Michał Kłosiński

Dr hab. Michał Kłosiński is an associate professor at The Faculty of Humanities, University of Silesia, Katowice, Poland. He is an active member of Utopian Studies Society and The Society for Utopian Studies. During his doctoral studies, he participated in the Paris Program in Critical Theory. He published various articles on Polish literature, literary theory and video games. His most recent book Hermeneutyka gier wideo. Interpretacja immersja, utopia [Hermeneutics of video games. Interpretation, immersion, utopia] (Warsaw 2018) develops a framework for researching utopianism in video games. His current hermeneutical and post-phenomenological research can be placed at the intersection of literary theory, game studies and utopian studies.

Contact information:
michal.klosinski at us.edu.pl

How to Interpret Digital Games? A Hermeneutic Guide in Ten Points, With References and Bibliography

by Michał Kłosiński


This article presents a short guide that illustrates a hermeneutic procedure for game analysis. The guide has been divided into three parts. The first part delineates the hermeneutic methodology, which serves as a cornerstone for this reflection. It also displays a table of approaches linked to reconstructing meanings in games. The second part provides basic caveats and tries to answer frequently asked questions concerning the possible uses of this guide. The third part lays out ten points of the proposed procedure, which has been designed to inspire interpretative questions and to formulate research hypotheses. The procedure has been grounded in contemporary game studies research perspectives that relate to hermeneutic philosophy. In its essence, this guide offers a non-totalizing list of exploratory insights, designed to simplify the process of preparing a hermeneutic interpretation of a digital game. This guide has been developed for both scholars and students.

Keywords: Interpretation, instruction, guide, hermeneutics, game research



Teaching game analysis is a demanding task. Oftentimes the question “how to do it?” is followed by “why?” and “what purpose or function does it serve?” These questions inspired me to produce a very short guideline for digital game interpretation that I thought would be an interesting experiment in rethinking game analysis.

This guide has been developed to rethink hermeneutic procedures related to the process of digital game interpretation. The general idea behind the steps offered by this instruction was given to me by my students, who have repeatedly asked if there is an interpretative framework they could apply in their game analyses. I believe no such framework exists, and for a good reason. The interdisciplinary and complex character of social and humanistic disciplines thrives because there is no governing power structure at work when interpreting different phenomena.

Therefore, each step of this guide relates to a subset of questions meant to inspire and improve the process of formulating hypotheses, and identifying material to problematize. In no way is this a total method for digital game analysis and interpretation akin to the approach proposed by Lars Konzack, who delineated seven layers of analysis: hardware, program code, functionality, gameplay, meaning, referentiality and socio-culture (Konzack, 2002). My aim is humble, non-totalizing, i.e., to present a list of questions, not a structure to be followed through and through. As such, the guide aims at inspiring interpretative inquiries from a limited investigative angle. However, this angle is a step towards rethinking hermeneutics as a paradigm in game studies (Ouellette & Conway, 2020, p. 146).

This article presents a relatively short, ten-point instruction addressed to both students and scholars who are interested in what general steps they can use to produce an interpretation of any game. Each step provides a short explanation of its goal, an example of the procedure, and a list of useful questions. In general, the guide is based on the process delineated by Paul Ricoeur in his works on philosophical hermeneutics as a method for human sciences (Ricoeur, 2016), and supplemented with the reflection of Chryzostomos Mantzavinos on naturalistic hermeneutics (Mantzavinos, 2005). Hermeneutics is therefore used here both as a paradigmatic theory for thinking about interpretation and as a method which can be applied to search for meanings and their explanations. As a theory, it explains why we interpret; as a method, it governs how we do it.

The article’s main body has a threefold structure. The first part is dedicated to positioning the guide within a broader framework of contemporary game studies. The second explains who, when and how can use this guide. The last part presents ten stages of the game-related interpretative process with questions and examples.


In its essence, this guide operates within a general hermeneutic framework of interpretation established by Ricoeur, and can be located within research on game hermeneutics that follow his philosophical hypotheses. In short, Ricoeur’s philosophical hermeneutics span across a multitude of different studies, in which he develops an original reflection about the importance of different structures (symbol, metaphor, narrative) for human existence. His research exhibits a truly interdisciplinary approach to hermeneutics, both as method for explaining cultural texts, and as an existential ontology.

