Except for games based on chance only, the play can change the outcome.
    • Games are challenging, so you have to work for them to win.
  • Player attached to outcome: The player is emotionally attached to the outcome.
    • This implies that the winner will be “happy” and the loser will be “unhappy.”
    • In other words, it’s a psychological effect of gaming activity. If you’ve rage quit over a game, you know what I’m talking about.
    • The emotional response can happen due to the player’s abilities or effort in the game or random events (bad luck).
  • Negotiable consequences: The same game [set of rules] can be played with or without real-life consequences.
    • The outcome can have real-life consequences (fx you can win or lose money).
    • The consequence is (in principle) negotiable for each game.

Video games are rules and fiction

Juul describes video games as being half-real (hence the title of his book) but points out that they might as well be called half-fictional.

This means that video games are made up of real rules and a fictional world.

When we interact with the rules that make up the underlying governing structures of the game, and when we win or lose, it’s a real event.

But when we slay the dragon and get the princess, it’s all part of the game’s fictional world.

When we play a video game, we interact with the game’s rules while piecing together a fictional world from the fictional elements in the game, such as the graphics, sound, story, characters, etc.

In other words, rules and fiction are the parents from which the fictional game space is built – and with which we can interact through gameplay.

Rules in video games

So what the heck are rules anyway?

A game wouldn’t be a game without rules. They are the governing structures and make it possible for us to understand and play the game.

Rules are real, to paraphrase Juul.

Rules are very different from game to game, making it possible to distinguish one game from the next.

As players, as we enter the magic cycle of the game, we voluntarily submit to the game rules.

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This might seem paradoxical if we understand rules as a type of prohibition, but it is necessary to submit to the rules to play the game.

A game can be viewed as a subcategory of play.

When kids play with their toys or build stuff in Minecraft’s creative mode, the goal is the playing experience itself.

Games, however, have a well-defined goal and a winner or loser. This doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to “play the game.” As Juul points out, rules are the source of much joy.

Rules can still exist in both play and game.

Rules can manifest themselves in many different ways.

Think about chess, for example. You can play chess with many types of pieces and through various media (fx as a board game or on a computer). But the rules remain the same.

I’ll get back to chess and transmedia further down in this article.

The point is that rules can manifest themselves through different types of fictional worlds.

Rules in video games vs. analog games

A major difference between video and analog games is how the rules are upheld.

In analog games, the players need to know the rules and ensure they’re upheld.

In video games, the rules are upheld by the computer. This has several implications for the gaming experience.

First, because a computer is much better at remembering complex rules than humans, it is possible to create more complex games.

Second, it sets the player free to learn the game rules through trial and error.

In other words, you don’t have to know the game rules before you start the game. It’s learning by doing.

Take chess as an example.

If you give an analog chess board and all the pieces to two people, who had never heard about the game before, and told them to play the game, they’d have no chance to do so.

However, it’s possible to learn to play chess, even if you have no prior knowledge of the game, by using a computer. The computer can uphold the rules and show you what is and isn’t allowed in the game.

Some video game developers take advantage of this and include a tutorial level you must complete before playing the story.

Fiction in video games becomes essential for understanding the game rules.

As I wrote in the introduction to this article series, when the captain in StarCraft says, “Battlecruiser Operational,” we know that an essential piece in the game is available for us to command.

When the rules are buried deep in the algorithms of the video game, we focus on fiction instead to help us understand the rules.

Likewise, the rules help us understand and mentally piece together the fictional world in the game.

While rules in video games are designed to be objective, fiction is based on hints, which gives the player a subjective idea of the game’s fictional game world.

Fiction in video games

According to Juul, any video games, except abstract ones like Tetris, project some fictional world (ibid:142).

I’d argue that Tetris – like chess – can also be viewed as a fictional world. It’s an abstract fictional world – sure – but it’s still a fictional game world with falling tetrominoes.

