Veli-Matti Karhulahti

Veli-Matti Karhulahti is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Turku, Department of Media Studies, Finland.

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A Kinesthetic Theory of Videogames: Time-Critical Challenge and Aporetic Rhematic

by Veli-Matti Karhulahti


This article looks into the mostly unexplored difference between kinesthetic and nonkinesthetic videogame challenge. The difference is refined into a challenge-based theory for understanding the videogame and its peculiar rhetorical character. The premise is that videogame play, gaming, is either a kinesthetic or nonkinesthetic activity depending on the effort required to overcome the gaming challenge. A gaming challenge is kinesthetic if overcoming it requires nontrivial psychomotor effort, and it is nonkinesthetic if the nontrivial effort required to overcome it is cognitive alone. While kinesthetic and nonkinesthetic challenges define the modes of gaming, they are also the languages through which videogame rhetorics operate. As an alternative to the previously established meaning-centered approaches to videogame rhetoric, this article proposes a view that conceives of gaming as autotelic persuasive performance; as a rhetoric with no claims, arguments, or extractable thematic meaning. This ‘nonhermeneutic’ rhetoric is termed aporetic rhematic.

Keywords: ontology, time, challenge, rhetoric, rhematic, kinesthetics, aesthetics, hermeneutics


Digital objects provoke their users to execute effort. Videogames additionally evaluate effort. This evaluation refines the provocation into a designed challenge that distinguishes the videogame from other digital objects. The article at hand provides a challenge-based theory for understanding the videogame and its peculiar rhetorical character.

The study starts out from Espen Aarseth’s (1997, 1999) suggestion that videogame play, henceforth gaming, can be understood as challenging, ‘aporetic’ negotiations between the player and the game. These negotiations actualize as rhetorical conflicts in which the game persuades the player to exert effort through which the player persuades the game towards “a desirable unfolding of events” (1997, p. 125). [1]

The taken approach differs markedly from the previously established approaches to videogame rhetoric (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003; McAllister 2004; Frasca, 2007; Järvinen, 2007; cf. Paul, 2012) and from Ian Bogost’s (2007) ‘procedural rhetoric’ in particular. The rhetorical properties specific to the videogame are sought in the actual empirical encounters that occur when players take on game challenges. As opposed to a practice of “making claims or arguments about things” (Bogost, 2008, p. 123), gaming will be examined as autotelic persuasive performance; as a rhetoric with no claims, arguments, or extractable thematic meaning. The approach does not imply denial of the previous approaches, but merely contends that its distinctiveness requires serious recognition and analysis in its own right. [2] To distinguish this peculiar persuasive activity from the well-established rhetorical tradition, it is termed aporetic rhematic. ‘Aporetic’ functions here as a reference to the challenge within which the persuasion takes place; ‘rhematic’ is a concept borrowed from narratologist Gerard Genette (1993, 1997), designating the non-thematic nature of the act. A brief etymology of the latter is in order.

In Genette’s theory ‘rheme’ is contrasted with ‘theme.’ Whereas theme is a symbolic indication of what one talks about, rheme is an extraformal indication of that what. The title of this article is thematic because it indicates that what is being discussed; a title like Only an Article would be rhematic due to its lack of indication of the subject matter. The current function of Genette’s rheme is to clarify the way in which the videogame will be considered ‘empty in meaning.’ Negotiations players have with games can be referred to (or given meaning) as ‘conflicts,’ ‘fights,’ ‘struggles,’ et cetera, yet these are not meanings in a thematic sense. While semiotic context may, and often does, charge these negotiations with thematic potential, an actualization of that potential is optional in terms of persuasive success. In this sense, the rhetoric of gaming is fundamentally empty in meaning, a rhematic.

The means for having rhematic negotiations in videogames are divided into two root languages, the kinesthetic and the nonkinesthetic. The split is based on the visible but mostly unexplored notion that, in general, “both physical as well as mental abilities are required in gaming encounters” (Järvinen, 2007, p. 158). It is concluded that challenges of cognitive nature entail a nonkinesthetic language, and challenges of hybrid physical-cognitive nature entail a kinesthetic language. Because gaming is more often than not a combination of the two, the focus will be on their ontological differences instead of on their taxonomical application. As practice has shown, the latter is a topic that will nevertheless be brought up sooner or later, so let it be walked through briefly. Nonkinesthetic videogames are monolingual; they negotiate with nonkinesthetic languages. Kinesthetic videogames are bilingual; they negotiate with kinesthetic and nonkinesthetic languages.

Keeping in mind the rhematic nature of gaming, the term ‘language’ ought to be read here metaphorically rather than as an operational system of signs, symbols and meanings.

