Michael S. Debus

Michael S. Debus obtained his PhD in Game Studies at the IT University of Copenhagen. His research on game ontology is part of the ERC funded project Making Sense of Games.

Contact information:
michael.s.debus at gmail.com

José P. Zagal

José P. Zagal is a Professor at the University of Utah. His research interests lie in the areas of game ontology, game ethics, ludoliteracy, and game design.

Contact information:
Jose.zagal at utah.edu

Rogelio E. Cardona-Rivera

Rogelio E. Cardona-Rivera is an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah, where he directs the Laboratory for Quantitative Experience Design. He researches technologies to define and improve the science of game design through cognitive science, with an emphasis on artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology.

Contact information:
rogelio at eae.utah.edu

A Typology of Imperative Game Goals

by Michael S. Debus, José P. Zagal, Rogelio E. Cardona-Rivera


There is a problem with goals and games. Due to the different uses, connotations and attributes of goals in the context of games, it appears that there is no consistent concept of goals in games. It seems that scholars, so far, potentially speak about different concepts, but refer to them with the same term. Furthermore, the studies that engage more deeply with goals in games, describe how goals can be, but less so what goals are or what different types there are. As a first step in addressing this issue, we used an inclusive understanding of the term game to examine a number of games to identify the kinds of goals they contained. From our analysis, we propose a typology of ten formal imperative goals in games. Imperative goals are those goals that must be met to achieve a game’s ultimate goal (e.g. to win, complete, play as long as possible). This framework allows us to better articulate the relationship between goals, goal related issues at a general level, as well as concrete problems of what the actual goal in a particular game is. To demonstrate this, we discuss the paradox of gameplay goals: there are goals that, while present in a given game artifact, are highly contingent on individual situations, and therefore present and not present in the artifact. This work allows for the characterization of goal structures within games and also affords studying how different kinds of goals might give rise to different kinds of player behavior. More broadly, this paper is part of a greater endeavor to examine the ontology of goals in games.

Keywords: Game goals, goals, imperative goals, classification, hierarchy, definition, typology



What are the types of goals that games have and in what way do they interact and relate to each other? In game studies, goals have been equated to victory conditions (Costikyan, 2002; Elverdam & Aarseth, 2007), end conditions (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004; Smith, 2006) and to both victory and end conditions (Juul, 2010). Goals are also often conflated with terms such as the game’s outcome and measurements of player progress (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004).

One common distinction is that goals in games are either explicit (e.g. Costikyan, 2002; Järvinen, 2008; Juul, 2007) or implicit (e.g. Costikyan, 2002). Järvinen also describes explicit goals as the difference between games and non-games, such as social gatherings or toys (2008, p. 69). Following Costikyan, explicit goals are win-states, while implicit goals emerge from the game artifact and have to be sought by the player. Goals were also described as obligatory or optional (Juul, 2007) and similarly as deniable and undeniable (Leino, 2010). This distinction aims at the necessity for the player to fulfil a goal to proceed in a game or to engage with the game at all. As one last example of how goals can be, Juul describes the difference between winning a match in soccer and finishing BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013) as transient and permanent, respectively (2010; our examples). Once a player has completed BioShock Infinite, they have met that game’s goal forever. However, success in winning a soccer match only applies to that particular instance of the game.

Goals are also a constituent part of most definitions of games. Stenros’s systematic review of 60 definitions from as early as 1930 identifies “Goals and End Conditions” as one of ten topics of interest in game definitions (Stenros, 2017). Similarly, in their overview of eight notable game definitions, Salen and Zimmerman (2004, p. 79) show that being “goal-oriented/outcome-oriented” was an important aspect for five of them. For example, Costikyan defines games as “a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal” (1994, p. 25). Similarly, Parlett’s definition describes a game as “a contest to achieve an objective” together with a means, e.g. rules and equipment, that are manipulated to achieve that objective (Parlett, 1999). Bernard Suits, argues that games are distinguishable from other activities in part due to the arbitrary nature of their goals (ends) and the restrictions (rules) that define how those goals can be achieved (Suits, 1978). Even for definitions that do not explicitly use the term goal, we see that the idea of a goal is present either through the inclusion of conflict or competition (in which the goal of overcoming said conflict or competition is implicit) or through the idea that rules are sometimes defined to include goals and objectives (see Stenros, 2017). The notion that goals matter to games is almost universal.

This brief literature review indicates two problems. Most importantly, due to the different uses, connotations, and attributes of goals in the context of games, it appears that there is no consistent concept of goals in games, and that researchers, so far, potentially speak about different concepts, but refer to them with the same term. Second, the studies that engage more deeply with goals in games describe how goals can be, but less so what goals are or what different types there are. For example, in order to win a soccer match, a team should score more goals than their opponents. What kind of a goal is this? How is it comparable or related to other goals that games have? Part of the reason for the lack of a coherent concept is that understanding a game’s goals is both simple and complicated. On the simple side, we can say that games are played to be won, prolonged (“play as long as you can”) or completed (“reach the end”) (Zagal, Debus, & Cardona-Rivera, 2019). A game’s goals can get complicated when we consider that most games include a network of nested and inter-related goals that must be met in order to win, prolong, or complete a game. Some goals are short-lived or temporary, while others might hold for the duration of a game (cf. Smith, 2006). Goals might be communicated explicitly to the player or implicitly suggested (e.g. Costikyan, 2002; Juul, 2007). Some goals may be required to succeed while others might be optional (e.g. Juul, 2007; Leino, 2010). Achieving some goals may render others unachievable or irrelevant, and so on.

