Rock-Paper-Scissors: A Linguistic Approach to Games

This essay is a sketch for a linguistics-based approach to games. It is “under construction” and will be frequently updated.

A Bit of Theory

Expression and Content

According to danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, language has two layers:

  • Expression Plane
  • Content Plane

The expression plane is the plane of signifiers, whereas the content plane is the plane of signifieds. A sign (or meaning) is then the connotative sum of a signifier and a signified. [1]

When we play a game, what we “interact” with, and interpret, is the expression plane, which we perceive as a chain of signifiers. The expression plane must be always present in some material form, whereas the content plane is an organized accumulation of mental contepts, which are associated with the material forms of the expression plane according to some rules or conventions.

When we say that a sign is the connotative sum of expression and content, we mean with that that the expressive form alone is not the meaning. Meaning arises when the expressive form is associated with a mental concept. For example, the (X) button on a gamepad is not the sign itself, it is only a signifier. Before the signifier (X) can be read as a sign, it must be associated with a certain signified, something that it will stand for, such as “kick” or “shoot”.

The same counts for players. Their visible performance amounts to a chain of signifiers that can be associated with signifieds. Through this association, player action produces signs that can be read as meaningful action. In that sense, player itself is a sign, a meaning that should not be confused with the “real person” at play, who only serves as a signifier and doesn’t gain a meaning until her behavior stands for some content.

Substance and Form

In Hjelmslev’s model, both expression and content plane have a form and a substance. This gives us the following pairs:

  • Form of Expression
  • Substance of Expression
  • Substance of Content
  • Form of Content

Based on this distinction, we can say that every sign and the sign system that it is part of, consists of four related layers. The same can be said for signs in games, and games as sign systems.

Beyond the Sentence

While Hjelmslev’s was concerned with natural languages, Roland Barthes, and later Seymour Chatman, applied his distinctions to semiotic systems and discourses, such as narratives in the novel and in film. This move required to “expand” the linguistic model so that can it lend itself to the study of discourse, which presents an analytical unit that is larger than the sentence.

While in linguistics the largest unit of analysis are sentences (beyond the sentence, all that linguistics finds as an object of study, are just other sentences), discourse analyses and narrative theory studies units “beyond the sentence”, and works with categories that must “grow” accordingly: Actants and Events, rather than subject and predicate. Such growth in units also applies to modalities of time and space: story time versus discourse time, and the construction of fictional space through spatial signs.

Yet, the growth in categories doesn’t render Hjelmslev’s distinction between expression and content plane useless. His distinction applies to all semiotic systems, including games, as I try to show in this essay.

Rock-Paper-Scissors as Language

Based on the game Rock-Paper-Scissors, I briefly show how Hjelmslev’s (and Chatman’s “expanded”) model applies to games.

Form of Expression

The form of expression consists of the materialized forms that are utilized and recognized as the array of signifers of the language. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, this array of signifiers consists of the gestures |rock|, |paper| and |scissors|.

Substance of Expression

The substance of expression is the material substance that is utilized to shape the forms that are recognized as the array of signifiers of the language. In Rock-Scissors-Paper, these are the players hands.

Substance of Content

The substance of content is the catalogue of positive meanings that qualify as the signifieds of the language. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, these are semes like “rock”, “paper” and “scissors”.

Form of Content

The form of content is the arrangement of semes according to an internal system of operators. Through this internal system, semes leave their positive meanings behind and gain values, which allows them to be compared and exchanged. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, this is the logical form and its operators that holds up the intransitive relationships between the semes “rock”, “paper” and “scissors”. Indeed, as values that are determined by this underlying logical form, “rock”, “paper” and “scissors” can be exchanged, and they can also be compared in terms of whether one is superior to the other.

The Materiality of the Expression Plane

The content plane can be completely imaginary. One may invent a number of substances of content (a “Pac Man”, a “Pinky”, a “maze”, “dots” etc), and then give this content a form, that is, design a value system that defines how these substances stand in relation to each other. The expression plane however, must be material, because it is only through its material form through which the world of semes and their underlying value system (the way we have to evaluate their relationship, and interprete the resulting states) can be “expressed” to someone. Usually, a rulebook or a tutorial will be employed in order to describe the content plane. But playing (or observing players in action) serves the same purpose, because from the way a chain of signifiers is interpreted by others, one can infer the elements and structure of the content plane.