A pitfall is hidden in ‘kinesthetics,’ too. The physical action a videogame player performs represents only half of the performance, the other half being actualized in the world of the game. Given that there is a correlation (but no necessary resemblance) between the player’s mundane world action and the derivative action in the game world, it is possible to describe gaming as twofold performance the primary consequences of which occur in a different realm from the primary act. Gaming is not direct performance in the manner of classic athletics but digitally indirect, ‘vicarious’ performance that gives the player, in Andrew Darley’s (2000) words, a unique “impression of agency within an illusionistic space” (p. 192). As Darley suggests, a more accurate term for discussing kinesthetics in relation to the videogame is vicarious kinesthetics. This paper will follow his suggestion, and the reader should henceforth read every reference to videogame kinesthetics as a reference to vicarious videogame kinesthetics.

The first part of the article is devoted to a treatise of gaming challenges. Kinesthetic challenges are distinguished from nonkinesthetic ones according to their differing vicarious and temporal characters. The latter section suggests vicarious kinesthetics as the defining element for the videogame and its aporetic rhematic.

Kinesthetic and Nonkinesthetic Challenge

the two most important forms of contest in society: those of physical skill and those of intellectual strategy. While they have contest in common, they are otherwise very different (Sutton-Smith, 1997, p. 74)

As several media scholars (since Walter Benjamin at least) have proclaimed, the history of media is the history of specializing demands. To understand the videogame it is necessary to distinguish the differing demands that games set for players. In this article, the emphasis is on the demands that make possible to acknowledge the videogame as a distinctive cultural form: the demands of its evaluated challenges. The initial aim is to understand and distinguish the two key forms of videogame challenge: kinesthetic challenge and nonkinesthetic challenge. This will be done by exploring two consecutive criteria that are most central for an ontological study of gaming as a challenging activity: the vicarious element of challenge, and the temporal element of challenge.

Vicarious Element of Challenge

At first, the conventional distinction between physical and mental challenges needs to be called into question. Psychologist John Carroll’s (1993) tripartite division of cognitive, physical and psychomotor (combination of physical and cognitive) human abilities, each of which he distributes into dozens of more definite abilities, reveals that labeling any challenge either physical or mental is a simplification. Agreeing with Aki Järvinen (2007), it makes more sense to talk about ability sets than single abilities when it comes to the requirements for overcoming challenges in games.

On the other hand, it is evident that each challenge privileges activating one or more specific abilities. Challenge in chess privileges cognitive abilities; challenge in weightlifting privileges physical abilities. Because this privileging does not eliminate the fact that, in practice, every challenge entails activating numerous different abilities, it is reasonable to divide the entailed abilities according to their challenge functions; into trivial and nontrivial ones depending on whether they make the success of performance uncertain (p. 161). In chess the physical ability to move pieces does not make the success of performance uncertain, ergo its challenge function is trivial. In weightlifting the physical ability to move pieces does make the success of performance uncertain, ergo its challenge function is nontrivial (cf. Malone, 1980; Iversen, 2010; Costikyan, 2013). [3]

Without entering the game of defining ‘game,’ it is important to separate the concept of ‘challenge’ from the concept of ‘game.’ First, a game is often a set of challenges. Second, it is clear that a challenge may also be a game in itself (Karhulahti, 2013). Chess is an independent challenge and a game at the same time, and the last move in chess may additionally be analyzed as a distinct mate-in-one-move puzzle challenge. If one wishes to analyze a specific game challenge, it is up to the analyzer to fence the challenge from the game. This terminology enables theorizing challenges as game components and as individual negotiations. In both instances, it occasionally makes sense to talk about physical, psychomotor and cognitive challenges, respectively.

Due to the extreme physical, cultural and other differences between players, the distinction between trivial and nontrivial is ultimately subjective. For a blind person piece moving may become a nontrivial task even in chess; for a non-English speaking player every riddle in English is a cul-de-sac. The lack of universal criteria does not make the concepts of ‘trivial’ and ‘nontrivial’ unusable, but links them to the performing subject. Something trivial for you may be nontrivial for me; regardless, triviality and nontriviality remain operational.