Consider Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985). The game’s box asks: “Do you have what it takes to save the mushroom princess?” This implies the game’s (narrative) goal is to rescue a princess. Once past the start screen, the player is shown a screen which declares her position in “World 1-1”, implying the possibility (and goal?) of reaching other “worlds”. Considering the next few seconds of gameplay, we can learn that if the player-controlled Mario immediately moves left, Mario reaches the end of the screen and cannot move further. When moving Mario to the right, the background images quickly change (scrolling). This suggests that moving Mario to the right is a goal in the game. Soon, a brown creature (a Goomba) appears moving towards Mario. If the Goomba touches Mario, a life is lost. Thus, another goal is to avoid the Goombas. If Mario lands on top of a Goomba, it is removed from the gameworld and 100 points are awarded. An additional goal then is to accrue points and landing on top of Goombas is one way to do so. There is also a blinking block hanging in mid-air with a “?” displayed on it. If Mario jumps and hits it from beneath, a coin appears, a sound plays, the “?” symbol disappears, 200 points are awarded and a coin counter at the top of the screen changes from “0” to “1”. Thus, two more goals are to hit blocks and collect coins. But, is meeting these goals necessary to succeed? Additionally, as indicated by the decreasing time counter in the top-right corner of the screen, there is a need for the player to achieve a certain goal (move Mario to the right as far as possible? Get the highest score possible?) before the timer runs out (or incur losing a life). All of these goals are either manifested or implied within a few seconds of game play. Not all of these goals are the same. Do you “complete” Super Mario Bros. by collecting all the coins or landing on top of all the Goombas? Similarly, if the goal is to not lose lives, it turns out you can lose all of your lives, save one and still succeed. In terms of movement, sometimes the goal might be to “go down” or “go up” instead of “going right” and so on. There is a deceptive complexity to the goals in Super Mario Bros. How can we better understand them? Is there some underlying structure by which we can make sense of the goals within a game?

The Goal of Examining Game Goals

Ultimately, our goal is to develop an ontology of goals in games. This ontology, when finalized, will describe the goal structures of games from the overarching, or “ultimate goal” (Zagal, Debus, & Cardona-Rivera, 2019) down to lower levels of moment-to-moment gameplay, as well as the interrelation of goals located in different domains of game artifacts, for example the mapping of mechanical goals and narrative goals (Cardona-Rivera, Zagal, & Debus, 2020a; 2020b). Here we develop a typology of formal game goals, first. The idea of this approach is to identify and structure instances of goals to be able to explicate more specifically what concepts are covered by the term “goal” in the context of games. We hope that this can later be used to answer the bigger question of what characteristics a formal element of a game must fulfil to be considered a (or the) goal of the game. However, the current typology can already be used to discuss problems of interest in game studies, as will be shown through the discussion of what we call the paradox of gameplay.

We examine goals in games from a structural and ludological perspective. If, for the purpose of clarification, we consider games artifacts that consist of a materiality, a mechanical system, and a sign system (cf. Aarseth and Calleja, 2015) our current examination of goals in games focuses on the mechanical system of these artifacts. Due to this focus on the underlying mechanical system of games, we term these particular goals of interest “ludological”. However, even though we situate the current typology within ludology, we do not assume or advocate for a primacy of the mechanical system of games over other aspects of games. Elsewhere (Zagal, Cardona-Rivera, & Debus, 2020a), for example, we have begun to explore the important and necessary connection of ludological goals and narrative (goals) in games. Here, we study those goals that are designed in-game objectives or conditions that players are expected to meet to succeed at a game. These designed goals refer to those things that players should do (in a game). To elaborate on this focus, we will describe those goals that we are explicitly excluding from our analysis. The first excluded type of goals are player motivations for playing a game.

In philosophy of sports, Keating (1964) argued that the “primary purpose of sports is not to win the match, to catch the fish or kill the animal, but to derive pleasure from the attempt to do so and to afford pleasure to one’s fellow participants in the process” (1964, p. 29) and “in comparison with sport, athletics emphasize self-satisfaction and enjoyment; sport is better understood in terms of generosity, exaltation, and joy” (1964, p. 31). Keating is concerned with the purpose for the activity, outside of the activity. He discusses why a person would engage in such activities, not what the activities require the player to do. Both, derivation of pleasure and self-enjoyment are objectives that are neither prescribed, nor evaluable by the activity. We see similar conversations in the context of games: their primary purpose (why do people play games?) for many might be pleasure and enjoyment and more (Yee, 2016). For example, players might be motivated to play an educational game in order to learn. However, due to our focus on the underlying mechanical system, such objectives that are not prescribed by the game, while important, lie outside the scope of the current paper.

Players often play games by explicitly ignoring a game’s ultimate goal (Woods 2009). Player defined goals (also player-created goals) (Björk & Holopainen, 2005) are the goals that players bring to a game that are not necessarily considered by the game’s creators. For example, some players might try to finish Final Fantasy VI (Square, 1994) as quickly as possible (speed-run) (Cook & Duncan, 2016; Scully-Blaker, 2014). Similarly, a player might purposefully self-handicap themselves when playing a boardgame with opponents less experienced in order to help them learn the game and to try to ensure everyone has enjoyable experience (Woods, 2012). Again, these are goals that are not prescribed by the game and thus lie outside of this article’s scope.