Although Ricoeur’s works elucidate a myriad of problems -- symbolism (Ricoeur, 1972), metaphor (Ricoeur, 2006b), narratology (Ricoeur, 1990a; 1990b), discourse and agency (Ricoeur, 1991), ideology (Ricoeur, 1986), identity (Ricoeur, 1994) and historiosophy (Ricoeur, 2006a) -- the thread that binds them together is how he understands interpretation as an existential project (Ricoeur, 2004). However broad Ricoeur’s studies were, his insight into games (and, more generally, play) was marginal and mostly related to the works of another key hermeneutic philosopher of 20th century, Hans-Georg Gadamer (Gadamer, 2006). Nevertheless, Ricoeur’s works have been commented on and used in game studies by scholars working on a range of specific, if interrelated, problems: metaphor in relation to play and representation as a critical element of the human being in the world (Möring, 2013, pp. 121, 139-140); agency and action understood as text (Arjoranta, 2015, p. 41); the structures of identity games produce (Mul, 2015, pp. 177-178); different subjectivity perspectives of ludic engagement (Vella, 2015, pp. 70-72); the analysis of the gaming process as an interpretation (Harviainen, 2009, p. 75). Therefore, Ricoeur’s hermeneutic philosophy is hardly a terra incognita for contemporary game studies and has been successfully integrated into the core conceptualizations of interpreting games as existential vehicles of identity.

Following the positive reception of Ricoeur’s works in game studies, this guide presents a general process of interpretation, tailored to be used with digital games, as they pose a set of media-specific challenges -- because they are configurable, interactive and rule-based. These challenges are related to the way games engage human beings existentially, which has required the introduction of concepts describing differences between engagement in play and post play. Thus, the procedure delineated in this article aligns itself with previous findings in that it tries to identify and describe the crucial steps in preparing oneself for the interpretative process that occurs in play and post play.

Moreover, the following instruction can be used in education as a set of exploratory questions that can inspire game analysis and interpretation. It can serve as a framework by any game scholar interested in game interpretation in general and in hermeneutic or ludo-hermeneutic processes in particular. It may be used when one wants to produce an interpretation of a specific game and needs a short checklist of questions that can guide the hypothetico-deductive process. The procedure can also serve as a tool to map game problematics, gather data and game information, as well as when preparing for the final research stage, i.e., the writing of the article or a presentation. The general idea of this guide is to provide students, critics and scholars alike with a set of interpretative questions, and a short explanation of interpretative procedures.

This guide also takes into account the studies in game hermeneutics that focus on framing the method and differentiating between two traditions: classical (focused on games as textual objects) and philosophical (researching the phenomenology of the process) (Karhulahti, 2015, p. 3). Relating to the reflection of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Veli-Matti Karhulahti operationalizes a set of concepts which represent the generally agreed-upon idea of a double hermeneutic (identified as double hermeneutic circles). This approach posits that interpretation is formulated differently by the player, who configures meanings in play (ludic and extra-ludic interpretation), and by the critic who performs meta-ludic interpretation. (Karhulahti, 2015, p. 8).

If one is searching for insights into ludocriticism, Karhulahti’s work gives crucial pointers to the process itself while establishing a ludocritical framework in contrast to other forms of criticism. Karhulahti stresses the key hermeneutical aspects of ludocriticism: spatiotemporal contextualization, i.e., “the acknowledgment of the cultural conditions in which the videogame emerges or has emerged” (Karhulahti, 2015, p. 14), the configurability of the game as the object of interpretation (Karhulahti, 2012, p. 20), and the fact that users evaluate games as products to be “depleted” (Karhulahti, 2015, p. 11). His framework is further developed in works accentuating the importance of interactivity and temporality in meaning-making processes (Mhamdi, 2017, p. 43).

Karhulahti also clarifies that ludo-hermeneutics posits other paths in game studies research that relate to its classical or philosophical strands. Within this division, textual analysis (Carr, 2019, pp. 7-8; Fernández-Vara, 2015), procedural rhetoric (Bogost, 2008, 2010; Treanor & Mateas, 2013), and discourse analysis (Gee, 2014; Voorhees, 2012) represent the classical hermeneutic interpretation of game aesthetics, while identity studies (Leino, 2010; Vella, 2015) represent the philosophical approach to the problems of existence (Gualeni & Vella, 2020), emotions and affects in play (Leino, 2010). Ludocriticism can be seen as a middle ground between these approaches, as Karhulahti accentuates its meta-ludic approach.

This guide follows a similar approach, although there are differences in defining notions such as understanding, interpretation and criticism, which I adapt from the works of Chryzostomos Mantzavinos (Mantzavinos, 2005, 2013).

With this guide, I want to rethink the process of interpretation proper to the hermeneutical approach in game criticism (Aarseth & Möring, 2020). Mantzavinos’s focus on empirical research allows me to supplement the past findings with a new perspective on some of the basic hermeneutical assumptions, which I deem crucial for reframing the interpretative process as a hypothetico-deductive one.

