Instructor and PhD Candidate, Oklahoma State University
With the rise in popularity of video games and gamification, it is more necessary than ever to establish how play creates meaning and shapes persuasive and expressive thought. This paper utilizes games studies theory and visual rhetoric to develop a ludic literacy which allows for a greater understanding of how play engages limits and conditions to create a specific message. Through a close reading of The Witness (Thekla, Inc., 2016), I show how ludic literacy enables an understanding of how games differ from traditional media forms in their creation and use of imagewords breaking down the boundaries between words and images through symbolization.
There are no words in the world of The Witness. Designer Jonathan Blow and studio Thekla, Inc.’s 2016 puzzle and exploration video game exists in a world without traditional, printed texts. From the starting tutorial to the final credits, there is not a single written word. Nonetheless, the game is rich with language. The Witness creates a world and a semiotic system that the player must learn through play. However, the game’s stark lack of traditional language systems and its reliance on perspective and visuals creates problems for both players and scholars attempting to navigate and distill meaning from the game. Interpretive models relying on narratology, for instance, fail to accurately sum up the experience playing a game devoid of story and character, and yet, methodological approaches examining the procedures and formal systems of the game do not adequately account for the expression and persuasive influence the sights and (lack of) sounds the game provides. For narratologists, issues of choice and agency become cumbersome and cannot account for the difference in experience between a player using a warp whistle as opposed to a player who grinds out the content. For ludologists, the formal systems of a game cannot account for how perception would shift if Princess Peach were to rescue Mario. How, then, is one to derive meaning from a video game like The Witness? This question is important to more than just players of The Witness: it is central to how players experience games, how games create meaning, and how games move beyond their forms and bleed into our experiences and identities.
If we are truly living in “the ludic century,” as posited by games studies scholar Eric Zimmerman, then uncovering how players construct meaning in games like The Witness gives the careful reader a glimpse of the importance of play to this process.  With the meteoric rise of video games in education and the gamification of everything from the workplace to environmental protection, it is more important than ever to understand the myriad ways in which games produce meaning and promote connectivity. Zimmerman suggests we focus our energy and resources on promoting games literacy, consisting of systems thinking, play, and design.  Because systems thinking identifies relationships between parts and the whole, its applicability to games remains too broad; while a games literacy encourages thinking about the ways systems work at both the virtual level (such as in coding) and analog level (such as political policy), it elides what makes games special: their ability to create fun and simulate agency. Similarly, focusing on the way games encourage fun or promote innovative thought fails to explore how video games represent an embodied way of being in the world, a powerful way of simulating our lived experiences. One needs only to get a group of friends in the same room with four controllers and a copy of Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo, 2014) to see how this is true: some players move their bodies along with their controllers to stay on the track; others will sweat with focus and determination. Still others will grit their teeth and unblinkingly stare at the screen. How, then, to account for all this manic magic?
Scholars have attempted to define the term ludic literacy in a variety of gaming contexts: most notable are James J. Bono and Ben McCorkle’s use of "ludic literacy" to discuss how players talk about games, and Zagal’s term "ludo literacy," used to explain how learning takes place in digital games.  However, what is needed is not a deeper understanding of the language of games—a games literacy, as put forth by Zimmerman—but rather a deeper understanding of the ways in which play can be both expressive and persuasive. Ludic literacy operates through the corporeal, cultural, spatial, and temporal dimensions; it can illuminate how play works with our world and through our bodies to create meaning, engender experience through performance, and cultivate memory.
Games studies scholar Brendan Keogh describes the necessary properties for a ludo-critical methodology to analyze how video games construct meaning and move people. He claims video games are best understood when the critic or player considers “the player’s proprioceptive awareness of the both the video game’s material form (controllers, screens, rumble motors, etc.), the audiovisual signs (characters, a projected world, music, menus, etc.), and the various interrelations between all three. To analyse a video game text is to analyse this entire textual network.”  This is a steep task: the scholar must analyze the “cybernetic ebb and flow between the player’s body, the video game hardware, and audiovisual and haptic representation,” both in the virtual and actual worlds.  This would demand superhuman levels of cognition by an expert trained deeply and yet broadly in art, literature, psychology, emotion, computer engineering, user-centered design, dance, and more. If the critic focused on the essence of play instead of the form of games, it may offer more accessible and successful alternatives. A ludic literacy constitutes a profound understanding of the way play uses signs, responses, and emotions to construct modes of discourse and meaning-making.
