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Rock Paper Scissors: A Linguistic Approach

Games produce meaning, which allows us to say that they qualify as language. In this article I provide a preliminary sketch for a linguistic approach to games and apply it to the well-known game Rock-Paper-Scissors.

Altug Isigan, Blogger

October 20, 2012

14 Min Read

[For an expanded version of this essay, please go here.]


One of the concerns of Linguistics is meaning. Using linguistic categories while we approach games, provides us with conceptual tools that allow us to shed light on "meaningful" play. It can also help in understanding how different programming and design approaches deal with the semantic and expressive aspects of games.

In this essay I'm using a small part of danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev's language theory and apply it to the game Rock-Paper-Scissors. This will allow to draw distinctions between the material and semantic layers of the game, and help to understand their relationships. I use the model also to propose a classification of game rules. Later I point out an important difference of computer games: Their simultanious use of two different sets of signifiers, input and output signfiers. I conclude the article with a few remarks.


Intro: A Bit of Theory
[Please skip to the next part if you're not interested in the theory behind this essay]

Expression and Content

According to danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, language has two layers:

  • Expression Plane

  • Content Plane

The expression plane is the plane of signifiers, whereas the content plane is the plane of signifieds. A sign (or meaning) is then the connotative sum of a signifier and a signified.


Substance and Form

In Hjelmslev's model, both expression and content plane have a form and a substance. This gives us the following pairs:

  • Form of Expression

  • Substance of Expression


  • Substance of Content

  • Form of Content

Based on this distinction, we can say that every sign and the sign system that it is part of, consists of four related layers. The same can be said for signs in games, and games as sign systems.

Rock-Paper-Scissors as Language

Based on the game Rock-Paper-Scissors, I briefly show how Hjelmslev's model applies to games.

Form of Expression

The form of expression consists of the materialized forms that are utilized and recognized as the array of signifers of the language. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, this array of signifiers consists of the gestures |rock|, |paper| and |scissors|.

Substance of Expression

The substance of expression is the material substance that is utilized to shape the forms that are recognized as the array of signifiers of the language. In Rock-Scissors-Paper, these are the players hands.

Substance of Content

The substance of content is the catalogue of positive meanings that qualify as the existents of the game world. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, these are the semes "rock", "paper" and "scissors".

Form of Content

The form of content is the arrangement of semes according to an internal system of operators which produces events when put into motion. Through this internal system, semes can be compared and echanged, which also results in them leaving their positive meanings behind and make them gain values. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, this internal system is the logical form that holds up the intransitive relationships between the semes "rock", "paper" and "scissors". Indeed, as values that are determined by this underlying logical form, "rock", "paper" and "scissors" can be exchanged, and they can also be compared in terms of whether one is superior to the other.

Articulation and Signification

In Rock-Paper-Scissors we can describe the process of articulation and signification as follows: When a player poses the gesture |rock|, she simultaneously mobilizes both planes together with both their forms and substances: Her hand is the substance that is used to "shape" the gesture |rock|and thereby it puts forward a form that is recognized as a valid signifier. This form, once posed, does not only "call" the seme "rock", but also the potential value "rock". Once the opposing player poses a counter-gesture (let's say |paper|) and thereby "calls" the seme and potential value "paper", a productive articulation based on the operators of the underlying logical system takes place. This produces a chain of signs, which can be "read" as an "event": "Rock versus Paper. Paper wins."

A Classification of Rules

Rules of Substance

These rules specify the substances that can be used to "carry" the forms that are recognized as signfiers within the system. For example in professional sports, one may come across very strict rules in regard to existents, such as the weight, diameter, air pressure, and material of a football. However, kids would often use a tin can or any other object they see fit as a "football". In Rock-Paper-Scissors, people often go by simply using their hands as the carriage/substance, but it could well be a pair of d3's made of wood or diamonds.

