Material-Based Communication in Video Games


Note found in The Last of Us (Naughty Dog)

We’ve heard stories (true or not) about roommates who share a living space but never see each other because their schedules never overlap. They communicate by leaving notes on the fridge. One can imagine how the situation might degenerate into passive-aggressive arrangement of food in the cupboard, of laundry, of a line down the middle of a room. When we can’t use words, we communicate with things. How those things are arranged conveys emotional signals to the recipient who, if receptive, will understand the speaker’s feelings during an object’s disposition. Or you could be like an old roommate of mine who would be oblivious to a flaming effigy of himself burning in the hall. Despite how material communication is received, the speaker has reasons for this placement: shoes placed neatly by the door v. chucked in a corner v. no shoes at all, just muddy footprints down the hall. Material communication is a visual syntax with multi-layered meaning. It can be the communication of last resort (spelling “help!” with logs or setting three fires next to each other when lost in the wilderness), or can supplement/underscore other modes of verbal communication. Things can communicate the need for future action, or can remind the receiver of past action. Material communication is natural, as natural as speech, likely older than words, and is not limited to humans.

When we engage with video games, we engage almost exclusively with material-based communication. Most of that communication is one way, from elements in the game to the player. This information helps us play the games, helps us explore the narrative. Most of the time, the communication comes at the player from the hand of the designer, placing a sign with an arrow to indicate direction of travel, or through a note left for the player by an unseen or unknown character. We respond to that communication through action, and we can act to respect the spirit of the note or message or sign, or can opt to ignore it, to go our own way.

Archaeologists often receive messages from the past as they work. An inscription on stone, pottery, or a coin tells us things about dates and a bit about their manufacture. When we study a landscape, we receive clues from the position of topography, water, vegetation, leading us to make educated guesses about ancient travel and settlement. We find cairns and bent trees that signal to us a direction of travel, much like they communicated the same message to their original intended audience. This kind of communication through materials is a human universal, and game developers rely on the same ideas in order to make games comprehensible to players.

Of course when we engage with games, we engage with the idea of materials, things that have the appearance of wood and behave in the game like wood, but are not wood. This is just organized electricity. There is no real communication between things in a video game; it’s all action and reaction based on the underlying rules of behavior for things and materials placed within that digital space. Everything waits for the appearance of the player, someone who can read and interpret the signs, and can then act on them. It is not a conscious waiting of course, but more like flipping a switch to turn on a light. The switch communicates its switch-ness, and we know that the switch will do something because our material literacy tell us so. When we see switches in games, we expect something to happen when we flip them. And if they don’t, we know that we need to do something within the game to activate the switch. Games have a syntax to them based on the vocabulary of materials the developers introduce into the design.


Cairn collected as part of the “Cairn Raider” optional quest in Rise of the Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics)

Things in a game can communicate their uses to players through an iconography of the natural world. Things can be designed to communicate specific messages and ideas (e.g., the notes left around the world in Myst). Things in games can be positioned “just so” by developers in order to create an emotion, or a way to interpret what the presumed writer was thinking when creating the message, be it a room in disarray or a hastily scrawled note written across a mirror in blood. As players, we get the message.


A communicative assemblage in What Remains of Edith Finch (Annapurna)

But what about communicating with other people within a game? Games that have a multiplayer component allow for real-time chat or in-game audio through public and private channels. We can message each other in-game, and if the recipient is not online, then those messages can be delivered as in-game mail. In games such as Minecraft, players can crouch or can position their swords in such a way to communicate to others that they are passive or would like to group for play. These gestures do not exist in the game’s documentation, but rather are passed down from player to player. Each multiplayer game contains its own communications shorthand, and a kind of body language that while ridiculous in meatspace, makes perfect sense in metaspace.

No Man's Sky_20170925222045

Communicating terminals on Drogradur in No Man’s Sky (Hello Games)

And then there is the return to the “notes-on-the-fridge” approach. I’ve personally seen this happen in No Man’s Sky through the use of communications terminals on the shared planet of Drogradur. One player set a terminal outside his base stating that he was stuck without a starship. Another player left a terminal next to the first one with brief instructions on how to improve the situation. These players will never meet in the game, yet they are talking to each other, but by virtual of the things they build and then write upon.

I’m curious as to what other player-to-player material-based communication exists in other games, where we talk through our stuff, and sometimes our stuff talks back to us.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming



One thought on “Material-Based Communication in Video Games

  1. Pingback: Recap: Archaeogaming’s (Jump the) Shark Week | Archaeogaming

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