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Between the Game System and the Fictional World : A Study of Computer
Game Interfaces
Kristine Jrgensen
Games and Culture 2012 7: 142 originally published online 26 March 2012
DOI: 10.1177/1555412012440315

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Games and Culture
7(2) 142-163
The Author(s) 2012
Between the Game Reprints and permission:
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System and the DOI: 10.1177/1555412012440315
http://gac.sagepub.com

Fictional World: A
Study of Computer
Game Interfaces

Kristine Jrgensen1

Abstract
This article discusses the relationship between the user interface (UI) and the game
world in computer games, with point of departure in qualitative studies including
players and game developers. The developers evaluation of the relationship from a
design point of view will first be presented, before the article goes on to discuss the
degree to which the players accept the presence of UI features within the game
world. We will see that developers find it challenging to balance between func-
tionality and fiction, but see system features as a necessity that must be present for
usability purposes. From the point of departure of players, they rarely consider
system features intrusive to the game world, but accept them as integrated to the
conventions established within modern computer game aesthetics.

Keywords
game interface, game world, player studies, qualitative studies, user interface

1
University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway

Corresponding Author:
Kristine Jrgensen, University of Bergen, Fosswinckels gate 6, Bergen 5007, Norway
Email: kristine.jorgensen@infomedia.uib.no

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Jrgensen 143

Introduction
Contrary to the prophecies of Janet Murray (1997), games have not developed into a
medium of interactive film. Over 30 years after their commercialization, computer
games have established themselves as a media format with its own aesthetic conven-
tions and styles. The language of computer games has not, however, been devel-
oped in a vacuum, but rather it builds on the conventions from other formats such as
film and humancomputer interaction (HCI). Modern computer games are typically
set in virtual environments partly inspired by the audiovisual conventions of film fic-
tion in their presentation of characters, locations, and events. At the same time, they
are pieces of software that need well-developed systems that allow the player to
interact with them in a consistent manner and that provide information necessary for
coherent gameplay. These conventions are combined into a communicative system
unique to games. This is a system that puts emphasis on usability and functionality to
the detriment of a coherent fictional world, something that signals a major break
from the conventions of traditional fictional media.
Todays game user interfaces (UI) vary considerably, from the minimal and trans-
parent head-up displays (HUD) of first-person shooters, to the solid overlays and fre-
quent pop-up windows superimposed onto the screen in real-time strategy games
(see illustration below). Also physical interfaces vary from traditional input devices
such as controllers, mouse and keyboard, to the natural input (Nash, 2011) of sys-
tems such as Microsofts Kinect and Sonys Play station Move. For all kinds of inter-
faces, the trend is to minimize them as much as possible by integrating parts of them
into the game world (Andrews, 2010; Fagerholt & Lorentzon, 2009, p.5). While gen-
eral principles of aesthetics and tastefulness motivate this design approach, it has
also been argued that any perceived mediation lessens the sense of involvement
(Fagerholt & Lorentzon, 2009, p. 3). Today there seem to be two fields of thought
about this practice: those that argue that any sign of mediation, or visibility of the
system behind, ruins the sense of involvement in the game world (Wilson, 2006);
and those that argue that such features do no harm since they are needed and have
become a conventional form of communication in games (Breda, 2008; Weise,
2008).
This article discusses how players experience the game UI and how it affects the
interpretation of the game world. First, I will discuss and delimit how the game inter-
face is understood in this article, before going on to present developers ideals for
game interface design. The main portion of the article will discuss how players inter-
pret the UI with respect to the game world. As we will see, players rarely consider
system features intrusive to the game world, but accept them as conventions estab-
lished as part of modern computer game aesthetics. From this perspective, the UI and
the game world are not as delimited as one may think, but operate together in a
coherent manner.
The article relies on two sources of data: Group interviews with two American
game developers and interviews with and observations of Norwegian computer

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144 Games and Culture 7(2)

game players between the age of 1840. The two developers, Harmonix Music
Systems and Turbine, Inc., were selected because they develop games that represent
very different genres, and on the basis of availability during my stay as a visiting
scholar in the United States. Both developers underwent focus group interviews; the
interview with Turbine was held with four members of the UI design team, and the
Harmonix interview took place with two members of the UI design and testing
teams.
The recruitment method for player respondents was self-selection and the snow-
ball method. Five players underwent a focus group interview, while another 17 inter-
views were carried out with single individuals. The gender ratio was 4 females and
13 males. The focus group were asked to discuss a range of questions about the game
interface and the game world on the basis of screenshots from games from four dif-
ferent genres, while the individual interviews were based on video captures of the
participants own gameplay and a comparison with other genres based on screen-
shots. In both cases, the four games chosen were the real-time strategy game Com-
mand & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars; the first-person shooter Crysi; the hack and
slash role-playing classic Diablo 2; and the dollhouse simulator The Sims 2 (see
illustration below).

Image 1: Crysis (Crytek, 2007). Image 2: The Sims 2 (Maxis, 2004). Image 3: Diablo 2 (Blizzard, 2000).
Image 4: Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (EA, 2007). All screenshots captured by the author.

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Jrgensen 145

The games were selected on the basis of popularity and variation in gameplay and
player perspective. Games that position the player with different perspectives with
respect to the game world were chosen, and while three games use traditional over-
lay interfaces, Crysis uses a minimalist interface where most elements are explained
as parts of the game world. The Sims 2, however, was chosen as an interesting hybrid
of genres, and in order to attract female players to the study. In order to compare
games with the same physical interface, I decided to use games from one platform
only, and the PC platform was selected due to limitations connected to technological
equipment.