Rules of Form

These rules specify the parametres and traits that a form must possess in order to be recognized as a valid signifier within the system. Forms may be subject to standards (as it is the case in professional chess), however, one can often see variations in style and theme (like in a Star Wars themed set of chess figures). It can be compared to font families, which are variations of a certain set of types with discernible traits, or to varying combinations of muscles that make facial expressions discernible. Quite often, style and theme variations may push the limits of recognition in regard to form. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, only three gestures with clearly discernible features are recognized as forms/signifiers.

Rules of Content

These rules delineate the range of existents in the game. For example the array of units in a RTS, or the array of weapons in an FPS. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, the rules of content limit the number of existents to three (the existents "rock", "paper" and "scissors").

Rules of Value

The range of operators and the set of rules that specifies the arrangement of existents around these operators. These rules hold up a system of values against which relationships between content elements can be measured, and a state of affairs be expressed. In Rock-Paper-Scissors there is a single operator (">") which sets up an intransitive relationship between the semes "rock", "scissors" and "paper". When two gestures are posed against each other, they can be evaluated based on the operators they put into motion. The result of the logical operations expresses a state of affairs that can be "read" in order to decide a winner. Verbs like "beat" stem from the rules of value, because it is the value system that allows events (actions + happenings) to be identified.

It's very important to realize that the significant and deciding verbs/predicates in a game are rooted in the value system. The value system qualifies certain actions as those who alter the game state. Hence, it is due to the value system that we can draw a distinction between cardinal functions and sattelites when we look at the events in a game. The value system generates the "obligatory" scenes in a game and explains the particular motivations behind player actions. During play, players may move around freely, engaging into a variety of "emergent" actions, but such actions remain mainly as sattelites or fillers, because they do not constitute actions that put into motion the logical operations that underly the value system, and therefore do not contribute to progression into a new game state. As soon as the player returns to actions that can be identified and processed by the logical operations of the value system, we see progression to reappear, because the player's actions qualify now as cardinal functions and collapse into new game states. To give an example: Christiano Ronaldo could for sure dribble back and forth along the sideline with the ball, because he's a great dribbler and no rule in football expresses that he can't dribble whenever and as long as he wants, but his manager would probably intervene very soon and tell him to dribble "only when it is necessary", that is, only when his dribbling is in accord to the underlying value system, which positions scoring as the highest priority.

Rules of Association

Rules that specify what form is to be associated with what content. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, the gesture |V| must be associated with the seme "scissors". Many games are very strict in regard to association, since avoiding ambiguity seems to be a major concern in most games. But it is often possible that a signifier can express more than one signified, and that a signified can be expressed with more than one signifier. For example, many games feature a "joker" or "wild card", which allows the player to associate this signifier with a seme of her desire. [Example for one signfied-many signifiers (same seme-many expressive forms)?][Example for many semes - many exressive forms?]

Rules of Articulation

The rules in regard to how signifiers must be articulated and arranged in respect to time and space. These rules bring an order to the signifiers so that their arrangement in space and the change of their arrangement over time can be read as a transition between game states.

The space in which articulation takes place must be seen twofold: On one hand, it is a format, that is, it provides a general frame in which articulation must take place, just like a sheet of paper or the frame of a painting, within which expressive forms (letters, words, lines, dots etc) must remain in order to be counted as part of the expression. On the other hand it also specifies rules for placement of signifiers within this format, that is, there may be measures that ensure that signifiers are placed according to a certain "reading line" or compositional aspect. For example, a chess pawn may be moved anywhere within the "format" of the chess board, yet it would need to be placed within the confines of a square as well, and not at a line at which two squares intersect, or there would arise ambiguity in regard to how to evaluate the relationship between signifiers, and it would be impossible to "read" the game state.

The time aspect may also vary: Some games allow for simultaneous articulation (as in most games of the RTS and FPS genre), whereas certain games ask for turn-based articulation. The general time frame may be used very losely: One may play a round of chess in a single session, or over e-mail and stretching over a long period of time. However, these variations do not violate the basic rule of turn-based articulation. Unless there isn't a rule that sets a time limit for every turn, players may stretch the process of articulation over as long periods as they agree upon. Once a new turn is finished, regardless how long it took to take the turn, the game state will be altered, and new meaning produced.


