Jay Lemke
Jay Lemke


Jay Lemke is a Professor in the School of Education, Department of Educational Studies at the University of Michigan and Co-Editor of the journal Critical Discourse Studies. Before coming to Michigan, he was Executive Officer of the Ph.D. Program in Urban Education at the City University of New York Graduate Center and co-editor of Linguistics and Education. His research interests include science education, new learning technologies, multimedia semiotics, discourse analysis, and applications of complex systems theory to the study of social, cultural, and institutional change.


Understanding Interactivity: Relevance, Surprise, and Initiative, or Are Computer Games More Interactive than Your Grandmother?

In what sense are modern computer games “interactive”? How does the nature of their interactivity differ from using a word-processor, reading a book, or playing chess against an AI opponent? And how is it similar to the interactive dialogue of two people in conversation? These questions are important both for the design and the analysis of complex digital games. Useful answers can help us better understand how games sustain engagement with players, and perhaps suggest new ways they can do so. Relevant approaches may also generalize to complex interactive learning environments which balance education and entertainment goals.

I will present an analysis of these issues based on a functionalist social semiotics (Halliday, 1978, 1994; Lemke, 2002, 2005), which tries to connect meanings made to the activities in which those meanings function – here the playing of complex digital games. In this model the key features of a sustainable and cumulative semiotic interaction include exchange of roles (e.g. initiator vs responder) and system output which is both surprising in its information value and relevantly responsive to user input and current context. The standard set by indefinitely sustainable conversational interaction between persons is near-Turing and beyond current AI technologies, but complex computer games use strategies which let them appear to players to meet these critical criteria on average across various timescales of gameplay. I will illustrate these strategies and apply the analysis to a number of well-known computer games of the last several years, such as The Sims 1&2, Civilization III&IV, Warcraft III, and assorted RPGs .

In game theory (Aarseth, 1997) has rightly questioned how the term “interactive” is applied to new media and in what sense it distinguishes them from print media or captures what is really compelling about complex digital games. His argument suggests that we need to explore just what we can and do mean by interactive media and what makes them compellingly interactive for us. In this analysis I will combine his approach to new media as depending on the relationship between two tiers (what the user sees vs. what the program does) with the insights of functional linguistics, social semiotics, and the theory of dialogism (Bakhtin, 1953), which together define the criteria for responsive reciprocity, role exchange, and the balance between novelty and relevance in sustaining interactive dialogue.

These issues are also critically important for the design of interactive learning environments and for our basic concept of what it means to learn dialogically across time and events.

Aarseth, E. (1997). Cybertext. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bakhtin, M. (1953). Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. 1986 edition. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1978). Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1994). An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold.
Lemke, J. L. (2002). Travels in Hypermodality. Visual Communication, 1(3), 299-325.
Lemke, J. L. (2005). Place, pace, and meaning: Multimedia chronotopes. In S. Norris & R. Jones (Eds.), Discourse in Action. London: Routledge.

Click here to close the window.