Journey and the Semiotics of Meaningful Play is my paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Forum Ludorum seminar (Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe, Germany), alongside a public presentation held on January 11, 2017.


The term "meaningful play" had entered the gaming vernacular in recent years, particularly in conjunction with independently developed ("indie") videogames, but little to no consensus still exists among scholars and gamers as to what exactly makes an act of play "meaningful". In order to approach this question from a scientific and analytical perspective, the present study borrows the methodology and concepts of semiotics, the formal study of signs and meaning-making, and applies them to Journey, a popular videogame lauded by critics for facilitating meaningful player experiences.

The study builds upon the ludic framework, a semiotic theory of meaningful gameplay currently in development by the French videogame researcher Frederic Seraphine, and consists of two parts. First, we give a brief overview of the three key theories underlying Seraphine’s work (the semiotic studies of Charles Peirce and his students, the cybertextual studies originating with Espen Aarseth, and the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework), before examining the ludic framework itself in detail. We then analyze the production background and history of Journey and perform a semiotic analysis of select elements of its visuals, mechanics, and levels in an attempt to better understand its way of creating meaningful player experience. Finally, we draw conclusions both about the applicability of semiotic analysis to contemporary games and about the question of meaningful play itself.

Keywords: Game studies, semiotics, emotion, gameplay, narrative, ergodic literature, cybertext, MDA framework, ludic framework, thatgamecompany