Suppose we accept that fiction is as much a result of cues given by the developers as it is a mental construct of the player.

In that case, we need to consider that the tetrominoes can easily be perceived as falling bricks (pulled down by gravity?) creating walls. Only those walls without holes give points and disappear.

By fiction, I mean any made-up worlds. It’s made up of cues and mentally constructed in the players’ minds.

A painting fx can portray a fictional scene and construct a story from it. Even abstract paintings invoke our imaginations.

It’s a phenomenological approach to the fictional game world, but I think it needs to be considered because playing a video game is human-computer interaction.

After all, without this continuous cycle of human-computer interaction that comprises the gameplay situation, a video game is simply an object.

Let’s quickly look at some typical fictional cues – or building blocks – that video games project.

Fictional building blocks in video games

Juul also distills what fictional building blocks are present in video games (ibid:134-139). Here’s a quick overview:

  • Graphics
    • One trend is still moving toward photorealism
    • Another trend is to use a more simplified and stylized look as an aesthetic choice
  • Sound (the overall subject of this article series)
    • Includes music, sound effects, speech, and ambient sounds
    • Some sounds aim to be realistic (but are often highly processed), while others are stylistic
  • Text
    • Has long been part of the fictional world of games (fx early RPGs and Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) were made up entirely of text, which described the world.
    • Subtitles
    • Still part of games today
    • With the development of more powerful CPUs and larger storage media, some text has now been exchanged for voice-actors
  • Cut-scenes and Cinematics
    • These are non-interactive film sequences in games
    • Can help provide fictional cues, which help drive the story forward
    • Might work as an introduction, ending, or epilogue
    • With more powerful CPUs and GPUs and better game engines, in-game real-time rendered cutscenes/cinematics have become possible
    • Too many non-interactive elements might ruin the gaming experience
  • Game title, box, and manual (I’ll add arcade cabinet, trailer, commercials, screenshots, blog posts, and more to this)
    • Gives hints on what to expect from the game
  • Haptic elements
    • Fx controller vibrations when something explodes or you’re close to dying in the game.
  • Rules
    • Rules also add to the fictional game worlds
      • fx rules based on physics in sports games
      • fx rules about what you may or may not do to another player in soccer
  • Rumors
    • Rumors and speculation – fx online – add to the players’ mental image about a game
    • Can be caused by pure speculation or wishful thinking, marketing, or leaks
  • Time and player actions
    • The time and action a player invest in a video game
    • It takes on a double meaning because when I press a button on my controller to kick someone off the platform in Brawlhalla, I’m acting in both the real-world (controller) and the fictional world (Brawlhalla)
    • Juul distinguishes between play time and fictional time for the time it takes to do an action in both the real world and the game.

From the complex interaction between the rules and all these fictional elements above, the game unfolds through gameplay.

Thus, through play time, a video game reveals itself to the player, who has to try to understand and navigate it all.

Speaking of time…

Time in video games

As mentioned above, there are two measures of time in video games: real-world play time and fictional time (Juul 2005:141).

The relationship between play time and fictional time isn’t necessarily 1:1.

A day-night cycle in Assassin’s Creed fx doesn’t take 24 hours in play time.

If I play a game of Civilization on a tiny map with four civilizations and don’t get into wars, I can complete a game spanning thousands of fictional years in an hour of play time.

If I play a FIFA soccer game, the fictional time of a single half is always 45 minutes. But I can choose how long the play time shall be – fx 2, 5, 10, or 45 (1:1) minutes.

However, the speed of the soccer players or the ball moving on the field doesn’t change, even if a complete match takes only 4 minutes of play time.

So the fictional time isn’t necessarily connected to the time determined by the physics rules in the game.

Time elasticity

Fictional time in video games can also be elastic.

Some games allow you to speed up the fictional time, e.g., to make the tedious task of harvesting resources in clicker games faster. This also decreases play time.

Civilization skips thousands of years in the first rounds, but as we get closer to 2050, which is the cut for a time victory, the years go by increasingly slowly.

