Games within games (within games)

The theme for this month’s Blogs of the Round Table is “player’s choice” — it’s about how players may set in place rules or restrictions that aren’t enforced by the (digital) arbiter of the game. Since games themselves can be considered arbitrary boundaries within a space,** As already articulated by Huizinga (1938: 10). I think it wouldn’t be too forward of me to rebrand the “player’s choice” theme as “games within games”, at least for the purposes of this article.

Such voluntarily enacted games within games (or “nested games”, or “subgames”) have a number of goals: increased challenge and gratification, and possibly social capital in the case where the performance within the nested game is shared with or observed by others. All of these rewards and goals lie outside of the rules of host game: they are created and arbitrated by players themselves, who appropriate the (possibility) space of the host game for their own purposes.

In this piece, I wanted to briefly discuss some ways in which players create subgames in videogames, and what they say about the nature of various types of play and game spaces. I’ll start with a discussion of approaches to ‘ghost’ and pacifist playstyles in stealth games, and how these playstyles have become incorporated or re-appropriated in the rules of various host games. Afterwards, I’ll discuss how roleplaying in multiplayer videogames is practically always a subgame enacted outside of the digitally arbitrated game rules. Finally, just to mess with you, I’ll attempt to stretch my own model by talking about particular subgames I’ve tried to play within the roleplaying subgame.

Pacifism & Stealth

Let’s begin with stealth games. Without having gone through the trouble of an extensive historical search, I think it is relatively safe to say that Thief: the Dark Project (1998) was the first game to really make people feel like stealth games were or should be a genre. As far as I know, it is for that game that the first publicly articulated pacifist and ghost playstyles were developed. The first was partly warranted by the game itself: on expert difficulty, you were not allowed to kill any humans in the game, with the ethical suggestion that an expert Garrett, as a ‘true’ thief, was not an assassin. Unlike the vast majority of first person games at the time (and now), Thief offered other solutions to your goals than killing adversaries. If, as a player, you were to adopt this stance of never killing any human, you would be able to complete the game on expert. If you so wished, you could go even further, never even using your blackjack to knock guards unconscious, using knockout gas, and the like. Even further, you could decide to never attack any non-human creatures (zombies, ghosts, spiders, etc.) either. A radical pacifist would never harm an adversary in a stealth game.

Gamers are nothing if not people who like to up the ante from time to time, so even more restrictive playstyles are also conceivable. Never hurting any creature in the game is challenge enough, but since it’s a stealth game, it’s perfectly feasible — albeit quite difficult — to play through the game without ever being seen or heard by an enemy. Pull that off, and you could claim you had finished the game ‘ghost style’.** Or, if you wanted to ab­so­lute­ly leave no trace what­so­ever of your passing, you made sure to close all doors be­hind you, to never extin­guish any flames, etc. One of the other self-imposed player’s challenges in the Thief days was “The Lytha way“, named after the player who introduced the style on the forums of Through the Looking Glass. Basically, this playstyle meant you played the game on expert, found all the loot, and never hurt an enemy.

They listened, they learned. Now your playstyles are part of the game.

Such playstyles have remained popular among players of stealth games, and in more recent such games, these styles have become more and more incorporated in the game’s official (digitally arbitrated) rules through difficulty settings or achievements. If you have a look at recent stealth games such as Deus Ex: Human RevolutionMark of the Ninja, or Dishonored, you’ll find that all of them reward pacifist and ghost playstyles with in-game achievements. In addition, the latest Thief (2014) allows you to mix and match different components that make up such extra-challenging playstyles, which leads to a higher score when completing the game’s missions. This shows how player-invented challenges may inspire game designers to codify such playstyles as part of their own (future) rule and reward systems.

What, perhaps, has changed slightly after such playstyles are appropriated by the official game rules is their partly social nature. When playstyles are self-arbitrated, the burden of proof of their enaction lies with the players themselves. Part of the fun of these playstyles is the peer-to-peer communication of your achievements. In, say, the year 2000, you proved you’d found all the loot by making a screenshot. You proved you’d never been detected by enemies by asserting you hadn’t been. YouTube playthroughs didn’t really exist back then, so people would have to take your word for it. Now, the games arbitrate themselves whether you’ve properly done a pacifist run or a ghost style, and you can show the achievement on your Steam profile, or what have you. Granted, it’s still a social showcasing of your performance, but its verification is automated. The more your specific playstyle becomes part of the official game rules, the less it becomes a game within a game.


There are certain similarities between the playstyles outlined above and the activity of roleplaying in digital games. I would argue that a lot of that similarity comes down to the idea that both can be analysed as games within games. To be clear, the discussion below applies mainly to roleplaying within a digital game world, and not to e.g. pen and paper or live action roleplaying, unless you would like to assert that life itself is the host game in these cases. Have fun playing with that notion.

So, the act of roleplaying in a videogame is a game within a game when, just like in the playstyles discussed previously, it is an activity arbitrated by players themselves. Fixed dialogue or class choices in a game would be excluded, for example. The distinction becomes particularly important for multiplayer games with an implied roleplaying component: MMORPGs. In their analysis of roleplaying in World of Warcraft, MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler (2008) argue that roleplaying in the sense of acting out a character in action, speech, and outward persona is not explicitly encouraged or rewarded by the digital rules of the game, although these rules do allow for the expression of these roleplaying activities. In fact, the act of roleplaying runs counter to some of the actions that are explicitly rewarded by the game, particularly defeating many and/or strong enemies as efficiently as possible. These goals are best served by a power-oriented rather than personality-oriented development of characters, and by fast communication making use of player knowledge of the game. Roleplaying, by contrast, relies on cumbersome in-character communication without references to player knowledge, and the under­taking of all kinds of social activities — drinking in a tavern, dancing in the town square, or basically extended conversations of any kind — that are not rewarded by the game in the form of character progression (equipment, abilities, gold, etc.).

