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I fought the law: Transgressive play and the implied player

Aarseth, Espen

© 2007 Authors & Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA). Personal and educational classroom use of this paper is allowed, commercial use requires specific permission from the author.


This paper is an attempt to understand Game Studies through the contested notion of the “player” both inside and outside “the game object” – that is the object that game users perceive and respond to when they play. Building on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s notion of games as a subject that “masters the players”, the paper will go beyond the traditional split between the social sciences’ real players and the aesthetics/humanities critical author-as-player, and present a theory of the player and player studies that incorporates the complex tensions between the real, historical player and the game’s human components. Since games are both aesthetic and social phenomena, a theory of the player must combine both social and aesthetic perspectives to be successful. The tension between the humanities and the social sciences over who controls the idea of the player can be found mirrored also in the struggle
between the player as individual and the “player function” of the game. Transgressive play, the struggle against the game’s ideal player, far from being a marginal, romanticized phenomenon, is the core expression of this struggle.

Implied player, Transgressive play

Introduction: Who is the player?

“...the game masters the players. [...] The real subject of the
game [...] is not the players but the game itself” –Gadamer,
Truth and Method, p.106

What is a player? In what sense does a player exist? When does a player exist? Can there be a player, if there is no game? Before there is a game? Clearly, players cannot exist with out a game they are players of. A generic player is an unthinkable, not merely ahistorical, figure. Games, on the other hand, can exist without actual, current players, as material and conceptual game objects (“texts”). While the game-without-a-player is a limited perspective, it does denote a hierarchical relationship: the historical player cannot exist without a game, but the game, at some point in its existence (e.g. before the first playtesting session in a development cycle), can exist without players, and always without one particular, historical player.


The potential player, before becoming an actual player, must receive some instructions, either from the game itself, or from a guide or accompanying material. Thus, the player is created, by these instructions, and by his or her initial learning experience. In many cases, this experience is social, and the player learns from other, more experienced players. But this is far from always the case, especially with singleplayer games. While it is important to acknowledge that even singleplay can be perfectly social (eg. when two players cooperate or in a group discuss the intricacies of a singleplayer game) it is perhaps just as important not to forget the solitary player, exploring by herself, Bartelian-explorer style, and discovering esoteric aspects that socially conformed, player-oriented gamers may never find.




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