Panel @ PCG2018: ‘Subjects’ and ‘Objects’ in Game Studies

itu14th August, 2018

9am – 10:30am

Location: ITU, AUD 1





Espen Aarseth

Andreas Gregersen

Justyna Janik

Sebastian Möring

Feng Zhu


Panel abstract

This panel aims to address the philosophical issues underlying so-called player-centred and game-centred approaches in game studies. It will take stock of the changes in the theoretical climate of the last decade. In particular, it will review the possible contributions from various theoretical frameworks to game studies.

Building on the ‘intriguee’ of Cybertext (1997, p. 113), Aarseth’s essay ‘Transgressive Play and the Implied Player’ (2007) argued for the relevance the ‘implied player’. It has been over a decade since the essay characterised the methodological terrain in game studies with regard to player-focused approaches and game-focused approaches, as the conflict between the ‘critical player-theorist’ and the ‘ethnographic player-observer’ (Aarseth, 2007, p.131). Aarseth was concerned that game studies researchers who studied players were insufficiently focusing on what ‘typical’, as opposed to ‘subversive’ players, did. The struggle between the humanities and social sciences over the control of the idea of the player is that between the player as a ‘function’ of the game, and the player as a real embodied individual. If ‘games are both aesthetic and social phenomena, [then] a theory of the player must combine both social and aesthetic perspectives to be successful’ (Aarseth, 2007, p.130). The ‘implied player’ was the concept to accomplish this. Coming from seemingly the opposite side, Sicart’s position against what he saw as the reductive formalism of ‘proceduralism’, which subordinated everything to the game’s rules, nevertheless led him to the view that ‘for each procedural analysis there must be an orthogonal analysis of play that completes the arguments of meaning by means of accounting the play experience’ (Sicart, 2011, Against Procedurality section, para.7).

This panel proposes to discuss the justifications for this ‘bridging’ between the humanities and social sciences, and what may be entailed by them. We intend to review the different philosophical assumptions involved in a theorist attributing certain qualities to the ‘subject’ and to the ‘object’, in any assumed (a)symmetry of the subject-object conjunction, and in the veracity of the binary division of ‘subject-object’ or ‘player-game’ itself. As a non-neutral means of controlling or delimiting interpretation, such attributions demand a closer examination of the intentions at work. If we abstract the characteristics of specific players, such as their psychological disposition, idiosyncratic memories, and physical (dis)ability, into an ‘implied’ player, do we necessarily normalise the play experience despite our best intentions? Yet if we do not, are we confined to fragmented forms of analyses that can make no claims beyond their own specificity, let alone attempt to comprehend the role of computer games in a larger socio-cultural context?

Various philosophical frameworks, most notably ‘new materialism’ (Barad, 2012; Braidotti, 2006), ‘object-oriented ontology’ (Harman, 1999; Bryant, 2011), Actor-Network Theory (Law & Lodge, 1984; Latour, 2005), assemblage theory (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988), ecological thought (Morton, 2010), and media ecologies (Fuller, 2005), have grappled with the subject-object issue. The broad shift seems to have been an opposition to the more linguistic or representational turns of the 1970s through 1990s, a turn to ‘materiality’, and a critique of anthropocentrism. The way that some of these ideas can be and have been taken up in game studies will be considered. Notably, Taylor (2009) has argued for the ‘assemblage’ of play that is constituted by interrelations beyond that of player and game, whilst Giddings (2009) has proposed a ‘microethnography’ of video game play that foregrounds the ‘event’. We ask: what is to be gained by moving away from a subject-object framework of understanding the relationship between users and technologies? What are the problems of doing so? And how might it be possible to theorise contingency and plurality whilst also retaining focus on larger categories?

The terrain covered by this panel will be expansive; as such, we will prioritise establishing and exposing connections between different theoretical problematics involving ‘subject’ and ‘object’, drawing attention to their foundational points of convergence and divergence.



Aarseth, E. (1997) Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press.

—— (2007) ‘I Fought the Law: Transgressive Play and the Implied Player’, Situated Play, DiGRA, pp.130-133.

Barad, K. (2012) Interview with Karen Barad. New materialism: Interviews and cartographies, pp.48-70.

Braidotti, R. (2006) ‘Posthuman, all too human: Towards a new process ontology’, Theory, culture & society, 23(7-8).