Notwithstanding the developments in motion sensitive gaming, few challenges in videogames involve actual physical effort, which is a requirement more common to athletics (see Crawford, 2003; Nansen, 2009). Accordingly, it is reasoned to substitute the distinction between physical and mental gaming challenges with the more accurate distinction between psychomotor and cognitive gaming challenges. The division shall be used as the point of departure in distinguishing gaming challenges (herein Järvinen’s ‘ability’ is abandoned on account of preference for ‘effort’): a gaming challenge is kinesthetic if overcoming it requires nontrivial psychomotor effort, and it is nonkinesthetic if the nontrivial effort required to overcome it is cognitive alone. [4]

To overcome a gaming challenge the player might have to make an avatar jump, run or speak. Since jumping, running and speaking in a game world may have equally effective consequences in that world as mundane world actions have in the mundane world, their ontological status can be held equally real (Aarseth, 2007; Karhulahti, 2012b). Gaming thus conceives normally at least of two real actions: that of the player in the mundane world, and that of the controlled entity or entities in the game world.

Although videogames are often designed for specific hardware platforms, the execution of the effort they entail is movable from one input device to another. This manifests in a comparison between the analog game and the videogame. Two seemingly similar kinesthetic challenges, one provided by analog table hockey and another provided by videogame Face Off! (Mindspan Technologies, 1989) both entail vicarious psychomotor effort, yet the execution of the effort is movable to another input device only in the latter. This is because table hockey is an artifact, Face Off! is code. Unlike in Face Off!, altering the input device in table hockey would also alter the ontic structure of the game.

The vicarious distinctiveness of the videogame allows a refined model for distinguishing gaming challenges. The difference between kinesthetic and nonkinesthetic gaming challenges is found in the vicarious moment that condenses in the player’s input: a gaming challenge is kinesthetic if altering the input device alters the nontrivial effort that is required to overcome it. Needless to say, this excludes input devices the operation of which is a challenge itself.

Whereas digital chess entails input that is just as vicarious as the input required to traverse Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985), its function is merely to actualize the player’s cognitive effort. Altering the input device from mouse to keyboard does not affect the chess challenge; the entailed strategic cognitive effort remains the same. In Mario, conversely, the psychomotorically challenging vicarious input defines the conflict; the effort required to perform jumps and runs varies strikingly between different input devices.

While it is relatively easy to find pure nonkinesthetic videogames that lack all kinesthetic challenge, most kinesthetic videogames provide the player with both kinesthetic and nonkinesthetic challenges. It must be stressed that not every entailed cognitive configuration is functional in terms of challenge, but only that which potentially contributes to the evaluated performance. Choosing tires in a racing game is challenge-functional only if it affects the grip or some other behavioral property of the steered vehicle. Such strategic elements, consider Death Rally (Remedy, 1996), for instance, add cognitive variables that reduce the kinesthetic and increase the nonkinesthetic weight of the game’s overall aporetic mass.

Videogames such as System Shock 2 (Looking Glass Studios, 1999) begin by offering the player the possibility to adjust the balance between kinesthetic and nonkinesthetic challenges. The still continuing proliferation of the feature supports the findings of Graeme Kirkpatrick’s (2012) popular discourse analysis, which suggests an appreciation of intense gameplay as the attribute that distinguishes the videogame and its players: “the true gamer is the one who understands and appreciates good gameplay and the gamer’s game is the one that has it in abundance.” To provoke further: kinesthetic videogames are videogames proper and kinesthetics is the language of the authentic gamer; nonkinesthetic videogames are gamified history and nonkinesthetics is the language of the lusory reader.

Temporal Element of Challenge

The second central criterion for an ontological understanding of gaming challenges draws from Claus Pias’ (2004) notion concerning the ‘action game.’ For Pias, the action game is defined by the “feedback-based self-observation of the player, who has to carry out actions under time pressure” (p. 135); and by the challenge of doing “something at the right time” (p. 138). Because performing at the right time is not idiosyncratic with performing under time pressure, it is initially important to make a difference between the two differing functions of time in gaming: time as a factor in performance, and time as a framework for performance.

Within the terminology of this article, kinesthetic challenges entail performance in which timing is critical (time-critical performance) and nonkinesthetic challenges entail performance in which timing is not critical (time-free performance). Since kinesthetic as well as nonkinesthetic challenges may be set in contexts with time pressure (time-critical framework) and in contexts with no time pressure (time-free framework), gaming challenges fall into four categories:

  1. Kinesthetic challenges with time pressure (time-critical performance in time-critical framework)
  2. Kinesthetic challenges with no time pressure (time-critical performance in time-free framework)
  3. Nonkinesthetic challenges with time pressure (time-free performance in time-critical framework)
  4. Nonkinesthetic challenges with no time pressure (time-free performance in time-free framework)

The typology is soon explicated in more detail. The first observation to make here is that the videogame cannot be fitted to the standard classification of temporal and spatial arts, in which the formers (film, music, etc.) ask for time-critical perception and the latters (literature, painting, etc.) ask for time-free perception (see Levinson & Alperson 1991). While it is only the fourth challenge category that fulfills the criteria for spatial art, it is enough to confirm that both temporal and spatial art products swim in the videogame sea. Let the four categories be elaborated now through five acknowledged perspectives to the temporality of gaming.

