Typography and Textuality

Zach Whalen is turning his dissertation into a blog-web-thing, in the hopes of developing a book-thing. In whatever form it takes, it’s an interesting approach to a textual study of video games.

This study asks how the design and configuration of text in videogames contributes to their
textuality. I argue that videogames are texts in the sense that they consist of material artifacts
generating meaningful content when engaged by users. Videogames are complex and expressive
digital artifacts worthy of critical analysis, but much of the existing scholarship on games
emphasizes their formal elements like narrativity, genre, or interactivity, without giving enough
attention to their specific technological constitution. As is the case in any aesthetic medium, such
as verbal text, film, or still images, videogames are subject to the affordances of their raw
materials, and like these other media, videogames communicate in ways that incorporate the traits
of those materials, where “materialis” include physical structures like console hardware and
display screens and logical logical like bitmap graphics. The Videogame Text argues that
alphanumeric characters shown on the videogame screen (including score display, character dialog,
user interfaces, title screens, etc.) reveal discursive patterns of materiality embedded in these

I orient this argument by beginning with the origins of videogame typography, but not in
order to claim that earlier forms are archetypes which newer forms invoke. Rather, since both
typography and material affordances are traits designed to be taken for granted or made invisible,
videogames of a sufficient historical remove illustrate more obvious and visually apparent
evidence of these constraints. Typographic echoes of those constraints appear in other media and
graphic designs as a way of invoking a video game context, so a study of videogame typography
must account for this diffuse set of forms much like the textual studies approach to literature that
treats the text as a multifaceted paratextual entity. Drawing a parallel between the textual studies
approach to literature (exemplified by the work of Jerome McGann, Johanna Drucker, and others)
and a trend toward artifactual analysis in new media and game studies (exemplified by the work of
Ian Bogost, Nick Montfort, Steven Jones, and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum). In short, I argue that
the textuality of videogames consists of differently and densely layered modalities of
representation, which include formal structures such as game design, physical structures like the
television or monitor display, and logical structures like programming code. By unpacking the
inner workings of these modalities, we may better understand the impact of videogames as cultural
artifacts. We may also move beyond prevailing theories of videogame analysis, which too often
emphasize formal taxonomies as well as conceptual and disciplinary boundaries.