Bryant, L. (2011) ‘The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object-Oriented Ontology’, in Bryant, L., Srnicek, N. & Harman G. (eds.), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. re. press

Deleuze G. & Guattari F. (1988) A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Fuller, M. (2005) Media ecologies: Materialist energies in art and technoculture. MIT press.

Giddings, S. (2009) ‘Events and collusions: A glossary for the microethnography of video game play’, Games and Culture, 4(2), pp.144-157.

Harman, G. (2011) The Quadruple Object. Zero Books.

Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press.

Law, J. & Lodge, P. (1984) Science for Social Scientists. Macmillan Press.

Morton, T. (2010) The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press

Sicart, M. (2011) ‘Against Procedurality’, Game Studies, December 11(3).

Taylor, T.L. (2009) ‘The assemblage of play’, Games and Culture, 4(4), pp.331-339.


Espen Aarseth

Is the implied player a pleonasm?

In literary theory, the implied reader is, in Wolfgang Iser’s words (1978:34), “a textual structure anticipating the presence of a recipient without necessarily defining him”. Using novels as his example, Iser distinguishes sharply between four perspectives of reading: The narrator, the characters, the plot, and the fictitious reader (p. 35). For Iser, these perspectives are all different aspects that converge as the real reader attains the position (standpoint) of the implied reader. Iser’s model is not useless to understand the gaming experience (at least not in diegetic games: games with a world and characters), but the main difference is that the game’s player is already defined by the game and overlapping with at least one of its characters, and indigenous to the game world.  We would also have to add, indigenous to the game mechanics, an extra perspective Iser did not have to worry about.  In other words, there is nothing ‘implied’ about the game’s player, it is a most explicit standpoint, defined by, among other things, the game’s user interface.  And yet, it corresponds well to Iser’s intended meaning of the implied reader, which supports questions and explorations of the gameplayer’s position between the artistic intentions of the game designers and the aesthetic experience of the real player.  On the one hand, the game’s player overlaps with the (usually main) character and does therefore not need a ‘fictitious reader’, and on the other hand, the game’s player is a concrete and explicit position that does not need a process of convergence because it already is well-defined: syntactic rather than semantic.

However, diegetic games, in particular, typically have ‘textual’ aspects (or “textual structure” as Iser would call it) so a more radical conclusion would be that while (e.g.) massively singleplayer games such as Fallout: New Vegas or Skyrim do not have implied players, merely an explicit player function, they still have implied readers, unlike, say, minimalist games like chess or Tetris.  To sum up this claim, games do not have implied players, but instead, a player function and, depending on the textual anatomy of the game, they may have implied readers.



Iser, W., 1978. The act of reading. Baltimore and London.



Espen Aarseth is professor of game studies and head of the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen.  He holds a Cand.Philol. in comparative literature and a Dr.Art. in humanistic informatics, both from the University of Bergen. He is co-founding Editor-in-Chief of the journal Game Studies (2001-), and author of Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Johns Hopkins UP 1997), a comparative media theory of games and other aesthetic forms. He recently received an ERC Advanced Grant for the project MSG – Making Sense of Games (2016-2021).



Andreas Gregersen

Implications (of a practice theory) of games and gaming

This presentation aims at interrogating the issue of computer games and their “implied structures” by way of a discussion of practice theory. Within general media theory, a recent and influential practice theory proposal has been offered by Couldry (2012) and two points from this work are especially relevant here: The first is a clarion call for all scholars to move from analyses of media texts towards analyses of media practices. The second is the claim that a single media text may lead to very diverse practices. The overall question is what consequences this (type of) standpoint might have for analyses of games and gaming, both in general and with respect to what one might call the “the issue of implication” of computer games. A small selection of pertinent questions would be: What are the pros and cons of shifting from game objects to practices? Do we “leave the objects behind” in favour of practices or do we try to make connections? Is gaming a practice or rather a set of practices? If the latter, how large is this set, roughly – and how do we distinguish between practices? What type of ontological entities are implied by the structure(s) of a given game? Does it make sense, for instance, to say that games do not have implied players, but rather implied practices? If we opt for “how about both?” where does that lead, if anywhere?