The Game Interface


What is the interface of a computer game? According to game developer Brent Fox,
the game interface is the part of the game that allows the user to interact with the
game. [It] is the connection between the user and the game (2005, p. xv). Jesse
Schell describes the interface more specifically as the infinitely thin membrane that
separates ( . . . ) player and ( . . . ) game, and that provides the player with access to
the game world (Schell, 2008, p. 222). He puts emphasis on the idea that game UIs
consist of two features, namely the physical and the virtual (Schell, 2008, p. 226).
The physical interface consists of the hardware, such as controllers and display,
while the virtual interface is the auditory and visual software features that allow the
player to interact with the game system. Common for the two is that they allow
player input and provide game output, and that they map computer code to specific
actions in the game (2008, p. 224227). Taking this as point of departure, we may
see a games interface as graphical, auditory, and tactile features related to hardware
and software that allow the player to interact with the system beyond. Taking a step
back to the field of HCI where the term interface is most commonly used, we can
understand the UI as the part of the system that you see, hear and feel (Lauesen,
2005, p. 4). Lauesen thus takes a broader perspective than Fox and Schell by not lim-
iting the definition to system control features, but including all aspects of the system
that are available to the user. This perspective is in concert with the arguments pro-
posed by designer Marcus Andrews (2010) and Fagerholt and Lorentzons study of
the UI in first-person shooters (2009). They include system information that is inte-
gral to the game environment, as well as borderline features such as blood splatter
rendered on screen to signal relative health level (Killzone 2), and silhouettes that
outline the relative location of companions (Left4Dead).
Although I will make reference to the physical interface where relevant, I will in
this article largely exclude the physical interface and focus the argument to what
Schell calls the virtual interface. By doing so, I am acknowledging the broader per-
spective that the interface may include any features of the represented game environ-
ment. This means that in my understanding of the term, the game UI is not limited to
system features such as overlay menus and HUD, but may also be implemented into

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146 Games and Culture 7(2)

the game world as color schemes that signal the importance of specific objects, or
animations that provide information about the current state of objects or characters.
This means that the game interface is not a static or absolute entity. Being inte-
grated into the game world, many interface features balance on the border between
the universe of the game and the layer that provides information to the player
(Jrgensen, 2007). According to Alexander Galloway, interfaces have commonly
been compared to a doorway or window into another dimension, a gateway that
opens up and allows passage to some place beyond (Galloway, 2008, p. 936).
He argues that this metaphor is limited. While doors may be closed or open, the inter-
face is better compared to the threshold, as it is a tool for communication between two
spaces, challenging the distinction between what counts as the artworks edge and cen-
tre (Galloway, 2008, p. 938). The interface is a relation effect that creates coherence
between otherwise uncombinable domains (Galloway, 2008, p. 941). It should there-
fore be seen not so much as a feature that is similar for all games, but more in terms of
a collection of techniques used for communicating necessary information and allow-
ing the player to interact with the mediated environment.
Looking at computer game interfaces more closely, we see that these techniques
are realized in different ways. The common denominator is that they all position
themselves in a dimension somewhere between the screen and the interior of the
game world. Often, however, an interface feature may be part of the game world
while communicating to the player on the outside, or vice versa (Jrgensen, 2007,
2010). These features may seem to be part of the game world even though they
clearly communicate usability information to the player, or may appear to be exter-
nal to the game world although they are responded to by inhabitants internal to that
world. Since there is ambiguity as to whether such features belong to the game world
or the interface layer, they must be interpreted as borderline features placed at vary-
ing levels between the two. From this perspective, there is a tight relationship
between the game interface and the game world, and as we will see, this relationship
affects how the players understand both.
It may be tempting to associate these elements with diegetic and non-diegetic
features which describe the relative interiority and exteriority of features with
respect to story worlds. However, I am trying to avoid this association in this article,
as these terms do not grasp the functional and interactive aspects of the game interface
and the game world (Collins, 2008, p. 180; Jrgensen, 2010, p. 81). Being developed
for narrative media, diegetic and non-diegetic are also confusing when used in connec-
tion with games since they focus on the idea of a narrated story world instead of a play-
able game world (Jrgensen, 2010, p. 87; Klevjer, 2007, p. 46). Game interfaces
approach the relationship between game world and system information in a different
manner, where the goal is to provide necessary usability information.
We may identify different ways of integrating the interface into the game world
that are typically used in computer games (Jrgensen, 2010, pp. 9293). The exam-
ples below are not absolute, and it is likely that there may be other ways of integrat-
ing the interface into the game world. While integrated into the game world, these

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Jrgensen 147

features must also be seen as part of the interface since they have clear usability
functions in that they provide relevant gameplay information to the player.
An interface feature may be iconic or invisible in the sense that it corresponds
to features that occur naturally in the physical world, at the same time as it provides
gameplay information to the player: the specific armor that an avatar wears in World
of Warcraft signals relative power, but it is not highlighted or otherwise enhanced.
Objects that appear to be natural to the game world can also be specifically empha-
sized, exemplified by Crysis where targeted enemies are highlighted in red. Interface
features can be integrated, such as the exclamation marks in Diablo 2; while being
added for the players information and not corresponding to anything we know from
the physical world, these features behave as if they are part of the game world by
following a particular character. The interface can also be added as an overlay that
provides the player with the ability to interact with the game world, such as the tra-
ditional superimposed frames that we see in strategy and simulation games like
Command & Conquer 3 and The Sims 2. We can also identify the metaphorical inter-
face, which has the ability to affect the game world even though it appears external
to it; this is typically exemplified by enemy music that signals approaching danger.
With the exception of iconic interface features that are completely integrated into
the game world, these interface examples are all in different ways located on the
threshold between the game system and the game world, combining them functionally
and thereby posing the question where the interface ends and the game world begins.