Time and chronology

Juul points out that video games are often built so that time unfolds chronologically (Ibid:147).

That’s because an interactive flashback could mean that the present time of the fictive character wasn’t possible.

Likewise, flash-forwards would render the player’s actions irrelevant.

That doesn’t mean developers don’t find creative ways to get around this.

Juul mentions cut scenes, which can tell a story from the past or a vision of the future (what might be) without interfering with the actual time in the game.

Another trick is to use storytelling elements to jump in time.

Fx, the Assassin’s Creed series, uses the Animus to send a character back in time and into the body and lived experiences of forefathers.

But this time travel doesn’t change the current time in the games. It just reveals hidden clues about the present.

Time and intertextuality

It isn’t uncommon that video games will refer to previous historical or cultural events through fictional cues.

It can be real-life events or fictional events in previous game series entries. A series such as Assassin’s Creed does both.

In other words, intertextuality makes it possible to tie a video game to a larger cultural landscape.

Sound can help make this intertextual connection and jump in time possible.

Fx, the quote “Battlecruiser Operational” from StarCraft (Blizzard 1999), is an homage to Admiral Gloval from the science-fiction animated show Robotech from 1985.

Thus, through intertextuality, the perceived fictional world and time in video games can be vastly expanded.

Video games are filled with such intertextual tie-ins.

Backward time

Sometimes the fictional time in games moves backward.

The rhythm-based video game Retro/Grade (2012) is a good example.

In the game, you start by winning the game by defeating the final boss. However, something then goes wrong, so you have to retrace the fictional time in the game back to the beginning to save the fictional space-time continuum.

Another example is games, which let you correct mistakes by reversing the time.

Fx, in the snowboard game SSX: Deadly Descents (2012), it’s possible to rewind a few seconds of fictional time if you crash into something or don’t land a trick.

SSX: Deadly Descents has a creative way of using music and time, which I’ll get back to in a later article.

Speaking of music…

Music and sound reveal the duality between play time and fictional time

Music can show play and fictional time duality in video games.

If I pause a game, if the music is considered part of the fictional world, then I would expect the music to pause too. But often, that isn’t the case.

Fx, if I pull up a menu, in many games, I can hear the music and sometimes the ambient sounds in the background, even though the game is paused.

This might be because the developers want you to keep the illusion of a coherent fictional world, even though this is technically paused. They want to keep you immersed – or not to break the spell.

Fiction vs. Storytelling

It’s essential to make a distinction between fiction and storytelling.

Fiction comprises the author/the production company/developer, and the readers/moviegoers/gamers.

Fiction isn’t the same as storytelling (the act of telling a story).

To tell a story is to portray a planned sequence of events that occur over time – as text, as a movie, in a comic book, in a video game, or verbally.

However, a story’s combined events can create fiction.

It’s up to the reader/viewer/player to piece together the sequence of events into a coherent story and the fictional world in which this story takes place.

It’s never possible to include all details in a story. The reader/viewer/listener/gamer must create the final result in their mind.

This is nothing new. Authors have long been aware of this and have used it as a creative tool.

Ernest Hemingway fx is known for providing little information to the reader. Instead, it’s up to the reader to “read between the lines.”

On the other hand, an author such as Brett Easton Ellis in American Psycho makes elaborate descriptions of minute details to show the mindset of the psychopathic protagonist in the story.

But still, it’s impossible to include every detail at any given time in the book.

The fictional worlds in video games can be more or less coherent. It’s up to us, as players, to use our cognitive abilities to piece together a coherent world.

Games as transmedia

You can divide games into two categories: analog games, such as card games and board games, and digital games, such as video games.

Juul describes games as transmedial (Juul 2005:48), meaning there isn’t just one medium for games but many different ones, the latest being computers and smartphones.

Fx, you choose to play chess on a chess board, on a computer, on a smartphone, or in your mind as blindfold chess.