Espen Aarseth’s (1997) early take on the temporality of textual communication is recurrently applied to gaming. In that model time is experienced as visible change in text, which allows a distinction between ‘transient’ (output occurs without input) and ‘intransient’ (output necessitates input) games. Transiency, nevertheless, is rarely useful for explaining the temporality of gaming. As opposed to conventional textual communication, videogames are not configured merely on the level of perceived information. The changes more crucial for the videogame are in its states, that is, in the aporetically functional conditions of the game world. An exploding grenade behind a corner in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (Naughty Dog, 2007) may significantly violate the environment and injure enemies albeit the effects may not be visible to the player; meanwhile, the animated leaves that shudder in the wind provide the player with frequent visible changes that are not functional in relation to any of the game’s challenges. Changes in game states may or may not be visible, and visible changes do not always alter the game state.

A more useful concept for discussing the temporality of gaming challenges is ‘haste.’ As put forth by Christian Elverdam & Aarseth (2007), it describes whether the mere passing of mundane world time alters the game state or not. Since kinesthetic challenges entail input at a specific time, it is not surprising that they usually emerge together with haste components. Examining haste as a producer of the time-critical framework advances the understanding of both concepts.

A time-critical framework, or time pressure, surfaces when performance is executed within a time limit. Because in haste the passing of mundane world time alters the conditions that are functional in relation to a challenge, the presence of haste seems to automatically result in one or more time limits - a time-critical framework. When it comes to videogames, this is an erroneous deduction. While a game state change is always functional in relation to a challenge, the change need not be functional in relation to the challenge the player is engaged with. As notes Sara Iversen (2010), “any actual challenge is a subjective phenomenon” (p. 115). A time limit for carrying out one mission in Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North, 2008) does not put pressure on a player who has chosen to pursue a different mission. Consequently, while haste is a necessary condition for a time-critical framework, time-critical frameworks occur only in relation to active challenges. Haste functions on different challenge levels.

It could be claimed that since kinesthetic challenges entail performance at the right time, all kinesthetic challenges have a time-critical framework by definition; regardless of whether haste is present or not. Mario will function as an example. Performing a jump in Mario is usually executed in order to overcome one of the game’s kinesthetic challenges, say, crossing a pit. Assuming there are no moving entities present, the challenge does not involve haste. To make a successful jump, it is not, however, enough to press the jump-button at the right place, but it must also be pressed at the right time. This, according to the hypothesis, produces a momentary time-critical framework: as the player speeds up the avatar and prepares to press the jump-button, time pressure surfaces.

The hypothesis is acceptable, and it provides a view through which kinesthetic challenges in time-critical frameworks and kinesthetic challenges in time-free frameworks could be considered analogous. There are, nonetheless, several analytical benefits in separating the two, for which there is no need to revise the presented typology at this point. If a kinesthetic challenge involves haste components that are aporetically functional, it is considered to appear in a time-critical framework; if a kinesthetic challenge does not involve haste components that are aporetically functional, it is considered to appear in a time-free framework.

Nonkinesthetic challenges may likewise appear in both time-critical and time-free frameworks. Still, the nature of the nonkinesthetic challenge itself is always essentially time-free. Though a time limit, in chess, for example, may affect the player’s performance, it does not alter the functions of the efforts that make overcoming the challenge uncertain.

Again, one could claim that time pressure makes piece moving a functional challenge component in speed chess. The claim is solid in theory and useless in practice. Despite the fact that there is variation in the times it takes to physically move a chess piece, that variation is generally trivial compared to the variations in processing times of choosing where to move that piece.

Yet it cannot be denied that ample compression of time pressure turns every nonkinesthetic challenge eventually into a kinesthetic one. The challenges of the strategy game Dune 2: The Building of a Dynasty (Westwood, 1992) are mainly nonkinesthetic, as the privileged functional ability in their overcoming is the cognitive optimization of strategic recourses. But since the controlled units have been programmed to react rapidly to the passing mundane world time, desired optimization may occasionally, as in military encounters, require fast reflexes and trained cursor control as well. The often-used label for videogames with this specifically adjusted haste is ‘real-time.’ Because real-time stands simultaneously as a substantial point of academic confusion and as a significant factor of vicarious kinesthetics, it shall be given a brief subsection of its own.

