Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

Paratext and Meaning-Making in Indie Games

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology

Paratext and Meaning-Making in Indie Games

Article excerpt


The concept of paratext (text accompanying and supporting another text), popularized in game studies by Mia Consalvo (2007), provides a productive framework for game scholars and has been successfully utilized in a number of subsequent studies. Most of these studies seem to have followed Consalvo in focusing on paratexts created by media audiences in response to games: forum discussions, walkthroughs, YouTube playthrough videos, and other manifestations of what Genette (1997) would have called epitext2. A few works, however, have addressed paratexts that are created by developers or game publishers and put out into the world together with the game itself (in Genette's terminology, peritexts). Notably, Peters (2014) followed Karhulahti (2012) in examining the role of feelies (physical objects bundled with videogames) in "materially connect[ing] virtual, digital gaming worlds to our own," and Rockenberger (2014) used the concept of paratext in analyzing the opening sequence in Bioshock Infinite.

Such studies, however, remain scarce compared to numerous epitext-centered works. There is still a shortage of research into the specific ways in which paratexts shape players' experience and perception of videogames. This essay is an attempt to widen the scope of the research of videogame paratexts by looking at the indie game scene. It will discuss manifestations of paratext in indie game context and ways in which paratexts contribute to meaning-making and interpreting ludic experience.

Preferring to be exploratory without a commitment to being comprehensive, strictly systematic, or theory-driven, the essay will focus on three specific kinds of paratext: game title, game description as seen on game portals, and the readme file. Some of the examples cited in the essay come from my experience as an indie game creator and others are my reflections as a player.

Problems of definition

The concept of paratext is evoked so often in videogame studies these days it may seem unnecessary to dwell on it beyond giving the obligatory nod to Genette (1997) and citing such archetypal examples of "texts surrounding texts" as a book preface, a blurb, and cover design.

However, my perception is that while the concept of paratext has proved a fruitful one in game studies, many researchers seem to have adopted a somewhat utilitarian reading of it, whereupon the concept's inherent complexities are overlooked in order to make it more immediately functional. The assumption that the boundaries of paratext are clearly defined and that it is easily distinguishable from the text itself is the most obvious of such practical sacrifices. In contrast, Genette writes of paratext as a "threshold" (Genette 1997: 102), "a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction" (ibid. 2). A readme file explaining the game's controls is clearly a paratext. But what about a help window within the game itself containing the same information? And what about in-game tutorials or, better yet, initial missions or levels where messages like "Use arrow keys to move" pop up on the screen? There is no clear boundary between text and paratext, and even in its most concrete manifestations (such as the readme file) paratext cannot be fully separated from the text itself.

Moreover, Genette's own ideas and definitions can - and should be - problematized. For example, the idea of a clear-cut distinction between peritext (paratexts adjacent to the text: author's name, table of contents, bibliography) and epitexts (paratext separated from the text: promotional videos, interviews, pressreleases) should, as Stanitzek (2005) demonstrated, be taken with a pinch of salt.

Additionally, an inevitable question for anyone studying indie games is of course what an indie game is. Does one define indie purely in terms of the distribution model? Should one focus more on the contents, the aesthetics, the artistic vision? …

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