Mimesis as Make-believe

On the Foundations of the Representational Arts

Review - Mimesis as Make Believe

Michael Hancock is the Book Reviews editor on First Person Scholar.  He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo.  Currently, his grey matter is engaged in writing a dissertation on the use of image-based and text-based rhetoric in videogames.


“In order to understand paintings, plays, films, and novels, we must look first at dolls, hobbyhorses, toy trucks, and teddy bears. The activities in which representational works of art are embedded and which give them their point are best seen as continuous with children’s games of make-believe. Indeed, I advocate regarding these activities as games of make-believe themselves, and I shall argue that representational works serve as props in such games, as dolls and teddy bears serve as props in children’s games” (11). – Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-believe

Like all truly interesting epic endeavors, game studies has its own origin myth.  It’s a story about battling against stories, with narratology and the study of videogames as essentially narrative on one side, and ludology and the study of videogames as essentially games or play on the other. Its battle sites were websites, and traces of its force can still be seen in gamestudies.org, grandtextauto.org, and others. And like any myth, it’s not exactly true, either because, as some ludologists claim, the narrative defenders “never showed up” or because, as others postulate, it was never a disagreement to begin with (see: Bogost). But whether the conflict ever actually happened, there is a case to be made that it ideologically happened, as the myth is constantly returned to and debunked in an almost ritualistic fashion (as, for example, what I’m doing now). What is at stake here is a single question: How do we study videogames? Kendall Walton has no direct answer to this question. Though Mimesis as Make-believe was published in 1990, the closest it comes to any sort of digital medium is a few examples that touch on film. But I still think that its premise—that all forms of representation should be regarded as potential props for games of make-believe—provides a useful contribution to the ongoing myth of game studies.


Walton’s book consists of a brief introduction, four sections, and eleven chapters, delving into increasingly complex (and arguably obtuse) implications of his starting premise.  The introduction frames the scope of the debate, starting with the statement that he’s not interested in defining art (a statement that should immediately endear him to a game studies audience). In terms of existing theory, in putting children’s games on a similar level with pictorial art and fiction, he sees himself as combining ontology with aesthetics, and opposing academic trends that overemphasize language-based analysis. The first section is about representations in general, and the first chapter outlines Walton’s basic theory, that playing games of make-believe is a fundamental human action, of which representational fiction is just one type of prop for such a game among many. There’s a lot of time spent clarifying terminology, including imagining that is occurrent and nonoccurent, social or solitary, spontaneous or deliberate; types of objects that include objects of imagining, prompters, and props; and the difference between fictionality and truth. This discussion all builds to the definition of a fictional world, which consists of all the fictional truths—that is, every proposition that is fictionally true—within the context of that world. Chapter two considers fiction in contrast with nonfiction, with Walton arguing that most distinctions between the two tend to degrade fiction, portraying it as an also-run or parasitic relation of nonfiction. In particular, he dismisses the aforementioned linguistic-based distinctions, such as semiotics and speech-act. Unsurprisingly, his own distinction is based on make-believe: fiction, in his terms, is any work that can function as a prop in a game of make-believe. If you can make a fictional world based off it, it’s fiction.

Chapter three zeroes in on the concept of objects, and what makes an object that represents different from one that refers or matches. Similar to the fiction distinction, he defines a representing object as one where there are propositions about it that it makes fictional—saying, for example, “there’s a boat,” in regard to what one sees in a painting. What I found most interesting was his subsection on self-reflexive works, works that generate fictional worlds that they are also a part in. Many videogame manuals are good examples of this; I’m thinking of the Grand Theft Auto manuals that pretend to be travel guides to the locales in the game.  Chapter four is about the principles of generation—that is, what we can say about the basic underpinnings of a fictional world. He considers two common concepts: the reality principle, which says that everything that holds in the real world can be assumed to hold in the fictional world, and the mutual belief principle, which says that everything that holds in the author’s common, contemporaneous major beliefs about the world can be assumed to hold in the fictional world. Both versions, he feels, don’t do a very good job with explaining how tropes come into being, nor how people infer fictional truths based on what’s presented in the text. The problem comes from assuming that the principles of generation is the root of a fictional world; if we accept that the principles can’t be fully articulated and that the root is based more on the prescription to imagine, we can sidestep the problem entirely.

Chapter five puts us in the second section, responding to representations, and with that intent in mind, it starts with some preliminary answers to basic questions: why do we enjoy tragedy? Why do we like being scared? The basic answer is that we recognize on some level that we’re only pretending that the representation is real, respond accordingly (Noël Carroll’s “art-horror” is the same general principle (“The Nature of Horror” 51). The chapter is the start of Walton’s shift into a slightly different topic; the first section was largely on how representations create fictional worlds, but this section is more about how we create our own worlds of make-believe when we come into contact with a fictional world. In that vein, chapter six examines what participants—or appreciators, as Walton calls them—bring to the fictional worlds. The participation doesn’t have to be particularly active either; while you can pretend you are a character taking part in a story you read, under Walton’s terms, games of make-believe include things as simple as referring to a representation as real—saying “Hamlet just killed Polonius,” rather than “in the play, the actor pretending to be Hamlet just pretended to kill the actor pretending to be Polonius” would count. Directly addressing the audience is one way a representation can engage with its appreciators, but doing so tends to distance them from the work’s fictional world. Chapter seven expands on both the previous chapters, elaborating on how psychological participation creates quasi-emotions, where we feel things for characters and events that we know to be fictional. In addition to the previous questions of tragedy and horror, Walton considers how suspense and surprise work in this regard.  It’s a rather peculiar thing to have to describe—when we repeat a viewing or reading, we know what will happen, but it is fictional that we don’t know, and still get emotionally involved. (Here, Walton edges on the notion of the implied reader, without ever quite reaching it.)