Computer Games

One of the things that a computer game does, is to display a signifier that is associated to elements in the content plane when it receives player input. For example if the (x) button on a console stands for the seme "kick", upon receiving (x) as input, the program would call the (chain of) signifiers ( the relevant visuals and sounds), and display them through its output channels. As soon as they are associated with the content plane, these become a chain of signs. Hence, a computer game is software that converts input signifiers into output signifiers, both of which are associated with the same signifieds/content plane. Output signifiers (what some would prefer to call feedback) actually confirm whether we've used the appropriate input signifiers or not. This is an important aspect of learning game controls.

Owners/producers of such “tranlation devices” (for example console developers) will ask game developers to stick with the confines of their translation machines, which means to game developers that they limit themselves to value systems that can be expressed through the set of input signifiers of the console (for example the range of buttons on their gamepad), and refrain from putting too much stress on the console's capacity of displaying output signifiers (like its sound and graphic processing power, or its storage capacity). For example the content plane of a console fighting game must be associated with the limited set of expression elements on the gamepad (buttons etc).

However, as single button games clearly show, a substance such as a single button can host a variety of discernible signifiers/forms differentiated through button pressing duration, button pushing frequency, and different button states for example. Also complex combinations of mouse, keyboard and click&point interfaces allow for the content plane to be presented in an embedded manner, such as it is the case in The Sims.


A Few Remarks

Learning to play a game can be likened to learn a language. A player gradually grasps the relationship between the substance and form of expression and content planes, and gains skills in both articulation ("writing") and interpretation ("reading")

Game design documents could well be analysed based on the expression and content planes that they are a sketch of. In other words, they are also sketches of a sign system, a language.

We often witness non-productive instances of articulation in languages. This can be the case in Rock-Paper-Scissors, too. If both players pose the same gesture (lets say |rock| versus |rock|), no meaning, that is, "meaninglessness" is produced due to the value system underlying the semes, which denies a comparison between the same semes, and hence, doesn't allow for meaning to emerge.

Transmediality in games becomes possible because of the flexibility of a sign system in employing varying materials as the substance of its expression plane. Indeed, one version of Rock-Paper-Scissors could be based on players hands as the substance to deliver its recongized forms, whereas another version would use cards or sounds as its substance. Major differences on the content plane and in the form of expression will arise due to how much varying substances lend themselves to be bent in regard to requirements of the other planes of the language.

Players' free-form actions should not be confused with the actions that translate into events when recognized by the value system of the game. The former often cause confusion in regard to what games "are". At the center, games "are" much more the events (actions + happenings) fostered by the value system than the actions that players "add" to or around this "core". Not that it doesn't matter what players add to a game, but maybe these aspects should already be regarded as belonging to a different language layer, maybe that of various meta-languages.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan provides us with a theory that allows us to understand the way in which the symbolic order of a game re-skins a human's body as it produces a ludic subject (i.e., a player). Central to this theory is the distinction between drive and demand. Within a symbolic order, the division of our body into "zones" is not determined biologically and body parts do not simply gain their meaning by their positions within the human anatomy, but through the way they got themselves caught in the semantic web of the symbolic order. Thus our drives and the relevant body parts are "mediated" through the symbolic order that re-defines the body by dividing it into zones that are inscribed with varying sets of gestures, substances, values and replacements. For instance in football we must pretend that we have no hands, a number of gestures (body uses) are encouraged whereas some are not allowed, our positioning in space may create a value called "offside", which is not a value that our body produces in real life, and in many situation we can use our head as a replacement for our feet. Since the satisfaction of drives can only be attempted through this re-mediated/re-skinned body, Lacan uses the capital letter D, standing for "Demand", which is how he prefers to term such mediated drives. The desire to score a goal is Demand and not drive, because the goal itself as well as the ways in which this can be done is generated by the symbolic order (or the "language") of the game. It was probably Bernard Suits who included "demand" for the first time into a definition of games when he said that playing a game is an activity "where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor or less efficient means", an observation that seems to perfectly describe the way players experience Demand.

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