To begin with, Mantzavinos differentiates between interpretation, application and critique (Mantzavinos, 2005, p. 131). Following his insight into these three modes of dealing with texts, it is possible to directly apply them in game studies to differentiate between game application, critique and interpretation. The uses of games can be best seen in the process of gamification, where their structures and mechanics are applied in corporate HR practices or education. We also apply games when we use them therapeutically (McGonigal, 2016). Critique is ascertaining the significance of the game for the user, culture, researcher, etc. It is oftentimes deployed when evaluating production practices (Schreier, 2017) and games as vehicles of ideology (Dyer-Witheford & Peuter, 2009). Lastly, interpretation is the correct identification of meaning by accurate “reconstruction of the nexus of meaning” (Mantzavinos, 2005, p. 132). We interpret games when we ascertain their meanings by putting them in different contexts. Following this insight, Karhulahti’s ludocriticism combines critique with interpretation, as these two usually go together.

According to Mantzavinos, the foundation for all hermeneutic activity is the identification of causal nexuses and nexuses of meanings. The notion of nexus, translated from German Zusammenhang, has multiple meanings, the most common of which are: interconnections, structures of sense, context, configuration. The concept has a long hermeneutic tradition mainly represented by the works of Wilhelm Dilthey (Braver, 2019, p. 235). The nexus, Mantzavinos explains, is not limited to textual structure, but also arises in relation to human agency: “when the actor engaging in [any] behavior interprets it against the background of his goals, his beliefs, and his other mental states while interacting with his natural and social environment” (Mantzavinos, 2005, pp. 87-88). Identifying, describing and interpreting agency is what this hermeneutical approach shares with Ricoeur’s discussion of meaningful agency, which can be explained by interpreting its interconnections (Ricoeur, 1991, p. 151). The task of reconstructing causal nexuses consists of explaining the causal processes that occur within and without the game (Mantzavinos, 2005, p. 75). These causal nexuses can also be transformed into nexuses of meanings as when we rationally explain motives, intentions and reasons for the analyzed processes (Mantzavinos, 2005, p. 88). The reconstruction of the nexuses of meanings consists in explaining the meanings of game elements by using a chosen theory, which allows us to contextualize them.

Relating to cognitive empirical studies of the human brain and the human capacity to think, Mantzavinos differentiates between the process of unconscious procedural understanding of texts as a complex skill, and interpretation, which is a conscious process resulting in the formulation of hypotheses (Mantzavinos, 2005, p. 46). The unconscious (automatic), cognitive and emotional process is therefore considered one of the most important creative natural occurrences in meaning-making (Mantzavinos, 2005, p. 153). However, the hypothetico-deductive method of interpretation is superior to it, in that it is activated when it is not possible for a person to understand something automatically: the hypotheses are generated consciously and enable a scientific understanding of both causal nexuses and the nexuses of meanings. Therefore, Mantzavinos explains that unconscious processes of understanding always underlie the conscious generation of interpretative hypotheses. This division supplements the reflection on different spirals of understanding already distinguished in digital game studies by Dominic Arsenault and Bernard Perron, who describe the process of game interpretation with a visual analogy consisting of three spirals: Heuristic Spiral of Gameplay, Heuristic Spiral of Narrative and Hermeneutic Spiral (Arsenault & Perron, 2009, 125). Juxtaposing their analysis of gameplay with Mantzavinos’s explanation, we can extrapolate that the unconscious process of understanding underlies the heuristic spirals, while the conscious generation of hypotheses governs the hermeneutic spiral (Arsenault & Perron, 2009, p. 126). From this perspective, playing is interpreting only as a part of a conscious hypothetico-deductive process.

Although Mantzavinos would not agree with coupling his theory with Heidegger’s findings, it is possible to draw a parallel between the process of unconscious acquiring meanings and the “hermeneutics of facticity” (Grondin, 2019, p. 257). Heidegger’s aim -- as Jean Grondin construes it -- is to combat the self-alienation of human understanding (when one becomes a tool for others) without the interpretation of one’s own existence (when existence becomes the object of one’s own reflection).

What Heidegger’s insight means for game interpretation is that playing a game is mainly a problem of perception and of unconscious understanding, and that hermeneutical interpretation happens when we either want to problematize something we already understand, when there is a problem with the automatic procedure, or when the game malfunctions. In Heidegger’s terms, supplemented with Mantzavinos’s insights, we can say that only when the game becomes present to the player as a problem that induces hypothetico-deductive thinking can we speak of hermeneutical interpretation. In all other cases, the game withdraws and remains a thing of skill-based automatic procedural understanding and emotions. In short, from the standpoint of Mantzavinos’s naturalistic hermeneutics, there is no double hermeneutic process at work; the hermeneutic interpretative procedure intertwines with automatic understanding (perception). Therefore, real-time hermeneutics equals either procedural understanding, or a conscious formulation of interpretative hypotheses, which the player’s mind formulates during gameplay.

The following guide is informed by the idea that the process of hermeneutic interpretation is dependent on the identification and reconstruction of the causal and meaning nexuses. This procedure of game interpretation is not limited to any particular type of game. However, its purpose is to help with the interpretative process in general, so it relies on the granularity of the game content. For example, one can use it to interpret Tetris (Monstars Resonair Stage Games, 2020) as well as Elden Ring (FromSoftware, 2022), but the results will vary depending on the complexity of the researched material and the nexuses of meanings the interpreter identifies, describes and reconstructs.

