King of the Hill : Investigation and Re-appropriation of Space in the Video Game

by Sébastien Babeux (University of Quebec in Montreal)

The defining element in video games is spatiality. That short sentence that feels like a quote (and in fact is: Aarseth, 2001, p.154) is all this paper is about. Grounding our proposition on a few different approaches that place space and space regulation as prerequisites for the possibility of play, we will examine how the video game player can get (the feeling of having) control over the gameworld’s space. Our considerations are mainly applicable to the video game gameplayer, which should be distinguished from the gamer (a distinction that we won’t do exhaustively but that should establish itself in the length of the text, for a precise distinction, see: Perron, 2003, pp.237-258) – the latter being essentially in competition against the game and not merely playing (in) it. Stealth games will serve as our primary object of study – peering and wandering into their distinctive spatiality, we will observe the importance for the gameplayer to conquer it.

The stealth game is characterized by a combination of gameplay and narrative configurations. A wide variety of games propose stealth based levels or features (Driver or GTA III, for example, contain tracking and tailing missions), but we will focus here on a few games in which stealth is most prominent. The complex spatial elaboration and implications of these games provide an ideal setting for our reflection.

Stealth games correspond widely to a basic narrative scheme. The initial situation of most levels places the avatar in an unknown environment which he will have to investigate and, discreetly and unnoticeably, besiege. In this environment, the missions imposed to the gamers are mostly of two natures: to get back (steal, release, kidnap) or to delete (erase, destroy, eliminate) a diegetic entity. That entity might concretely exist in the gameworld (a jewel, a criminal – entities the gamer interacts with) or might only be supported by the game’s narration (for example, information that the gamer has to retrieve or delete from a computer).

As for the gameplay, it revolves mainly around the motion of the avatar in the navigable space of the gameworld – the gamer has to get his avatar to the targeted entity, and then out of the hostile environment, without attracting overt attention to him. In other words, the principal antagonist to the gamer’s success in the majority of these missions is space itself and its management. The avatar will come across opponents of various types, and the gamer will often have the choice to engage confrontation – in most cases, the preferable solution in a stealth game is to avoid confrontation [1] and deal with the encounter in spatial mastery: getting through the guarded area without being noticed by the opponent (distracting him if necessary) or elaborating and pursuing a different path through the level (when it is in fact possible). In either case, success and failure depend on the gamer’s ability to govern the game’s spatiality.

In video games, space is always property of the other. The gamer is “requested” to participate in a game that will take place on grounds that aren’t his. The landowner is that other “gamer” who can vaguely be identified as the author (on a solely technical aspect, game space is the work of the game’s designers and programmers). Some games tend to lessen this primary spatial otherness by offering player-constructed spaces (for example, in Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 or Links 2003, the player can cross, and play through, spaces he laid out), but stealth games, on the contrary, reinforce it, as much by its gameplay than its narrative. The antagonistic spaces in which the missions occur are, in the back-stories of the games, concrete property of the other. The avatar of the gamer is clearly unwanted and “uninvited” in these spaces he makes trespass – a relation exemplifying the effective tension between the gamer and the gameworld he must inhabit. That tension, when too severe, threatens the immersion of the gamer in the gameworld and, by extension, the possibility itself of the game being played (in the creative sense, as in played and not gamed).