Vicarious Real-Time

According to Jesper Juul (2005), in real-time games “pressing the fire key or moving the mouse immediately affects the game world” (p. 143). That immediate affect is more complex than it first seems. As Jonne Arjoranta (2011) points out:

‘Real-time’ is not always fast, and certainly not always instantaneous. There are different speeds of interactive, which may still be seen as happening in real-time, just not very quickly. Thus, it is not enough to see things as occurring in real-time or not. (P. 7)

Videogame real-time is an oxymoron, to being with. [5] There is always lag even in the most hectic videogame play since delay between input and feedback is inherent for all digital objects.

The misstep in Juul’s approach seems to derive from his premise “to examine time rather than space” (2005, p. 141). By ignoring the spatial aspect he gives in to overlook one of the few serviceable definitions of time: time equals to distance over speed. The real-time phenomenon cannot be examined separately from spatial alteration. For vicarious kinesthetics there is no need to pursue a universal philosophy of real-time, but an understanding of it as a structural component of gaming. Taking cognizance of spatial alteration enables recognizing whether a challenge occurs in real-time or not, which again is crucial for analyzing its kinesthetic character.

Steve Swink (2009) defines videogame real-time as the “uninterrupted flow of command from player to game resulting in precise, continuous control over a moving avatar” (p. 35). The convincing reasoning behind the definition is worth citing in its full length:

To sustain real-time control, the computer must display images at a rate greater than 10 per second, the lower boundary for the illusion of motion. The computer must also respond to input within 240 milliseconds (ms), the upper boundary for response time. There’s also a threshold for continuity; the game must be ready to accept input and provide response at a consistent, ongoing rate of 100 ms or less [the upper boundary for an instantaneous human sensation according to Robert Miller]. The computer’s half of the process is changeable. The player’s perception is not. (Pp. 35-36)

Apart from Arjoranta’s theoretical remark, videogame real-time can thus be seen occurring in videogames, not as an absolute quality, but as a measurable quantity. The slow-motion bullet-time mode in Max Payne (Remedy, 2001) does not remove the critical requirement of doing something at the right time, but merely facilitates succeeding in the task.

Swink’s intentional ignorance of challenges that do not involve avatar-control motivates an important clarification: kinesthetic gaming challenges do not necessitate avatar-control. In The Witcher (CD Projekt, 2007), as in many other videogames that provide the so-called ‘third-person’ view, kinesthetic challenges are not only about time-critical avatar control, but also about time-critical control of the optical mechanism that allows the player to visually perceive the game world.

In fact, all real-time control is merely an optional kinesthetic factor. The Witcher’s physical conflicts are based on a mechanic that operates through simple reflex patterns: when the cursor icon changes color, the player must quickly press the action key. The colloquial word for challenges that derive from that mechanic is ‘quick time event;’ commonly traced to Dragon’s Lair (Advance Microcomputer Systems, 1983) and later refined in works such as Fahrenheit (Quantic Dream, 2005) and The Walking Dead (Telltale Games, 2013). While spatial traversal is not a necessary condition for quick time events, the function of space remains critical in them: not as an object of configuration, but as a subject of alteration.

Before proceeding to the second part of the article, one more prospective counter argument needs to be treated. It has been asserted that the peculiar vicarious-temporal character of the videogame has unique potential for providing kinesthetic experiences. In the Husserlian tradition, however, all human perceptions are processed through the experiential expression of kinesthetic movement, kinesthesia, at least to some extent. Consequently, the counter argument goes, the videogame is merely an extension to literature, film, music, and many other forms that provide their audiences with vicarious kinesthetic sensations.

The argument is fair, but fails to see the mechanical principles that outline the offered theory. By ‘vicarious’ it is referred precisely to the actual link that connects the player’s physical performance to the action in the game world, and by ‘kinesthetic’ it is referred precisely to the player’s actual physical performance. While this narrowing is far from unproblematic - for instance, the ongoing breakthroughs in brain-computer interface research (see Guger et al, 2013) might soon question the notion of ‘physical performance’ - it does reveal a solid structural aspect that distinguishes the videogame from most other cultural forms. This aspect and the problems related to it are dealt with in the next section, which suggests vicarious kinesthetics as the defining element of the videogame and its aporetic rhematic.

Kinesthetic Videogame

never has the flattening of meaning… been so pronounced as in the action-simulation genres of the computer game: here, aesthetic experience is tied directly to the purely sensational and allied to tests of physical dexterity. (Darley, 2000, p. 143)

Videogames provide two types of challenge, kinesthetic and nonkinesthetic. In kinesthetic challenge the required nontrivial effort is at least partly psychomotor, whereas in nonkinesthetic challenge the required nontrivial effort is solely cognitive. If altering the input device alters the required nontrivial effort, the challenge is kinesthetic. Kinesthetic challenge entails time-critical performance, and nonkinesthetic challenge entails time-free performance, both in either time-critical or time-free frameworks.