In general, this procedure will not generate interpretations itself; its purpose as an instruction is to present helpful steps for three major interpretative tasks. The first is to generate interpretative questions that problematize the game at hand. The second is to identify the preferred theoretical framework within which the interpretation takes place. The third, and last, task is to help formulate interpretative hypotheses, which are crucial for the process of understanding the nexuses of meanings.

Mantzavinos states that different methods of explanation are equally useful in producing reconstructions (Mantzavinos, 2013). Therefore, the toolset of game hermeneutics allows us to find multiple points of entry into the process of reconstructing causal and meaning nexuses. For the purpose of methodological clarity, some of the methods useful for this guide (in reconstructing nexuses) are described in Table 1.


Table 1.

Method of analysis:

Helps to identify, describe and reconstruct nexuses related with:

Inclination to:

Textual analysis

(Fernández-Vara, 2015)

formal, intertextual, game elements and structures, putting the game in context, comparative study, fostering game literacy



Critical play

(Flanagan, 2013)

cultural shifts in game reception, artist’s intentions, play patterns and practices of subversion (unplaying, reskinning, rewriting), revolutionary aspects of games in multitude of contexts, fostering critical game design

Application, Critique, Interpretation

Economic, utopian, postcolonial analysis

(Dyer-Witheford & Peuter, 2009; Farca, 2018; Mukherjee, 2015, 2017)

ideologies, hidden agendas, power structures in game representations, mechanics, aesthetics, deconstruction and critique of games as tools of imperialism, biopolitics, racism, structures of subversion in gameplay and design

Critique, Interpretation, Application

Discourse analysis

(Gee, 2014; Trattner, 2017; Voorhees, 2012)

discursive structures, dispositives of power, social, economic, cultural and political context of game and gaming language, performatives of authors, players, journalists, researchers

Interpretation, Critique

Procedural rhetoric

(Bogost, 2008, 2010)

rhetorical procedures underlying persuasive power of games, critique of ideology, performativity of game rhetoric in representations, mechanics, narratives

Interpretation, Critique

Existential analysis

(Gualeni & Vella, 2020)

practices of en-roling and de-roling, player’s intentionality in relation to the problems of identity, role playing, theatricality and transformative power of gaming practices

Interpretation, Application

Narratological analysis

(Maj, 2019; Ryan, 2015; Ryan & Thon, 2014; Thon, 2016)

narrative structures, constructs, roles and functions, transmedial, transfictional and worldbuilding strategies, cognitive aspects of narrative, storytelling and storyworlds; immersion / emersion poetics

Interpretation, Application

Genre studies

(Garda, 2012; Majkowski, 2019)

genre patterns, structural game elements, types, ontological aspects of games as cultural artifacts subjected to temporal changes

Interpretation, Critique


Although (Table 1) barely grazes the multitude of different methods present in game studies among numerous works on game analysis, representing qualitative and quantitative studies (Lankoski & Björk, 2015), and the wealth of diverse approaches (Bell, Ensslin, & Rustad, 2013), it shows my personal focus on qualitative and text-oriented analysis (Bizzocchi & Tanenbaum, 2011; Consalvo & Dutton, 2006).

In general, the type of game interpretation this guide advances grows from a non-uniform, multidisciplinary movement, which is informed by the insight that there is a certain medium-specific poetics of digital games (Aarseth, 1997; Eskelinen, 2012; Kubiński, 2016; Majkowski, 2019; Möring, 2013; Ryan, 2014), and that this poetics can not only be played, but also read, deconstructed and critically analysed (Carr, 2019; Mukherjee, 2015, 2017). This poetics, or “grammar” as we may call it (Fernández-Vara, 2015, p. 16), can be identified in many semiotic, rhetorical (Bogost, 2010), and narrative modes that games operate with, namely: audial, visual, textual, haptic, procedural, etc. Such notions as immersion (Murray, 2016), or incorporation (Calleja, 2011), storyworld (Maj, 2019; Ryan & Thon, 2014), focalization, narrative mode, persuasion, performativity (Jayemanne, 2017) and many other concepts constitute the core vocabulary for the this type of analysis and interpretation of digital games. Yet, it is not my purpose in proposing this guide to evaluate these diverse methods, but to present them as possible anchor points in performing reconstructions and formulating interpretative hypotheses. A proper evaluation of different game studies methodologies is out of scope for this article.

