Games, Simulation & Serious Fun: An Interview With Espen Aarseth

Patrick Crogan

This interview took place in Sydney after Ludic Moments: Computer Games for the Time Being Symposium at Artspace (May 16, 2003). Espen Aarseth was keynote speaker at this event.

Patrick Crogan: Espen, I would like to start by asking you about your academic path to becoming a game studies specialist. Particularly if you could talk about the academic context in Norway and Scandinavia out of which you emerged.
Espen Aarseth: I started out studying computer linguistics and literary theory, because I was interested in games already, and I wanted to learn something from university that could help me understand games and even perhaps how to make games. So that was a vision that I had originally, and then I realised as my studies progressed that I could have an academic career in that area which was really a revelation. That realisation came on gradually and so I stayed in the academic world, which I don?t think I regret (laughs).
Patrick Crogan: That seems to be reflected in your book, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, in that it situates itself as a way of defining what would be specific not only about computer games, but about new media works more generally, in relation to traditional literary works (Aarseth, 1997). Was this approach to new media a major project in the Norwegian and (more generally) European context of literary studies?
Espen Aarseth: It started out as a Masters thesis within comparative literature, so I guess I had to do something to make it look like literature. That?s what I did, and it may or may not have been a good idea, I still don?t know. I mean trying to put literary works, digital literary works and computer games into the same basket - make sense of that! There are some benefits and also some problems with that, which I did try to address in Cybertext but I?m not sure if I succeeded entirely. It was an interesting task and I may have been sidetracked by the literary theory stuff and the literary perspective which may not have been the most valid approach. But in fact there were many text-based games discussed, so the literary perspective made sense with those. As a perspective on games in general, I think it might be a detour. Only in the last four or five years have I come back to games as the main focus for my work, and that has been a better way of doing things, especially now that new media or digital media or interactive media or whatever you want to call them are such a diverse and omnipresent phenomena that it doesn?t make sense to think of them as all literary works of one kind or another. It?s such a big project to look at all those things, and to?
Patrick Crogan: ?characterise them as a single field?
Espen Aarseth: Yes, because they are all over the place. There are hardly any non-digital media left, so I think it?s too late to characterise all of them together. Digital media has become just media and so we need to sharpen our focus on smaller areas. That makes more sense to me.
Patrick Crogan: You have argued something similar in respect to games, saying that games are not really a single medium because of the differences between different kinds of games, something that is also seen in the differences between computer games, in terms of how they are played, whether online or single player or multiple player or what kind of interface they involve, purely text based or audio-visual and so on. Another point you made at Ludic Moments was that in the most general terms games are a sort of simulation system ? you cited a definition from Gonzalo Frasca along those lines ( You then made a point that there is a connection between games as a simulation system and the computer as a simulation machine. Perhaps then in some ways there is still a dimension of the general in which any sort of thinking about digital media or media today takes place and that this involves thinking about the nature of the computer.
Espen Aarseth: The question is what is the essence of computing? If there is such an essence we could say it is simulation: that is the essence from Turing onwards. Games of course are simulations and computers are a prime platform for doing simulations. It?s fair to say that games have undergone a major Renaissance thanks to the computer. Computer simulations have taken games in a whole new direction where you have more content in the games. This is not necessarily always the case but it seems to be the general trend in the digital games we get now. They are more filled with texture of all kinds ? maps, world events, world music, all sorts of cultural inputs. So it?s a new turn in a very long history of games but we?re looking not at one medium but a whole host of new media that happen to be games on computers.
Patrick Crogan: I think that?s implicit in thinking about games as simulations because simulation concerns the modelling and consequently the reductive abstraction of very diverse phenomena.
Espen Aarseth: Yes.
Patrick Crogan: Still at that level of generality I was wondering what you think of Lev Manovich?s efforts in The Language of New Media (2000), to formulate some basic principles of what a computer ontology is. In many ways I think his formulation is related to thinking of a computer as a simulating machine because it involves the idea that there?s two basic elements in the computer, namely, the database and the algorithm which is designed to produce various things from the database.
Espen Aarseth: It?s not a bad analysis but of course the database has been around for much longer than the digital computer and you can say the same about algorithms. What the computer does is to automate these two phenomena. Maybe the principle of simulation is more significant still than these other two and maybe you can even say the other two might be deduced from it. Or at least you can say that the computer simulates the old manual processes of algorithm-based work from databases. So I would suggest that there?s really only one great principle behind the computer, the one which Turing mentioned in his 1936 paper, that is, the universal machine, the machine that emulates any other machine and becomes identical to it in that sense.
Patrick Crogan: In Cybertext and some of your other essays the importance of cybernetic thought is marked (starting with the ?cyber? in Cybertext). For me this is connected to thinking about simulation. The key point of connection there would be the cybernetic notion of information. As you were saying before about how games are now multiplying their contents and the textures of those contents, in many ways this is a process of maximising the available information able to simulate content. I?m interested in how you see contemporary computer gaming as a way of understanding the impact or legacy of cybernetics that we live today.
