Games & Literary Theory

 Fifth Annual Conference

Lost in a game / Lost in a book
Université de Montréal, Canada, 20-22 October 2017

Abstracts due >>> March 31st 2017

Possible Worlds (Part 2) | Kraków


Preliminary slides (GIFs won’t work in this version) for a presentation for the Games and Literary Theory conference in Krakow, Poland, November 2016.

I (continue to) examine the use of the “possible worlds” concept to explain the relationship between games and stories.  I (continue to) find this explanation wanting.

This version of the presentation presents an alternative conceptualization of the relationship between stories and games — and the implications of that conceptualization.

Possible Worlds, Literal Games | Liège


Preliminary slides for a presentation for the Poetics of the Algorithm conference in Liège, Belgium, June 2016.

I examine the use of the “possible worlds” concept to explain the relationship between games and stories.  I find this explanation wanting.

What is a simulation of a game?


Presentation for Philosophy of Computer Games conference, Berlin, October 14-17, 2015.


The relationship between simulations and games is unclear.

Some, for instance, claim that that games are a particular sort of simulation — e. g., “the computer game is the art of simulation” (Aarseth, 2004, online).  Others claim that simulations are a particular sort of game — e.g., “I consider simulation models to be a subset of the more encompassing game model” (Klabbers, 2009, p. 49).

In both these instances — and in many others (see Karhulahti, 2014) — regardless of whether simulation or game is given priority over the other, simulation and game are assumed compatible with one another and, occasionally, equivalent.

Or, in other words, if a game happens to be a simulation — if, for instance,we claim that racing games or sports games or war games are simulations — then this claim alone does not preclude these games from being games.  Likewise, should a simulation also happen to be a game — as, for instance, nominative-based claims might insist about Microsoft Flight Simulator (subLOGIC, 1977) and Euro Truck Simulator (SCS Software, 2008) — then this does not preclude these simulations from being simulations.

With the goal of clarifying the relationship between simulations and games, I will argue here that transforming a game into a simulation may well preclude that game from remaining a game.

In order to argue this, I will not use a conventional strategy; I will not attempt to define a simulation, and then to define a game, and then to compare and contrast these definitions in hopes of finding either critical differences or critical similarities between the two.  Rather, I will restrict this analysis to an examination of what a simulation of a game (SoG) might look like, given three possible (and mutually exclusive) relationships between games and simulations:

  1. Games and simulations are essentially distinct — i. e., games are not simulations.
  2. Games and simulations are essentially equivalent — i. e., games are simulations.
  3. Game and simulations are in some relationship other than the two above.

The extent to which an SoG within any one of these three is more likely and compelling than within either of the other two is then taken as an indication that the relationship between games and simulations within that particular scenario is more likely and compelling than within the other two.

This strategy of focusing on the relationship between simulations and games, rather than on either game or simulation in isolation of the other, offers some advantages and insights in comparison to more conventional analysis.  For instance, this strategy initially avoids having to define a game as anything other than a simulation, not a simulation, or something in between.  This strategy similarly avoids having to assign a simulation any definitive ontological status beyond a single and important one:  its semiotic function as a reference.  For, as a reference, a simulation is necessarily bound in important ways to its referent.

Presentation slides.

International Conference Series in Games and Literary Theory | Third Annual Conference



International Conference Series in Games and Literary Theory | Third Annual Conference

Hosted by Loyola University New Orleans, Department of English & School of Mass Communication

New Orleans, Louisiana USA | November 20-22, 2015

The Games and Literary Theory Conference Series addresses the scope and appeal of interdisciplinary approaches to the study of games and games’ impact on other fields in the Humanities. It began in 2012 as a PhD seminar and workshop arranged by the Department of English at the University of Malta in collaboration with IT University of Copenhagen and subsequently expanded into an annual conference. The inaugural Games and Literary Theory conference convened at the University of Malta in 2013 (; the 2nd annual conference was held at the University of Amsterdam in 2014 ( The 3rd annual Games and Literary Theory conference is scheduled to meet in the USA at Loyola University New Orleans during November 2015.

We are particularly interested in digital game modalities and how these might be seen as reconfiguring and questioning concepts, practices and orthodoxies integral to literary theory (i.e. textuality, subjectivity, authorship, the linguistic turn, the ludic, and the nature of fiction). The conference will also explore the ways in which theoretical discourses in the area of game studies can benefit from critical concerns and concepts developed within the fields of literary and cultural  theory, such as undecidability, the trace, the political unconscious, the allegorical, and the autopoietic. Likewise the conversation about narrative and games continues to raise questions concerning the nature of concepts such as fiction and the virtual, or indeterminacies across characters, avatars and players.