A fact is that the terms ‘videogame,’ ‘digital game,’ ‘electronic game’ and ‘computer game’ are all currently associated with kinesthetically as well as nonkinesthetically challenging objects. Regardless of the challenge bias, the vicarious play with these objects has hitherto been referred to as gaming in order to distinguish the activity from other play-related activities. As the proclaimed difference between kinesthetic and nonkinesthetic verifies, in this broad sense gaming cannot be considered a uniform activity.

Print technologies enable several genres of written and pictorial cultural forms; recording technologies enable several genres of musical and narrative cultural forms. This plurality notwithstanding, the popular discourse has had few difficulties in distinguishing the novel from comics and poetry, or the film from television series and music videos. While the emergence of vicarious technologies has recently enabled two extremely dissimilar forms of cultural activity - kinesthetic and nonkinesthetic gaming - the popular discourse has been somewhat unwilling to see the difference. In what follows, the underlying premise is that nonkinesthetic gaming ought to be conceived as a separate cultural activity from kinesthetic gaming. It cannot be stressed enough that the ends of establishing that difference are not taxonomical but ontological. What is of primary interest here is not classification of videogames, but the videogame itself.

Drawing on the outcomes of the previous section, the defining characteristic of the videogame and its aporetic rhematic will be sought from vicarious kinesthetics. It will be shown that the vicarious challenge of the videogame is unique in form, and this form does not transpire in play with other digital objects or challenging activities. Since it is highly unlikely that popular discourse would be ready to identify nonkinesthetic gaming as a separate activity from kinesthetic gaming in the near future, gaming shall remain as their common label for the nonce.

The first subsection will focus on the formal specificity of the videogame. The second subsection will focus on the rhematic specificity of the videogame.

Kinesthetic Form

For a kinesthetic theory of gaming it would be unacceptable to discount Johan Huizinga’s (1938) remark of rapid movement being the underlying origin of modern play-words (p. 37; see Kendrick, 2009). His discovery becomes most evident in music: since playing is never applied to singing, the “connecting link between play and instrumental skill is to be sought in the nimble and orderly movements of the fingers” (Huizinga, 1938, p. 42).

One of the most enthusiastic proponents of gaming as a physical activity is Steve Swink (2009), for whom the videogame is defined by “the tactile, kinesthetic sense of manipulating a virtual object” (p. xiii). Providing players with this particular feel is the invisible art that defines the videogame:

Feel is the most overlooked aspect of game creation; a powerful, gripping, tactile sensation that exists somewhere in the space between player and game. It is a kind of ‘virtual sensation,’ a blending of visual, aural and tactile. In short, it is one of the most powerful properties of human-computer interaction. (Ibid.)

As the essentially cinematographic film is additionally capable of pictorial, aural and literary presentation, to name but a few, neither is kinesthetic action the only available mode of engaging with the videogame. Yet if one is to see gaming as a singular form of cultural activity, one must not look at the old it sustains but at the new it enables. The enabled new of the videogame is vicarious kinesthetics. [6]

Graeme Kirkpatrick (2011) correctly notices that while the psychomotor articulation of hand and eye is not literally exclusive to videogames, “it is the point at which they break with the visual entertainment culture of the last two centuries” (p. 88). The psychomotor articulation of gaming is not, however, limited to the relation between hand and eye. Even though the etymology of the videogame implies a visual component, the general understanding of the term does not exclude kinesthetic audio games that have been manufactured since Touch Me (Atari, 1974). Audio games may evaluate psychomotor as well as cognitive effort, for which a kinesthetician should have no reason to leave them untouched.

Second, while psychomotor effort positively distinguishes gaming as a distinct form of visual culture, its specific vicarious nature identifies the activity also as a unique form of performative culture. Whereas many genres of athletic practice can be considered kinesthetic cultural forms, it is difficult to name vicarious genres of athletics in which the primary consequences of performance occur in a different realm from the primary act. Unlike racquets and other typical sports equipment, input devices do not augment performance but transform it. Whereas athletics are defined by the moving human body, the videogame kinesthetic lies in the converting possibilities of the input device.

The difference can be elucidated with formal aesthetics by examining physical and psychomotor performance as an accomplishment of kinesthetic form. When a tennis player hits the ball, the motion of her or his body accomplishes an action that is repeated with slight variation several times during the game. Those motions are the kinesthetic form of tennis. The form does not derive from the equipped racquet but from the player’s bodily movement.