Espen Aarseth: That?s a good question. Many people have argued that games are probably the most important product of computer technology?certainly in the cultural context they are the most important form or set of forms or sector coming out of mass computerisation. In addition, all the other phenomena that we have talked about over the last 12-15 years of cyberculture such as identity swapping, community building, hacking, gender issues, racial issues, age issues, access inequality and so on, all of these can be found most profoundly in computer game-related systems and game cultures. So the computer game epitomises the field of computer culture in a sense.
Patrick Crogan: I find computer games a very attractive object of study because the nature of games is to put things in play. They provide an excellent opportunity to reflect on what are ostensibly more serious or economic or work-related aspects of digital culture.
Espen Aarseth: Yes. Games are not only fun or for fun. There are so many serious aspects of culture that games engage, such as economy?if you look at Castranova?s (, 2001) work on virtual economies?to pure sociological approaches to online communication such as Richard Bartle?s ( work on player typologies. Bartle?s game player typology can also be used to distinguish between personality types involved in online communication more generally. So game studies is certainly a focussing lens for what used to be a number of very diverse phenomena which used to be called cyberculture.
Patrick Crogan: In relation to economics the significance of computer games just in terms of sales figures vis-à-vis other mass media forms is well known. But you have pointed out how the online massively multiplayer role play game, Everquest is actually a major international economic entity in its own right.
Espen Aarseth: Yes, that is what Castranova?s discovered when he used very standard economic theory to describe the selling and buying of online virtual objects inside Everquest. Also Castranova?s estimated the exchange rate of the virtual currency inside Everquest (the ?Plat(inum)? as it?s called) as something around one Japanese Yen. It is an amazing phenomenon and one that can be figured out using conventional economic theory without the need for new theories of virtual economics.
Patrick Crogan: The trading of those virtual objects in real currency would take place in the illicit "black economy" of the game.
Espen Aarseth: Yes and that is something that Sony and Microsoft and so forth are not happy about: somebody else is making money on their games! But it seems to be very hard to stop althought there are several court cases now between the retailers of virtual commerce and the companies that own the platforms that these products are made with. That?s an interesting battle.
Patrick Crogan: There?s a parallel issue here concerning the way that the World Wide Web more generally functions both as a support for traffic in illicit activities (such as porn) while at the same time?
Espen Aarseth: What seems most important here is the issue of ownership. That is, questions of digital rights, ongoing rights etc. goes to the heart of the matter. Who owns your avatar? And that sort of question. Many people have written interesting articles about that. For instance T.L.Taylor had a very good paper in the Computer Games and Digital Culture conference in Tampere last year about these ownership issues relating to computer games (2002:227-242).
Patrick Crogan: Another dimension of the question of games as serious cultural forms worthy of study is presently at issue here in Australia. There?s a media controversy about a game being developed with the assistance of funding from the Australia Council, a national arts funding body. The game project, "Escape from Woomera" is about escaping from Australia?s notorious immigration detention centres.
Espen Aarseth: This indicates that games have become such a big phenomenon. It?s not just about how games engage us but how we use games to communicate other things. We are seeing all these non-commercial games ? the "Bin Laden" games, and now the Iraqi "Kill Saddam" games, the "Michael Jackson baby dropping" games. You have all these small, short Javascript games online for free, games that are vehicles for satire or political opinion or activism. It?s interesting to see how games are being taken up by cultural discourse, not because these are great new types of games but because games are now a vehicle for political criticism and intervention. It goes to show that computer games are now part of our culture and a new way of cultural critique. In relation to games more generally it?s probably not that new? I?m sure that you can find card games with political figures?but it?s certainly an interesting phenomenon that games are used by the grass roots to put forward political positions.
Patrick Crogan: Your comment about the playing cards made me think of the American military?s deck of cards with the 52 Iraqi "fugitives" during the recent Gulf War. Illustrating your point, I saw circulating on the Web an alternative deck of cards displaying various American politicians, government officials and senior corporation executives as people wanted for killing and destruction in Iraq. With the Woomera Detention Centre game controversy there are two sources of criticism. One is the Federal Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, who is saying that the game should not be supported because it promotes illegal activity?which seems to me like saying that we should ban Terminator 2 or the like because it promotes the illegal activity of shooting people. The other criticisms come from some of the asylum refugee advocacy groups who are saying that the game exploits the plight of refugees in these camps. I guess this goes to the issue of whether a game can have a serious purchase on real issues and be allowed to extend beyond the normal expectations about games being no more than frivolous entertainment.
Espen Aarseth: Games have always had that opportunity or that role. In the Middle Ages and even in ancient times there was always the matter of who controls games. Games were being used in political manouevring. For instance in ancient Rome the emperors were the ones who licensed the authority to run the gladiator games because they were so popular and were important as a political tool. And of course gambling games involve large sums of money and if the King controls the gambling he has a significant source of income. So games have always been a thing to control by the rulers and this is nothing new. With this Woomera game it?s hard to say if its exploitative or not before we?ve actually seen it. That would be unfair or at least it would be somewhat uninteresting as a critique (laughs). Of course maybe it can or maybe it can?t help train people to escape, it?s an open question at this stage. This all goes back to the idea of simulation of course, you use simulations to train for real life situations without risking real life dangers. But ultimately it?s a matter of freedom of speech if the government wants to stop such things. What level of freedom of speech do you want to have in your society? It?s a tough question because simulations are different from overt statements. Even something as innocent as a flight simulator can be used for subversive purposes as seen with the September 11th attacks where the perpetrators had been training with flight simulators to acquire these skills of mass destruction, as it were. It?s really a question of how much or whether you want to control the potential for skill acquisition. What types of simulations are dangerous ones? That is very hard to say. An innocent flight simulator is probably more dangerous or potentially dangerous than a satirical game about refugee detention centres.
