The Typology of Representations in Computer Games


  • Pawel Grabarczyk University of Lodz



The aim of this paper is to explore how Peirce’s trichotomy of symbolic, indexical and iconic representations can be applied to computer games. I argue that if we use this classification, we gain the ability to make distinctions that game studies often ignore, or do not adequately grasp. To increase the descriptive power of Peirce’s trichotomy, I suggest two additional distinctions: the difference between external and internal representations, and the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic representations. I combine all of these distinctions to construct a typology of representations in computer games. I argue that the application of this typology to particular elements of games (instead of games understood as a whole) enables us to solve some of the problems caused by the relationship of games to the external world. A case study I use to illustrate how my typology helps to improve game studies discourse, is LocoRoco—an abstract game accused of containing racist imagery. I argue that the game publisher’s response to the controversy was inadequate, since the game content, due to the application of representational mechanisms, can be seen as racist even if its developers had no intention of creating such a racist content.

Author Biography

Pawel Grabarczyk, University of Lodz

Assisstant professor at Institute of Philosophy, University of Lodz

Head of Centre For Philosophical Research



AM1 (1996). Die Hard Arcade. Sega Saturn

The Astronauts (2014). The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Windows.

Blizzard North (2000). Diablo II. Windows.

Bossa Studios (2013). Surgeon Simulator. Windows.

Bungie (2014). Destiny. PlayStation 4.

Capcom (1991). Street Fighter II. Arcade.

Capcom (2005). Resident Evil 4. Game Cube.

DMA Design (2001). Grand Theft Auto III. PlayStation 2.

Electronic Arts (1994). Fifa International Soccer. Commodore Amiga.

Epic Games (2017). Fortnite. PlayStation 4.

iD Software (1992). Wolfenstein 3D. DOS

iD Software (1993). Doom. DOS.

Infocom (1980). Zork. DOS.

Irrational Games (2007). Bioshock. Windows.

Japan Studio (2006). LocoRoco. PlayStation Portable.

Key, E., Kanaga, D., (2013). Proteus. Windows.

Konami (2015). Metal Gear Solid V. PlayStation 4.

Lucas Pope (2013). Papers, Please! Windows.

Maxis (2000). The Sims. Windows.

Midway (1993). Mortal Kombat. Arcade.

Nintendo (1988). Super Mario Bros. 2. NES.

Numinous Games (2016). That Dragon Cancer. Windows.

Polyphony Digital (2010). Gran Turismo V. PlayStation 3.

Psyonix (2015). Rocket League. PlayStation 4

Rockstar North (2013). Grand Theft Auto V. PlayStation 3.

Ronin Games (2002). Bruce Lee: Quest of the Dragon. Xbox.

Sensible Software (1992). Sensible Soccer. Amiga.

Traffic Software (2004). JFK Reloaded. Windows.

Turn 10 Studios (2011). Forza Motorsport 4. Xbox 360.

Ubisoft Montreal (2008). Far Cry 2. Windows.

Ubisoft Montreal (2014). Assassin's Creed Unity. PlayStation 4.

Valve (2007). Portal. Windows.


Budd, M. (2003). The Acquaintance Principle. British Journal of Aesthetics, 43(4), 386–392.

Currie, G. (1991). Work and Text. Mind, 100(3), 325–340.

Ebert, R. (2010). Video Games Can Never Be Art. Accessed on 4/23/2013.

Hurka, T. (2005). Introduction. In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press. (1978). Irvin, S. (2005). The Artist's Sanction in Contemporary Art. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63(4), 315–326.

Aarseth, E. (2007). Doors and perception: Fiction vs. simulation in games. Intermédialités: Histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques/Intermediality: History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies, (9), 35-44.

Aarseth, E. (2014). Ontology. In: Wolf, M. J., & Perron, B. (eds.) The Routledge companion to video game studies. Routledge.

Accordino, N. (2017). LocoRoco Creators on the Game That Made the World Smile. PlayStation Blog.

Andersen, P., B. (1990). A theory of computer semiotics : semiotic approaches to construction and assessment of computer systems. Cambridge, New York, Cambridge University Press.

Arsenault, D., Larochelle, A. (2014). From Euclidean Space to Albertian Gaze : Traditions of Visual Representation in Games Beyond the Surface. DiGRA '13 - Proceedings of the 2013 DiGRA International Conference: DeFragging Game Studies.

Ashcraft, B. (2006). LocoRoco racist?. Kotaku,

Balela, M. S., & Mundy, D (2015). Analysing Cultural Heritage and its Representation in Video Games. DiGRA '15 - Proceedings of the 2015 DiGRA International Conference.

Bateman, C., (2011), Imaginary games (Winchester, UK, Washington: Zero Books 2011)

Beasley, B., , Standley, T. C., (2002), “Shirts vs Skins: Clothing as an indicator of gender role stereotyping in video games”, Mass communication and society, 2002, 5(3), (p. 279-293)

Blain, L., Destiny's sound effects come from weird places. Tinfoil, cats &... vegetables?, GamesRadar+,, retrieved 12.05.2016

Bogost, I. (2006). Unit Operations. Cambridge M.A.: MIT Press.