As an interpretative tool, this guide can also serve as a description of the practices used in the hermeneutic procedure in general. However, this is not a framework for understanding every interpretative process performed by a player, a scholar, or a critic. This guide is therefore limited to a set of hermeneutic procedures and their application in game analysis and interpretation. Furthermore, this approach focuses on formulating interpretative questions, hypotheses and problems, and therefore applies to all forms of sense-making related to digital games (as long as these forms follow a hypothetico-deductive method). This approach does not, however, explain how different research approaches work. The guide has been devised to allow scholars representing different theoretical schools to use it without having to compromise the explanatory apparatuses proper to their scientific approaches. In general, if a scholar, a player or a critic wants to interpret a game, this guide will facilitate the process by providing a set of questions essentially related to working with causal and meaning nexuses. However, it will not tell them how to use the biopolitical theory or discourse analysis if that happens to be their chosen explanation apparatus.

How to interpret digital games?

1. Gameplay

Play the game! As argued by Aarseth with his notion of “real-time hermeneutics” (Aarseth, 2003), and further developed by other game scholars (Arjoranta, 2015, p. Mhamdi, 2017, p. 43), the basic principle of playing a game presupposes the act of interpretation for the player to be successful (Karhulahti, 2015, p. 5). Seen from the cognitive perspective proper to the naturalistic hermeneutics (Mantzavinos, 2005, pp. 150-153) the hermeneutic process (whether we divide it into real-time and post-gameplay) admittedly occurs whenever we read, watch or play. As Mantzavinos explains, interpretation takes place when the unconscious procedures of understanding cannot parse meanings, or when we consciously decide to deploy the hypothetico-deductive procedure. This explanation confirms the assumption that our engagement with games is both conscious and unconscious at the same time. To play is to enable both the conscious and unconscious processes of perception and understanding.

What to do when playing a game:

Take notes during gameplay; take screenshots and save video footage. Use game systems (save points, active pause, dialog backlogs, etc.) to gather data for future analytical and interpretative procedures. A gameplay journal also helps in building an analytical attitude towards the object of study.


When playing Elden Ring, I have taken notes on the difficulty level, questlines, general game atmosphere; I have put down short, one-sentence comments on the control system, game aesthetics and, generally, all the things that have captured my attention. Here is an example: “The walking mausoleum feels like taken from Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings.”


What has captured my attention and why? How do I feel when playing the game? What challenges my understanding of the game’s rules, its aesthetics and mechanics?

2. Distanciation

It happens when passing from the game as an event (in play) into a game as a structured work or a text to be unpacked (Carr, 2019, pp. 6-7). This stage mirrors what Ricoeur has described as the passage from speech to writing (Ricoeur, 2016, pp. 101-105). This process occurs when we turn the properties of a lived experience into a discursive one, for example: when we describe an event with words, images, sounds, etc. The event then becomes an object of our own narration, which can be compared with other narrations about it. With distanciation, we try to grasp the perceived, or -- as Markku Eskelinen calls it -- “hallucinated,” “textual whole” of the game (Eskelinen, 2012, p. 85). This procedure objectifies the game as a configured text of culture, and as such arrests its situations and events into a descriptive framework of analytical discourse. Without distanciation, the perspective on multiple endings, different moral choices and their consequences, a top-down perspective on the game would not be possible (Carr, 2019, pp. 8-9). In this way, objectifying distanciation helps us to understand that the way we have played the game is not the only way, and therefore it enables the analyst to relate their own perspective toward what others have written or said about the game. It is at this stage that we build the preliminary bibliography of sources as a step towards the surveying of our interpretative position. No single interpretation ever occurs in a vacuum.

What to do to distance oneself from the game:

Search international databases for works on the game. Compare YouTube or Twitch playthroughs, guides and reviews with the way you have played the game. Consult services, such as Metacritic, and gaming journals to compare your initial findings with critics’ analyses. Think about the context of your gameplay; write down observations on how you play games.


After my initial (40 hour), disastrous gameplay of Elden Ring, I consulted multiple YouTube guides on how to play a mage, where to look for good equipment, etc. I also compared my idea about the level of difficulty with fellow game researchers, students and Redditers. I also read comments on the game from game critics I hold in high esteem.


What is the reception of the game? How has the game been interpreted to date? Do the opinions of gamers and critics align? How much of the game content have I managed to complete?

3. Confronting prejudice

Confronting prejudice. What is this game about? In hermeneutic tradition, prejudice is what has to be suspended or questioned, as it is believed to cloud analytical judgment. However, every interpretative process starts with initial prejudices, which allows us to formulate preliminary interpretative hypotheses. We always come to the game with prejudices related to our prior knowledge, set in a social, political and economic context. The formulation of hypotheses is fundamental for the hypothetico-deductive method (Mantzavinos, 2005, p. 133, p. 135) and serves two purposes. One is to formulate a reductionist statement, which oftentimes is used against games or players; for instance: “This game is about killing.” If left unpacked, this statement is just a prejudice and as such can be harmful to the game, its players, creators and the interpreter. However, if properly expanded, contrasted with judgments others have made about the game, and grounded in analytic data, a generalizing simplification gives ground to further argumentation and a constructive juxtaposition of competing perspectives. Therefore, the first thing to do is to produce as many general statements as possible, as these will serve as a set of preliminary interpretative tropes to be tested. The second purpose of the questions is to allow the interpreter to produce a summary of the game and in this way to find a suitable angle to express her experiences as a player. Thus, the initial prejudice has to be turned into a hypothesis rather than be allowed to remain a judgement.