Articulation and Signification

During interpretation, we associate a chain of forms (signifiers) with a group of mental concepts ( signifieds). This produces a chain of signs (meaning). Roland Barthes describes this process like a flat line between two amorph masses of air and water suddenly taking on a particular shape. A certain order of the signifiers will change the “air pressure”, which in return will simultaneously divide and re-unite the “water mass” of mental concepts into patterns of waves. This wave pattern can be “read”.

An example for this can be given from Chess: When the board and chess figurines aren’t used for play, the line between air and water remains flat: only two unassociated masses of signifiers and signifiers are present. However, once we take the board out of the box and place the chess figurines onto it, the “air pressure” changes and discernible “waves” emerge: We can now “read” a game state. Each player move alters the “air pressure” and a new meaningful game state (a readable chain/composition of signs) emerges.

When we come back to Rock-Paper-Scissors we can describe the process as follows: When a player poses the gesture |rock|, she simultaneously mobilizes both planes together with both their forms and substances: Her hand is the substance that is used to “shape” the gesture |rock|and thereby it puts forward a form that is recognized as a valid signifier. This form, once posed, does not only “call” the seme “rock”, but also the potential value “rock”. Once the opposing player poses a counter-gesture (let’s say |paper|) and calls thereby calls the value “paper”, a productive articulation of signs takes place, which enables a “reading”: “Rock versus Paper. Paper wins.”

Lizard Spock

RPS Lizard Spock, a version expanded to include the signs Lizard and Spock to the existing sign system (or language) of RPS, alters both the array of signifiers and the array of signifieds. On the expression plane, new forms have been added (the gestures |lizard| and |spock|), whereas the substance of expression, hands, remains the same. On the content plane, things seem to become a bit more complex, especially when considering the form of content. In terms of substance, only the two semes “lizard” and “spock” have been added, but the truly significant change can be observed in the internal system that must integrate the added semes as replacable and comparable values.

A Classification of Rules

Rules of Substance

These rules specify the substances that can be used to “carry” the forms that are recognized as signfiers within the system. For example in professional sports, one may come across very strict rules in regard to existents, such as the weight, diameter, air pressure, and material of a football. However, kids would often use a tin can or any other object they see fit as a “football”. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, people often go by simply using their hands as the carriage/substance, but it could well be a pair of d3’s made of wood or diamonds.

Rules of Form

These rules specify the parametres and traits that a form must possess in order to be recognized as a valid signifier within the system. Forms may be subject to standards (as it is the case in professional chess), however, one can often see variations in style and theme (like in a Star Wars themed set of chess figures). It can be compared to font families, which are variations of a certain set of types with discernible traits. Quite often, style and theme variations may push the limits of recognition in regard to form. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, only three gestures with clearly discernible features are recognized as forms/signifiers.

Rules of Content

These rules delineate the range of existents and events in the game. For example the array of units in a RTS, or weapons in an FPS; or the array of actions, such as kick, punch or dodge, in a fighting game. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, the rules of content limit the number of existents to three (the existents “rock”, “paper” and “scissors”), and the actions to a single one: “attack”.

Rules of Value

The range of operators and the set of rules that specifies the arrangement of semes around these operators. These rules hold up a system of values against which relationships between content elements can be measured, and a state of affairs be expressed. In Rock-Paper-Scissors there is a single operator (“>”) which sets up an intransitive relationship between the semes “rock”, “scissors” and “paper”. When two gestures are posed against each other, they can be evaluated based on the value system (semes + operators or, if you wish, data + algorithms) they put into motion, and they express now a state of affairs that can be “read” to decide a winner.

Rules of Association

Rules that specify what form is to be associated with what content. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, the gesture |V| must be associated with the seme “scissors”. Many games are very strict in regard to association, since avoiding ambiguity seems to be a major concern in most games. But it is often possible that a signifier can express more than one signified, and that a signified can be expressed with more than one signifier. For example, many games feature a “joker” or “wild card”, which allows the player to associate this signifier with a seme of her desire. [Example for one signfied-many signifiers?]

Rules of Articulation

The rules in regard to how signifiers must be articulated and arranged in respect to time and space. These rules bring an order to the signifiers so that their arrangement in time and space (and changes in such arrangement) can be read as a state of affairs (and as a progression from state to state). These rules could be also called compositional rules. In its broadest sense, a standart game of football asks players to articulate their actions within the borders of a football field, and within the time frame of 90 minutes. Chess, on the other hand, provides different options for use of space and time.