The answers to these questions arguably depend, to varying extent, upon what version of practice theory one adopts (if any). Given that practice theories are (notoriously) heterogeneous (Schatzki, Knorr Cetina, & Savigny, 2011; Warde, 2005), I will sketch some answers based on a synthesis of Bourdieusian (Bourdieu, 1977) practice theory and cognitive sociology (Brekhus, 2015; Zerubavel, 1997), with some bits from Archerian and Schutzian sociology added for good measure. The resulting framework assumes that individuals are socialized into a particular habitus through their upbringing in a particular culture, but it also emphasizes agential reflexivity (Archer, 1995) and “projects” as well as individual biographies (Schutz, 1967). In addition, it maintains the analytical distinction between embodied routine actions and higher-order reflexive thinking. This version of practice theory is deliberately conservative, and my main point will be that this conservatism has the virtue of allowing for cultivation of fruitful connections between a series of existing perspectives on games and players.



Archer, M. S. (1995). Realist Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brekhus, W. H. (2015). Culture and Cognition. Cambridge: Polity.

Couldry, N. (2012). Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice. Cambridge: Polity.

Schatzki, T. R., Knorr Cetina, K., & Savigny, E. v. (Eds.). (2011). The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London: Routledge.

Schutz, A. (1967). The Phenomenology of the Social World. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Warde, A. (2005). Consumption and Theories of Practice. Journal of Consumer Culture, 5(2), 131-153. doi:10.1177/1469540505053090

Zerubavel, E. (1997). Social Mindscapes. An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.



Andreas Gregersen is Associate Professor at Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at University of Copenhagen. His research is predominantly oriented towards cognitive theory (formalist media theory as well as social theory) and computer games.


Justyna Janik

Between the video game object and the player: posthuman perspective

While there are a few publications in the field of game study that focus on posthuman approaches (Bogost 2010; Jessen & Jessen 2014; Wirman 2014; Gualeni & Westerlaken 2016; Fizek 2017), there is still a need for works that would focus on the creation of meaning inside the player-game relation and the play process itself, which, at the same time, would emphasize the ethical foundation of a posthuman approach focused on the human relation with technology. With that in mind, in this presentation, I shall introduce the idea of the “bio-object” (Kantor 2004) and the concept of posthuman performativity (Barad 2007), which would not only show how both the video game object and the player co-create meanings, but also determine their own ontic borders.

The idea of the bio-object emerged from the playwright Tadeusz Kantor’s aesthetical explorations concerning the nature of objects, their meaning, and their place in the surrounding reality. Kantor coined this notion to describe the special relation between the actor and the stage object that is established during a dramatic performance. Here, I shall make the argument that the notion can also be applied to the situation between the player and the video game. The stage object/video game defines the moves and motives of the actor/player and the actor/player not only animates the object/game, but in fact becomes the living part of it. They are both equal in this qualitative new unity and, as equals, they are both the main conduit of the play’s meaning.

However, even if they appear as one, the ontological status of the bio-object is more nuanced. In Kantor’s theory, this happens because of two reasons: first, the bond between actor and object is not exactly stable. It is based on constant rivalry (Pleśniarowicz 1990): either the actor/player dominates the object and uses it as she wishes, or the object/game imposes itself over the human and confines her movements. Second, it is possible because of the specific status of the Kantorian object, which is not defined by its given, human functionality, but also has the capacity to define and transform human actants when they are using it.

This is attuned with Karen Barad’s concept of intra-actions (2007), in which agency is not something that actants have and can use, but rather a dynamic force that happens between them. By not differentiating between human and non-human agency, Barad wants to escape the anthropocentric tendencies that can appear when using those terms in a traditional understanding, while also emphasizing the transformative power of the intra-actions. This performative power is especially important in her development of agential realism, because it is only through the intra-actions, rooted as they are in the material-discursive practices, that the borders of objects, their features, materiality and properties can be established.

By meshing together Kantor’s and Barad’s ideas, I would like to focus on this exact performative force and ask question about how the equal status of both actants – the video game object and the player – can result in the production of new meanings.


Barad, K. M. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien phenomenology, or, What it’s like to be a thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fizek, S. (2017). Self-playing Games: Rethinking the State of Digital Play. Paper presented at The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, Kraków 2017.

Jessen, J. D., & Jessen, C. (2014). Games as Actors – Interaction, Play, Design, and Actor Network Theory. International Journal on Advances in Intelligent Systems, 3-4 (7), 412 – 422.

Kantor, T. (2004). Teatr śmierci: Teksty z lat, 1975-1984. Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich.

Pleśniarowicz, K. (1990). Teatr Śmierci Tadeusza Kantora. Chotomów: Verba.