Finally, narrative and representational goals are those that are grounded primarily in a game’s story, fictive elements and culture more broadly. For example, in Grand Theft Auto III (DMA, 2001), the player controls “a career criminal on a bloody-minded quest to kill his traitorous ex-partner” (Ryan, Staines, & Formosa, 2017). Or, in one of FreeSpace’s (Volition Inc. 1998) missions the goal is to “scan cargo containing shielding technology” in order to gather information and technology (Aytemiz, Junius, & Altice, 2019). For the purposes of this work, the scope of these kinds of narrative goals (revenge, scan cargo, etc.) is too large and, while they often refer to a game’s mechanical system (e.g. how do you “scan cargo” in the game?), they are not mechanical in themselves. We exclude them from this analysis despite understanding that narrative goals are fundamentally interrelated with ludological goals (Cardona-Rivera, Zagal, & Debus, 2020a; 2020b).

However, we recognize that the distinction between external motivations, player-driven or narrative goals and ludological goals is not always clear-cut. For example, players might have the goal of “making friends” by joining a social guild in a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) where “the game’s goals are truly secondary to the social interactions that occur while pursuing those goals” (Williams, Ducheneaut, Xiong, Yee, & Nickell, 2006). Simultaneously, many MMORPGs require that players form groups to experience and succeed at the end-game content. Is befriending players then a player goal, or a ludological goal? Admittedly, the distinction between player defined and game designer defined goals can be murky sometimes. Similarly, narrative and representational goals are often paired with a game goal such that achieving the game goal results in the narrative goal also being met (see Reed, 2017; Cardona-Rivera, Zagal, & Debus, 2020a). Thus, advancing in the game means advancing in the story. For example, “rescue the prince” (narrative goal) might be achieved by “moving the player-controlled character to a specific in-game location” (upon which a cut-scene shows the prince being rescued). As with player defined goals, we recognize that the distinction between a narrative goal and a game goal is not necessarily self-evident and we unpack this relationship in more detail in (e.g. Cardona-Rivera, Zagal, & Debus, 2020a).

So, how can we know if a goal is ludological in the sense that it corresponds with designed in-game objectives or conditions that players are expected to meet to succeed at a game? While it is difficult to identify what a designer’s intent is for a player’s experience (Ihde, 2008; Wimsatt & Beardsley, 1946) we contend that in the design of games there is a manner through which authorial intent can (to an extent) be recovered: through the game’s affordances, or opportunities for action that players can take. Cardona-Rivera and Young (2013) present a tripartite model of affordances that distinguishes between real affordances, what is actually possible as embedded in the game’s underlying structure and the ability of the interactor; perceived affordances, what players perceive to be possible (which may not correspond to real ones); and feedback, perceptual information used to advertise a real affordance with the aim of eliciting an accurate perceived affordance. In effect, we target goals for which there exist (a) underlying real affordances that can be enacted in their pursuit and (b) feedback within the game or its surrounding context (e.g. the game’s advertising materials) that distinguish the real affordances as a privileged and recognized activity. There must be some signal that affords explicating the goal’s relationship to its containing game as evident in the game’s symbols, via the structural acknowledgement that the goal has been achieved.

As stated, our current examination is limited to the mechanical system of games. Furthermore, game mechanics are inherently abstract and have to be represented or materialized before they can be used or interacted with (cf. Debus, 2019; Möring, 2013). So, while goals can and must be enforced by the material game artifacts, or represented to be interpretable by players, they have to be considered a purely formal element of games. Such inherent formality enables us to implement mechanics across media and materials. This condensed argument shows that, in principle, our typology is applicable to all games across materials and representations. We believe that the focus on ludological goals constitutes an inclusive approach to games, broadening the typology’s applicability to all games, from digital games to analog, as well as from competitive shooters, over card games, to role playing, children, drinking games and more.

Imperative Goals

Zagal et al., in their Game Ontology Project (2005), define goals as “in-game objectives or conditions that the player must meet in order to succeed at the game”. Similarly, Björk and Holopainen explain that “goals define the game states that the players should try to achieve by manipulating the game through their actions and those of the other players” (2005, p. 18), and Järvinen (2008, p. 130) states that: “Goal here [in the context of games] refers to an aim or an objective (cf. Oatley & Jenkins 1996, 378)”. 

Game goals can be ordered hierarchically (Järvinen, 2008; McIntosh, 1996), where superordinate goals are more abstract than subordinate goals (McIntosh, 1996). The highest level of abstraction are ultimate goals: win, complete, prolong (Zagal, Debus, & Cardona-Rivera, 2019). However, these goals do not specify what has to be done in order for them to be achieved (e.g. “How do I win at this game?”). Thus, it is necessary to identify the lower order goals to these highest order (ultimate) goals. To win in soccer you should score more goals than your opponent. In a shoot-em-up you destroy enemy ships while avoiding their missiles in order to prolong the play experience. And in an adventure game, you may have to solve a series of puzzles in order to complete the game.

We call these imperative goals: they are a necessary means to achieve an ultimate goal (see also Suits, 1978, p. 36). We borrow this term from Juul: “[t]o say that a specific game has a goal is to say that it is an activity which contains an imperative…” (Juul, 2007, p. 193). The imperative goals dictate to the player what they are supposed to do in order to succeed in the ultimate goal.

Typology of Imperative Goals

We used qualitative methods to explore the diversity of imperative goals that exist in games. As recommended for this kind of research (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) we employed theoretical sampling to select and examine games for analysis. Our goal was to cover a broad variety of games across genres and materiality including digital and non-digital games. We were particularly interested in including games that are not traditionally considered in these kinds of analyses such as sports, drinking games, folk games and art games. For practical reasons, our initial list consisted of 34 games (see ludography) that co-author [Debus] (Caucasian, European, male) was familiar with. Thus, the analysis was based both on prior play experience and re-playing of some titles. Different modes in games were listed separately (for example the four game modes that Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment, 2016) offered at the time of analysis (April 2018) were considered as distinct). This resulted in 46 game modes being considered for our initial round of analysis.