The space in which articulation takes place must be seen twofold: On one hand, it is a format, that is, it provides a general frame in which articulation must take place, just like a sheet of paper or the frame of a painting, within which expressive forms (letters, words, lines, dots etc) must remain in order to be counted as part of the expression. On the other hand it also specifies rules for placement of signifiers within this format, that is, there may be measures that ensure that signifiers are placed according to a certain “reading line” or compositional aspect. For example, a chess pawn may be moved anywhere within the “format” of the chess board, yet it would need to be placed within the confines of a square as well, and not at a line at which two squares intersect, or there would arise ambiguity in regard to how to evaluate the relationship between signifiers, and it would be impossible to “read” the game state.

It is needless to say that a game may have neither a clearly defined format nor any rules in regard to placement. An ARG for example, may use multiple and diverse spaces (a city, GPRS, the internet) as parts of its format, and allow to place signifiers anywhere within these confines. Also, some games may include real life processes such as traffic, weather, stock exchange data etc. However, all these aren’t really a blurring of the line between games and real life: Anything that is recongnized within the format, even if this format is something in constant flux, is elevated into a ludic state, for its behavior-for-itself, is now recognized as a valid signifier, and stands in association with the signifieds of the ludic value system. Therefore, in design, non-intervention is an intervention: Leaving something as it is, is a design choice.

The distinction between the rules classes offered here is analytical. In reality, different classes of rules, and also rules within the same class, will “work together” in order to structure the shape of existents and events.

Computer Games

One of the things that a computer game does, is to display a signifier that is associated to elements in the content plane when it receives player input. For example if the (x) button on a console stands for the seme “kick”, upon receiving (x) as input, the program would call the (chain of) signifiers ( the relevant visuals and sounds), and display them through its output channels. Hence, a computer game is software that converts input signifiers into output signifiers, both of which are associated with the same signifieds. Output signifiers (what some would prefer to call feedback) actually confirm whether we’ve used the appropriate input signifiers or not. This is an important aspect of learning game controls.

Owners/producers of such “tranlation devices” (for example console developers) will ask game developers to stick with the confines of their translation machines, which means to game developers that they limit themselves to value systems that can be expressed through the set of input signifiers of the console (for example the range of buttons on their gamepad), and refrain from putting too much stress on the console’s capacity of displaying output signifiers (like its sound and graphic processing power, or its storage capacity). For example the content plane of a console fighting game must be associated with the limited set of expression elements on the gamepad (buttons etc).

However, as single button games clearly show, a single substance such as a button can host a variety of discernible signifiers/forms (which might be differentiated through button pressing duration, button pushing frequency, and different button states for example). Also complex combinations of mouse, keyboard and click&point interfaces allow for the content plane to be presented in an embedded manner, such as it is the case in The Sims.

Diversification and Institutionalization

What a person can do with already produced signs and the sign system as a whole is another question. Obviously, the first thing we “do” with them is to enjoy them, derrive fun and many other emotions from them. But there are also many ways to make such signs and sign systems subject to meta-languages and meta-games: re-producing them as part of fan art, commenting on them on blogs, making mods of them, or articulating them under a bigger frame of rules.

It is possible that a whole sign system may become subject to additional rules or conventions, which will often lead to a certain way of institutionalization of said sign system. Typically, a sports federation would frame an already existing game with additional rules, which may be motivated by concerns that weren’t essentially part of the sign system that has been framed, but will nevertheless have an impact on play styles. It is therefore important to consider games as ever-evolving sign systems that can diverge into many directions, depending on how they are framed by additional rules motivated by commerce, politics, culture etc. For example, certain types of institutionalization will introduce ways to articulate different agents into the greater frame, such as the ways in which fandom is being regulated and fan’s consumption of the sign system as spectacle is bound to certain rules. Supplying fans with seasonal tickets for a football team can be given as an example here.

But institutionalization also works on the level of player access to sign systems and gameplay. Business models for example, are a framework that specify the ways in which a person can access and maintain the state of “player”.

A Few Remarks

Learning to play a game can be likened to learn a language. A player gradually grasps the relationship between the substance and form of expression and content planes, and gains skills in both articulation (“writing”) and interpretation (“reading”).

Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds can be seen as a game that basically kept the form of content (the value system) of Age of Empires as it is, changing the expression plane almost entirely, and overwriting the array of semes of AoE (the substance of content) with its own array of semes (the existents and events of the Star Wars universe).

Game design documents could well be analysed based on the expression and content planes that they are a sketch of. In other words, they are also sketches of a sign system, a language.

We often witness non-productive instances of articulation in languages. This can be the case in Rock-Paper-Scissors, too. If both players pose the same gesture (lets say |rock| versus |rock|), no meaning, that is, “meaninglessness” is produced due to the value system underlying the semes, which denies a comparison between the same semes, and hence, doesn’t allow for meaning to emerge.

Transmediality in games becomes possible because of the flexibility of a sign system in employing varying materials as the substance of its expression plane. Indeed, one version of Rock-Paper-Scissors could be based on players hands as the substance to deliver its recongized forms, whereas another version would use cards or sounds as its substance.

While rules may specify aspects of a game in great detail, they may leave many things to be infered by the player. This means that players may fill in the gaps in regard to things which aren’t mentioned (bound to rules), just as readers would fill in such gaps according to reader-response theory. This is not simply the application of common-sense, but utilizing common-sense elements in accord to the ludic meaning system. Just because it is not mentioned that we cannot use knives to overcome the opposition, doesn’t mean we would use knives in a match of soccer.


[1] The tie between signifier and signified is essentially an arbitrary and socially motivated association, and not one of direct reference, equivalence or one of an inseparable nature. The latter view is known as the “referential” model of language. Referential models tend to confuse the signifier for the sign, and thereby assign substance to form, as if the signifier (say, a word) is the meaning itself. This renders the fact of an association between a signifier and a signified invisible, and causes people to think of language as an “immediate” experience, or as a “mirror” of reality that reflects it “as it is”.

However, the relation between a word (a signifier) and what it signifies (the mental image that it “calls”) is arbitrary: |Table|, |Tisch|, and |Masa| are all signifiers from different cultures that “call” into mind a mental image of the same object (that of a “table”). This clearly demonstrates the arbitrariness and conventional nature of the words, since there seems to be no reason other than social convention in regard to why one culture uses the signifier |Table| while another one uses the signifier |Tisch|. Hence, the signifier |Table| is only a form, not the sign/meaning itself. To linguistics, therefore, the signifier |Table| itself means nothing, but the sign ‘Table’, as the connotative sum of the signifier |Table| and the signified “table” (the mental image of a table), does.

The association of a signifer and a signified in order to produce signs/meaning is why in contrast to referential models, structuralist approaches claim that language is not merely a reflection of a natural world order, but that it plays a central role in the representation of contingency as a construct that can be experienced as “reality”. Language doesn’t reflect an already naturally categorized world, it categorizes the world and thereby constructs an experience of the “natural”. Dealing with the value system rather than words themselves is one of the goals of discourse analyses, and in particular, that of deconstruction, because it’s there where the “world”, or the logic underlying our interpretation of it, is constructed.

All this is just another way to say that language is an area of political struggle, for words are not simply an immediate expression of the world’s natural order, but that every word (every signifier) is subject to a constant cultural battle over which signifieds to associate it with. One example can be given from Ludology: The words |semiotics| and |narrative| have been associated with signifieds such as “insufficiency”, “dissonance”, “ornament”, “wrapper” etc over the past 15 years and have over time become positioned inferior to |interactivity| and |gameplay|, which are associated with values such as “essence”, “core” etc. Often such struggle over meaning may resort to referential uses of language like saying “a game is a game is a game”. The donimating type of associations between signifiers and signifieds are by no means harmless: A designer at Bioware has been subject to verbal aggression when she expressed that she would like to see games in which gameplay can be skipped, something which for the “core” gamers “violated” what they perceived as the “nature” of games.

3 Responses

  1. Great article! I was struggling to understand Hjelmslev’s theory, but everything is clear to me. Thank you so much and congratulations for the good job!

    • Dear Amanda,
      thank you very much for your comment. I’m extremely glad to find out that the article was helpful to you, especially for the Hjelmslev part. Take care, Altuğ

  2. […] Altuğ Işığan — 20 Ekim 2012 — (genişletilmiş versiyon) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: