Digital Technology and Cultures/Semiotics in Video Games

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Semiotics Theory in Video Games

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Semiotics is defined as the "study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation" (Oxford Dictionary).

Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles S Pierce are regarded as the co-founders of semiotics. They established the two major theories on which they worked on independently. Saussure’s term "semiology" is sometimes used to refer to the Saussurean tradition and "semiotics" sometimes refers to the Peircean tradition. Today, "semiotics" is used as an general term for both (Chandler, 2007).

Saussure’s term sémiologie (Semiology) dates from a manuscript Course in General Linguistics. It was written by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye who compiled notes from Saussure's lectures given at University of Geneva (Chandler, 2007). In the book he states:

It is . . . possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek se¯meîon, ‘sign’). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge. (Saussure 1983, 15–16)

The Saussurean tradition focuses on interpreting a sign is an object that consists of a signifier and signified. As an example if one sees the word "open" outside of a store (signifier) that would mean that the store is open for business (signified). The word "open" as signifier could also stand for a different signified making a different sign. For instance, inside of an elevator there could be an "open" button. This would mean that pushing the button would open the elevator door (signified), rather than a store's goods be available for sale. Peirce worked independently across the Atlantic Ocean from Saussure and declared that:

Logic, in its general sense, is . . . only another name for semiotic (sémeiötiké), the quasi-necessary, or formal, doctrine of signs. By describing the doctrine as ‘quasi-necessary’, or formal, I mean that we observe the characters of such signs as we know, and . . . by a process which I will not object to naming abstraction, we are led to statements, eminently fallible, and therefore in one sense by no means necessary, as to what must be the characters of all signs used by a ‘scientific’ intelligence, that is to say, by an intelligence capable of learning by experience. (Peirce 1932, 2.227)

Pierce had a different view of semiotics from Saussure. Instead of focusing on the dual relation between the signifier and signified, he focused on what he defined as symbols, icons and indices.

Symbol (Creative Commons License)

A symbol is a mode in which the signifier does not resemble the signified but which is fundamentally arbitrary or purely conventional – so that this relationship must be agreed upon and learned (Chandler, 2007).

Example: Hazard symbols are very commonly used to identify danger of a specific kind. Most would be able to correlate radiation hazard or bio hazard symbols with a perceived danger if they saw one because they learned about them in the past.

Icon (General Public License)

An icon is a mode in which the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified (recognizably looking, sounding, feeling, tasting or smelling like it) – being similar in possessing some of its qualities (Chandler, 2007).

Example: A person sends a smiley emoji via a text message. The smiley face indicates that the sender is happy. When the mouth is in a "U" shape is normally associated with happiness when we see someone. This association is easily recognizable by us and can be put into a very simple drawing such as an emoji or stick figure.

Index (Creative Commons License)

Index is a mode in which the signifier is not arbitrary but is directly connected in some way (physically or causally) to the signified (regardless of intention) – this link can be observed or inferred (Chandler, 2007).

Example: You see a picture with many light brown leaves on the ground. You know that the season this picture was taken was in fall. The brown leaves are the signifier that allows our brain to pull associations in our brain's neural network. In this case the association is that this would happen during the season of fall.

Semiotics theory has been used for centuries. And as our world become mediated, so too do our symbols, signs, and indices. A great example of this is in video games and movies. Movies use symbols, icons and indices to create self-explaining artifacts. It makes the movie more enjoyable if it lets the viewer make their own evaluation as to what that symbol means. One example would be a movie that has a soldier with the medical ("+") symbol on their uniform, tending to a wounded soldier, who is screaming and holding their bleeding stomach, while there is gunfire and bombs exploding being heard in the background. Here we know that the person tending is a medical officer based on the "symbol" on their uniform. We also know that it is happening during an active war based on the sounds we hear in the background, which represent an "index". The wounded person's facial expression is an "icon" for pain and fear.

In video games however it is more interactive. A gamer can make decisions as they are playing the game and use semiotics to understand the environment to give them the best advantage in the game.

Games such as Eco use symbols, icons and indices in an interesting way. The game is developed for all audiences to learn how the world works and utilize what they have learned about the world so far to progress in the game. It teaches teamwork and collaboration, survival, nutrition, preservation, and creates a better mindset on how to treat others and be a better member of society. The game's goals are not just to make it fun and engaging but to enhance one's knowledge and empathy for others and their surroundings. In the game you start off by being placed on a planet with basic survival skills. You must learn what to do to survive and how to develop a technology to get of the planet that will be destroyed by an asteroid lingering above it. How one uses resources, treats their body and collaborates with others will have a huge impact on each player's survival. The game uses icons very frequently. We know that a the rendering of game maker's 3d artwork of a berry bush stands for a berry bush, and tree rendering stands for a tree, etc. Symbols within the game would be things we learn within the game or from our past. Red mushrooms are not very obvious to everyone that they are not edible and can cause one's health to deteriorate. In the game the player will either make the association of the red mushroom as a mushroom that they should not eat based on what they learned, or they will try and eat and then remember the consequence in the future. This becomes a learned "symbol." Another element in the game is that there may be unwanted deforestation close by. This would signify that there is likely another player chopping too many trees, which is an "index."

While video gaming such as Mortal Kombat or Grand Theft Auto can give video gaming a bad reputation with violence and gore, Eco does the opposite. It is there for everyone to learn and potentially create new symbolism that will impact the decisions made in the real world.


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Ferdinand de Saussure Public Domain License

Ferdinand de Saussure was born Nov. 26, 1857 in Geneva, Switzerland. He was an influential linguist who laid a foundation of structure in language for the 20th century. His reputation was well established with his contribution to comparative linguistics. Saussure insisted for language to be considered a social phenomenon and with it he formalized approaches for language studies. Because of his studies many consider him to be the pioneer of structuralism (Encyclopædia Britannica).

Charles Sanders Peirce Public Domain License

Charles S Pierce was born Sept. 10, 1839 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.. He was a scientist and philosopher who is known as the father of American pragmatism. He was a very influential philosopher who is considered as one of the greatest American minds. He is known to have an interactive and experimental approach in philosophy. He believed that a concept is meaningless if it has no practical or experiential effect on the day we conduct our lives (Atkin, 2017).


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  • Atkin, Albert. 2017. "Charles Sanders Pierce", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed February 19, 2018.
  • Burch, Robert. 2017. Charles Sanders Peirce. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2017. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Accessed February 18th, 2017.
  • Chandler, Daniel. 2007. Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. Basics (Routledge (Firm). London ; New York: Routledge.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. "Ferdinand de Saussure", Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed February 18, 2018.
  • Oxford Dictionary. 2018. "Definition of Semiotics in English by Oxford Dictionaries", Oxford Dictionaries, English. Accessed January 31, 2018.
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1932. Elements of Logic, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1916/1983. Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth.