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Rock Paper Scissors: A Linguistic Approach
by Altug Isigan on 10/20/12 11:25:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[For an expanded version of this essay, please go here.]


One of the concerns of Linguistics is meaning. Using linguistic categories while we approach games, provides us with conceptual tools that allow us to shed light on "meaningful" play. It can also help in understanding how different programming and design approaches deal with the semantic and expressive aspects of games.

In this essay I'm using a small part of danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev's language theory and apply it to the game Rock-Paper-Scissors. This will allow to draw distinctions between the material and semantic layers of the game, and help to understand their relationships. I use the model also to propose a classification of game rules. Later I point out an important difference of computer games: Their simultanious use of two different sets of signifiers, input and output signfiers. I conclude the article with a few remarks.


Intro: A Bit of Theory
[Please skip to the next part if you're not interested in the theory behind this essay]

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.


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.

Rock-Paper-Scissors as Language

Based on the game Rock-Paper-Scissors, I briefly show how Hjelmslev's 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 existents of the game world. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, these are the semes "rock", "paper" and "scissors".

Form of Content

The form of content is the arrangement of semes according to an internal system of operators which produces events when put into motion. Through this internal system, semes can be compared and echanged, which also results in them leaving their positive meanings behind and make them gain values. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, this internal system is the logical form 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.

Articulation and Signification

In Rock-Paper-Scissors we can describe the process of articulation and signification 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 thereby "calls" the seme and potential value "paper", a productive articulation based on the operators of the underlying logical system takes place. This produces a chain of signs, which can be "read" as an "event": "Rock versus Paper. Paper wins."

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, or to varying combinations of muscles that make facial expressions discernible. 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 in the game. For example the array of units in a RTS, or the array of weapons in an FPS. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, the rules of content limit the number of existents to three (the existents "rock", "paper" and "scissors").

Rules of Value

The range of operators and the set of rules that specifies the arrangement of existents 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 operators they put into motion. The result of the logical operations expresses a state of affairs that can be "read" in order to decide a winner. Verbs like "beat" stem from the rules of value, because it is the value system that allows events (actions + happenings) to be identified.

It's very important to realize that the significant and deciding verbs/predicates in a game are rooted in the value system. The value system qualifies certain actions as those who alter the game state. Hence, it is due to the value system that we can draw a distinction between cardinal functions and sattelites when we look at the events in a game. The value system generates the "obligatory" scenes in a game and explains the particular motivations behind player actions. During play, players may move around freely, engaging into a variety of "emergent" actions, but such actions remain mainly as sattelites or fillers, because they do not constitute actions that put into motion the logical operations that underly the value system, and therefore do not contribute to progression into a new game state. As soon as the player returns to actions that can be identified and processed by the logical operations of the value system, we see progression to reappear, because the player's actions qualify now as cardinal functions and collapse into new game states. To give an example: Christiano Ronaldo could for sure dribble back and forth along the sideline with the ball, because he's a great dribbler and no rule in football expresses that he can't dribble whenever and as long as he wants, but his manager would probably intervene very soon and tell him to dribble "only when it is necessary", that is, only when his dribbling is in accord to the underlying value system, which positions scoring as the highest priority.

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 (same seme-many expressive forms)?][Example for many semes - many exressive forms?]

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 space and the change of their arrangement over time can be read as a transition between game states.

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.

The time aspect may also vary: Some games allow for simultaneous articulation (as in most games of the RTS and FPS genre), whereas certain games ask for turn-based articulation. The general time frame may be used very losely: One may play a round of chess in a single session, or over e-mail and stretching over a long period of time. However, these variations do not violate the basic rule of turn-based articulation. Unless there isn't a rule that sets a time limit for every turn, players may stretch the process of articulation over as long periods as they agree upon. Once a new turn is finished, regardless how long it took to take the turn, the game state will be altered, and new meaning produced.


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. As soon as they are associated with the content plane, these become a chain of signs. Hence, a computer game is software that converts input signifiers into output signifiers, both of which are associated with the same signifieds/content plane. 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 substance such as a single button can host a variety of discernible signifiers/forms 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.


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")

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. Major differences on the content plane and in the form of expression will arise due to how much varying substances lend themselves to be bent in regard to requirements of the other planes of the language.