This initial round consisted of researching information on each game, playing them, and watching gameplay videos. For each game notes were taken describing, in informal and colloquial language, what its goals were. One of the guiding questions in this phase was “What does the player need to do to win/finish/prolong their play?”. The results from this stage consisted of a list of 126 goals such as “eat the dots” (Pacman (Namco, 1980)) and “deliver the ball into the net to score points” (soccer). This step was not aimed at generating an exhaustive list of goals, rather its aim was to create an initial “pool” of goals that could drive our iterative refinement.

Further rounds of analysis broadly consisted of the following steps (often, but not necessarily in this order): adding (and analyzing) additional games, “formalizing” existing goals by removing material and/or representational aspects (e.g. “eat dots” changes to “remove object”), decomposing goals (e.g. “deliver ball in net to score points” can be broken down into “move object to location” and “increase points”), combining and condensing goals, and testing the list of goals against games that had not been analyzed.

The primary goals of the further rounds of analysis were twofold: achieve theoretical saturation and minimize the final list of goals. Theoretical saturation in this case means reaching a point where the goals of any game we could imagine were covered by our current list of goals. In other words, no new imperative goals were generated from analyzing a game. To facilitate this process of theoretical saturation and in order to guard against our implicit bias, we shared the typology with other scholars (for comments and feedback) and engaged in an adversarial relationship with each other: trying to come up with game titles that were not “explainable” given our list of goals. In order to minimize the final list of goals, we broke down, combined, and condensed our goals as described earlier.

Ultimately, this allowed us to narrow our list of goals to ten imperatives, in alphabetical order: Choose, Configure, Create, Find, Obtain, Optimize, Reach, Remove, Solve and Synchronize.

Choose refers to the act of making a decision in a given task from limited options provided. Often, but not necessarily, one of the options is the “correct” one. In the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, players must choose an option from four possibilities as the correct answer to a series of increasingly challenging questions. Other games offer binary choices. In Reigns (Nerial, 2016) players are presented with suggestions from advisors and must choose to swipe left or right. For some game genres, such as dating-sims, choosing is the primary form of player engagement (Taylor, 2007). If the range of possible answers is not explicitly limited, the imperative is not choose, but solve (see below).

Configure refers to the need to manipulate game objects such that they are in a state (or configuration) determined as appropriate or acceptable. Consider a Rubik’s Cube where players must configure the cube such that each of its faces has only one color. Configure is often seen in the context of virtual objects that must be manipulated in puzzle games and adventure games where, say, switches must be left in certain positions (open/closed, rotated one way or another). In The Room (Fireproof Games, 2012) players make progress by manipulating a series of puzzle boxes: by configuring different moveable/interactive parts of each box hidden compartments are opened, clues are revealed and so on. In another example, Mahlmann et al. (2010) describe how a typical puzzle in Tomb Raider Underworld (Crystal Dynamics, 2008) “could be a door which requires specific switches to be pressed in order to open”. This imperative aims at a specific configuration to be reached for its fulfillment.

Create refers to bringing something into existence which was not present before. Generally, this refers to objects in a gameworld such as when buying (creating from an economic transaction), crafting (combining existing objects to create a new one), building, or summoning a minion. In the board game Galaxy Trucker (Chvátil, 2007), players each create a spaceship from a common pool of tiles while players can achieve victory in Age of Empires II (Ensemble Studios, 1999) by building (creating) a “world wonder”. Arguably, tabletop and live-action roleplaying games feature creation heavily in their gameplay. In these cases, players collaboratively create stories and narratives via verbal utterances (Mackay, 2017, pp. 4-5).

Find is an imperative that relates to the goal of identifying or locating something in a game. The traditional children’s game of hide-and-seek where the “seeker” must attempt to find the other players who are hiding. The folkgame I Spy is another example, here one player provides a clue that the other players must use to find (in their surroundings) what object the clue-giver is referring to: e.g. “I spy with my little eye something beginning with the letter “S”. Single player games with this imperative often “feature visually rich scenes stocked with a number of particular objects (such as hats, magnifying glasses and pinecones) that the player must find” (Consalvo, 2009, p. 51). Finding, as an imperative is about identifying, not Choosing (the correct “X”) or Solving any kind of riddle, mystery or situation.

Obtain refers to the need to gain control or ownership over something such as items (e.g. key or weapons). It can also mean spatial locations or even characters in a game. For example, some strategy games (e.g. Endless Space 2 (Amplitude Studios, 2017)) require the player to control parts of the gameworld to achieve victory (e.g. control the most territory or your opponent’s capital city) and a common goal in role playing games is to obtain an object from an in-game character. In the traditional outdoor game Capture the Flag teams must obtain an opposing team’s flag (and then bring it back to their own area). In the boardgame Go, the winner is the player who has obtained the larger total of spaces on the board under their control plus captured enemy pieces.

Optimize refers to the maximization or minimization of a resource, score, or amount. There is a notion of a resource or amount that it is necessary for the player to manage such that its final value is acceptable. This is a common goal in games that require players achieve certain numerical values in terms of a score, or similarly in racing games where players must arrive in a certain position (e.g. must place at least 3rd) in a race. Minimizing the time used to complete a track is another common incarnation of this goal.