Cultivating a ludic literacy necessitates not only an embodied approach to criticism, but also an understanding of the way literacies are embodied. Traditionally, scholars have focused on the many different elements that combine to create the ecology of the cybernetic system, such as the system described by Keogh. Instead, emphasis should be placed on the combination of images and words—the imageword—and the logics employed by these two modes in cooperation with the logics of play. Literary theorist Kristie S. Fleckenstein’s formulation of the imageword breaks down the binary between the symbolic nature of words and the representational nature of images.  She argues that an awareness of the contextual surroundings of a text allows us to simultaneously conceptualize objects while distancing ourselves from them. For example, we can understand a picture of a redwood is not all trees; likewise, we also implicitly understand a text describing a redwood, even in meticulous detail, can never fully encompass the scope and detail of an existing redwood. Imagewords refer to the underlying meaning of a symbol—be it graphic or textual—to contextualize and further understand its implications both connotatively and denotatively. 
Understanding the imageword as an embodied experience demands an investigation of the underlying logic driving play. Scholar Anne Frances Wysocki advocates an embodied approach to media and game studies, in which “our bodies—our primary media” allow us to experience the world.  She uses the idea of embodiment to highlight the various ways our bodies allow us to relate to the world in a contextual way, one continually grounded in the realities of place, time, physiology, and culture.  An understanding of the ways in which much of the media we experience is filtered through the body sheds light on the reasons why certain aspects of games, such as their design and systems, are emphasized, while play, the embodied part of games, is ignored. The lack of attention paid to this sense of embodiment has contributed to a simplification of seeing, one that assumes “everyone sees in the same ways and so will be affected in the same ways by what they see, everywhere and at all times, ahistorically, aculturally, apolitically.” 
The question remains: what is gained by forcing considerations of embodiment onto video games and specifically onto play? In their book Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman note that imposing rules does not suffocate play, but rather makes play possible in the first place; play then becomes a way of navigating a set of rules.  In Literary Gaming, media scholar Astrid Ensslin traces the critical study of play through Kant, Schiller, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein to arrive at a definition of play focused on the way in which spaces are marked off, allowing for interaction and creation of new forms of meaning and expression. These new forms are created through the ergodic: non-trivial, but also non-utilitarian movement. 
Movement is a central aspect of play, whether it is the swing of a foot to kick a soccer ball or the tap of a button to make Mario jump; however, movement, or use of the body as a medium, does not immediately make play embodied. Play becomes embodied because, in addition to the requirements of physical movement, it is always contextual. It is “enmeshed” in the culture, time, space, and place in which it is created. In his book Play Matters, Miguel Sicart writes, “play too is a contextual appropriation of a situation with the purpose of creating new values, expressions, or knowledge.”  In addition to the need for rules to be established in either a social or formal manner, play can take over spaces—virtual, actual, and social—and depends on those spaces to create meaning. An example of the way play is contextual can be found in the simple game children play where the floor is lava: the players of the game depend on the social creation of the expectation that no one will want to touch the lava. They use their bodies to jump and maneuver around the “lava” and depend on their senses as feedback to see if they have touched the floor. The penalties for touching the lava are dependent on the players and their expectations. Some children may writhe in pretend pain when touching the lava while others may be deemed “out” and barred from playing for a short time. Whatever the specifics of the game may be, the play is established in an embodied way relying on the physical movements of their body in cooperation with the social, physical, and cultural context in which the game is being played. If we view play in this matter, we can begin to see the ways in which the senses construct a system that can be used to understand play.
I argue that a logic based on recursive and conditional semantics, coupled with an understanding of imageword and embodied play, can be used to cultivate a ludic literacy. Fleckenstein argues that image operates under the “is logic” and seeks to establish connection between groups of objects and experiences; language operates under the “as if logic” of metaphor and allows for articulation between groups of objects and experiences.  If image operates under the “is logic” and language operates under the “as if logic,” play operates under the “if-then-else logic” of McCarthy Formalism. In computer science and recursion theory, John McCarthy’s explanation of “formalism” allows for computation by expressing complex operations as simple true/false statements and then positions them in a flow chart where the answer to the previous question (for example, “if [answer] = true”) leads to a new set of processes (“then perform x function”).  This logic can be interpreted to operate through temporality and embodied experience. “If-then-else logic” allows for the passage of time in a way static image does not. Scott McCloud illustrates this effect in his book Understanding Comics, explaining how time is perceived to pass in static images.  McCloud uses the simple example of a clock shown in four consecutive panels with the minute hand moving in five minute increments across each panel. The reader easily intuits the sensation of passing time. If in one of the panels the minute hand moved more than five minutes, the reader would feel something was off. If we close our eyes and focus on an image, we can focus not only on the visual element but also the emotive aspects, the sensory aspects that are central to what Fleckenstein means when she evokes the word image.