Westerlaken, M. & Gualeni, S. (2016). Situated Knowledges through Game Design: A Transformative Exercise with Ants. Paper presented at The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, Malta 2016.

Wirman, H. (2014). Games for/with Strangers: Captive Orangutan (Pongo Pygmaeus) Touch Screen Play, Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, 30, 103-113.



Justyna Janik is a PhD student at the Faculty of Management and Social Communication at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, as well as a member of the Jagiellonian Game Studies Research Centre. She holds MAs in Comparative Studies of Civilisations and Cultural Studies. Her thesis concerns the subject of the relationship between a player and a video game, with a focus on post-human and performative nature of this bond. She is also fascinated by works of Tadeusz Kantor, which she uses as a theoretical tool to better understand a video game as an object.


Feng Zhu

A Foucauldian ‘topological’ analysis of player typologies

How do we approach the study of player practices or implied player practices, with a view to saying something about the game? And how do we connect the analysis of both players and games to a broader context? We can aim to show that the kinds of play practices involved in relation a game are multiple. This mitigates the danger of normalising everyday common sense and so ignoring both the actual uncertainties of evaluation in everyday life and the institutional strategies of building authority from particular claims to reality (Boltanski, 2011, pp. 54-56). But a naive focus on transgressive and heterogeneous forms of practice can obscure both political and historical insights that might otherwise be gleaned if a much broader perspective beyond the differences between specific players were adopted. As Peter Dews (2007, p.xiii) argues, the outcome of an celebration of the infinite play of desire, non-identity, difference, repetition and displacement beloved by poststructuralism can be ‘a wilful self-restriction of analysis to the fragmentary and the perspectival [that] renders impossible any coherent understanding of our own historical and cultural situation’ (cf. Jay, 1984, p.512; Boltanski & Chiapello, 2005, p.xi; Hardt & Negri, 2000, pp.137-138).

To explore whether an emphasis on homogeneity or on heterogeneity is analytically preferable in each instance of analysis, I will reflect on an approach informed by Foucault’s ‘topological’ turn (Foucault, 2007; Collier, 2009) in his later work, one that rejected epochal framings in favour of patterns of correlation in which heterogeneous elements are configured, as well as the redeployments through which these patterns are transformed. This approach moves us away from settling on there being a single implied player as one that would not be adequate to convey the multiplicitous layers and very distinct implicit player positions contained within contemporary games. Distinct ergodic pathways signify different patterns of action, diverse dispositions and attitudes, and they can be summed up as referring to various player ‘typologies’ (Bartle, 1996; Yee, 2007, no date; Hamari & Tuunanen, 2014). The critical move, however, lies in the way that we might seek to tie these typologies together; it is possible that there are overarching tendencies or rationalities among these typologies, such that there is a concatenation of micro-reactions in a systemic fashion. I will explore the philosophical assumptions behind how such a position may be argued for and derived in light of the recombinatorial and problematising role that Foucault (1984) attributed to ‘thought’, which complicates any attempts to homogenise away specificity.


Bartle, R. (1996) ‘Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS.’ Available at:

Boltanski, L. (2011) On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation. Polity.

Boltanski, L. & Chiapello, E. (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London and New York: Verso.

Collier, S. J. (2009) Topologies of power: Foucault’s analysis of political government beyond ‘governmentality’. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(6), 78-108.

Dews, P. (2007) Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory. London and New York: Verso.

Foucault, M. (1984) ‘Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations: An Interview with Michel Foucault’ (L. Davis, Trans.). In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought. London: Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (2007). Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978 (G. Burchell, Trans.). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Hamari, J. & Tuunanen, J. (2014) ‘Player Types: A Meta-synthesis’, TODIGRA: Special Issue, Selected articles from Nordic DIGRA 2012, 1(2).

Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press.

Jay, M. (1984) Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Yee, N. (2007) ‘Motivations of Play in Online Games’, Journal of CyberPsychology and Behaviour, Issue 9, pp.772-775.

—— (no date) Motivations of Play in MMORPGs: Results from a Factor Analytical Approach. Available at:


Feng Zhu is a teaching fellow in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. His research interests lie in self-transformative gameplay practices, particularly in relation to Foucault’s work on the technologies of the self. This extends into considerations of theories of habitus and hexis, the ethico-aesthetics of the self, neoliberal subjectivity, and thinking the limits of individualising techniques of power. He is a section editor for The Journal of the Philosophy of Computer Games.