Reach generally refers to the idea that the player must (usually through the direct control of a character) act such that the character reaches a certain spatial location in the gameworld. Many platformer games, such as Super Mario Bros. or Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010), require the player reach a specific location in the gameworld (e.g. the right-most area of the screen) in order to proceed. However, reach can also include the direct or indirect control of an object that should be located in a spatial location (e.g. kick a ball such that it lands in a goal zone or, in snooker, strike the cue ball such that it, in turn, hits a colored ball and sends it into the table pocket). The goal is fulfilled once a specific character or object arrives at the location.

Remove refers to removing an object from the gameworld. This includes the colloquial uses of the terms “killing”, “eating”, “destroying” and “eliminating” seen in many games, such as Pacman, Counter Strike: Global Offensive (Valve Corporation, 2012) or Baseball. For example, a game might require that the player Remove all the enemy soldiers from an area in order to proceed. Or, they may have to Remove (by causing to explode) all of the mines in a battlefield. Many multiplayer games are also won by causing an opponent to be removed from the game -- with the winner thus being the last player still playing.

Solve refers to the goal of providing an answer. It is often implied that the answer must be “correct”, such as in the case of riddles. In the boardgame Cluedo (Pratt, 1949), players compete to determine who the murderer is, what weapon was used and where the crime occurred. In some puzzle games, e.g. those in the Professor Layton series (Level-5, 2007), players often must provide an answer (e.g. “15” or “house”) to a question or prompt. The ending of classic RPG Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Origin Systems, 1985) is also like this, requiring that players type in words as answers to a series of questions in order to complete the game (Addams, 1990, p. 212). We differentiate Solve and Choose as imperatives in that the former is open-ended, while in the latter players select from limited options presented to them.

Synchronize describes the imperative to perform an action such that it is synchronous with an in-game event. This can be either a moment in time or within certain limits. This imperative is often seen in rhythm-action games like Dance Dance Revolution (Konami, 1998). Here players must “step on the corresponding arrow on the dance pad when a scrolling arrow overlaps the stationary arrow. The more precise the timing, the better the rating for that step” (Höysniemi, 2006). Similarly, the imperative describes quick time events, as for example in Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 (CyberConnect2, 2013).

Notes on Imperatives

The list of ten imperatives describes those in-game objectives players are afforded by the game, to succeed in the game. However, it must be noted that games often instruct the prevention of an imperative. This is found in many multiplayer games, where one team attempts to achieve a goal, whereas the opponents are tasked with the prevention of that goal. In Counter Strike, for example, one team tries the removal of another player (the VIP, in assassination mode), while the other team is required to prevent this removal and reach a location on the map to achieve victory.

Furthermore, we note that imperatives that might appear as opposites, for example Create and Remove, do not constitute each other’s negation: To remove an object from the game is not the negation of its creation.

Comparisons to Other Models

Due to the common object of interest (games), and the ludological perspective, our list of imperative goals in games overlaps with other models, frameworks, and game design vocabularies (e.g. Björk and Holopainen, 2005; Järvinen, 2008, Anthropy and Clarke, 2014; Fullerton, 2014). In the following we will point out briefly the strengths and benefits our typology has and where it is supplementary to other models.

Our interest is in providing the most basic and fundamental categorization of imperative goals in games. This means that we are able to describe any kind of imperative goal in a game either by using a single imperative, or by using them in combination with each other: e.g. a game might require that players remove enemies and simultaneously optimize their score in order succeed (e.g. kill all enemies and get a score over 1,000 to clear the level). We believe there is expressive power in this, for example we could explore new combinations of imperative goals in games. However, we also recognize that oftentimes when combinining imperative goals can be valuable in communicating game design knowledge. For example, Anthropy and Clarke provide a rich and clear description of Bubble Bobble’s (1986) goal as “[…] to capture every scene’s dangerous monster with bubbles and then to pop bubbles, destroying the monsters” (2014, p. 92). At a more abstract level, Björk and Holopainen’s game design patterns include the “stealth” pattern defined as “the goal to move through a certain area and perform an action without being detected” (2005, p. 283). In our typology, “Move through a certain area” translates to Reach location; “perform an action” translates to, for example, Obtain object (of course depending on what the “action” actually is); and “without being detected” translates to Prevent Removal.

With the ten imperatives, we excluded semantically loaded, colloquial terms to the highest possible degree. By this we mean that we avoided describing goals using terms such as “survive” (e.g. Järvinen, 2008), which is the prevention of removal within a particular context, “avoid” (e.g. Dajouti et al., 2008), which is either the prevention of something or a movement with the intention of prevention of collision, or “eliminate” (e.g. Björk and Holopainen, 2005), which is a negatively connoted version of “Removal”. These terms are powerful in that, due to being semantically loaded, they can convey a lot of information. However, this requires being aware of the context in which the term is being used. For example, “survive” is more easily understood in the context of a battle royale style game (Choi and Kim, 2018) than in the context of the boardgame Monopoly. In both games, the “last player standing” is the winner -- but “survive” has a different connotation that implicitly excludes Monopoly.