Ludic logic allows for the inclusion of time in a way image does not. It is not only an understanding of the influence of time, but also a way of moving through time. Following “if-then-else logic” allows for subjective movement through time by constantly referring to previous experiences to allow for new possibilities. In Fleckenstein’s formulation of the imageword, she focuses on its dual aspects of creation and destruction, the ability for image to absolve boundary and language to create division. Movement across the boundaries and various embodied literacies of imageword happens through the logic of play embedded in “if-then-else logic.” However, as previously mentioned by Salen and Zimmerman, play does not simply arise from conditional “if-then-else logic,” but also from the introduction of rules.  For a game of soccer to be played, the limit of every player except the goalie being unable to use her hands needs to be established. Once the limits are in place (goals, side lines, no hands, etc.), then the recursive logic of “if-then-else” can be applied to induce play.
This understanding of ludic logic combining a condition with a limit echoes other game studies scholars’ approaches to play. In “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” Ian Bogost describes the prevalence of procedurality in the modern world, where constraints create “possibility spaces, which can be explored through play.”  This conception of modernity closely resembles Zimmerman’s systems-theory definition of the “ludic century.”  In his text Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Bogost emphasizes the ubiquity of procedurality in society by relating a hypothetical interaction involving returning a non-functioning DVD player to a store without a receipt: a clerk follows procedures and denies the return, but after the customer complains, the clerk and supervisor invent new procedures to accept the DVD player return to maximize customer satisfaction.  In his most recent text Play Anything, Bogost positions limits as a source of pleasure, again combining with conditionals to inform ludic logic. Using the example of a stick—a recent inductee into the Toy Hall of Fame—he explains how the shapes, materials, and context of the piece of wood help create limits as to what it can be. In this way, imagination shapes its use and meaning: a long stick can be a sword, a short stick becomes a knife, a flexible stick becomes a sort of spring, while a stick with a Y-shaped fork can become a slingshot. 
While recursive “if-then-else” logic and context applies to the procedural rhetoric of store returns and imaginative flexibility of stick play, it doesn’t offer insight into the embodied process of play making a game such as Donkey Kong Country (Rare, 1994) fun. The contact between a player and the limits of a system, when coupled with a conditional statement, are the basic elements of a ludic literacy: while ludic logic allows for the inclusion of limits, and the imageword remains grounded in the recursive “if-then-else” conditional, ludic literacy combines these logics to further explore ways in which play can be both expressive and persuasive. Furthermore, ludic literacy reveals how the embodied nature of play through the structure of games allows for persuasive and expressive potential.
This definition of ludic literacy contrasts with other attempts to formulate a literacy of games or play. Composition scholars Jamie Bono and Ben McCorkle have used the term ludic literacy to define how the subculture and affinity groups of gamers establish discourse communities to talk about games and about play.  Their definition of ludic literacy focuses on a more colloquial definition of literacy, such as being able to talk competently about a subject. Similar to Zimmerman, José P. Zagal argues for a “ludoliteracy” grounded in the principles of understanding the semiotic system of games necessary to play, understand, and create games.  While ludoliteracy is productive and capable in its execution, it is still a literacy focused more on the medium and discourse of computer-based games than an actual understanding of the expressive potential of embodied play. In his article “Exploitationware,” Bogost warns of the current gamification of society and the ways in which corporations exploit games to further their brand and develop more sophisticated methods of personal data collection. He warns that readers should not confuse the goals, leaderboards, and high scores with the magical, less obvious aspects of games that make them enjoyable.  I argue the magic Bogost refers to is play itself, and games are merely one way to facilitate play. An understanding of ludic literacy highlights what it is that makes play special. It is useful to think about the connection between play and games through an understanding of Zagal’s formulation of a games literacy, grounded in psycholinguistic researcher James Paul Gee’s definition of literacy, which necessitates a command or control of secondary uses of language. 
One way to approach an understanding of ludic literacy and the importance of imagewords to play is to think about the possibilities that could be present in the game. Play is the semiotic domain in which games operate. In other words, play is the language of games. An understanding of ludic literacy provides the same level of depth needed to understand how words comprise the material existence of novels, enmeshed in an ecology of meaning. Ludic literacy then sheds light onto some of the more obscure functions of games. A particularly illuminating example can be seen by comparing Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2. In the latter, the player is given the choice of choosing between Mario, Luigi, Princess, and Toad. Each of the playable characters has a different way of moving through the world. Controlling Luigi, for instance, feels slippery, as if running on ice. Changing directions is hard for the player using Luigi, but the green plumber can reach heights inaccessible to all other characters. Princess moves slowly and can jump almost as high as Luigi. However, her special ability allows her to float in the air momentarily with each jump. The floaty feeling of controlling Princess changes the experience of play, resulting in the creation of unique imagewords owing to the specific “feel” of each character. This “feel” does not change the game—the goal-driven play put forth by the game’s rules and systems remains, even if it does allow players to explore alternate paths or techniques. These changes and considerations seem obvious, owing to the embodied nature of play; we “feel” the game being played differently.