How to confront prejudice:

Write down simple, reductionist statements about the game. Produce as many different interpretative tropes as possible, preferably in the form of a map or a list. Think about the assumptions related to your social, political and economic context.


Before, during, and after playing Elden Ring, I formulated a list of initial prejudices: “This game is for masochists,” “It’s too difficult,” “The game is about suffering,” “Elden Ring is about a dying world,” “It’s a heroic tale that torments the protagonist,” “It’s about grinding and mastering simple mechanics,” “It’s a gothic horror,” “It’s a symbolic game,” “The game is about the uncanny (ger. Unheimlische),” “I am not accustomed to the soulslike genre.”


What is this game about? What is the dominant element for me? How would I summarize it in one sentence? How would I tag the game? What are my assumptions about the game? What position do I occupy when analyzing the game? What were my expectations?

4. Summary

How can I tell others about it? Constructing a summary of the researched game is an important step in turning this preliminary question into one’s own narrative about the game. At this stage of interpretation, we contextualize the game as a text of culture that has specific designation, tags, context and teleology. A summary serves multiple purposes: it helps to turn the preliminary hypothesis into a more refined statement about the game; it allows us to present the general idea behind the game; and allows us to position it in relation to other cultural texts cultural practices in general. In the process of summarizing a game, we gather information about its genre, authors, studio, budget, history, context of production, its awards, achievements and business model. At this stage, we also formulate a synopsis, which involves rethinking the game’s narrative, gameplay procedures and its unique features. Not all of the abovementioned elements will be useful right away, but some might turn to be valuable when reconstructing causal and meaning nexuses. Summarizing helps us translate the game into our own story about the game. This is a process of storytelling, which builds the primary exploratory narrative and tests our ability to explain what the game is about.

How to summarize a game:

Combine the information about the developer, genre, and technical data with a short synopsis of the narrative and gameplay objectives. Think about the interconnections between the different facts about the game, for example: its difficulty and genre, its budget and graphics, etc.


In my initial summary of Elden Ring, I would write:

Elden Ring (FromSoftware, 2022) belongs to the soulslike subgenre of immensely difficult action RPG games produced by FromSoftware. Coauthored by Hidetaka Miyazaki and G. R.R. Martin, the game received the highest historically recorded notes on Metacritic (96/100) from game critics and fans of the soulslike genre, but mixed reviews from players experiencing technical problems and exceptionally difficult initial gameplay. The game immerses players in an open world, the dystopian fantasy setting of The Lands Between, in which they play the role of a banished, presumably undead hero who returns to save the world by reforging the titular Elden Ring. The game offers a complex symbolically driven storyworld with a mystery plot and six distinct endings dependent on the choices the player makes.


Who created the game? Where does it fit in with other games? Are there any distinct features to the game? How would you describe the game to a non-gamer? What are the necessary elements you want to convey about the game? What is this game about in general?

5. Problematization

What is the problem here? Summary converges with the formulation of a problem, or with mapping different problems of the interpreted game. At this stage, we try to define what interests us in the game in question, or what we perceive as a problem that might interest others. Problematization helps in formulating links between the game and our research perspective and the theories or methods of our choosing. Interpretation is a problem-generating process. To interpret is to search for a solution to a problem, which involves reconstructing causal and meaning nexuses. In this sense, problematization opens further inquiry into the way our researched game does things, presents and solves problems, tells stories, uses poetics, discourses, procedures, etc. Problematization arises from a particular theoretical background, the cultural game capital we acquire when studying games (Fernández-Vara, 2015, pp. 10-11), and the procedural literacy we gain by playing them (Bogost, 2010, 244, 257). To problematize is to negotiate the ideas we have acquired during our lifetime, studies, social and political agency, and the game as a meaning-making object (Arjoranta, 2015, pp. 76-80).

How to problematize a game:

Write down or draw a map of problems you think are crucial for your understanding of the game. Focus on controversies and on ideas you consider worth unpacking; problems the game evokes. You can focus on a problem you have with something in the game, but you can also describe what the game makes difficult for you.


Some problems that Elden Ring generates for me: the game is too difficult; its interface design interferes with immersion; I am having trouble following the plot; the game problematizes post-heroic times; the decaying, ruined world is nostalgic and depressing as it reminds me of the Anthropocene; the game problematizes thanatopolitics -- the politics of death.


What does the game problematize? What problems do I have with this game? What problems within the game might interest others?