With this in mind, let us consider Winnicott’s assessment of creative play. Investigating the relation between the baby and its mother, the psychoanalyst centers his reflection on spatiality (“playing has a place” – 1971, p.41) and emphasizes on the question of where we play [2]. Winnicott suggests a potential space that would extend between the player’s psyche (baby) and the exterior reality (mother), a space that would paradoxically both link and disjoin the two. The proposition takes ground on the fact that play occurs neither entirely in the player’s imagination nor in the concrete reality, but inbetween, in an intermediary area of experience where both other “areas” take effect. In this potential space, the real becomes the object of the player’s imaginative manipulations: a stick becomes a sword; the living room becomes a castle or its surroundings. The “creativity” at work corresponds to the shaping ability the player has over his playing space and the elements imported into it. Some rules of étiquette apply to that potential space: exterior agents will only come into play if they are accepted (and the player won’t tolerate much disturbance in his play); the shaping ability of the player mustn’t be put in doubt or questioned (an exterior agent pointing out that the sword is in fact a stick would risk to halt the fantasy, and thus break out the playing activity). The implicit agreement is broken every time the player is reminded that he is evolving in a space established by the other: when an “organizer” leads the playing activity, it nullifies the possibility for “creativity” (Winnicott, 1971, p.50). The absence of “creativity” generates a feeling of pointlessness. The player senses that he must adjust and adapt himself to the exterior world, and, more importantly to us: “as if [he was] caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine” (Winnicott, 1971, p.65).

This last idea translates impressively well to the literature surrounding video games, and particularly to game reviews in popular press and web publications (and, per induction, to the general reception of video games). Games that present a firm linear development, or in which the solutions are bluntly pointed out to the gamer, are usually discourteously received. Among stealth games, Stolen constitutes possibly the quintessential straightforwardness:

Despite the lack of any plot development, you won't have a problem knowing where to go, because the levels are linear and when you come to a new area Louie [NPC character, technical assistant of the gamer’s avatar] will chime in to tell you exactly what to do. […]Overall, Stolen just doesn't have much to offer to even the most diehard stealth fans. Once you complete the game there's no reason to ever play it again. (Mueller, 2005)

The imposition of a previously mapped out path and the interventions in Stolen of the NPC character are traces of enunciation and, as remembrances of the author’s scripture, they contravene to what we’ve called the rules of étiquette. They constitute an evidence of the author’s ownership of the playgrounds and, by reminding the gamer that he is playing in someone else’s space, they take (a good part of) the possibility for “creativity” away from the playing experience – conceivably, they take away the playing from the (video) game. The restrictions regarding free play thus threaten [3] to push the gamer away from the potential space of play where he lives (or dreams) his game session – in other words, threaten to wake him up.

Obviously, nobody is dreaming when playing, but the intermediary area of experience where the play unwinds incites a dream-like state [4] in which the reality serves as molding material. In the video game, that material is already virtual, the gameworld, confection of the author: a pertinent portrayal of being caught up in someone else’s (or – worst – of a machine’s) creation. The gamer’s passage through the gameworld’s space must deal with its primary otherness, its prior organization (the author being, clearly, the “organizer”). To do so, to keep playing in a space that escapes from his control (or “re-shaping capacity”, since it continuously reshapes itself autonomously), the gamer has to get away from the organizing dominion – to free himself from the pre-established game-path and narrative scheme, and thus becoming gameplayer (Perron, 2003). Some games, as we have noted, offer more malleable settings and environments which facilitate this flight; others, more narrative, more linear, more organized, pose a greater challenge to the gameplayer.

Stealth games contain firmly established plots, and thus correspond to that second, more organized, category of games. To assert this, one only has to examine the general development of the games, without considering any particular level’s design and narrative unfolding: to get to level two, you have to get through (a spatial way of formulating things) level one’s main objectives. This development poses an A-B linear scheme which can’t be overruled by the gamer (who is “bound to the rules and limits of the game universe and of the gameplay” – Perron, 2003, p.242), but that the gameplayer has to stretch out.

The deviation the gameplayer can impose to the game’s scheme comes through free play. Free play forces Winnicott’s notion of “creativity” in the game – it consists basically in ignoring the organizer. The gameplayer then takes possession of the creation of the other/author (the gameworld) as he would of exterior reality and bends it to his own rules. The potential space, atrophied by the overlapping of another’s created space and rules, regains some of its scope. The gameplayer is, au fond, creating a game (and thus, establishing his potential space) within the author’s game-space. Obviously, some rules of the game can’t be overruled (as gravity can’t be ignored when rendering the living room into a potential castle), but the major objectives and directivity, imposed to the gamer, can be put aside.