Challenges and Ideals in Game UI Design


According to Schell, good game UI design is critical for the players experience. He
claims that it is crucial for us to understand how our game interface works, and to
make it as robust, as powerful, and as invisible as we can (Schell, 2008, p. 222). For
Schell, this is connected with the ability of the interface to communicate relevant and
necessary communication (2008, p. 234), a view that is on par with the UI designers
interviewed for this study. They see the game interface as a vital element in game
development, as it includes everything that provides information that guides interac-
tion with the game world. This means that the interface also is responsible for com-
municating the game system beyond in an effective manner. The interface is a
simplification of the game system, a communications channel that makes the system
clear:

( . . . ) So the interface actually starts with the controller, collapsing things down to
something that is much more easy to be processed. And then the game interface is
communicating that in a way that is easily learned and managed. ( . . . ) (Harmonix,
respondent A)

The interface is the closest players get to the actual game system, and it therefore
needs to reflect the system in a reliable manner. For the player to understand the

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148 Games and Culture 7(2)

dynamics of the system and its strategic potentials, the interface must be able to
communicate this in the clearest and most user-friendly way. Intuitiveness and ease
of use are essential in this respect, and the game should be understood as a complex
system in need of an easy functionality through the interface.
These principles are central for the virtual and the physical interface alike.
According to Schell, it is easy to ignore this aspect when it comes to the physical
interface, and instead copy existing interfaces instead of customizing controllers for
a given game (Schell, 2008, p. 226). As a developer of games such as Rock Band
where the physical interface is particularly important, Harmonix is in particular
attentive to this issue. Their goal in developing a physical interface that emulates
musical instruments is about making people feel like theyre rock stars through
intuitive physical interfaces (Respondent A). Intuitivity for Harmonix is therefore
about whether or not the physical controllers are easy to understand in terms of how
real-world musical instruments work.
Today the ideal for game interface design is to make it as intuitive and as involv-
ing as possible (Schell, 2008, p. 227). In many genres, and in particular on video
game consoles, there is a trend toward including as much as possible of the UI into
the game world (Andrews, 2010; Wilson, 2006). According to Bolter and Grusin, an
invisible or interfaceless interface means that there will be no recognizable
electronic toolsno buttons, windows, scroll bars, or even icons as such. Instead the
user will move through the space interacting with the objects naturally, as she
does in the physical world (2000, p. 23). The design ideal is to make the medium
transparent, thereby providing the media users with the impression that they are no
longer interacting with a medium, but instead directly with its contents (Bolter &
Grusin, 2000, p. 24). This desire of new media to erase any trace of mediation is also
present in the developers minds, not least because the two companies interviewed
are both developers of games that must rely on information-heavy interfaces.
Massively multiplayer online game developer Turbine expresses worry about the
information-heavy overlay interfaces that are being used in that genre, and argues
that it necessarily will maintain a certain distance between the player and the game
world:

I guess a user interface can only fight against immersion at the end of the day. I mean,
to be completely immersive is that youre there and youre doing it, so any kind of
interface that separates you from actually being in the gameworld, is taking you out
of the immersive experience. So I guess ( . . . ) a good interface will immerse you when
its time to be immersed, and then when its time, to pull out a little. (Turbine, respon-
dent A)

For Turbine, the interface is a necessary, but alienating feature that needs to be kept
in check. Their view is that a good interface should be dynamic in the sense of down-
playing their intrusive aspects in all situations that allow it. However, music and
rhythm game developer Harmonix takes the opposite approach, and states that

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Jrgensen 149

sometimes developers worry too much about the ideal of involvement with the risk
of creating interfaces that convey too little information to the player:

I think theres definitely a danger of worrying about immersion too much. I think the
best interface doesnt draw attention to itself, but some of the worst interfaces are the
ones who try to be too subtle, that try to be immersive at the expense of actual imparting
information in an intuitive way. So I would always err on the side of, you know, if you
need to get by the information to people, make it very clear. (Harmonix, respondent A)

The respondent thereby emphasizes another idea, namely that although a discrete
interface may be the ideal, the general presence of technology in our everyday lives
decreases the need to make the medium transparent, and we no longer see the pres-
ence of the medium as a contradiction to the authenticity of the virtual environment
(Bolter & Grusin, 2000, p. 42). This argument may have special relevance for com-
puter games, as they require the users intimate involvement with the interface,
demonstrated in certain genres lack of concern about pursuing transparency (Bolter
& Grusin, 2000, p. 91). This is also illustrated by Andrews analysis of Team For-
tress 2, where he states that the developers decision to combine overlay information
with UI elements that are integral to the game world demonstrates a use whatever
means to inform the player approach to UI design (Andrews, 2010).
According to the developer respondents, however, intuitive and involving do not
necessarily mean transparent or fully implemented into the game world. This corre-
sponds to Schells description of transparency, which focuses not on invisibility, but
on whether or not the UI provides relevant information to the player without feeling
intrusive (Schell, 2008, p. 227). Prioritizing functionality before aesthetics is therefore
paramount, and following established genre conventions is important in order to fulfill
player expectations. When the primary objectives of functionality and usability are
within reach, however, the developers aim for an aesthetic interface that is associated
with the game world thematically and stylistically, or by being implemented into it. Fox
focuses on this by writing extensively about how aesthetic principles such as color har-
mony and visual organization may support usability (2005, pp. 4360). Saunders and
Novak list aesthetics as a secondary interface design goal after the primary functional
goals (2006, pp. 2030).
Neither Turbine nor Harmonix has the opportunity to implement all interface into the
game world. As a complex multiplayer genre, Massively Multiplayer Online Games
(MMOs) require the player to monitor of a lot of processes simultaneously. Although
Harmonix has the benefit of creating the illusion of nonmediation through the intuitive
physical interface, the focus on player precision and attention puts specific demands on
the clarity and efficiency of the virtual interface. The two developers are therefore bound
to use overlay and integrated interface elements to a great degree. Although they lack
the opportunity to implement information seamlessly into the game world, the ben-
efit is that they can rely on the safety of being able to present information through
dedicated channels, and may focus on making the interface as intuitive and