Now that we’ve considered the general case, the third section starts to consider various categories of  representation, including realism, points of view, narration, and depiction. Walton begins chapter eight with depiction, defining it as “a representation whose function is to serve as a prop in reasonably rich and vivid perceptual games of make-believe.” More plainly, it means representations where you can look at it, and find it relatively easy to think you’re actually looking at what it’s a representation of; essentially, the “it’s a boat” example from earlier. In particular, Walton argues that realism is just one depiction among many, and it draws your attention to certain elements of a depiction (say, light and shadow) while effacing others. Chapter nine is on verbal representation, and covers a lot of ground. It begins with verbal depiction, then delves into narration, the thorny question of exactly what we’re imagining when a work has a clear (or an unclear) narrator. Walton distinguishes between a reporting narrator and a storytelling one: the former relates events as if they are actually happening, while the latter is clearly shaping them to their own perspective. The storytelling narrator is particularly interesting because it creates nested fictional worlds—the one where the narrator dwells in telling the story, and the one inside it, in the story they describe. This leads organically to Walton’s final consideration, the point of view in narrative, and how it creates a different type of pretending, where the narrator supposes it is fictional that the character is thinking such and such at a given time, or would have thought that, if it had the time and means to express itself.

The final section, and in my opinion, the most convoluted, is on the semantics and ontology of make-believe.  Chapter ten starts with a problem: do fictional characters exist? The solution, in terms of make-believe, is to focus not on whether fictional things exist, but what sort of games of make-believe we’re playing. To that end, he distinguishes between make-believe that derives only from the rules as established by a representation (authorized games) and those that involve appreciators adding their own additional “fictional truths” (unofficial games); it strikes me that this distinction may really benefit from an exploration of fan culture theory, via Henry Jenkins. The final chapter continues the discussion on existence, considering more explicitly what it means to say that a character exists only within a story (betrayal), doesn’t exist at all (disavowal); or does, in fact, exist, despite—or while being—fictional.


My main disappointment with the book is a problem that, depending on how charitable one wishes to be, is either an issue of clarity or the capacity of language. As the book progresses, some of Walton’s distinctions become a little overly fine, and the sentences rather hard to follow. The difference between knowing fictionally that something is true and fictionally knowing something is true is an early example of things getting linguistically complicated (270); a later one is asserting that to say “Gregor Samsa is a (purely fictional) character” is “to acknowledge, while betraying the pretense, only that there is a work in whose authorized games so pretending is fictionally to refer successfully” (422). The favorable interpretation is that this speaks to Walton’s larger point, that language-based analysis of this area inevitably fails because language is ill-suited to speak to what’s really going on when we imagine things. But that doesn’t change my feeling that the really interesting discussions—the nature of narration, the self-reflexive work—is constantly being sidelined so that Walton can explain how fictionality corresponds with positive speech-act assertions, or something similar. Further, while the book isn’t entirely empty of references to other scholars, Walton does have a tendency to avoid them in favor of his own thought experiments and examples. The section where he defines fictional worlds, for example, has no reference to any other work on the subject, and it seems that, say, Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” and his concept of secondary worlds(http://www.jessesword.com/sf/view/1968) would be relevant comparison to Walton’s definition.

A more immediate question, from a game studies perspective, is what bringing videogames into the discussion can do, and what Walton’s make-believe theory has to offer game studies. Videogames present an interesting case for Walton’s model. For most of the book, Walton insists on a fairly distinct division between the fictional world generated by a work of fiction and the resulting game of make-believe that comes out of using the work and its fictional world as a generative prop. Videogames don’t have to use that division, and, arguably, they can’t use that division, as they require the player to act to advance the game, and a player moving a fictional character through a virtual world is not that different from a child moving an action figure across a floor. Similarly, elements that are reasonably settled in Walton’s account take on new meaning considered in videogame terms.  What becomes of authorized and unofficial games in a playing community where the designers themselves encourage modding—what’s the authorized fictional world of Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress?  How does the real monetary value of a player character in an online game affect the discussion of character existence? Do videogames have narrators? Obviously, some videogames borrow narrator-based conventions through cutscene voice-overs and so forth, but could we conceive of the way a videogame displays a landscape as a narrative account? Adding the consideration of a new medium to Walton’s theories—especially a medium as rich and varied as videogames—adds to the potential depth of the discussion the book raises.

As for what the make-believe theory has to offer videogames, I should first admit that I am hardly the first in the field to consider the connection;  scholars as diverse as Marie-Laurie Ryan, Gordon Calleja, Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska, and, most recently, Jesper Juul in The Art of Failure have used Walton for one means or another. But I think make-believe theory has at least one significant contribution to game studies that hasn’t yet been fully considered. I mentioned at the start of the review, the lasting myth of game studies, the one that, following Walton, we all pretend to believe is true, is that there is a fracture between game and narrative. Speaking of Juul, he went so far as to write a book based on the distinction, how games are half real rules, and half fictional worlds. The advantage of the make-believe theory is that it says that fictional worlds are always composed of rules, rules that come out of the fiction and the mind of the appreciator. In other words, it transcends the founding myth of gamestudies and allows us to allocate our attention elsewhere. Granted, there are immediate questions to be asked—is the make-believe theory just another way of ignoring what makes videogames unique chief among them—but the potential benefits of looking at game studies through a new lens makes it worth considering.

Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-believe is not a book about videogame studies, but it is a book about games, and about play. While a tad pendantic at times—and more than a tad at others—it offers a model that can simultaneously be applied to a wide swathe of human behavior yet still consider the uniqueness afforded by specific media forms. Moreover, it demonstrates the value of game studies theoretical research stepping outside its traditional boundaries. How do we study videogames? We start by imagining that we can.