As described earlier, we have excluded narrative and representational goals. So, our ten imperative goals describe goals in games only on a mechanical level. This allows us to minimize the ambiguity that arises when a narrative goal is conflated with a ludological one. In other words, there can be ambiguity when conflating what the player is afforded to do, with what they are told or shown (or how they interpret what they are told or shown). For example, Björk and Holopainen (2005, p. 286) exemplify their “Rescue” goal with the game Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981): “an-overarching goal for Mario [is] to Rescue the girl that has been kidnapped by the gorilla” (Björk and Holopainen, 2005, p. 285; their emphasis). This description, however, is ambiguous as to how the player can achieve this goal. Employing our model, we can see that it is the game’s narrative that tells the player to “rescue the princess” but that the game afforded goal is to Reach a particular location. Another possible conflation can occur between different elements within the mechanical system of the game. Dajouti et al’s “gameplay bricks” (2008) are derived from the empirical analysis of rules of 588 games, aiming at the description and compartmentalization of gameplay. According to them, players must “MOVE” a car in Need for Speed [1] and “AVOID” opponents. It appears, however, that moving the car is executing a mechanic to achieve the goal of finishing the race (reaching location), and that avoid is executing the moving mechanic with the intention of not colliding with other players (prevent synchronization), with the overarching goal of Optimize time. In both cases, Djaouti et al.’s descriptive gameplay bricks subsume a mechanic and its intended outcome within one brick.

Lastly, the ten imperatives are based on, and capable to describe all kinds of games, as opposed to other models that had video games as their particular focus (e.g. Djaouti, 2008). We believe this inclusive approach helps us better understand the fundamental qualities and aspects that games have independent of their material qualities thus helping us better understand the relationships between games.

In summary, our list enables the more formal and de-composed explanation of goals in games that hopefully reduces ambiguity while maintaining analytical power.

The Paradox of Gameplay Goals

We will now provide an example illustrating how our typology can be useful for examining goal-related issues. Specifically, we will tackle the problem of articulating the relationship between a games’ gameplay (moment-to-moment) goals and its ultimate goal.

It is through a game’s imperatives that we can connect gameplay to a game’s ultimate goal. However, there is rarely a single imperative that accounts for the entirety of a game’s gameplay. Rather, we generally see a multitude of imperatives that are inter-related and connected, often in a hierarchical structure to each other until, at the least abstract level, we consider what the game expects the player to do at a specific moment in time. In Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) we note its ultimate goal is to prolong and that its two main imperative goals are Remove (aliens) and Optimize (lives: always have at least one). How can the player accomplish these imperatives? For Optimize (lives) the player must prevent Removal of their laser cannon. Then, how must the player prevent Removal of their laser cannon? The player must prevent their laser cannon from Reaching a location currently occupied by an enemy or enemy bullet. Again, how can the player accomplish this goal? This iterative questioning goes on, coming up with more goals -- each applying to situations that are increasingly specific. This specificity must necessarily reach a moment in which we no longer discuss the game as it is played in general terms, but rather as it is played by a player in a specific instance of gameplay for a specific game state. So, when an alien’s bullet is about to reach the location currently occupied by the player’s cannon and they have only one life left: the player’s goal is to move their cannon such that it reaches one of two locations, immediately to the left or right of the descending enemy bullet.

We began with two imperative goals that were abstract: they apply to any instance of someone playing Space Invaders. Then, we articulated and successively asked “How is that goal achieved?” until we (hypothetically) ended with a concrete goal that applies to a specific player’s game state at a specific moment during the play of that game. However, how can we actually connect this hierarchy of abstract imperatives (and their sub-goals) with the concrete moment-to-moment goals of gameplay?

We have considered three layers of goals. On the highest level are ultimate goals (Zagal, Debus, Cardona-Rivera, 2019), directly beneath these are the imperative goals. These two layers are clear and conceptually separate. However, the third layer, so far loosely described as gameplay, is vague and subsumes multiple layers. While, as described, there are usually several imperative goals that are necessary to achieve an ultimate goal, the relation between imperative goals and third level goals is less obvious. A race in Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo, 1996) has the ultimate goal of winning. To achieve this, the player must succeed in the imperative goals of Reaching location (goal line) and Optimize time (to be the first player). To win, the player has to fulfill both imperative goals. Descending into the hierarchy of goals of the third layer, the player may have to prevent to Reach an object (do not get hit by items), prevent Reach area (stay on the track) and prevent Optimize time (slow down other players). However, neither of these goals are in fact necessary for the player to achieve the imperative goals. We can imagine a hypothetical play-through in which players reach the goal line without caring about staying on track, the optimization of their own time (to win) or without slowing other players down. On the other hand, we can also imagine a (more common) playthrough of this game in which it is impossible for a player to win if they do not accomplish these goals. So, the same goals are both required or not, depending on the particular instance of a game we might imagine. Thus, this 3rd level in the hierarchy of goals that connects imperative goals with moment-to-moment gameplay is paradoxical. We can think of them as some sort of Schrödinger's Game Goals: when discussing a game in the abstract, these goals are simultaneously required (or proximate, see Smith (2006)) and not. The equivalent act of peeking inside the box to see if the cat is alive or dead is, for games, the act of playing the game. It is at that moment that we can tell if those goals become required or not, depending on the specific game state. As this paradox applies to all further sub-levels of the hierarchy, we will subsume all additional levels under the term contingent goals, due to their contingency on particular game instances. These contingent goals reach down until the most concrete short-term goals in a given game are described.

This paradox relates to a common point of discussion in game studies: whether we should see games as objects or as processes (Aarseth, 2014, p. 484). We can argue that games are objects for which we can examine their constitutive parts (e.g. game space, tokens, procedures, etc.). On the other hand, a game is only a game if it is played by players, rendering it a process, which can only be observed over a span of time (cf. Debus, 2019). In our case, the object-perspective would claim a theoretical possibility of describing all possible game states that a given game system can produce and list all the goals that emerge from these states as goals of the game. This approach is computationally infeasible (especially for most modern videogames) and it is unclear how informative it would be. On the other side of our paradox is the perspective of games as processes, in which each individual playthrough of a given game produces an idiosyncratic set of goals, which are not necessarily generalizable onto the game holistically. Which is, again, uninformative.

