Digital Media & VideogamesFolkloreSocial Interaction & NetworksSpace & Spatiality

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.