Olli Tapio Leino

Dr. Olli Tapio Leino is a new media scholar focusing on computer games and playable art from the perspectives of critical ludology, philosophy of technology and existential phenomenology. Olli earned his Ph.D. from Center for Computer Games Research, IT University of Copenhagen. Currently he is an assistant professor at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong.


Death Loop as a Feature

by Olli Tapio Leino


Assuming its premise in the experience of being stuck in a death loop in Fallout: New Vegas (2010), this essay theorises the possibilities of interpretation in single-player computer game play. This amounts to a critical examination of the paradigmatic approach of interpreting computer games as games accessible for analysis and critique through 'research-play'. Comparing the role of rules in the activity facilitated by ‘playable artifacts’ like single-player computer games or pinball machines to rules in traditional, or more accurately “transmedial” (Juul 2003) games, the essay questions the feasibility of considering computer games ‘games’ and suggests that a defining characteristic of ‘playable artifacts’ is to be found from the relationship between materiality and process. Situating playable artifacts in the context of post-phenomenological philosophy of technology, the essay differentiates between attitudes of player, designer, and a scholar. The essay argues that analysis of playable artifacts as ‘games’ is reductive and can be justified only from the perspectives of a player and a game design researcher. Based on analysis of how playable artifacts become meaningful through material resistance, the essay reconfirms the feasibility of the methodological programme of ‘research-play’ while calling for its re-contextualization in relation to authentic interpretation and empathy.

Keywords: interpretation, Fallout: New Vegas, ludology, bug, feature, materiality, technology, phenomenology


In this essay I attempt to shed light on the questions of interpretation in single-player computer games as played. More specifically, I theorize the possibilities of interpreting Fallout: New Vegas (2010). Even though this essay is about New Vegas and interpretation, I am not interested in players and their interpretations, but in New Vegas as presenting itself for players like myself to interpret. Thus I am not going to propose a new method for the interpretation of computer games or say anything about what New Vegas means. Instead, I am looking at computer games in a somewhat Husserlian spirit from a perspective that precedes interpretation and ask: how can ‘games’ like New Vegas be interpreted in the first place?

Questions related to interpretation were implied at the heart of the ludology vs. narratology debate. Uncertainty prevailed regarding how computer games should be interpreted. Among the questions asked were whether one should one bring in devices tuned to a narrative format or pay attention to the configurative aspects of computer game play, and, what is the extent to which it is sensible to ‘read’ into computer games meanings that transcends the games themselves. (e.g. Murray, 1997, p.144; Eskelinen, 2001). I will not delve into detail of ludology vs. narratology debate in this essay, as I am neither hoping to re-ignite it nor trying to take sides retroactively. Instead, I attempt to examine a piece of its methodological legacy most relevant to those engaged in hermeneutic projects involving computer games, namely the position that computer games cannot be read like texts or watched like films, but the scholar needs to occupy the player’s position at the centre of events. This we might call the ‘ludological doctrine of interpretation’, whose methodology is exhausted in Aarseth’s (2003, p. 5) suggestion that “to show that we understand a game, all we have to do is to play it well.”

I am interested in finding out whether the ‘ludological doctrine of interpretation’ and the methodological programme it implies are as unproblematic as they seem at first sight, especially when faced with the materiality of contemporary single-player computer games. I argue that what happens in terms of interpretation from the point onwards when the researcher has become a player is left under-theorized and the very possibility of interpretation, instead of being theorized, is taken for granted by critics, designers, researchers, players and researcher-players alike. To take the possibility of interpretation in research/play for granted is to black-box the process of interpretation. This implies normative ontological assumptions regarding the object of study and its authorial origins and masks fundamental questions regarding the relationships of materiality, process, and subjectivity whose interplay we are accustomed to approximating as ‘gameplay’.

Questions so far overlooked in the ludological doctrine of interpretation include for example the following. What are these things we call single-player computer games? Do they have rules, like games do? How do a player’s, a scholar’s and a designer’s projects of understanding a single-player computer game differ? To which extent one should pay attention to the designer’s intentions when trying to understand a single-player computer game? Is it feasible to assume that the objects of interpretation contain features that were not intended by their designers? How to negotiate the encounters with such features in one’s scholarly account? If there is more than one way of playing well, (how) is it possible for the scholar to gain insights that can resonate with the wider population of players?

I shall begin with an anecdote of my personal death loop experience in New Vegas, paying special attention the gaps in the theory of research/play it highlights. This analysis gives rise to an investigation of the ‘gameness’ of single-player computer games, which highlights a peculiar relation between materiality and process in single-player computer games which cannot be found in ‘traditional’ games. This, in turn, prompts looking at the different attitudes with which the materialities of single-player computer games can be encountered, allowing an articulation of a distinction between game studies and game design research. Finally, to complement the ludological doctrine I theorize the possibility for a framework of authentic interpretation, meaning interpretation that proceeds not through projecting an essence, like ‘gameness’, or, ‘simulation’ on the object of study, but instead considers the material game artifact as it exists.

Death Loop in New Vegas

Being a Civilization (1991)

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