We believe our approach can help provide insights even as we admit that although imperative goals are still capable of describing the 3rd level goals, it is hard to distinguish between these (imperatives) and what would commonly be understood as gameplay. The question here is, whether we should really describe the necessity of Mario reaching a particular platform as a constitutive goal of Super Mario Bros., or if it would be more productive to remove these micro-goals out of the picture of goals in games. At that point it becomes necessary to identify an appropriate level of granularity of goals for each game: is it better to describe Super Meat Boy as a game whose ultimate goal is Finish, but whose imperative goals are a sequence of Reach goals (Reach the “end” of an area in order to proceed to the next) with a final area being the one that allows the player to Finish the game? Or, should we focus on the goals within a level (a combination of Reach and prevent Removal)? Or something even narrower?

Discussion and Conclusions

We have developed a typology of imperative goals in games by analyzing multiple games. We argue that game goals work on three different levels: ultimate goals, imperative goals and contingent goals. The three different levels of goals in games enable us to discuss and theorize how higher order goals relate to lower order gameplay. The ultimate goals refer to how a game concludes: should you try to win, finish it, or play as long as possible. Additionally, we identified ten imperative goals abstracted from an analysis of a wide variety of games: Choose, Configure, Create, Find, Obtain, Optimize, Reach, Remove, Solve and Synchronize.

Contingent goals are those that relate to lower order gameplay and come from asking how the player can achieve a game’s imperative goals. To fulfill an imperative goal, players pursue a more specific goal, such as removing all opponents from the game, or reaching a particular location in the gameworld. The contingent goals are a goal hierarchy that emerges from continuing to ask “And how does one achieve this goal?” for each new goal that is revealed or determined. Say, “How do you remove all opponents from the game, or how do I reach that location?” This process continues until one eventually reaches a specific moment in a player’s gameplay session. Interestingly, the lower we descend into the hierarchy, the more options players usually have to fulfill a given goal (e.g. consider all the different ways Mario can be controlled to reach the end of a specific level). While an ultimate goal can usually only be reached by one or two imperative goals, players have a wider variety of options in the lowest level of goals.

Our analysis also highlights some of the fundamental distinctions we implicitly make when talking and thinking about games: distinguishing between what you are supposed to do in a game (ultimate goal) and how you are generally supposed to go about it (imperative goals). Ultimate goals are usually conveyed indirectly through a game’s general framing, narrative, cultural and ludic/genre conventions. For example, players “know” that they should win in a competitive sport, complete a narrative-heavy videogame and play a typical arcade game for as long as possible. Imagine playing DayZ (Bohemia Interactive, 2018) without knowing there is no victory condition, no ending and no point beyond prolonging play. A player unfamiliar with the loose genre to which it belongs would be bored or even frustrated: what are you supposed to do in this game? It seems that ultimate goals are perhaps those most often implied and understood due to factors external to a game.

The ludoliteracy (Zagal, 2010) necessary for understanding what a game’s goal is applies to a lesser extent to imperative goals. They are often implied by genre conventions, but also communicated directly (e.g. “X/10 objectives reached”) or via narrative goals (e.g. “Rescue the prince”). Imperative goals can also be understood as that goal in a given game, which the player constantly aims to fulfill. In soccer, players constantly try to score (optimize score) while in Super Mario Bros. the player will always aim to reach the next location.

Of course, there are also games which give players the possibility to strive for more than one imperative goal. For example, in Counter Strike: Global Offensive (Valve Corporation, 2012), the Terrorists win a round by either eliminating all Counter-Terrorists, or by destroying one of two bombsites. Both imperatives are connected in an either-or manner: To win, do X or Y. We can easily imagine other connections such as “do A or B or C” or “do A and B or C”, etc. Understanding the relationship between co-existing imperatives in a game can serve as a way to articulate and describe a game’s strategic depth and possibilities. However, the exploration of the relation of imperative goals and their consequences for gameplay and other matters will remain for future investigations.

Our identification of specific imperative goals has led to the observation that these formal goals function on two general levels. Some refer to mental or cognitive tasks (e.g. choose, solve), while others refer to physical or motoric tasks (e.g. configure, reach). While this seemingly supports classifications of games in a physical/mental dichotomy (e.g. Avedon & Sutton-Smith, 1971; Hinske, Lampe, Magerkurth, & Röcker, 2007; Jünger, 1953) we believe our imperative goals show that games rely on a multitude and interrelation of goals. Ultimately, the physical/mental dichotomy cannot be upheld as borders are too fluid. No game will solely rely on one kind of task (mental or physical). Instead, both always include some amount of the other. This is also reflected in the imperative goals, as most of them (e.g. optimize, create, remove) cannot be strongly connected to one or the other kind of task.

We also acknowledge that despite our attempts to simplify and remove semantically loaded terms from our list of imperative goals, there remain fuzzy boundaries between some of the goals we describe. Optimize and Synchronize, for example, describe similar things in different spheres. Optimize refers to the minimization or maximization of a value or amount, while Synchronize (as the name indicates) operates in the frame of temporal coordination. Here, one could argue that a synchronization constitutes a temporal optimization instead. Similarly, if we apply both imperative goals to a spatial frame, both can be used to describe the goal of “staying on track” in a racing game: You are synchronizing your avatars position with the “optimal line” on the course (i.e. for optimal performance, your vehicle should be at this location at this time); or you are optimizing a numerical value (position of avatar) to remain in a certain threshold (the distance from an ideal race line). Similar arguments could be applied to other imperative goals (e.g. Is Configure a special kind of Create when building a house?).