Players' free-form actions should not be confused with the actions that translate into events when recognized by the value system of the game. The former often cause confusion in regard to what games "are". At the center, games "are" much more the events (actions + happenings) fostered by the value system than the actions that players "add" to or around this "core". Not that it doesn't matter what players add to a game, but maybe these aspects should already be regarded as belonging to a different language layer, maybe that of various meta-languages.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan provides us with a theory that allows us to understand the way in which the symbolic order of a game re-skins a human's body as it produces a ludic subject (i.e., a player). Central to this theory is the distinction between drive and demand. Within a symbolic order, the division of our body into "zones" is not determined biologically and body parts do not simply gain their meaning by their positions within the human anatomy, but through the way they got themselves caught in the semantic web of the symbolic order. Thus our drives and the relevant body parts are "mediated" through the symbolic order that re-defines the body by dividing it into zones that are inscribed with varying sets of gestures, substances, values and replacements. For instance in football we must pretend that we have no hands, a number of gestures (body uses) are encouraged whereas some are not allowed, our positioning in space may create a value called "offside", which is not a value that our body produces in real life, and in many situation we can use our head as a replacement for our feet. Since the satisfaction of drives can only be attempted through this re-mediated/re-skinned body, Lacan uses the capital letter D, standing for "Demand", which is how he prefers to term such mediated drives. The desire to score a goal is Demand and not drive, because the goal itself as well as the ways in which this can be done is generated by the symbolic order (or the "language") of the game. It was probably Bernard Suits who included "demand" for the first time into a definition of games when he said that playing a game is an activity "where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor or less efficient means", an observation that seems to perfectly describe the way players experience Demand.

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Darren Tomlyn
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The only problem I see with this relates to two things:

A) Games do not have to involve any amount of communication between people.
B) Any communication a game contains is an EFFECT of it's application, creation and even existence - the behaviour of its creators and players - not a cause.

As such, perceiving games in such a manner, doesn't really help understanding them AS games - merely as different applications of human behaviour that can involve communication - (as can almost all human behaviour).

Altug Isigan
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Hi Darren,

I think (B) hits the nail on the head. And (A) is a logical extension to (B)

I believe that the linguistic approach is a way to make visible how an application of a game has communication as an effect. This is, in my view, the impact of the game in itself being a language that "speaks" it's own world, with whatever it utilizes for its purposes: for example players. That's why it does not involve any "communication between people". People as people are actually irrelevant. What your behavior in a game expresses in the end, is always the game.

Thanks a lot for the comment.

Darren Tomlyn
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(I know it's taken me a while to reply to this - but my internet connection has been playing up for the past week :( (I really need to change it, but, well, £££)).

I guess I need to tell you to read my blog, now, but since I'm busy re-writing the first part atm, (which will probably have some ramifications for the others, given how fundamental the problems have become, and, as such, has actually become quite tricky to write), the part this is referencing (part 3) will also be re-written. The actual content here, however, shouldn't really need to be altered too much.


The matter of (A) lies deeper than that, though - games in general, do not require more than one person, as both the player and creator, in order to exist.

This is why games do NOT necessarily possess any amount of communication between people, whatsoever.

Of the three most basic games possible - only ONE involves communication between people - usually the players - when existing, for it cannot take place without at least two people to compete by interacting with each other - whether directly or indirectly - (*structured combat*).

Although the other two types of game - a race and competitive throwing/movement - CAN involve multiple people, they DO NOT HAVE TO.

So if (A) is true because of the above, then (B) has to be an effect of its SUBJECTIVE application, not the cause.

One of the biggest problems we have that underpins EVERYTHING to do with games, is the lack of understanding between the cause and effect of human behaviour, including even language itself - let alone how it is used to describe such a thing.

(Which is why I'm having to re-write the first part of my blog, because I didn't quite see the full picture of what was happening and why, before - (hint: words are NOT the basic means of communication for (at least) the English language, which is exactly how it is currently perceived and taught). Which is why it's now really tricky, because we simply don't really have the right words to label what it is that is happening and how the language truly functions and exists).

Altug Isigan
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Looks more and more to me that a human is first and foremost the substance of application, just as the computer is a substance that carries out other aspects of the application. Since a human, although utilized as a carriage of the application, can also "read" the application as it is in progress, it has also an subjective experience aspect to it. But the game itself is indifferent towards the subject that experiences the application of the game as meaningful action. Whether it's me or you who moves the pawn or clicks the button, doesn't matter for the game. As an application, it will function, regardless of whether its me or Lionel Messi who is on the pitch.

Darren Tomlyn
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Yes - but language is about transferring information BETWEEN DIFFERENT ENTITIES - (otherwise it's just a means of representing (and even storing) information), (in this case, people) - which is not necessary for games to exist.