In-game progression is actually hindered by roleplaying activities, because any time spent roleplaying could have been spent gathering loot and killing enemies, thereby directly advancing your character along the lines arbitrated by the game. Because of this, there is a constant ludic pressure for players not to roleplay. This means that even in spaces where roleplaying is supposed to be standard — the specially dedicated RP servers — it often has to be enforced socially. In short, in many situations the subgame of roleplay has to compete with its own host game, even when the latter is nominally designed to facilitate the former. In the end, that doesn’t matter too much, since it is perfectly feasible to create social spaces within these worlds where sustained roleplay is possible. Most often this happens in the form of player guilds, where all members are assumed to be dedicated to creating a communal roleplaying experience. Such a space can be home to a variety of subgames, of which I will give two examples.

In the summer of 2012, I had a brief fling with The Lord of the Rings Online. It was the first time I’d ever played an MMO, and knowing my inclinations, I selected an RP server to play on. Although not all players on the server were interested in roleplaying, most of them were, and it wasn’t too difficult to team up with strangers to do some quests and roaming around with, while also having in-character conversations. After a while I decided to join a guild to find a more steady group of players and characters to hang out with. The guild was good at finding a balance between roleplay and the demands of the combat-based questing and raiding aspects of the game: when there were lulls in activity during such events, communication was in character, while such roleplaying could be loosened in moments of immediate tactical challenge.

My character Hedda smoking in the guild hall, doing nothing quantifiably progressive at all.

Next to that type of event, the guild had no shortage of other events, which is where the more typical game-within-a-game elements come forth. A guildhall meeting is a subgame of roleplay in itself, but we also took the opportunity to hold events like riddling contests and quizzes, quite in keeping with Tolkienian tradition of the host game, I’d say. The most elaborate subgame I took part in was a swimming contest, which took place in a tributary of the Brandywine River, between The Shire and Bree.* * Of course, I did not have the sound­ness of mind to keep any screen­shots of the event in case I ever wanted to write about it.Anyone who wanted to take part was sorted into a team: each swimmer could have up to two coaches, who would run alongside the course to cheer their swimmer on, and perhaps cast a speed-boosting spell or two. One character blowing a war horn signalled the start of the race, while a referee stood at the finish line. There was even a band of hunters to keep the area clear of wandering goblins: it wouldn’t do to let the host game ruin the party. To hold the swimming contest, the guild carved out a new temporary subgame space, working both with and against the area and the physical rules provided by the host game.

My final example is from another online game, or really another voluntary player-created space within the framework of a commercially developed host game. The game is Neverwinter Nights, which came with an elaborate toolset and infrastructure for players to create and host their own (persistent) game worlds. Among these player-hosted servers were a number of roleplaying servers, many situated in one of the various campaign settings of Dungeons & Dragons. I played on a number of them, but for the moment, we’ll have to travel through the mists of time and space to the Ravenloft server Prisoners of the Mist. On this server, I experimented with a subsubgame of sorts, by deciding that my character was a Dutchman from ‘Gothic Earth’, an allowed subsetting of the Ravenloft universe. I did this because I wanted to try out what it was like to introduce a linguistic challenge to the basic challenge of playing a role. I pretended my character, Roelof, spoke only Dutch, and would have to learn the common language spoken in this strange new world where he had suddenly ended up.

As you can imagine, the challenge was considerable, and I was only able to keep it up for a dozen hours or so spread across a few days. I kept notes with the words Roelof had learned through communicating with other characters in impromptu sign language — which meant having to type out as a player that my character was pointing at various objects, gesturing, etc. Other players were extremely accommo­dating, and many honestly tried to help Roelof out by teaching him basic words. They were open to what I was trying to do: voluntarily add another layer to the already self-imposed restriction of roleplaying. Even more than regular roleplaying, this linguistic experiment made more traditional ludic activities in the game (teaming up and raiding an undead-invested crypt, for example) nearly impossible, since Roelof was not able to efficiently coordinate his actions with other characters. All the same, there was a pay-off: the gratification of other people intuitively grasping what I was trying to express with my character, and a smidgen of understanding of what it is like to improvise communication with people whose language you do not speak when you’re a guest in their world.


All of the examples I’ve given here show that players enjoy creating games within games. By choice, they impose new rules within the spaces created by host games in order to expose themselves and eachother to challenges that would otherwise not be there. Although this may not be the case for everyone, I would argue that the gratification of these acts of subcreation lies not only in their concrete results, but also in the very act of claiming a space within a space. The intent of the host game’s creators may determine many things, but players are far from powerless in co-determining how one plays within a game space. On that note, I’ll leave you with a video another Hedda of mine appropriating some game spaces for a bit of play within play. Maybe I should have called this article “Playception”. Damnit.


  • Huizinga, Johan. 1938 [1958]. Homo Ludens. Proeve eener bepaling van het spel-element der cultuur. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon.
  • MacCallum-Stewart, Esther and Justin Parsler. 2008. “Role-play vs. Gameplay: The Difficulties of Playing a Role in World of Warcraft”. In: Corneliussen, Hilde G. & Jill Walker Rettberg (eds.). Digital Culture, Play, and Identity. A World of Warcraft Reader. 225–246.

This article was written for the January 2015 edition of Blogs of the Round Table: “Player’s Choice”. Use the menu below to read the other entries:

In addition, this article was supported by the generous contributors to my Patreon.