6. Reconstruction

How are meanings produced in-game? The basic hermeneutic method is reconstruction of causal and meaning nexuses, which is inseparable from the analytic procedures and has to be grounded in their findings. To reconstruct the nexus of meanings (Mantzavinos, 2005, p. 132) is to accurately identify and describe various connections within and without our game. This means searching for answers about the game’s title; to unpack and read the game’s symbols, allegories, metaphors and representations; to construct a map of intertexts (Carr, 2019, p. 7), transmedial and transfictional relations (Maj, 2019) and all semiotic details inscribed into the fabric of the game. It also means gaining insight into different game mechanics and procedures to understand how they work, and how they work together in the complex system of the game. At this stage, all game studies knowledge and expertise about narrative structures, procedures, ontological elements, poetics and design, but also about gaming cultures, history and discourses, come into play. Reconstruction consists in making sense of the game, its contexts and elements: both individually and as a system. This means that reconstruction requires data in the form of screenshots, recordings, playthroughs, the objects that interest us, the dialogues we reference, the routes we take, the mechanics we use and the coordinates of the digital world we inhabit. There is no ideal reconstruction, but each reconstruction furthers our understanding of the game.

How to reconstruct causal and meaning nexuses:

Produce a list of symbols, metaphors, as well as mythological, ideological, political and social elements you identify in the game. Can you identify the causes of certain events in the game and how are they linked to the player’s agency?


Elden Ring constructs its uncanny atmosphere by deploying symbolism associated with the sacred and the profane. The glorious image of the life-bearing, blessed and shining Erdtree is contrasted with a plague-ridden, twisted world of ungodly abominations. The narrative structure of a monomyth can be seen in the initial intro sequence, which posits players as the last hope for the dying world. The game’s extreme difficulty has caused a debate among players and critics alike, but is also a constitutive element reinforcing the storyworld.


How does the game work? How do specific elements come together? What is the meaning of mechanics, representations, procedures and narrative elements? How can we explain them?

7. Suspicion

What is this game hiding from me? In the hermeneutic tradition, suspicion is the reverse side of reconstruction. In this mode of interpretation, we formulate hypotheses about the hidden meanings of our game. If we believe that there is a hidden agenda, our suspicions may be political, ideological, economic, social, etc. To suspect a game is to seek truths beyond representations (Pötzsch & Šisler, 2019, p. 5). This search involves inquiring about moral choices, class depictions, rhetorical manipulations, mythologization and the production of false consciousness. However, we may also be concerned about production practices, gender, race, ethnic politics, gameplay assumptions and design decisions (Apperley & Clemens, 2016). The hermeneutics of suspicion requires a critical approach and is inseparable from critique understood as ascertaining the significance of the game at hand. In this sense, suspicion makes the interpretation focus on the game as an ideological toolset, an unconscious practice, a manipulative device, etc.

How to formulate suspicions:

Think about the implicit and explicit elements of any ideology within which the game operates or to which it may be related. Focus on the implicit structures, senses and discursive mechanisms at play. Make a list of problems you and/or other players believe the game tries to hide from you.


Many critics stress that difficulty is the crucial part of the soulslike type of game narrative, but proper playing strategies can make a game extremely easy. This shows that difficulty itself is a strawman. As such, the ideology of difficulty is used to promote dark play, an idea linked to the exclusion of players tagged as “less able.” A game’s affective design is partly to blame for this, as it strengthens the rhetoric of failure, procedurally inscribed into the ludic seriality of the genre.


How does the game make me believe that what I am doing is right? Is there any hidden agenda to this game? What is this game trying to convince me to do? What are the axiological presuppositions inscribed into the game mechanics, storyworld, character creation, etc.?

8. Theoretical coupling

What theories does the game require? Just as Clara Fernandez-Vara has explained in her book on game analysis, it is impossible to analyze each and every aspect of a game in one paper (Fernández-Vara, 2015, p. 18). Any hermeneutic interpretation that aims at a reconstruction of the nexus of meanings always already operates within different descriptive systems that help assert facts, events and their determinants (Mantzavinos, 2005, p. 132). However, it is imperative to acknowledge that the interpretation itself produces more data than one can put into an article or presentation. Theoretical coupling serves one simple purpose: to limit the number of descriptive systems used, and to bring the process of interpretation closer to the stage -- at which the elaboration of its findings can be turned into a shorter and condensed form. By coupling problematic elements to a chosen theoretical descriptive apparatus, we commit ourselves to one of many possible explanations of “what was the case” (Mantzavinos, 2005, p. 133).

How to choose a theory with which to explain the game:

One strategy is to first choose a theory, and then search for games which might help evaluate its assumptions. Another is to choose a theory best suited to explain the problems generated during one of the previous stages of the interpretative process.


I have chosen Elden Ring to exemplify the interpretative potential of hermeneutics because the game offers numerous nexuses of meanings to reconstruct: from symbolism and aesthetics through narrative construction, to mechanics and procedural rhetoric. However, Elden Ring also invites a study of discourse and the ideology of difficulty, which requires a different set of tools related to the study of game reception.