The Games and Literary Theory conference has adopted a single-track format allowing all attendees to attend all presentations and discussions. The organizers of the Third Annual International Conference invite proposals that focus on issues related, but not limited to, any (or a combination of) the following:

– Textuality in literature and games
– Rethinking fiction after with digital games
– Characters, avatars, players, subjects
– New forms of narrative and games
– Games and the rethinking of culture
– Genre study and criticism
– Digital games, literariness, and intermediality
– Digital games and authorship and/or focalization
– Reception theory, reader experience, player experience: New phenomenologies for critique
– Gender in games, literature, and theory
– Digital games, literary theory, and posthumanism
– Representations of disability in interactive media
– Possible Worlds Theory and games
– Digital games in literature

For earliest consideration, please submit abstracts of 250-300 words as the body of an email with a subject line “GamesLit15” to Timothy Welsh ( by April 1, 2015. The organizers will review proposals and confirm acceptances beginning May 1, 2015.

For information and updates, please refer to the conference website ( and twitter feed (@gameslit15).

Is Hamlet a digital game?


The objective correlative of a digital game.

Games and Literary Theory | Amsterdam | 2014


What do Shakespeare’s Hamlet and a digital game have in common?
In this essay, I examine semiotic parallels between Shakespeare’s play and digital games. I use T. S. Eliot’s critique of Hamlet in 1919 — based on Eliot’s notion of “objective correlative” — to find similarities between references and referents employed by Hamlet (in particular) and by games and play (more generally). I argue that Hamlet and digital games evoke emotion in a similar, self-referential way, and I conclude that neither is rightfully labeled an “artistic failure” (as Eliot claims about Hamlet) as a consequence.

The peculiar aesthetic properties of competitiveness.


Presentation scheduled for International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, September 3-6, 2014


Whether sports and games should be considered art is an unresolved issue.  The great bulk of the debate concerning this matter — lively at the time — took place more than twenty years ago.  During that debate, there was much agreement that sports and games have aesthetic properties, but little consensus that sports and games are art.

In this essay, I argue that unresolved issues associated with this previous debate affect sports and games equally, and that any true resolution must engage the common purposiveness of sports and games:  their competitive purposiveness.  Once this purposiveness is engaged, it is possible to qualify the aesthetic properties of sports and games using two concepts — intentionality and expressiveness — that are conventionally associated with art and the artistic. While the play of sports and games does not display precisely the same sort of intentionality and expressiveness that is associated with art and the artistic, that play has characteristics that, given some leeway, are very similar in form and in effect.  The competitive purposiveness of sports and game is then used to explain how sports and game might be most reasonably considered art, and why, in the past, they have often not been.


CALL FOR PANELISTS | Deadline Aug 15, 2014


Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities, Honolulu, January 10-13, 2015


Submission/Proposal Deadline: August 15th, 2014

Paper acceptance notifications: TBD


Panel sessions will last 90 minutes and it is the presenters’ choice how that time is split between panelists.


Identity and Play: Playing with Self in Digital Games and Social Media

Play with self and personal identity can vary over time, across media, and as a consequence of psychological and social context. Our focus in this panel will be to investigate how digital media designs and services affect the construction and maintenance of self.

The panel discussion will examine specific examples of self construction in virtual environments and how existing media designs — including, prominently, digital game designs — engage, facilitate, and, potentially, inhibit play with self. We are positioning this panel as a review of existing research.

Questions we would like to address include:

  • Is there a “networked” self? What is consistent and what is incongruous in the presentation of self across social media?
  • Is the construction of self in game-based media designs more or less gratifying than the construction of self in other (non-game-based) media designs?
  • What game design components are most critical to the construction of self? E. g.: Avatar personalization/customization? Use of “alts”? Anonymity? Guilds and/or other multiplayer components?
  • How important are traditional “social presence” features to the construction of self? How have digital media design technologies influenced the self construction process?
  • To what extent can the construction of self be algorithmized and automated? Are self construction “apps” feasible?

We would like panel participants to address broad questions such as these with reference to existing media designs and services (though accompanying theoretical speculation will also be desired and valued).


If interested in participating in this panel session, please contact before Aug. 15:

David Zemmels, PhD, MFA
+1 (504) 865-3632
School of Mass Communication
Loyola University New Orleans
6363 St. Charles Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70118


“A Toy Semiotics,” Revisited


Presentation scheduled for International Toy Research Association, July 23-25, 2014


In 1984, Brian Sutton-Smith published “A Toy Semiotics” in Children’s Environments Quarterly, making this claim (p. 19):

Play as a kind of assimilation has the potentiality to retreat increasingly from its original objects of reference.  The toy itself which signals the first such departure, then makes possible a series of increasingly remote responses depending on the resident fantasies within the players’ experience.

I revisit this claim in light of the explosive growth, since 1984, of games and game industries and the relatively (and somewhat curiously) lesser impact of digital media on toys and toy industries.  I examine the different impact of digital media on toys and games and attribute that difference to the different semiotic properties of the toy and the game:  the game conventionally enables and evokes rule-based meanings; the toy does not.  The unique semiotic properties and potentials of the game in comparison to the toy give games a particular affinity with digital media.

slides [pdf]

Vienna: FROG13 | Video games and authorial intent


Prelim slides >>> pdf.