Thesis: Making Meaning in Games and Film

I wrote another draft of my thesis, which took a very long time. I was not happy with it when I finished, but it was important that finish a complete thing. Before it was a collection of bits and pieces. Writing it out completely was a not fun but it made me aware of logical holes and places for improvement. I found some unknown-unknowns. For example, I was writing about the possibility of making meaning, when I hadn’t really researched how games made meaning or how this compared to film.

(It really easy to discover a new area of research such as “spatial continuity” or “suspension of disbelief” and think it is the one thing my paper has been missing all this time. But this process never ends. There are so many relevant topics.)

Aesthetic Illusion

Finding the terms aesthetic illusion and naturalization led me to the field of narratology. Jocelyn Cammack’s essay “Aesthetic Illusion and the Breaking of Illusion in Ambiguous Film Sequences”, is particularly relevant because she writes about how films have created unique perceptual reactions, including Man with the Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929), where “visual information momentarily conflicts with understanding and a double-take reaction is evoked” (306) or Code Inconnu (Michael Haneke, 2000) where aesthetic illusion is split into two interpretations (303). These effects are similar to what I am interested in creating in my game. The latter effect can be related to a multi-stable image, which I’ve written about previously.

Cammack writes: “the work of filmmakers who experiment with these perceptual concerns often demands a different kind of engagement in the process of viewing”, where the viewer wants immersion and enjoys being overtly manipulated (312). Could this type of engagement be created in a game?

A big difference between how information is interpreted in a game rather than in a film is that this information is used not only to generate understanding but to understand how one can act within a system. Looking at an Escher lithograph is disorientating in a fun way, but maybe this is because you’d never actually have to find your way inside the piece. Cynthia Freeland writes in “Continuity, narrative, and cross-modal cuing of attention” that the main way visual experiences of film are different from real-life ones is that “vision serves human agency” (34). Freeland then writes about how separate parts of the brain are used to process “spatiotemporal information” and information on how an object can be used (35) (although the latter is more related to bodily movement). Freeland suggests that this “agentive vision” may be more important to video games than it is to most films (37-8).

Christian Wessely’s “Columns of Figures as Sources of Aesthetic Illusion” also points out that the experience of games differ from “traditional illusionist media” because of players’ interactive involvement (341). Games are not only a means of expression but tools where players constantly re-frame their perspectives as interactivity changes, in order to be more efficient users (Wessely, 343-4). This constant shifting brings attention to the fact of the game (Wessely, 343-4), whereas one might forget that they were watching a film. However, he also writes that being aware of the relationship of oneself and the computer isn’t detrimental to aesthetic illusion, because the medium  of the computer is not seen as separate to the experience of illusion (356). This relates to Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, where he writes about how games are constantly breaking illusion by making their underlying system overt.

Because I am making a game that defies certain real-world physical rules, I am wondering to what degree the convention of mimicking these rules is arbitrary. How much do players rely on these rules in order to comprehend and willingly engage with a game? Wessely writes that to create immersion, games create reliability through an “analogous experience of direction and movement” as well as other physical experiences (342). He points out that while it isn’t necessary to create a completely analogous game environment, “games with such features form a commercial insignificant minority because consumers obviously favour a certain familiarity with the environment.” (343). Although I agree that some real-world or convention-based familiarity is important to easily understanding how one can engage with and understand the meaning of a space, I do not think commercial availability of certain types of games is sufficient to understanding what consumers or people in general enjoy. Wessely’s points do bring up a question I have been facing during game design: what is the right balance of familiarity and surprise? Can a game compensate for, say, reversing gravity with extra attention to realistic sense of movement in order to remain engaging or comprehensible?


Besides differences in how visual information in film and games is perceived, I was also curious about why certain representational conventions exist in games. How arbitrary are they?

Daniel Schäbler writes in “Unnatural Games” that “modern, graphically advanced games strive to simulate cinematographic realism, not mimetic extrafictional realism”, quoting theorist Stephen Schwingeler to suggest that it is because there is still a credibility to photographic realism.

This suggests that games use representational conventions from film to communicate more easily. But what about the structure of the represented content? In”Game Design as Narrative Architecture”, Henry Jenkins writes that games suffer from an overly literal application of film theory, and more specifically, “traditional narrative structure” (118-9). Jenkins explains that games tell stories best through space, and that “choices about the design and organization of game spaces have narratological consequences” (130). He also writes that games often use narrative conventions from literary genres such as science fiction because world-building has more priority (123).


Cynthia Freeland’s paper not only suggests a way in which the perception of game information may differ from that of film information, but also explains how films use continuity editing to create meaning. Some of my previous research focused on editing conventions. I was wondering if these conventions could be used to create meaning in my game. The transitions in my project often create a visual continuity (one scene blending smoothly into the next) while breaking logical spatial continuity (transporting the player to another place). Typically, within a scene, a film breaks visual continuity while adhering to certain conventions to create the sense of spatial continuity. However, a match-cut can link two spatially disparate scenes in a more visually continuous way.

Freeland writes that editing is about allowing a viewer to “shift their attention to the audiovisual details currently relevant to them and the narrative” (38). These details are determined by a process of guessing and expectation for the ultimate purpose of  what Noël Carroll calls “narrative closure” (Freeland, 38). Basically, cuts can be unseen because they respond to narrative-related expectations. It is interesting to think about how this relates to games, where the player typically manipulates their own view in order to answer questions. Could a game transition be less jarring or disorientating if it creates “narrative closure”? How do you create “narrative closure” in games where the designer has less control over the presentation of the story?

Final Remarks

Maybe instead of asking whether I can create meaning in a certain way (because the answer will almost always be “yeah, sure”) I should ask to what degree I can create a comprehensible or engaging experience.

Works Cited

Cammack, Jocelyn. “Aesthetic Illusion and the Breaking of Illusion in Ambiguous Film Sequences.” Immersion and Distance. Amsterdam, NL: Editions Rodopi, 2013. 295-312.ProQuest ebrary. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.

Freeland, Cynthia. “Continuity, narrative, and cross-modal cuing of attention.” Projections:The Journal for Movies and Mind, vol. 6, no. 1, 2012, p. 34+. Academic OneFile. Web. 11 Mar. 2017.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design As Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. 118-30. Electronic Book Review. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.

Schäbler, Daniel. “Unnatural Games? Innovation and Generification of Natural and Unnatural Visual Effects in Dead Space and Alien: Isolation.” Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies 7.1 (2015): 21-38. Project Muse. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.

Wessely, Christian. “Columns of Figures as Sources of Aesthetic Illusion: Browser-Based Multiplayer Online GamesImmersion and Distance. Amsterdam, NL: Editions Rodopi, 2013. 339-362.ProQuest ebrary. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.