Does the game require a specific theory to explain its problematic? How will different theories help me with the identification, description and reconstruction of the game’s causal and meaning nexuses? What are the uses of theory in my interpretation?

9. Existential inquiry

What does the game mean to me as addressed to me? Following Ricoeur’s idea of “making the text one’s own,” this step stresses that interpretation culminates in the appropriation of a game’s meaning by its player (Ricoeur, 2016, pp. 144-145). At this stage, we pose questions about how the game has expanded our understanding of the world, how practices of en-roling and de-roling (Gualeni & Vella, 2020, pp. 28-30) the game in question has broadened our identity, subjective experiences, being-in-the-world (Kłosiński, 2018; Leino, 2010; Vella, 2015), or feeling good about oneself (Majkowski, 2017, pp. 9-10). Existential inquiry, therefore, focuses on the transformative functions of digital games, the power that play -- as a cultural practice -- holds over the individual. This procedure makes interpretation into a process invested in describing the metamorphosis of the subjectivity, existence and identity of the researcher as a player (and indubitably culturally defined by gender, class, ethnicity, religion, history, etc.).

How to perform an existential inquiry:

Think about the way the game has changed your perspective on yourself, the world and other people. Pose questions about your relation with the storyworld, the avatar and the mechanics. Think about the practices of getting in and out of the role you play in the game. Note what corporeal states, affective states and thoughts the game has evoked or channeled. Reflect on the importance of your personal meanings for a larger social and cultural context.


While playing Elden Ring, I noted an interesting affective pattern related to the game design: the game capitalized negative emotions to build an affective feedback loop, which transformed my initial frustration with its difficulty into a sense of completion. I felt existentially invested in the storyworld and each challenge inspired a sense of self-fulfillment.


How do you feel about the game? What does it mean for you personally? Did the game experience transform you in any way? How does the game relate to your personal, existential situation, and why does it matter? Are the things you found meaningful also important in a larger context?

10. Testing interpretative hypotheses

The final point of the interpretative guideline is testing the hypotheses by producing them for a specialized community. At this stage, the interpretation turns into a proper presentation or article. The hypotheses are to be abstracted, theoretically grounded, empirically tested, appropriated and framed in conclusive remarks. In relation to other interpretations, ours will either be accepted, rejected or give grounds for an emerging critique. Interpretation has always already had this pragmatic aspect to it whether we ascribe it to the paradigmatic character of sciences in general (Devlin, 2015) or the existence of interpretative communities (Martin, 2014).

How to test interpretative hypotheses:

Compare and contrast different hypotheses you have posed during each step of this procedure. Ascertain which claims are grounded in theories of your choice, and make sure they are empirically tested in game. If you found three endings, and the game literature speaks of ten, then some of your theses will have to be corrected. Make a list of hypotheses with arguments for and against them. Identify and write down the hypotheses that you did not explore; they might be used in discussions with other researchers.


The hypothesis that Elden Ring uses difficulty as a narrative mechanism finds confirmation in the affective design of the game. The hypothesis that its difficulty is part of the community’s ideology of the soulslike genre has to be tested by relying on suitable methods. The hypothesis that the game’s aesthetics induce nostalgia is validated in the studies of gothic and romantic representations of ruins. My initial prejudice about the game’s difficulty is not validated in the way the game can be played, as shown by guides and walkthroughs.

How free is the analyst to skip parts of this guide?

To use this guide productively, one should first read all its steps as they formulate a set of questions that help develop an interpretative framework for a hermeneutic game analysis. Not all elements described in this guide will be helpful in every case. For instance, when performing a narratological analysis, one does not need detailed data about the game’s business model. At the same time, information about the business model of such games as Genshin Impact might help in reconstructing the causal and meaning nexus related to the worldbuilding strategy. Also, the interpreter does not have to follow this guide in any specific order -- except for the first and last steps, as these are necessary for the interpretative process to begin and finalize. To use this procedure is to treat its elements as parts of a hermeneutic spiral: a process leading to a better understanding and interpretation of the game. Therefore, if necessary, each step of this instruction can be repeated and freely combined with other steps. Each step can serve as a type of approach to the interpretation of games in general, as no particular article or book actually covers each of those stages. The major caveat here is that this procedure is not a guide on how to write an interpretation, but how to prepare one.


This outline of game interpretation procedures is an open-source material to be criticized and reworked. Interpretation is a process hardly reducible to a simple guideline, and hermeneutics can be viewed from many different angles -- as shown by its philosophical representatives who have developed complex relations with phenomenology, ontology, literary theory, cultural studies, media studies, game studies and sociology. As far as game analysis goes, interpretation is what follows, accompanies or leads the way by formulating and testing hypotheses. This short set of guidelines is my attempt to frame and describe the hermeneutic process underlying game-oriented hypothetico-deductive reasoning.



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