The forms of kinesthetic gaming diverge from the above. The player’s bodily movement provokes the form, but, because of the exclusive vicarious device, that movement is not where the form transpires. Kirkpatrick explains:

throwing a spear is not the same action as holding down the ‘B’ button of a controller… The form here is not that of a simulated action, but is a pattern present in the relation between the kineme and other elements of the game apparatus. (P. 104; cf. Myers, 2009)

Kinesthetic forms of videogames are not in bodily or simulated movements but in the unseen patterns the discovery of which eventually solves the mystery of challenge. While the recently proliferated motion sensing input devices function as examples in which bodily movement and the provoked form draw near each other, the fact remains that the form is still reducible to a transformable pattern.

While the kinesthetic form of Mario is provoked by the player’s specific input, it is not in that specific input. To accomplish the Mario-form the player may execute a dance of fingers with a Nintendo pad, yet the same pattern can also be accomplished without fingers; via a joystick or an oral input device; or hypothetically, even via mental exertion alone (see Clark & Chalmers, 1998). While altering the input device alters the effort, the pattern of the form remains the same.

In the same way as the forms of visual arts rest in the invisible relations between lines and colors (e.g. Bell 1914), the forms of the videogame are found in the invisible patterns of thrusts and turns. The possibility to negotiate vicariously through kinesthetic form patterns surfaces as the element that makes the videogame a cultural genre with a unique aesthetic and rhematic. These patterns are present only in kinesthetic gaming challenges. While nonkinesthetically challenging games such as Civilization (Microprose, 1991), The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games, 1990) and chess have distinctive ludic qualities too, those qualities diverge from vicarious kinesthetics as radically as the semiotics of literature diverge from pictorial semiotics.

Aporetic Rhematic

In her quintessential manifesto Against Interpretation (1966) Susan Sontag attacks against ‘systems of hermeneutics,’ by which she refers to the dominant strategies of cultural interpretation that presuppose “a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of readers” (p. 6). “In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability,” she continues, “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art” (p. 7). Her essay finishes with a proclamation that is in full sympathy with the objective of this final subsection. The reader may want to substitute ‘the videogame’ for ‘art:’

In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. (P. 14) [7]

Even though ‘an erotics of the videogame’ would fit nicely in the age-old view of videogames as condoms that give players the possibility to execute actions without undesirable consequences - "a safe way to experience reality” (Crawford, 1984, p. 14) - the present article has settled for the less captivating aporetic rhematic.

Prior to the important recent contributions of Swink (2009) and Kirkpatrick (2007; 2009; 2011) (see also Ndanialis 2004) it was first and foremost Andrew Darley (2000) who commendably observed the problematic hegemony of the ‘hermeneutic presumption.’ By questioning literary criticism as the paradigm discipline for analytic comprehension of present-day culture, he shows the importance of recognizing alternative, if you may, nonhermeneutic, tools of analytical investigation, such as form, spectacle, and sensation studies. As the dominant preoccupation with interpretation-centered approaches to film and other prevailing cultural forms has retarded the development of their critical understanding, so might, he suggests, such hermeneutic attitude toward videogames contribute to their “continued aesthetic misapprehension [and] cultural relegation” (p. 6).

Before discussing aporetic rhematic as a nonhermeneutic tool for understanding the videogame, a mandatory comment on interpretation and hermeneutics. Players cannot avoid making interpretations of game events, and skillful gaming is always a product of hermeneutically generated understanding of the game. The hermeneutic processes that operate in gaming are nevertheless markedly different from the ones employed in literary criticism. While the player’s understanding of the videogame indisputably generates in the process of play, that generated understanding is not a product of ‘non-inducing’ thematic interpretation but ‘inducing’ rhematic interpretation (Karhulahti 2012a). The videogame hermeneutic operates without deliberate meaning construction. This lack of deliberate construction of meaning can also be described, as does David Myers (2003), in terms of

natural semiosis [that is not] associated with the interpretation of text. Unlike conventional texts, certain genres of electronic games and gaming contain an emptiness of meaning, which is simultaneously formal paradox and its own function of resolution. (P. 91)

By ‘certain games’ Myers points at kinesthetically challenging videogames. It seems, however, unsound to reserve the ‘emptiness of meaning’ solely for kinesthetic challenges. Nonkinesthetic challenges, strategic ones par excellence, accommodate to the nonhermeneutic discourse as well. Both kinesthetic and nonkinesthetic videogame challenges can be rhematic; persuasive activities in which meaning-making has been replaced by sense-making.