The original Super Mario Bros. provides a less obvious example, as the game does not allow players to pick their character. Consider how changing the avatar of Mario to the Princess might change gameplay. The imageword of the player's avatar has changed, providing the player a different play experience even though the game itself—the end state of each level the player strives for—has not changed. The narrative becomes something new with Princess rescuing the knightly plumber, but some formal aspects of the game become less obvious such as why Princess, who is not a plumber, explores pipes. This is even more evident in Super Mario Maker where the player is given access to hundreds of costumes, from Mario, to Link, to a pigeon, but each controls like the Mario avatar from Super Mario Bros. Again, the game remains the same, but the experience of the game, the act of play, has changed because the imageword has transformed.
With an understanding of both ludic logic and imageword, we can build toward a ludic literacy of recent, more multifaceted video games. Jonathan Blow and Thekla, Inc.’s The Witness is a difficult game to classify, occupying a space somewhere in between auteur art game and industry heavyweight AAA release. It was made by a small independent team with a specific, unique vision for their game, yet it took seven years and several million dollars to produce. The Witness stays true to traditional puzzle games that feature little story and character development, and puzzles increase in difficulty as the player progresses. Within this traditional framework, several aspects of ludic logic make thinking about the game in terms of its procedurality and rules productive. The Witness is a game obsessed with rules, placing emphasis on knowledge and logic. Each set of puzzles and the cryptic symbols forming the puzzles’ logic must be deciphered and completed to gain access to new areas. However, no amount of analysis in this mode can capture the magic and sense of play The Witness induces in players. The game encourages the player to form, observe, and reflect on new and creative imagewords. The user must become an active participant in the static environment surrounding them. While the game seems open-world, there are many gates and enclosures blocking progress. In the game’s central town, the player encounters the first of the island’s many statues: a concrete figure stands with arms outstretched above his head, a look of woe on his face. If the player follows the statue’s line of sight, they see a large windmill. At this point in the game, most players will be unable to access the windmill, but once returning to town, astute players will notice while the statue of the man has remained the same, their perception of it has changed greatly. Approaching the statue from the opposite way forces players to encounter the statue’s shadow before the statue proper, and what was once a man in great pain becomes the shadow of a man juggling rocks: his outstretched hands are transformed into those of a juggler, complete with several stones on the ground to act as balls.
The process of revealing a shadow clues the player in to one of the game’s more powerful lessons: it matters where you stand. Perspective becomes an important theme, and indeed the key to the game’s final area is to resituate the perspective between the player character and the statues that surround the puzzle. This is not necessarily a concept essential to success in the game, but it is crucial to the way the game is experienced. Whether a player notices the play between juggler/pitiful man shadow/statue has no effect on game progress. However, this is but one of the many perspective illusions the game has in store for the observant player.
Examining a game’s ludic literacy gives insight into a game’s idiosyncrasies, systems, procedures, and player progress, not just its goals. One way to examine these aspects is to analyze the meanings underlying the optional tasks the game privileges. In The Witness, there are dozens of clever perspectival tricks such as those mentioned above, but the game establishes this method of playful communication to suggest the presence of an entirely optional way of playing the game embedded in its original structure. Every puzzle in the game begins and ends in the same manner: a large circle with a small branching line eventually ends in a rounded section. After playing through many of the game’s 523 puzzles in this manner, it becomes almost impossible to miss these simple designs outside of their walled-off panels. This is a process called pareidolia, where the mind perceives patterns where no intended pattern is meant to exist. Other examples of pareidolia include the man in the moon, and the “Paul McCartney is dead” conspiracy. The Witness makes use of this phenomenon by repeating the same set of symbols, making players see patterns where there is only coincidence. Once players see enough of these patterns, they may be tempted to click on one of the large starting nodes, just to see what happens. If a player does this, the game responds with an uncharacteristic burst of audio and a flaming cursor. If the player successfully traces a path from starting node to rounded endpoint, say, perhaps, on one of the island’s drainage pipes or train tracks, they will be rewarded with a shower of sparks and confirmation from an in-game obelisk that they have found a secret. That is the only reward. The game can be completed without the player ever completing a single environmental puzzle. This is a form of play entirely dependent on the creation of imagewords, and it is one that does not stay confined to the game itself: entire Tumblrs and subreddits are devoted to documenting examples of The Witness’s pareidolia effect outside of the game. It manifests itself through the ludic literacy the game establishes. This carryover between virtual and real worlds gives further credence to the positioning of play as embodied, allowing for the play fostered by games to be used in creative ways.