For example, in the “Traditions of the trade” level in Hitman: Codename 47, the mission objectives read: 1) Eliminate Frantz Fuchs; 2) Secure terrorist bomb; 3) Escape to rendezvous point. The deployment of the mission is structured around several anchor narrative elements that have to be triggered for the mission to be completed and successful: killing Fuchs; getting the bomb case; getting the x-ray room key; retrieving the bomb; evacuating the hotel. A gameplayer could discount all of those and take over the hotel’s space and inescapable rules (a policeman NPC character will shoot at the player’s avatar if he knows he is armed and/or dangerous) – conceiving and putting in place his own set of rules and objectives (which could be as simple as “breaking the mirrors of every room in the hotel” or as challenging as “filling the pool with corpses” [Figure 1]), the gameplayer regains (at least part of) his “creativity” and gets to actually play in the game. Free play can be of more or less extent, it is inherent to all kinds of simple impositions the player adopts by himself: not using a certain weapon or accessory; killing everybody; etc.

Figure 1:

In many ways, free play corresponds to what Michel De Certeau qualifies as “tactic”, which he poses against “strategy”. The latter “postulates a space that is susceptible of being confined as owned and thus to serve as base for the management of its relations with a distinct exteriority” (De Certeau, 1990, p.XLVI, freely translated). Strategy is a global control maneuver, intended to keep the distinct exteriority (the visitor, which is principally identified as the consumer or, in arts, the reader – the gamer/gameplayer here) in line, to maintain order in the space. The ideas of “line” and “order” are spatial metaphor pointing, beyond the space-organization at work, to its linear temporal unfolding. Strategy, being a global governance, merges into the “environment” – part of it consists in imposing the control set into place as rules. The author and the linear game deployment of the stealth game are easily identifiable as strategist and strategy; the references to the personas of the “producer” and the “landlord” are also pointing towards the game’s author (as creator and owner of the gameworld).

As the gameplayer is denied of spatial ownership in the gameworld [5] (the primary otherness of the game-space prevents him from attaining the status of strategist) he is constrained by having to resort to tactics for regaining a certain form of control over space. De Certeau states that tactic “has for only space the space of the other. It thus has to play on the field that is imposed to it, as it is, organized by the law of a foreign force” (1990, p.60, freely translated). The tactician always is the tenant of an inhabitable space he doesn’t own. For him, the other is a system that he can’t utterly escape nor attribute to one identifiable being – as the author appears, to the gameplayer, as a set of rules and as a remote and abstract presence (the author reigns by absence). The tenant appropriates his lodgings by signature: it is his differences that modify, be it minimally, the events taking place in the space itself (which his presence, literally, redecorates). The same thing applies to the video gameplayer: by his particular gameplay, by its rhythm and style (by his simple presence), he signs his game session. No two game sessions are identical and in this way, the gameplayer has a noticeable control over the game’s temporality, deployment [6] and, of greater interest to us, spatiality – via exploration. Since the beginning of Modern Times and the election of the progressive mentality, comprehension has been strongly connected to ownership (we own a certain knowledge), and sight has been the foundation of comprehension. Examination, observation, study, survey, investigation: looking intensively at something is what reveals it in its finest details. It is by sight, by looking at or looking into (“I will look into it”), that we get to possess, to get a hold on what we are dealing with. Exploration is, above all, the sight of space [7], and through it, the gameplayer gains knowledge and, to a certain extent, possession of the game-space.

Knowledge of the gameworld enables the gameplayer to make himself at home, he thus can find ways to overuse (and overtake) game-space [8]. Exploration can get the gameplayer to unexpected areas. In a game like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, in which player movements are limited by strong spatial restrictions (the unidirectional and linear flow of the game has accounted for its main criticism), exploration can become, for the gameplayer, a mean of escaping the game’s control. For example, in the “Return to Chinese Embassy” level, the gameplayer can diverge from the linear course imposed to him by the space’s corridor-like elaboration. At some point in the level, Sam Fisher (the avatar of the gamer/gameplayer) gets to a second floor balcony where the only way forward is a zip line he must use to cross the street to the Embassy. Instead of doing so, and going where the game (and the game’s author) directs him, the gameplayer can choose to jump off the balcony to an (almost) certain death – in fact, if the gameplayer does so while still having a full health meter, Sam Fisher will survive the jump. The area under the balcony is navigable, but incomplete: the design is soft, the avatar not being supposed to get there, the walls and posts aren’t in-play (the avatar can walk through them) and the area contains an unexplainable dead-end – its sole purpose in the game is as a décor for the gamer’s passage from one building to the other. Tactical overtaking of the game’s spatiality provides the gameplayer with a renewed impression [9] of freedom (a freedom he might have felt was denied to him by the game’s rigidity): a small-scale revolution inside of the system’s control strategy.

As for game-space overuse, we find an example in Hitman 2: Silent Assassin’s first level, “Anathema”. The “Don”, Guiseppe Guilliani, is the main target of the level and must be eliminated. The Hitman games being fairly open-ended, both in narrative and spatially, this (like most objectives) can be achieved in a certain number of ways – one of which, is to reach the Don when he goes practicing his golf swing on the bedroom’s balcony. The gameplayer might thus choose to sneak 47 (his avatar) into the said bedroom, ideally without alerting the guard on assignment in the hall. If things go wrong, and the guard goes after 47, one way of losing him is to crouch alongside the bed, still (logically) fully visible, but absolutely undetectable to the guard (even if he stands right next to 47) [Figure 2]. This tactical spatial overuse is principally achievable by means of exploration and investigation of the game-space.

Simpler forms of spatial overuse will come through the diverted utilization of the game’s optical apparatus, which offers in most recent games, an aesthetic (and therefore, creative) form of freedom. The gameplayer, through the control of the game’s mise-en-scène, becomes “somewhat of a director, free to go where he wants, see what he wants” [10]. The game’s diversion might be very brief and punctual, even consisting of one single shot, carefully framed or composed, sexy, funny, or simply beautiful [Figure 3].

Figure 2:

Figure 3:

Each playmaking and optical decision a player makes contributes at defining his gameplay style. Maude Bonenfant poses as the “appropriation space” the (more or less wide) range of freedom in which the player is able to make those decisions. In this appropriation space, the player perceives, interprets (and therefore, semiotizes), the game and participates in its mediation [Bonenfant, 2004]. The video game’s unfolding, being bound to the gamer’s appropriative acts and semiotization, can thus be considered, in part and to some extent, the gamer’s property – even though the space itself where the game unfolds, as we’ve noted, always remains the other’s territory.

The appropriation space is restricted by explicit rules imposed to the gamer, namely every rule surrounding the artifact itself and the rules linked to the game’s narrativity: from hardware limitations to game design and scripture [Bonenfant, 2004]. On the contrary, implicit rules, the ones that the gameplayer imposes to himself, opens up the appropriation space, making his game experience a little more “his”. Some components of the video games have for main function the facilitation of the appropriation process: the possibility to modulate the avatar, to name it, to voice commands to your allies, etc. In stealth games like Hitman 2: Silent Assassin or Splinter Cell 3: Chaos Theory, a recapitulation screen at the end of the missions indicates the different results attained in the mission by the gamer – gauging his particular gameplay style, sometimes personalizing it (for example, Hitman 2 ranks the gamer’s gameplay style from “mass murderer” to “silent assassin”).

Game-space is antithetic to appropriation space. The spatial elaboration of the levels is, as we have seen through-out this text, a strong limitation to the appropriation process by the gamer/gameplayer. For example, the seemingly continuous space of a top-of-the-art game like Splinter Cell 3: Chaos Theory, is in fact narratively segmented, making it impossible for the gameplayer to free himself from the author’s narrative control over more than one vignette – once he ventures beyond the spatial segment, he is drawn back to the pre-established narrative scheme, entering a new vignette. The appropriative effort of the gameplayer should thus be a constant (creative and tactical) rebellion against the reigning other, aiming at gaining some ground, advancing and conquering, not within the game, but within the game-space, his opponent’s territory.

