Mytholudics: Understanding Games As/Through Myth


This dissertation outlines a mythological framework for understanding how games produce meaning. The central question is: how does a mythological approach help to understand the way games make meaning? I first theorise mythology as it applies to games and play. This is expressed through a cycle showing how mythology is embedded into the production of games as well as how it impacts the playing and interpretation of games. This is then operationalised as a method for the analysis of games. I call my theorisation and analytical approach mytholudics. With this established, I apply mytholudics in ten analyses of individual games or game series, split into two lenses: heroism and monstrosity. Finally, I reflect on these analyses and on mytholudics as an approach.

Mythology here is understood primarily from two theoretical perspectives: Roland Barthes’ theory outlined in Mythologies (1972/2009) and Frog’s (2015, 2021a) understanding of mythology in cultural practice and discourse from a folklore studies perspective. The Barthesian approach establishes myth as a mode of expression rather than as an object, a mode that is therefore prevalent in all forms of media and meaning-making. This mode of expression has naturalisation as a key feature, by which the arbitrariness of second-order signification is masked. Otherwise arbitrary relations between things are made to seem obvious and natural. Frog’s mythic discourse approach understands mythology as “constituted of signs that are emotionally invested by people within a society as models for knowing the world” (2021a, p. 161). Frog outlines mythic discourse analysis as a method which focuses on the comparison of mythic discourse over time and across cultures.

Barthes and Frog broadly share an understanding of mythology as a particular way of communicating an understanding of the world through discourse. From this perspective, mythology is not limited to any genre, medium or cultural context. It can include phenomena as diverse as systems, rules, customs, behaviours, rituals, stories, characters, events, social roles, motifs, spatial configurations, and so on. What is important is how these elements are placed in relation to one another. This stands in contrast to certain understandings of myth which may position it as a narrative genre or a socioreligious function of ‘primitive’ societies. Games consist of the same diverse elements arranged in comparable configurations, and so this perspective highlights the otherwise hidden parallels between mythology and games. Therefore, a mythological approach can help us to understand the game as an organising structure in which different and diverse elements are put into relation with one another in order to produce meaning.

To develop this framework, I argue for analysing games as and through myth. Games as myth means viewing the game as an organising structure that works analogously to mythology. Elements are constructed and put into relation with one another within a gameworld, which the player then plays in and interprets. Games through myth means seeing games as embedded within cultural contexts. The cultural context of development affects the mythologies that can be seen to influence the construction of the game, while the cultural context of the player affects how they relate to and interact with the game and the mythologies channelled through it.

With the theorisation and methodology laid out, I exemplify the mytholudic approach by applying it to ten analyses of individual games or game series, split into two chapters of five analyses each.

The first considers the games through the lens of heroism, defined as the positive mythologisation of an individual. To help with comparison and understanding, I outline a number of hero-types, broad categories based on different rhetorics of heroism. These include the hero-victim, the hero-sceptic, the preordained hero and the unsung hero. The examples analysed are the Call of Duty series (2003–2022), The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011), the Assassin’s Creed series (2007–2022), Heaven’s Vault (Inkle, 2019) and Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games, 2017).

The second considers the games through the lens of monstrosity, defined broadly as a form of negative mythologisation of an entity. Like with heroes, I outline a number of monster-types based on where their monstrosity is said to come from. These are the monster from within, the monster from without, the artificial monster and the monster of nature. The game examples are Doom (id Software, 1993a), the Pokémon series (Game Freak, 1996–2022), Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory, 2017), Ghost of Tsushima (Sucker Punch Productions, 2020a) and The Witcher series (CD Projekt Red, 2007–2016).

Finally, I synthesise these two lenses in a chapter reflecting on the hero- and monster-types, all ten analyses and the mytholudic approach in general. I argue that a mytholudic approach helps us to understand how games make meaning because it focuses on the naturalised and hidden premises that go into the construction of games as organising structures. By analysing the underpinnings of those organising structures, we can outline the model for understanding the world that is virtually instantiated and how they are influenced by, influence and relate to models for understanding the world—mythologies—in the real world.

PhD Dissertation, IT University of Copenhagen