The Grammar of Game Worlds

In this article I take a look at Fernand Braudel’s concept “Grammar” and suggest it as a conceptual tool to gain a deeper insight into the nature of virtual worlds and their shaping role in the emergence of unique player “cultures”. I also connect Braudel’s model with Umberto Eco’s concept of “Forests of Narratives” in order to lay a foundation for an approach that sees virtual worlds and video games as a geo-history that serves as the ground to nurture “playable stories”, which in return will transform this grammar. I hope you’ll enjoy the read!

The Grammar of Civilizations

One of my starting points in putting down the relation between space and narrative in games is French historician Fernand Braudel’s concept of “historical space” and its impact on the shaping of “culture” –dominant patterns and styles to maintain a living-. Braudel sees history as a long process of interaction between geography (which he calls the “broader tense” of history) and humans. The outcome is what he calls “the grammar of civilizations”, broader patterns of life.

The grammar of civilizations is described as a combined force of limitations and available options which together create certain life styles or cultural patterns along which civiliations develope their deeper socio-economical structures. Individual behavior is often structured by this “grammar”, and despite deviations, the “grammar” –the long term impact of “geographical time”, so to say- is the reason behind certain general cultural and behavioral patterns.

Braudel believes that space/geography always means scarcity to a certain degree, but that the same space/geography with all its qualities also offers unique solutions to overcome this scarcity. As humans find solutions to overcome scarcity in a given spatial/geographic context and gain independence from the limitations and challenges of the surrounding physical world, they become more and more depending on the solutions they created. In other words, culture is both emancipation and dependency, caused by and overcome through the same spatial/geographical context.

The Player’s Struggle for Emancipation

I believe that this is a good starting point to understand games, which, in that sense, are unique worlds that foster certain behavioral patterns due to the limitations they pose on the player and the solutions that they support in terms of environmental features and game controls (gameplay). Thus, every game world can be considered as a space/geography with it’s own “grammar”.

The qualities of the virtual space and the organization of architectural/landscape elements with their inherent functionality and behavior can be seen as the constitution of this “grammar” of the game world. This “grammar” is the realm where gameplay and story can flourish and nurture.

While Braudel’s grammar of the real world is an impact of historical space, the grammar of the game world is a question of constructing the forces and counter-forces that make meaningful action in the virtual world possible. Spatial organization, gameplay and story elements must be considered simultaneously and in an interconnected manner to achieve verisimilitude. The game world must give the impression that it is a possible, self-sufficient and -in regard to itself- realistic world.

The Grammar of a Context for Meaningful Gameplay

Particularly in 3-D game levels, this “grammar” has a core dramaturgic function. In many games, the problem that is posed onto the player is of a dramatic nature or is being based on a dramatic goal. In other words, it is a goal with an obstacle in its way and in general it suggests or imposes onto the player a logical way of conduct to solve it. The player will strive to complete the story by using the tools that are made available to him to overcome the limits and obstacles that the game world puts in front of him.

Here, especially spatial organization and architectural elements are vital to achieve and/or support the dramaturgic effect of the game. The use of space and architectural elements –actually architectural design itself being a process of problem solving- will often be in accordance with the dramatic arc of the game, suggesting the player paths to follow and allowing for a sense of continuity in the game. Also the mood and the overall believability of the game will depend on the use of spatial or architectural elements.

The Grammar of The Forrests of Narratives

It seems useful to me to connect Braudel’s Model with Umberto Eco’s conceptualization of the narrative, which he describes as a “forrest that the reader has to be guided trough”. Guidance is meant here in two dimensions: On one hand it is a dramaturgic question, since the reader is being guided through a story with its unique dramatic aspects. On the other hand it is a spatial question, since a setting, an environment, or a world with its own possibles and impossibles has to be created and maintained in a coherent and consistent way. In games, this relation becomes a very important one, since the player, who is now a dramatic category himself -the hero- , must experience this story through a mediated physical world with its own spatio-temporal conditions and audio-visual style.

It is crucial in game design, to match spatial and architectural needs with dramatic needs to make the game work at all. In other words, the way in which the player is guided through the “forrest of the narrative”, depends also on how the “forrest” is materialized as a spatial experience, all in all pointing at the importance of the design of the virtual landscape and the architectural elements present in the game world.


Braudel F. (1998) Uygarlıkların Grameri (The Grammar of Civilizations) , Ankara: İmge.

Eco U. (1995) Anlatı Ormanlarında Altı Gezinti (Six Trips Through The Forests of Narratives), İstanbul: Can.

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One Response

  1. Karl Marx says that “humanity poses only those problems onto itself for which it also provides the solutions for”. I believe that this is one of the best advise that a game designer could get before he starts to design his own game: Only pose problems onto the player that you provide solutions for. Allow for a gradual emancipation from the grammar of the game world.

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