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150 Games and Culture 7(2)

unobtrusive as possible (Turbine, respondent C) within the limits of the genres they
are working with.
Although being representatives of two different viewpoints with respect to trans-
parent UI design, the two developers agree that aesthetics and the sense of nonme-
diation always must be downgraded when compared to functionality. In practice,
they both take a relativist view where they emphasize that functionality always will
have to win, but where aesthetics come into play through a clean, clear, and intuitive
interface design.
A fully integrated iconic or emphasized interface is not an ideal for presenting
essential information in an unhindered manner, but it is still important that the UI
does not take up the players attention or stand in the way of gameplay, but is com-
fortable for you to instantly look at (Turbine, respondent B). Aesthetics is therefore
an ideal that the developers always screen functionality against, and one of Turbines
UI designers states that a good interface would also be aesthetically attractive:

If you can sit down and you can figure out what exactly what you want to do and how
you want to do it, and its not impeding your enjoyment of the game world, that, at the
end of the day, is a successful interface. And on top of that it obviously should be
aesthetically attractive. But you can have the most beautiful interface in the world, and
if it just impedes your enjoyment and your ability to do things in the gameworld, then
its a poor user interface. (Turbine, respondent A)

While functionality is always the primary goal when designing the interface, this
does not mean that aesthetics get no attention. It is emphasized that having an aesthe-
tically pleasing interface would contribute to the quality of a given interface. How-
ever, what counts as an aesthetic interface does not only depend on the degree of
integration or style: what is important is to make sure that the interface does not get
in the way of attention and interaction. It is the game activity that needs to be
preserved from intrusion, as this is essentially what creates the sense of involvement
in the game and the game world. In Schells words, good user interfaces amplify
the power and control a player has in the game world (2008, p. 226). A good UI
should therefore be able to communicate only what is gameplay relevant at any
given time:

It has its priorities straight, with the things that are most important to do in the game are
most intuitive and take the least effort. ( . . . ) So the player is given an immediate sense
of what their biggest concerns are, and what the secondary concerns are. And it should
be elegant. It should have as few moving parts as possible to communicate the vital
issues. And they should be staggered through time in cases where somethings really
complicated. You should find the things you need to tell the people right now, and then
if you can, delay certain types of information for later or through subscreens or things
like that, to that instead of giving them all the information all the time. (Harmonix,
respondent A)

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Jrgensen 151

A UI should be economic and efficient, and this is what forms the basic for the
aesthetic potential for its representation. Making sure that the interface is able to sort
between information of primary and secondary priority is important, and the infor-
mation should be presented accordingly (Schell, 2008, pp. 234235). The UI
designer should adapt the interface to specific situations, and if possible hide certain
kinds of information in optional menus or make it appear only when relevant (Fox,
2005, p. 148). In specifying how one should be able to present this information in an
elegant way, Harmonix UI designer states that it should be pristine and crystal
clear. These characteristics are seen as more important than the relative implemen-
tation into the game world.
A way to present usability information without interfering with the visual aspects
of the game world is to use auditory features. One of Turbines UI designers calls
audio a nice second layer that can be used when visual information is limited:

A classic thing that just popped into my head, ( . . . ) Mega Man ( . . . ) has three different
kinds of power-ups, and half the time you dont even see what they are when you get
them. But each one has a very distinct sound effect, so you just keep playing the game,
and you dont even really notice, but you know exactly what you got based on the
sound. ( . . . ) By just having a sound effect you can really tell the person what theyve
got in a non-glaring way. (Turbine, respondent C)

With reference to an old Nintendo classic, he explains how sound may work as a way
to provide information in an unobtrusive way that fits well to the ideal of elegant and
functional UI design. Sounds are characterized by its omnipresent attributes; it is not
dependent on spatial orientation and does not take up visual attention. In this sense, it
can be used to present information without drawing attention from the players
visual system. By communicating in a more subtle and less intrusive way, it does
not impede on the game world in the same way as visual elements have a tendency
to do (Jrgensen, 2009b, 2010). Sound is therefore an effective medium in integrat-
ing the interface into the game world, regardless of whether it is used as arbitrary
signals or as naturally occurring in the game universe.
The developer respondents are also careful to emphasize that different genres have
different conventions regarding the presentation of information and the UI design. Dif-
ferent genres will have different needs, and the positioning of the player and the sys-
tems real estate have important influences on the realization of the interface
(Andrews, 2010). As the Harmonix UI designer states, your interface is only as
intuitive as the game design allows. One of the respondents from Turbine explains:

A lot of the more recent games have gone for the super-minimalist UI where theres
almost nothing on screen at any time until you need to see it. And thats great for a lot
of the more recent kind of horror games where you just try and have it so immersive
that youre not thinking about anything but whats happening in the moment. ( . . . ) But
for something more like our type of game where theres just so much going on at any

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152 Games and Culture 7(2)

given moment, you need so much information. So in our case invisible isnt necessarily
ideal. (Turbine, respondent C)

While a horror game in which fictional involvement is crucial may benefit from hav-
ing an interface that is more directly connected to the game world, MMOs such as
the ones developed by Turbine need the player to be continuously up to date with
several processes and game states. In this case, the UI designers must work with the
available system and utilize the interface as best they can, and make it clear while
also elegant and otherwise aesthetically attractive.