Likewise, you can play soccer on a soccer field, in a gymnasium, or on a computer, such as the FIFA series from Electronic Arts.

Computer chess is an implementation of an analog game, meaning that everything you can do on a chess board, you can also do when you play chess on a computer.

Soccer, however, is an adaptation, meaning only select elements of the sport are included (ibid:49).

From a narratological perspective, you could argue that video game soccer imitates real-life soccer; thus, the video game version of soccer becomes mimesis.

In his article, Transmedia Storytelling 101 from 2007, Professor Henry Jenkins argues that games are part of a larger transmedia (cultural) landscape.

This means that essential parts of any fictional universe are spread across multiple media. The sum of the parts makes up the transmedial fictional universe.

Fx, a franchise such as Star Wars, consists of movies, books, comics, video games, action figures, and more. All of these expand and define the fiction related to the core stories.

This means that the fictional universe surrounding Star Wars comprises George Lucas, fan films, and kids playing with the action figures.

If the same game can be played on so many different media, it must have something that transcends them all so we can recognize that it is the same game.

So what is it?

Rules: the common ground for games

The common ground for games, which transcends different media, is the rules.

The rules determine what you can – and can’t – do in the game. The rules also determine what the result can be. Of course, the same rule set can lead to many different outcomes.

The process of playing a game by the rules can be described as computation, i.e., calculations for each turn, round, or game state.

The computations can be done by humans (fx in board games such as Chess or Ludo, roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer, or card games).

Physical laws, such as fx gravity, friction, and wind in sports, also govern computations.

And finally, computations can be done by a computer.

So when we can play chess on a computer, it’s because of the computer…

  1. can uphold the rules and calculate the results,
  2. has a memory that remembers exactly where we are in that game (the game states),
  3. has an interface humans can interact with (ibid 48; see also this article by Juul from 2003).

Rules should explain how the game is played, and they should be able to implement and govern by humans or a computer.

Summary: Video games are half-real artifacts that unfold through interaction

Video games can be viewed as both artifacts and activities:

Chess is a game (a static object), but we can also play a game of chess (an activity).

Juul 2005: 43

As a static object, what I prefer to call an artifact, a game of chess, is not just the board and pieces but also the included rules, which can exist in the form of a manual.

A video game can come in a box on storage media, including collectibles and other merchandise related to the game. Again, this is an example of the video game as an artifact.

Through the gaming activity (gameplay), the rules should result in a variable and quantifiable outcome and determine whether the result is positive or negative.

The result is negotiable, e.g., does the winner get a trophy, or are you playing for money or just the honor?

The gaming activity should optimally lead to emotional attachment to the result.

For a game to work as an activity, it should match the level of the players. If it’s too hard, it gets too frustrating, and if it’s too easy, it gets boring.

We see this in video games, i.e., the game gets more challenging the further we get into the levels. A well-designed game can keep you immersed in a constant state of flow.

In multiplayer games, this is also true. If one team is much better than the other, the game quickly becomes tedious for both parties.

It’s essential to recognize that the interaction with the game starts before the game itself, meaning the gameplay cycle, as proposed by Arsenault and Perron, starts fx when we hear about the game for the first time

Juul’s definition of gaming as an activity seems to limit itself to when the game starts (fx from the first move in chess). In contrast, Arsenault and Perron include the interaction with the game as an object in the gameplay cycle.

Now we’ve established a theoretical base for video games rooted in narratology and ludology, i.e., video games are half-real – or half-fictional if you prefer.

In my next article, I’ll discuss some concepts from musicology and film theory we can use to examine sound in video games.

Until next time, happy gaming!

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Jan has played video games since the early 1980s. He loves getting immersed in video games as a way to take his mind off stuff when the outside world gets too scary. A lifelong gamer, the big interest led to a job as a lecturer on game sound at the University of Copenhagen and several written articles on video games for magazines.

Read more on the About Page.