Games are an application of human behaviour. Communication is merely a POSSIBLE side-effect of such behaviour, and is not something it is defined as or by - (if it was, then ALL human behaviour would have to be).

This isn't to say that understanding such a thing cannot matter, only that the nature of cause and effect needs to be understood, first. Also, the nature of RPS is far too simplistic in its interaction (and any communication it causes) to impact our understanding and perception of games or language, and the relationship between them.

Altug Isigan
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But how does a game convey itself? Can they go around transferring information? At some point, at least the "modality" will be signalled as to make clear the modality of the behavior. You say that it can go without such signalling of intention?

I think I understand what you mean with side-effect. What we perceive of a game in terms of meaning, results from the behavior, but it could exist without such interpretation, merely as a self-sufficient ritual. It doesn't need to be communication in the sense that it takes place between at least two people. I could simply "play" by myself, "communicating" to noone else than myself. I could move between modalities easily, without ever having the need to signal the transition from one modality to the other.

You use to emphasize that games are what players do. But thinking about it now, I ask myself: In a game, what can players do, except the game? Bernard Suits once said that we obey to the rules of a game for what they make possible: the game itself. We play for the sake of play.

But we can have an idea about this "doing" beyond what it is supposed to do (that is, the game itself). "Doing" a game is at the same time something that we can observe, evaluate, derive pleasure from, both, as players (doers), and as spectators (observers of the doings). One probably can't separate the two while in action, which to some extent gives it magic (similar to the magic you experience when you play an instrument). One doesn't need someone else to experience such "magic": we take an object and play with it for hours and hours, not even in need of a goal... Play, in the purest sense, is a way of dealing with presence then, a way to explore it and enjoy it, a way to deal with the "being there". As a way of dealing with presence, it can be imitated and shared by others, but also being turned into an institution, when there are enough people and power to hold it up as such.

As such, doing, and the simultaneous observation of the doing, generates something that I'd call a "sparking line of time", a continuity of sense (as both, feel and meaning) as we experience and our surface interfaces with that of the world. Just like when you put your finger on a spot and then let it glide over a surface, and look at it -the line that you left in the dust on the surface, and the dust that accumulated at your finger tip- in wonder.

Darren Tomlyn
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There is a MASSIVE difference between communication ABOUT a game, and communication WITHIN (and for) a game, that is enabled by it.

There are extremely good reasons why our language specifically separates things from their behaviour and properties. The definitions of each are therefore generally also separate - (except when related is specific and subjective ways - for example a collection of things that is intended to be used to enable a game (activity) to exist can also be called a game itself.). But again - any relationships ALSO obey any rules of cause and effect governed by such a relationship.

Language itself, also has to obey such rules of cause and effect - but one of the problems we have, is that how it is currently perceived and taught DOES NOT DO SO.

The word game, at it's most basic and fundamental, describes and application of behaviour (things that happen). Any things that are involved, anything that is used to enable such a thing to take place - tangible or otherwise - merely form part of the cause and effect of the activity itself, which is often SUBJECTIVE.

The problem, is without understanding what the word game truly represents, we do not fully know and understand how everything else relates to such a thing, including their cause and effect.

That balls or playing cards can be used to enable a game to exist, does NOT mean that that is how they are DEFINED, or even labelled.

Game is an activity - an application of behaviour that acts as a 'container' for specific actions that fit within a general type that such a word represents.

Games are merely activities in which people compete by obeying a set of rules (however basic) by doing something for themselves (writing their own stories). Anything more specific than that is therefore part of its subjective application, and has nothing to do with its definition.

There are many different actions and things that can be found and used within games, but all have to exist within such a framework - and rules are just one element of that - the overall type of behaviour itself, also matters, which is NOT being truly and fully recognised and understood at this time - (which is why we're getting confused between games, puzzles and competitions).

Whether or not a game is witnessed, has nothing to do with its definition.

Whether or not a game involves multiple players, has nothing to do with its definition.

Whether or not a game involves a particular object or medium, has nothing to do with its definition.

How people compete in a game, has nothing to do with its definition.

Whether or not a game INVOLVES communication, has nothing to do with its definition.

Only when you understand games for what they are in ISOLATION, will you be able to see and understand how everything else truly relates to them (or not) - including any cause and effect - (hopefully).

Altug Isigan
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FYI, added links to a few graphics.

Btw Darren, I think Hans Georg Gadamer is your man. Find his Truth and Method ;)

Altug Isigan
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Verbs are abstractions of what the world does or does not allow. They express logical forms, not elements of a set.