What the game establishes as metaphor—the paneled line puzzles forming its core mechanic—takes on exogenous meaning using both the game’s environmental puzzles and the intentional use of pareidolia. In studying how the brain processes metaphors, psychologists Eduardo Santana and Manuel de Vega conclude that we experience metaphors in a way analogous to their literal parts.  Their experiments show that whether it is a literal or metaphorical “rising,” the same areas of the brain are used. Because of this, they state that metaphor is embodied, as are its literal counterparts. A walkthrough of The Witness demonstrates the many ways the game attempts to communicate non-verbally with the player. Because of the recurrence of panel after panel of puzzles, and then the presence of the puzzles throughout the game’s environment, the player’s perception through the act of playing, and specifically through the act of constantly scanning for playable puzzles. There is no in-game goal related to this; it simply highlights the importance of seeing to the game. Without a ludic literacy, this important aspect of the game is completely missed or glossed over.
This brief examination of The Witness has developed a ludic literacy, in which play takes on expressive potential in the ergodic creation of new imagewords within the limits of a conditional system. Exploring limits through these conditional operations, coupled with the resulting imagewords, creates a ludic literacy that more thoroughly explains the embodied play experience of video games such as The Witness. Indeed, when play allows for imagewords to be rapidly and creatively constructed, a game is more likely to be embraced by an audience primed to engage in making meaning through embodied, productive play. This engaged concept of ludic literacy facilitates an understanding by both players and creators of how play is essential to constructing meaning, constituting a step toward wider appreciation of video games as more than just the sum of their narratives and systems.
Jacob Euteneuer is a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University. His interests include game studies, visual rhetoric, and multimodal composition. When he’s not busy reading, writing, and teaching, he is usually playing Mario with his wife and two sons. He tweets from @jacobeut.
1. Eric Zimmerman, “Manifesto for a Ludic Century,” Eric Zimmerman, April 2016, http://ericzimmerman.com/files/texts/Manifesto_for_a_Ludic_Century.pdf.
3. J. James Bono and Ben McCorkle, “Ludic Literacies: Mapping the Links Between the Literacies at Play in the DALN,” in Stories that Speak to Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives, eds. H. L. Ulman, S. L. DeWitt, & C. L. Selfe (Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2013), http://ccdigitalpress.org/stories/bono.html; José P. Zagal, Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding, and Supporting Games Education (Pittsburgh PA: Carnegie Mellon ETC Press, 2010).
4. Brendan Keogh, “Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games.” Journal of Games Criticism, January 22, 2014, http://gamescriticism.org/articles/keogh-1-1/.
6. Kristie S. Fleckenstein, Embodied Literacies: Imageword and a Poetics of Teaching (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), 3.
7. Ibid., 33.
8. Anne Frances Wysocki, Introduction to Composing Media Composing Embodiment, ed. by Kristin L. Arola, and Anne Wysocki (Utah State University Press, 2012), 4.
9. Ibid., 3.
10. Ibid., 5.
11. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2003), 4.
12. Astrid Ensslin, Literary Gaming (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2014), 22.
13. Miguel Sicart, Play Matters (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2014), 67.
14. Fleckenstein, 30.
15. John McCarthy, “A Basis for a Mathematical Theory of Computation,” in Computer Programming and Formal Systems, ed. P. Braffort and D. Hirschberg (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1963), 185.
16. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994), 94-95.
17. Salen and Zimmerman, Rules of Play, 4.
18. Ian Bogost, “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” in The Ecology of Games, ed. Katie Salen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 119-22.
19. See note #1.
20. Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2007), 4-6.
21. Bogost, Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games (New York: Basic Books, 2016), PAGE.
22. Bono and McCorkle.
23. Zagal, 21-4.
24. Ian Bogost, “Persuasive Games: Exploitationware,” Gamasutra, May 3, 2011, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134735/persuasive_games_exploitationware.php
25. Gee, James Paul. “What is Literacy?” In Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning Across Languages and Cultures, eds. Vivian Zamel and Ruth Spack (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998), 51-59.
26. Eduardo Santana and Manuel De Vega, “Metaphors Are Embodied, and so Are Their Literal Counterparts,” Frontiers in Psychology 2 (2011): 11.