End Notes [ back ]

1 - For example, in both Hitman 2: Silent Assassin and Splinter Cell 3: Chaos Theory, complete level success will come only at the expense of any triggered alarm or unnecessary kill.

2 - “[P]lay is in fact neither a matter of inner psychic reality nor a matter of external reality […] if play is neither inside nor outside, where is it?” (Winnicott, 1971, p.96).

3 - It has been demonstrated that traces of enunciation won’t automatically break the spell and prevent immersion – the gamer being able to tolerate and accommodate to lots of potentially distancing elements. See: Therrien, 2004.

4 - “Without hallucinating the child puts out a sample of dream potential and lives with this sample in a chosen setting of fragments from external reality” (Winnicott, 1971, p.51).

5 - As noted, even in more permissive and malleable games, the gamer/gameplayer never owns the space in which is inscribed the land or house or golf course he might himself have built (and, diegetically, “owns”).

6 - “When I wander around in a mystery, adventure or a shoot-‘em-up game, I cannot change the fundamental layout of the game-world just as I cannot change Italy by my visit, but nevertheless I control my navigation, my ability to shoot monsters, etc., and create many different stories.” (Grodal, 2003, p.143).

7 - The “Space Program” and the Great Explorers are other evidences of the implicit links in place between seeing, knowing and owning.

8 - Ian Storm identified as “emergence” the occurrences where a gameplayer escapes the author’s control, giving as example a possibility, in Deus Ex, to climb walls using one of the gamer’s accessories (proximity mines) (referenced in: Juul, 2002) – Jesper Juul later elaborated the concept, dividing it into three different types (rule interaction, combination, emergent strategies), all of them effective as “tactics”.

9 - An impression that remains negated by the game design: even if the gameplayer managed to escape the author’s control, he can’t completely evade from his construction.

10 - Bénédict, 2002, p.58, freely translated.


Aarseth, Espen, “Allegories of Space: The Question of Spatiality in Computer Games”, in Markku Eskelinen and Raine Koskimaa (eds.), Cybertext Yearbook 2000, University of Jyväskylä, 2001, pp.152-171.

Bénédict, Sébastien, “Silent Hill 2. De peur lente”, Les cahiers du cinema. Spécial jeux videos, September 2002.

Maude Bonenfant, « La construction de l'Autre médiatisé dans les jeux vidéo en réseau », La nouvelle sphère intermédiatique VI : Enjeux interculturels des médias. Violences, discontinuités, altérités, Sixième colloque international du CRI, Montreal, October 2004.

De Certeau, Michel, L’invention du quotidien. 1. arts de faire, Paris, Gallimard, 1990.

Grodal, Torben, “Stories for Eye, Ear, and Muscles: Video Games, Media, and Embodied Experiences”, in Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (eds.), The Video Game Theory Reader, New York and London, Routledge, 2003, pp.129-155.

Juul, Jesper, “The Open and the Closed: Game of emergence and games of progression", in Frans Mäyrä (ed), Computer Game and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings, Tampere, Tampere University Press, 2002, pp.323-329,

Mueller, Greg, « Stolen », Gamespot, 2005

Perron, Bernard, “From Gamers to Players and Gameplayers. The Example of Interactive Movies”, in Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (eds.), The Video Game Theory Reader, New York and London, Routledge, 2003, pp.237-258.

Therrien, Carl, La problématique de la transparence revisitée par le jeu vidéo, unpublished Master Thesis, University of Montreal, 2004.

Winnicott, D. W., Playing and Reality, London, Tavistock Publications, 1971.

Paper presented at the Aesthetics of Play conference in Bergen, Norway, 14-15 October 2005