Interface Acceptance
Although the player respondents showed different preferences regarding the design
of virtual interfaces and the integration of UI elements into the game world, there
was a tendency among the respondents, regardless of what game they were playing,
to accept the UI as long as it provided the necessary information. In this section, I
will present those views that were most pronounced among the player respondents
regarding the integration of UI elements into the game world. Most of the claims
presented here are of general relevance, but where necessary I will refer to how the
interface of the individual games is interpreted. In accordance with the arguments
proposed by Schell (2008, p. 227) and Andrews (2010), it is clear that players tend
to accept the presence of UI elements, regardless of its visualization. This seems to
hold for all games used in this study, although there is tendency to see the minimalist
interface of Crysis as more aesthetically attractive compared to the others.
Players and developers agree that usability and the need for information, together
with established conventions in computer games, are the most important reasons
why apparently intrusive interfaces are accepted. Functionality is at the center
of acceptance: If a feature provides the player with relevant information and sup-
ports gameplay, the player is likely to accept it without hesitation (Andrews,
2010). When asked about the overlay interface in Command & Conquer 3, Stuart
states,

( . . . ) In a game like this ( . . . ), it is not natural that things like these exist, but at the
same time it is accepted because you couldnt play the game without them. (Stuart,
24 years)1

As participatory systems, games must be able to communicate necessary informa-


tion to the player (Schell, 2008, p. 234). As long as the game does this, the player
has enough support to be able to interact with the game world in a manner that is
meaningful within the frames of the game. This supports the argument that interac-
tivity may increase the sense of involvement even though the game world itself may
break with our expectations (Bolter & Grusin, 2000, pp. 2930). However, the func-
tionality of the interface must be carefully balanced. As long as it works as an

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Jrgensen 153

assistant and not as an overprotective parent as one of Turbines UI designers


puts it, the interface is accepted. Isabel explains:

In World of Warcraft, I have turned off the sounds. You hear them all the time, which is
annoying. In that case it is disturbing regardlessly of how you see it, because it is just
annoying. ( . . . ) As long as they are functional, they dont disturb. (Isabel, 25 years)

Although support and functionality is central, any overuse or unnecessary use of


interface elements will draw negative attention toward itself and therefore feel inter-
fering. In such cases, the feature ceases to present relevant information and becomes
an annoying and unwelcome feature that focuses on its own artificiality and
intrusiveness. This is in accordance with Schells observation that players generally
disregard the presence of the interface unless it does not work as it should; thereby
creating confusion instead (Schell, 2008, p. 227).
Another reason why we accept game interfaces is that they are conventional to the
game medium. Due to the informative and functional necessity of interfaces, com-
puter games have made physical and virtual interfaces parts of their mode of com-
munication. Players therefore expect them to be there to present system information.
The players have become so accustomed to these conventions that it is not something
they contemplate when playing (Bolter & Grusin, 2000, p. 42). As a convention and
a part of the communicative toolset of computer games, we are not affected nega-
tively by the presence of the interface. Being motivated by the computer game
medium itself, the UIs are established as functional conventions that cannot be seen
as separate from the content they are providing access to (Manovich, 2001, p. 67).
This is not any different from how we have come to accept the conventions of older
media: the intrusive interface of the novel, consisting of pages and letters, never hin-
dered readers to become absorbed by the fictional worlds within (Murray, 1997,
p. 104; Ryan, 2001, p. 127). During the focus group, Oliver explains,

Its like cartoons, right. ( . . . ) We accept the speech bubbles because thats the way
cartoons work. (Oliver, 27 years)

In this sense, the conventions of the computer game are comparable to the conven-
tions of other media interfaces. All media content needs to be somehow mediated,
and this is the case even for media genres that aim for transparency.
From the above, we see that computer game players accept the UIs as conven-
tional to games and do not find them disturbing for the involvement in the game
world. But what about those UI elements that are not clearly defined as system infor-
mation features? I pointed out above that there are many interface elements that lie
on the border between the universe of the game and the informative layer that com-
municates to the player. These features are typically partly implemented into the
game world as emphasized, integrated, or metaphorical interface, apparently
belonging to two dimensions at once. Similar to overlay interface elements, players

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154 Games and Culture 7(2)

do not reflect upon the ontology of such borderline features much, but when confronted
with them, the respondents present different responses. Some categorize them together
with the traditional overlay interface and state that they are a conventional feature of
games, sometimes explaining them as abstractions of real-world features or representa-
tions of the game system. Others, however, try to rationalize and present fictional expla-
nations for their presence. Others acknowledge the fact that the borderline features are
there, and see it either as a curiosity, or do not contemplate on their existence or spatial
belonging.
The players attitudes toward borderline interface features seem to be closely associ-
ated with the UI design conventions within a game genre. When interpreting borderline
features in the first-person shooter Crysis, for instance, the respondents tend to explain
them as part of the game world. This is connected to the first-person perspective and the
fact that the game uses a minimalist UI partly explained by the game fiction as a techno-
logically advanced feature implemented into the avatars helmet. When the focus group
is discussing the red markings that inform the player about acquired target in the same
game, Steve has no problems accepting that these are also a part of the fictional universe:

This might be a further development of this HUD that he has. He may track targets and
things with it. So its not unrealistic that this is a part of the game world. (Steve, 24 yrs)

By associating the system information with the advanced HUD that a future soldier
might have, Steve rationalizes the interface features and accepts the information as part
of the fictional universe. This is however not an unusual interpretation in connection
with first-person shooters with a minimalist interface. As Oliver states earlier in the
focus group, game designers often explain HUDs in this way, and we may thereby see
it as an overlay interface being interpreted as iconic.
However, not all genres have the luxury of being able to explain the interface
thus. The First-person shooter (FPS) genre presents the players visual perspective
as equal to the avatars, and may for that reason explain everything on screen as some-
thing also seen by the avatar. Games with a third-person perspective, on the other
hand, cannot use this explanation since the avatar and the player does not share per-
spective. This is clear in Diablo 2, where the respondents do not accept the borderline
elements quite as readily. When John hears the response Im overburdened! as he
tries to pick up items on the ground, he states that the response appears to originate
from the avatar as a character existing in the game world, but emphasizes that this
is not a satisfactory explanation:

Well, it is the characters voice saying this. But I dont get the feeling that it is the char-
acter that speaks. Its like the game narrators voice provides the player with a hint that,
okay, you should check your inventory. (John, 30 years)

John states that although it is supposed to sound like the avatar, it is more likely that
it is a stylized usability message communicated by the system, or what I earlier

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Jrgensen 155

described as an emphasized interface feature. With this interpretation as background,


he suggests that the sound must belong to the UI, but at the same time his analysis
implies that it is often hard to decide exactly where the border between UI and game
world lies. Later in the conversation, he admits that the ontology of such borderline
features is hard to decide, but argues that asking of its ontology may not be a fruitful
approach. The reason is that he does not see borderline phenomena as a rhetorical
problem in the game world; instead, he emphasizes that the functionality of such fea-
tures is what is important; not their apparent spatial origin. He later argues that this
technique of presenting information should be understood as a compromise between
functionality and being true to the fictionality of the world.
Informative game features that balance on the threshold, not completely ready to
fall down on either side of the boundary between interface and game world, are
called intraface by Galloway (2008, p. 944). The intraface is an interface internal
to the interface, located within the aesthetic instead of as a window between the
interior and the exterior of the artwork. Galloway defines the intraface as an inter-
nal interface that is contained within the image. He provides computer games as
the example of an intraface, as they mix together a fictional environment with
different kinds of interface elements. For Galloway, the intraface signals that the fic-
tional environment is demoted in terms of importance to the benefit of system infor-
mation, and ultimately determined by a very complex nondiegetic mode of
signification (Galloway, 2008, p. 946). However, in my view, this does not mean
that the fictional or represented environment loses its value because of the presence
of functional elements, but that the presence of such elements changes the very
nature of the game worlds compared to other fictional worlds.

Interpreting the InterfaceGame World Relationship


According to Manovich, the presence of a computer interface always influences the
media content that it presents: It shapes how the computer user conceives of the
computer itself [and] determines how users think of any media object accessed via
a computer (Manovich, 2001, p. 65). This view is in concert with how many of the
player respondents describe the relationship between the UI and the game world.
Oliver puts it like this:

On the one hand you have this kind of distanced level with the interface and stuff. But
there are those exclamation marks as well, and they are placed in a kind of . . . I think
the world of the game doesnt work in the same way as the real world does. (Oliver, 27
years)

While Oliver specifically claims that the game world works on other terms than our
world, other respondents are more careful in their descriptions. Although some
refuse to associate UI elements with the game world, others explain interface fea-
tures as parts of the game world, or state that games are not bound by any notion

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156 Games and Culture 7(2)

of realism or credibility. Adam (27 years old) simply states that the world of Diablo
2 is a very special world where you can just drink something and heal up, suggest-
ing that the health potions are reality in that fictional universe. In this statement,
however, Adam also suggests that the specific functional aspects of the game world
make it incomparable to other fictional or nonfictional worlds. Oliver later goes into
detail about the functionality of the game world when discussing The Sims 2:

The game is not supposed to represent reality: It represents the game reality. So the
sims just accept that a second floor suddenly appears, because thats the way it works
here. (Oliver, 27 years)

In connection with a traditional fictional world, it would be reasonable to ask how


one could explain such a radical and sudden change in the world, and most explana-
tions would only make sense in surrealist fiction. However, a game world has func-
tional properties that override any need to interpret the world as surreal. This is in
terms with Juuls observation that when we cannot explain features like this by refer-
ring to fiction, players instead explain it by referring to the rules of the game (Juul,
2005, p. 130). Due to the ludic and functional features of game worlds, the threshold
of acceptance is much lower compared to traditional fictional worlds, and a majority
of the respondents claims that asking questions about whether or not UI features
belong in the game world or not is irrelevant, and that they never contemplate the
question themselves while playing.
While Juul (2005) has argued that computer games are real rules in fictional
worlds, others have pointed out that game worlds are qualitatively and functionally
different from the traditional fictional worlds (Aarseth, 2005; Jrgensen, 2010, p. 87;
Klevjer, 2007, p. 58). This is in concert with Olivers view that game worlds tend to
work in a different way than other environments, as well as the respondents
emphasis on the idea that it does not fit the nature of game worlds to ask about the
origin of UI and other functional elements. I have argued elsewhere (Jrgensen,
2010, pp. 8788) with basis in the same empirical material that game worlds for
this reason must be seen as qualitatively different from other fictional worlds
because they are environments carefully designed with gameplay in mind. Game
worlds operate on other premises than other fictional worlds, and one of their char-
acteristics is that they need an information system that supports gameplay. That
said, it is important to notice that I still see game worlds as designed environments
with content meant for the players imaginary involvement and that they must be
understood as a particular kind of fictional worlds. What triggers the players
involvement, however, is the particular gameplay as it exists in the particular
representational game world (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 451).
The relationship between the game world and the UI is also complicated by
incoherence. Juul argues that a game world is incoherent if it contradicts itself
or prevents the player from imagining a complete fictional world (2005, p. 123).
As an example, he points out that the practice of having more than one life is an

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Jrgensen 157

example of an incoherent game world when there is nothing in the fiction that
explains why people come back to life. When we cannot explain features like this
by referring to the fiction, however, players instead explain it by referring to the
rules of the game (Juul, 2005, p. 130). It is indeed true that players may fill in the
gaps when confronted with incoherence, but incoherence does not seem to prevent
the players from imagining the world. Instead incoherence is explained, if not as part
of the game rules, then as shortcuts in the presentation of a world. Game worlds are
described by the player respondents as stylized, simplified, abstract, or representa-
tional worlds that are not ruled by coherence, but by functionality. Fred explains:

Were talking about a stylized world. Everything is represented by something else.