Patrick Crogan: I would say in relation to flight simulators that this dangerous application was only to return flight simulation to its more original modality?military training for controlling dangerous situations. Your point that simulations are more difficult to manage from the point of view of controlling potential misuse is a fascinating one. Censorship of say a movie, a play or some form of narrative which delivers an identifiable interpretation of its subject would seem by comparison much easier. But a game doesn?t have that form. Being a simulation, certain things are taken for granted. There are goals in designing a training simulation and so there is a kind of implicit ethics that are taken for granted in playing the simulation. So it?s more difficult to actually pin down what exactly is the ethics of the simulation beyond the achievement of the training goals.
Espen Aarseth: Simulations certainly have value systems embedded in the rules so you can say that the rules are the value systems. An example is The Sims: the refrigerator is necessary because if you haven?t bought it your family will die of starvation. This happened to my family! (Laughs). Maybe because I?m European I?m not attached to my fridge and we can imagine living without them. That sort of value systems simulation is actually a very good source of discovering different value systems embedded in the software.
Patrick Crogan: That?s a culturally relative survival principle in The Sims. The one that struck me on my first time playing The Sims was when you go to bed at night with your designed companion but it doesn?t actually happen unless you?ve been nice to each other during the day or developed some rapport by talking to each other, making food and so on. On another topic, you?re actually moving to a new position at the IT University of Copenhagen where you?ll be building a game studies program ( In a recent Games Studies editorial you explored (via a humorous treatment for a game about setting up a game studies department) the whole project of how games study is going to emerge or what would be necessary to do in that emergence. Could you talk about the status of games studies at the moment.
Espen Aarseth: There are many ways of producing game study programs and certainly many schools and universities are doing so. The most common way is to have a technical studies program for game designers or people who want to be game programmers. But the technical approach can easily be combined with aesthetic approaches. I also think you should have a sociological approach and even bring in economics, law, or other social science aspects relating to games in contemporay culture. If you look at what some of the most interesting game designers are doing these days, they are not really technical designers but social designers, social engineers you could call them. They are making systems in which thousands and hundreds of thousands of people are going to coexist and have fun. These systems are developed so that people will come back to them and spend time with them. This is not really a technical issue any more but a social issue. Some of these people making these systems are very intelligently making design decisions about how these systems can accommodate these social situations. This is really an interesting aspect which requires some sort of sociological or psycho-sociological perspective which it?s fair to say these designers have. They?re making new rules which are going to affect the way we communicate online. So we have games today and massive online societies tomorrow just like with the MUDs but on a much larger scale.
Patrick Crogan: Is this perhaps a source of anxiety about game designers becoming a new era of technocrats, that is, people who think they are going to design technical solutions for another utopian or ideal system of human society?
Espen Aarseth: That?s certainly what?s happening. These things take time and there?s going to be a lot of failures, some successes and input from the feedback loop of user complaints, user strategies, developer strategies and so forth. It?s an interesting dialectic which we?ve just seen the beginning of. In 30 years from now we will see very interesting results of that development, how these systems that began as games develop a whole new state of etiquette, social rules, strategies for large scale human interaction which is going to have a big impact on the rest of society. Of course, games have always been social and a place to learn social skills so it?s nothing new that games take the lead in developing new forms of online social interaction. What they say about the playing fields of Eton, you might say that is also true for Everquest, Lineage and all those fantasy games that are probably training the leadership of tomorrow. And not just leaders but also the new political strategies and so on. This is a scary perspective. The scary thing is that these game systems are driven by big corporate investments. The Microsofts and the Sonys are in charge and in the lead in this effort and that might be something that should make us think. Is our future too important to leave to Microsoft and Sony to develop? Of course there is nothing wrong with them contributing but perhaps we shouldn?t leave it to them altogether. So one of the interesting challenges might be to make open source alternatives to these proprietary social interfaces that are now being built. It might be a very important role for universities to undertake a sort of action research to help develop open source alternatives and game platforms or social interface platforms as alternatives to commercial systems.


Aarseth, E. (1997) Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press

Bartle, R. "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: People Who Suit MUDs", available at

Castronova, E. (2001) "Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and
Society on the Cyberian Frontier", available at

Center for Computer Games Research,, IT University of Copenhagen

Frasca, G. "Simulation 101: Simulation Versus Representation" available at,