Boyd, B. (2009). On the Origin of Stories Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Caracciolo, M. (2009). Conceptual Blending in Computer Games: Integrating Fiction and Meaning. Proceedings of The Philosophy of Computer Games 2009, Oslo.

Crawford, C. (1984). The Art of Computer Game Design. Berkeley: McGraw-Hill.

Crawford C. (2003). Chris Crawford on Game Design. Indianapolis: New Riders.

Cummins, R., C. (1989). Meaning and Mental Representation. Cambridge M.A.: MIT Press.

Cundy, M. (2007). Racist! A look at games accused of bigotry. Games Radar +.

Dietz, T., L. (1998). An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Portrayals in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behavior. Sex Roles. Vol. 38, 5/6.

Dretske, F. (1988). Explaining Behavior. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Eckhardt, F. (2006). Counterpoint: LocoRoco Not Racist. Kotaku.

Eco, U. (1979). A theory of semiotics. Indiana University Press.

Fernandez-Vara, Clara. (2011). Game Spaces Speak Volumes: Indexical Storytelling. 2011 DiGRA International Conference: Think Design Play.

Field, H. (1978). Mental representation. Erkenntnis. 13: 9–61.

Fizek, S. (2016). All work and no play. Are Games Becoming the Factories of the Future. First Person Scholar.

Fodor, J. (1998). Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frasca, G. (2001a). Videogames of the Oppressed. Atlanta: Georgia Institute of Technology

Frasca, G. (2001b). Simulation 101: Simulation vs Representation. Ludology blog.

Gibson, E. (2006). Is LocoRoco racist? Man says so; others say no.

Giddings, S. (2014). Simulation. In M. Wolf & B. Perron (Eds.), The Routledge companion to video game studies. New York, NY: Routledge. 259-266.

Huber, W. H. (2013). The Foundations of Videogame Authorship UC San Diego.

Ivory, J. (2006). Still a man's game: Gender representation in online reviews of video games. Mass Communication & Society. 9(1), 103-114.

Jørgensen, K. (2013). Gameworld interfaces. MIT Press.

Karhulahti, V. M. (2015). Do videogames simulate? virtuality and imitation in the philosophy of simulation. Simulation & Gaming, 46(6), 838-856.

Klevjer, R. (2009). Model and Image. Towards a theory of computer game depiction. Proceedings of The Philosophy of Computer Games 2009, Oslo.

Langer, J. (2008). The familiar and the foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of Warcraft, In: Hilde Corneliussen, Jill Walker Rettberg (eds.), Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, MIT Press 2008

Lem, S. (1974). Cyberiad. New York: Seabury Press.

Mitchell, W. I. T. (1987). Iconology: image, text, ideology. University of Chicago Press.

Moering,S., M. (2013). Games and Metaphor – A critical analysis of the metaphor discourse in game studies. IT University Copenhagen.

Morgan, A. (2014). Representations gone mental. Synthese. 191(2), 213–244.

Murray, J. (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free Press.

Myers, D. (2006). Signs, Symbols, Games, and Play. Games and Culture. Vol.1 nr 1. 47-51.

Nørgård, R., T. (2009). Just like driving – Computer Games as Actual Practice and Objects of Presentation. Proceedings of The Philosophy of Computer Games 2009, Oslo.

Ostritsch, S. (2009). Simulation: Games, Art and Science. Proceedings of The Philosophy of Computer Games 2009, Oslo.

Putnam H. (1988). Representation and Reality, Cambridge MA.: MIT Press.

Ramsey, M. (2010). Representations Reconsidered. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sageng, J., R. 2007, The Reality of Computer Game Objects. Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference 2007, Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Searle, J. R. (1990). Is the Brain a Digital Computer? Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association. Vol. 64, Nr 3, 21-37

Šisler, V. (2008). Digital Arabs: Representation in video games. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 11(2), 203-220.

Shaw, A. (2009). Putting the gay in games: Cultural production and GLBT content in video games. Games and Culture. 4(3), 228-253.

Shaw, A. (2015). The Tyranny of Realism: Historical accuracy and politics of representation in Assassin’s Creed III. Loading.... 9(14).

Tavinor, G. (2012). Videogames and fictionalism. In Sageng, J.R., Fossheim, H., Larsen, T.M., (eds.) The philosophy of computer games. Springer. Dordrecht. 185-199.

Tversky, A. (1984). Features of similarity, Psychological Reviews. 84 (4): 327–352.

Uricchio, W. (2011). Simulation, history, computer games. In J. Raessens & J. Goldstein (Eds.). Handbook of computer game studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 327–338.

Vella, D. (2014). Modeling the Semiotic Structure of Game Characters. DiGRA '14 - Proceedings of the 2014 DiGRA International Conference.

Walton, K. (1990). Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Walton, K. (2008). Marvelous Images. On Values and the Arts. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walton, K. (2015). In Other Shoes. Music, Metaphor, Empathy, Existence. Oxford University Press.

Williams, D., Martins, N., Consalvo, M., & Ivory, J. D. (2009). The virtual census: Representations of gender, race and age in video games. New Media & Society. 11(5), 815-834.

Wohn, D. Y. (2011). Gender and race representation in casual games. Sex Roles, 65(3-4), 198-207.

Wollenschlaeger, A. (2006). Digital Culture: Thanks for LocoRoco, Sony, IGN,