( . . . ) When you see a ring lying on the ground, its really huge compared to how a ring
is [in reality]. They have magnified it a little so that youre able to see it. ( . . . ) When
you pick it up it, it jingles, it makes a little more noise than it would normally do, but
its still part of that world. (Fred, 28 years)

Fred explains how exaggeration and emphasis work to enhance the properties of
objects. For the sake of presentation and functionality, players accept that game
worlds are stylized and representative. Thus it seems that players do not expect the
game world to be coherent, although they do expect consistency. According to
Fagerholt and Lorentzon, consistency of the game world means that similar objects
should always behave in similar manners to support the reasoning skills of the
player (2009, p. 70). Their example is fences that may be climbable at one point
in the game, but not at another. Breaking consistency is much more severe than
breaking coherence, as this premise is connected to the functional, not the fictional,
aspects of the game world. If the game world does not provide necessary information
for the players to act reasonably, they may be frustrated, but if the game world is
incoherent, the player may, if necessary, fill out the blanks themselves.
For this reason, simplification and a lack of correspondence to the real world do
not seem to ruin the gameplay experience or the understanding of the game world.
What seems to clearly disturb them, however, is breaking the conventions and pre-
mises that have been set up for the game. Cases where the avatar expresses auton-
omy, either by starting to communicate to the player or by breaking the control
link and starting to act on its own may in some genres create negative attention
toward the communicative situation and therefore feel awkward. This seems to be
associated with genre and perspective. In avatar-based games like Diablo 2, it may
raise questions who the avatar is addressing when an avatar appears to speak to the
player, although it is generally accepted as system information supporting intuitive-
ness, and a convention inspired by the rhetoric of fiction. In a first-person view game
like Crysis, however, the player may feel alienated and powerless if the avatar sud-
denly starts acting as if there never was a control link in the first place. Eric explains
how cinematic cut scenes in Crysis may ruin the sense of coherence if the game
conventions are broken:

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158 Games and Culture 7(2)

Its very clear when the widescreen appears that I lose control into a cutscene. Suddenly
theres music and all. ( . . . ) [It] communicates a tailored experience of the events, but at
the same time you are removed of control, you lose some of the involvement, suddenly
you are powerless. (Eric, 26 years)

The first-person shooter is perhaps the genre that to the greatest degree emphasizes
embodiment, agency, and the sense of being there (Fagerholt & Lorentzon, 2009; Klev-
jer, 2007), and the use of cut scenes where the avatar suddenly regains his autonomy may
run the risk of ruining that experience. Eric explains how the feeling of powerlessness
intervenes and reduces the sense of involvement in the game world. Although the avatar
gains autonomy in a cut scene where the player has no agency anyway, the fact that the
avatar talks and makes decisions without the players input is a break in the contract set
up by the game. This is likely to be a genre issue, however. Eric further explains that he is
used to a silent avatar with no personality in first-person perspective games and that an
avatar that breaks from this convention feels unfamiliar and therefore awkward.
An interesting finding is that perspective is crucial to the players interpretation of
the ontological status of the interface. In avatar-less games, including first-person per-
spective games, players do find it necessary to question whether any interface ele-
ments exist in the game world. In such games, there is no need for the players to
distinguish between information addressed toward the player as opposed to that
addressed toward the avatar. With reference to Command & Conquer 3, Carl explains:

The game makes you part of the army you are controlling; you are supposed to lead it.
The troops are responding directly to you, they answer you, at the same time as you are
tied into it through cutscenes, where youre directly addressed as the person who is the
commander. (Carl, 29 years)

In the Real-time strategy (RTS) genre, the players do not have to imagine any relation-
ship with an avatar, as there is none. The players do not have to negotiate what or who is
being referred to, since they are the only possible alternative. In this genre, the players
must instead see the game as any piece of software tool that is communicating directly to
them and that is there to help them navigate the game system. The same effect is caused
by the first-person perspective of Crysis, as Steve suggests above when interpreting the
HUD as a part of the avatars helmet. While the RTS does not have an avatar, the FPS
only has an implied avatar (Bayliss, 2007; Jrgensen, 2009a) with the same visual per-
spective as the player. In both cases, there is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get
approach to the interface that allows the players to explain everything from how they
actually see it.

Discussion
So why do the respondents accept elements and modes of address that appear
intrusive to the game experience? It may be tempting to refer to the magic circle in