Potentially similarly fuzzy is the distinction between Choose and Configure in particular cases. A game in which the player has to select answers in a particular order could be described as putting them into an order (Configure), without necessarily “manipulating” them. This would then be evaluated as the “correct answer”, indicating the imperative Choose instead. This example already points towards different levels of the goals as the answer to the confusion: the player has to Choose one answer out of many, until the last answer is chosen, and the correct order established (Configured). The same applies to a game in which the player has to configure game elements into one out of three correct configurations. To proceed in the game, the player must choose one of the configurations, and to choose it, he must configure the game elements accordingly.

We do not see these inherent connections as a weakness. In fact, we believe they provide analytical and descriptive power. For example, Synchronize is a fundamental imperative for the entire genre of rhythm-action games and by highlighting its distinctiveness as a goal, we can better understand the genre. As the genre has evolved we begin to see “new” imperatives added, providing players with more sophisticated gameplay experiences (e.g. the importance of understanding when to use “Star Power” in Guitar Hero (Harmonix, 2005) in order to Optimize your score while Synchronizing button presses to on-screen notes). Conversely, we can articulate how, through sophisticated design, goals are not what they may seem on the surface. A prime example are the levels colloquially called “music levels” in the platformer Rayman: Origins (Ubisoft, 2011). In these levels, the ideal moments for players to jump and attack have been carefully aligned with the background music such that players must implicitly Synchronize their actions to the music in order to succeed.

To clarify, similarly to the “Game Ontology Project” (Zagal et al. 2005), we eschew the notion that categories can be defined strictly and timelessly. This means that, borrowing from prototype theory (Lakoff, 1987), many of our definitions and distinctions have “fuzzy boundaries regarding what games exemplify them (or have aspects that exemplify them…)” (Zagal et al. 2005). This is a natural part of creating knowledge and understanding and is especially true in our domain of inquiry, wherein new games are created that challenge our notions of what games are and can be. As these new games are released, and our understanding is tested, we should expect definitions and ideas to change and adapt. In this sense, our typology represents a view of the different kinds of imperative goals we see in games currently, and we should expect new games to challenge these types leading to their refinement and further development.

For future endeavors, our formalization allows the characterization of goal structures and their effect on players in a systematic way. The work presented thus far can fruitfully be applied in two ways. The first is in the design of artificial intelligence agents (e.g. Vattam, Klenk, Molineaux, & Aha, 2013) within digital games, in order to provide meaningful variety to the behavior that players perceive they are carrying out. Different imperative goals might be perceived by players as meaningful variations of game content, but that is itself a hypothesis that needs to be explored. The second is in the design of games; under the premise that goals shape player behavior (Smith, 2006), our typology affords studying how different kinds of goals might give rise to different kinds of player behavior. Explicating how remains an interesting avenue for future work but could be a key factor in modeling players (Yannakakis, Spronck, Loiacono, & André, 2013).

To conclude, note that there is much left to explore and clarify. For example, the relationship between narrative goals and those we have outlined deserves deeper exploration beyond what we have done in (Cardona-Rivera, Zagal, & Debus, 2020a, 2020b). Our current notion, that narrative goals are always paired with a game goal, might not hold under further scrutiny and the relationship between these goals needs to be examined more deeply. We also think that this work could benefit from further examination of how players understand and make sense of game goals. That being said, one of the strengths of our approach is its inclusiveness towards all kinds of games (i.e. not only videogames) and its forward-looking flexibility. We look forward to future revisions and changes.



We would like to thank the anonymous Game Studies reviewers for their insightful feedback, as well as everyone who has contributed to the refinement of this typology, especially Espen Aarseth, Staffan Björk, Pawel Grabarczyk, and Miguel Sicart.

This research has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement No [695528] -- MSG: Making Sense of Games).



[1] As the original authors did not indicate a particular title of the series, we also omit a reference at this point.



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List of initially examined games

American Football

Amplitude Studios. (2017). Endless Space 2 [Microsoft Windows]. Digital game published by Sega.

Beer Pong

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Corn Hole


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Flippfly. (2013). Race the Sun [Microsoft Windows]. Digital game published by Flippfly.


King (2012). Candy Crush Saga [mobile]. Digital game published by King.


Namco. (1980). Pacman [arcade]. Digital game published by Toru Iwatani, and Shigeichi Ishimura, published by Namco & Midway Games.

Nintendo. (1985). Super Mario Bros. [NES]. Digital game directed by Shigeru Miyamoto, published by Nintendo.

Numantian Games. (2017). They Are Billions [Microsoft Windows]. Digital game published by Numantian Games.

PUBG Corporation. (2016). Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds [Microsoft Windows]. Digital game directed by Brendan Greene, and Jang Tae-seok, published by PUBG Corporation.

Rohrer. (2007). Passage [Microsoft Windows]. Digital game directed by Jason Rohrer, self-published.



Starbreeze Studios. (2013). Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons [Microsoft Windows]. Digital game directed by Josef Fares, published by 505 Games.

Steel Crate Games. (2015). Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes [various]. Digital game directed by Allen Pestaluky, Ben Kane, and Brian Fetter, published by Steel Crate Games.


Taito. (1978). Space Invaders [Arcade]. Digital game directed by Tomohiro Nishikado, published by Midway.




Valve. (2000). Counter Strike 1.6 [Microsoft Windows]. Directed by Minh Lee, and Jess Cliffe, published by Valve.

Virgil Games. (2012). Darksiders 2 [Microsoft Windows]. Digital game directed by Marvin Donald, published by THQ.


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