Describing all challenges rhematic would obviously be a mistake, nonetheless. The hermeneutic enigmas that have so far been considered fundamental for narrative and most other arts cannot be disconnected from meaning. To maintain Genettian logic, they are better discussed as thematic challenges. The important observation to make here is that whereas kinesthetic challenges are essentially rhematic, thematic challenges are essentially nonkinesthetic. In addition to rhematic kinesthetic challenge and thematic nonkinesthetic challenge, one is left with rhematic nonkinesthetic challenge. While the identity of the foremost has been discussed at length earlier, distinguishing between the latter two would result in a scrutiny the space does not allow to recount here. Hence, it shall suffice for the following paragraphs to explore at the aporetic rhematic of the videogame through the language of kinesthetics.

Swink’s (2009) idea of game design as expression (not to be confused with persuasion; see Walz, 2004) is particularly gainful for explicating the kinesthetic rhematic. In game design the expressed is a meaningless kinesthetic sensation, “how it will feel to control [every] turn, twist, jump and run” (Swink, 2009, p. 15). For the player the videogame is a platform for experiencing these meaningless sensations; for the designer it is a platform for constructing new possibility spaces for kinesthetic performance. Like compositions in music, kinesthetic challenges are not disturbances but incentives for players to find new areas in the provided possibility space, introducing “sensations of control they would have missed otherwise” (p. 17). Videogame design is not about “defining what the player will do, but what he or she can do” (ibid).

The view of kinesthetic gaming as sensation-seeking performance coheres with Darley (2000), for whom the activity “is not primarily intellectual, not reflective or interpretative in character, but rather sensual and diverting in various ways” (p. 168). While the act is essentially meaningless - there is no decipherable message to be understood - it is not senseless: there is a sensation to be understood. What exchanges (or more correctly, comes into being) is data that cannot be made known by signs. This sensible nonsense gives shape to an aporetic rhematic, which negates the organized restoration of design; ‘design’ being the etymological derivative of ‘designate;’ to ‘signify;’ to ‘make known by signs.’

Since the rhematic nonsense cannot be understood by means of any conventional interpretative discipline, a new discipline is needed; a rhematic discipline. Its operational nature is a Wittgensteinian one: the solution of the problem is seen in the vanishing of the problem. To understand the videogame rhematic, one only needs to play. Eventually, the meaningless activity becomes the Rosetta Stone itself.


This article was privileged to be commented by Raine Koskimaa, Graeme Kirkpatrick, and two anonymous reviewers. It is to them I owe my sincere gratitude. I would also like to thank Susanna Paasonen for the conversations the vast value of which I often seem to forget.


[1] The negotiating nature of games has been acknowledged long before Aarseth’s contribution. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1989) described play as conversational to-and-fro movement, which is so central for the definition of a game that "it is irrelevant whether or not there is a subject who plays it” (p. 104).  Clark Abt (1971) saw games as activities “among two or more independent decision makers seeking to achieve their objectives in a limiting context… to achieve conflicting goals that end up mattering less than the action itself” (p. 6). Aarseth, nonetheless, is the first to connect this negotiation to videogame challenge.

[2] To avoid the most predictable points of misunderstanding, it is also pertinent to segregate the present approach from Steffen Walz’s (2004) ‘gameplay rhetoric.’ The subject of Walz’s study is the figurative rhetoric between players and game designers, in which the latters aim at persuading the formers to play.

[3] Järvinen’s concepts of ‘trivial’ and ‘nontrivial’ are not to be confused with those of Aarseth’s (1997).

[4] It should be noted that in this article ‘cognitive’ is understood more broadly than in Carroll’s (1993) theory, in which “a cognitive task is one in which suitable processing of mental information is the major determinant” (p. 10). By Carroll’s definition the nonkinesthetic challenges of ‘hidden object games,’ for instance, would not necessarily be cognitive because they do not entail processing of information but perception of information.

[5] As philosophers and (subsequently) neurobiologists have pointed out, ‘real-time’ is an oxymoron in everyday perception too. Since the lived affective temporality of human experience centers around a fusion interval of approximately 0.3 seconds, players live in the past also when they are not gaming. (See Hansen, 2004.)

[6] As all major cultural forms, the videogame has its predecessors: kite flying, radio-controlled models, etc.

[7] Cf. e.g. Gadamer (1989): "Every work of art, not only literature, must be understood like any other text that requires understanding… Aesthetics has to be absorbed into hermeneutics" (p. 157). Or Roman Ingarden (1961): “whoever, wishing to have aesthetic experiences, is searching only for delight attainable in such experiences, does not, strictly speaking, know aesthetic values” (p. 311).


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