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Jrgensen 159

explaining this and to claim that we accept all interface elements because we have put
ourselves into the mind-set of the gameit is a lusory attitude (Salen & Zimmermann,
2004, p. 97; Suits, 1990). While it is not incorrect to explain this by referring to a
specific lusory mind-set, the metaphor of the magic circle suggests clear and distinct
internal/external perspective (Consalvo, 2009, pp. 414415) that does not open for an
understanding of the game boundary as flexible.
As we have seen, interface information may be located on different layers
between the screen and the game world. One way of explaining this may be by refer-
ring to Goffmans frames. Framing is related to how human beings interpret social
situations, and how we distinguish different situations from each other based on the
conventions for that situation (Goffman, 1974). This is on par with how Linderoth
understands the gaming situation. He sees gameplay as a multifaceted and changing
activity where frames may change over very small time periods (Linderoth, 2004,
p. 232). This means that the player needs to keep a range of potential frameworks
active at the same time and that frameworks often may blend together (Linderoth,
2004, p. 222). Viewed in this light, different frames of reference will be available
for the player when interpreting a specific game feature. In this situation, it does not
matter if information lies on the border between the game world and the interface as
long as the player may view it through an available framework. Our ability to always
move between the different informative frames of reference when playing computer
games explains why we accept the UI, even when its spatial status is unclear.
In his discussion of self-referentiality in games, game designer Matthew Weise
states that the line between reality and fiction in games does not function as it does
in traditional media (2008). He believes that the dynamic between fantasy and real-
ity is complicated by the player, and that one should see the boundary between
player and fiction as an elastic membrane ( . . . ) rather than a wall. This perspec-
tive provides a more open interpretation of the relationship between the interface and
the game world: There is no absolutism between different frames of information, as
they are porous and permeable and may leak into each other. For this reason, features
located on the border between the game world and the interface do not follow the
rules of traditional fiction; instead, they follow the logics of games and their elastic
membranes. These features are based on the above mentioned design principle from
Team Fortress 2 (Andrews, 2010)to utilize whatever means there are for the sake
of clarity and functionality. This is a principle that works because people are used to
negotiate different frames of reference continuously when playing games.
According to Murray, once the illusory space is created, it has such a psycho-
logical presence that it can almost divorce itself from the means of representation
(1997, p. 104). This means that once we have accepted the premises of the game
world and play along with these, we are willing to accept it regardless of its short-
comings. This explains why we accept game worlds that are fairly similar to tradi-
tional fictional elements, but still have striking qualities that separate them clearly
from them. Klevjer follows this argument by emphasizing game worlds as a func-
tional environment meant for playing games and states that game fictions are not

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160 Games and Culture 7(2)

delineated by a fourth wall. Instead, game fictions have extended the boundaries
of the fiction to accept more than we would accept in other fictional worlds (Klevjer,
2007, p. 59). This is on par with how this article views the relationship between
interface elements and the game world. As a game world, its borders are by defini-
tion flexible. At some times, it may make sense to include a UI element as part of the
world, at other times it may not. And when there are features that cannot be clearly
identified as being on the inside or the outside, these elements must be interpreted as
indicative to how this specific game world functions.

Conclusions
We have seen that game interfaces are not disturbing for involvement and gameplay,
regardless of whether they are implemented into the game world or situated as super-
imposed windows on the level of the screen. However, the discussions above do sug-
gest that interfaces implemented into the game world are viewed as a more elegant
approach to UI design and that the players have a preference for this when it is done
consistently and as a natural part of the game world without losing any information.
While players accept any UI that promotes gameplay and supports functionality in a
consistent manner, they have different preferences according to genre, and are in
particular positive toward elegant interfaces. In any case, the players do not contem-
plate the presence of any interface elements regardless of their integration into the
game world. The players never question why interface elements are present as long
as they are able to provide relevant information (Andrews, 2010; Schell, 2008,
p. 227). These features are accepted because they are there for a functional purpose
with respect to gameplay. Since the interface is what enables agency and embodi-
ment in the game world, it seems to enhance the sense of involvement. These obser-
vations also partly explain the recent popularity of natural physical interfaces that
focus on intuitive functionality through immediate recognition.
As demonstrated, interfaces that are implemented into the game world appear in a
range of different formats, and a completely integrated or invisible interface is not
always desirable. Often overlay interfaces may be optional for the sake of clarity,
and for the same reason iconic interfaces may often be too vague, at least for
novice players. Good game UI design maintains awareness of these layers and has
a clear intention with how they decide to associate the UI with the game world. It is
important to use interface features that fit the genre and game mechanics, and eval-
uate the priority of different pieces of information. Information that always needs
to be available may benefit from an overlay interface, while information with
lower priority or which is aimed toward more experienced players may benefit
from being iconic.
According to Bolter and Grusin, interacting with new media is an oscillation
between its content and the interface (2000, p. 33). They claim that the user moves
back and forth between interactive and static content. This assumption suggests that
there exist different incompatible spheres of logic. However, this is not on par with

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Jrgensen 161

the argument of this article, which states that the interface and the game world coex-
ist and operate together in a functional whole, and teaches the player about the game
system and its mechanics. Juul claims that fiction in games plays an important role
in making the player understand the rules (2005, p. 163), but I would like to make
this claim more specific and state that the system and the world work in tandem in
providing the player with a comprehension of both. The game world cannot be
understood as separate from the game system; it is a part of the game system. This
is also why and how game worlds must be seen as a special, if not a different, case
compared to traditional fictional worlds. In this sense, this article shows that Juuls
argument that computer games must be seen as real rules in fictional worlds is chal-
lenged by the existence of the interface.
As emphasized, making the game interface elegant and appropriate to the envi-
ronment is paramount to UI design, and aesthetics should be used to enhance the
functionality and signal effect of game system information. Utilizing the different
levels of world integration described above in order to emphasize and downplay dif-
ferent features is important, as the players do not find the switching between the dif-
ferent frames confusing or intrusive. As long as usability and functionality with
respect to gameplay are in focus, the player does not contemplate the level of fidelity
of independent features. Any degree of integration of the interface into the game
world should be seen as an enhancement of usability; something that provides the
player with more options for interaction in the game world, and not something that
removes the sense of presence and spatiality.

Acknowledgments
Thanks to Margrethe Bruun Vaage and the anonymous peer reviewers for comments. This
research was funded by the Research Council of Norway.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests


The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.

Funding
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article.

Note
1. The player studies were originally carried out in Norwegian and have been translated by
the author.

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Bio
Kristine Jrgensen is an associate professor in the Department of Information Science and
Media Studies at the University of Bergen. She is the author of A Comprehensive Study of
Sound in Computer Games: How Audio Affects Player Action and has published articles on
game sound, the user interface in games, the player role, games research methods, the Nor-
wegian game industry, and game narratives.

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