Inclusion Of Metaphors in Game Design


When searched on google, the basic definition of a metaphor comes up as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not applicable”. But metaphors are more than just a linguistic term to be used in the artistry of poetry, they can also be used to express terms and concepts in different applications such as science, technology, social interaction, etc. Lakoff & Johnson states that “Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not in language but thoughts and action” (Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M., (2003), p. 3). Humans used analogies to make sense of objects or actions with the knowledge that they already possess. For example, The Star interface from Xerox introduced the use of technology as a metaphor for experiencing the use of literal objects on the table in the form of a graphic user interface. They made use of everyday analogies such as moving a file or copying a file onto the digital screen. The use of technology as a metaphor can be considered a way to understand and experience one thing in terms of another. Similarly, technology as a metaphor is also used in computer game design to make human experiences and tasks that we perform physically in terms of activity on virtual technology. This raises a few questions on why designers use such tactics to design things? Why do we design based on our daily life activity as a metaphor? Why does the user directly scroll on a web page? Why does the user click on a button? How does a user know what to do next? “Users of computer software systems base this behavior on stored knowledge about particular sequences of actions or general rules about how to accomplish certain tasks on a mental model (an underlying understanding of how the system works)” (John M. Carroll and Judith Reitman Olson, 1987)

Mental Models as a Metaphor

“A mental model is a cognitive construct that describes a person’s understanding of a particular content domain in the world.” (John M. Carroll, 1985, p.694)

When we visit a movie theatre, we know what our goal is — buying a ticket and watch the movie — the process to complete the task is already present in our brain. The process or steps to complete this task is stored in form of a mental model. Even games are designed in such a way that the user will be able to relate it with one of the mental models stored in the human brain and unconsciously start playing games with none or minimal instruction. The general theme that popular games are designed on is mostly based on replicating human activity in the form of objects and actions. So here game designers are creating an agency using the human activity. A typical RPG (Role Playing Game) has objects such as inventories or bags that have all the things you need to play the game or has a health meter that showcases the remainder of the characters life. Actions can include the activity that the character can perform like shooting, driving, jumping over obstacles. One such game that I use to play is ‘Little Alchemy’, which is a crafting game that uses the mental model of mixing things to create new things. You basically start with four basic elements water, fire, earth, air. The purpose of the game is the creation of things. You need to mix elements to create new elements of nature. e.g., mix water and earth to form mud, then mix fire and mud to form a brick. Combine two bricks and you get a wall. Even if one doesn’t possess the knowledge of chemistry, one can easily play the game using the mental model of creating and making things to proceed further and learn a bit of chemistry along the way. Using the mental model as metaphor humans relate to interaction with new technology in everyday life. As a designer, we need to understand how humans create those mental models, how to excite those known metaphors present in human consciousness when interacting with any piece of technology.

Modern Game Design and Metaphor

Mental models are the main component of human cognition, which upon studying help users as well as designers to interact and create better interactions. But every metaphor has limitations, With the increasing complexity in modern games, the usual metaphor from everyday life fails to create or excite known experienced mental model. For example, driving a Bus in a game is not as same as flying an alien spaceship. When the themes of games are more abstract likes some fantasy world, the users have no previous concept, no model of this unknown environment. How do the users relate to something that is not known? This led to the use of another classification of metaphor, composite metaphor, “A combination of metaphors that are not necessarily related to each other but together represent the structure of the system”( Smilowitz, E.D, 2005).To explain the use of technology as composite metaphors, I would like to introduce another popular game — PUBG (Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds) a multiplayer first-person shooting game, where players play in teams of 4 to compete with 25 other teams to win the battle. The game provides a navigation tab on the top left corner that is a combination of a map and a compass. It tracks the movement of the team member location on the map and also shows more details such as their health and ammo. Such a device will not be available in real-life scenarios of war. To help the gamers proceed efficiently within the game, composite metaphors are used by combining two or more objects to make sense and relate to one of the mental models or create a new mental model. Once the user can relate his cognition with the tech, even just an object or an activity, the rest of the ecology of the game is learned and mapped in the mind. Amy Powell (2005, para 6) discusses that “users should be provided only enough instruction to get started and keep going (within a game)” and “users should be able to learn how to begin using the application quickly and with minimal effort” (Houser, R., DeLoach, S.,1998, p. 321–322) are two guiding principles of effective design for computer games.

Complex Game Design and Metaphor

“Metaphors can enter games in a variety of ways.” (Doris C. Rusch, Matthew J. Weise, SingaporeMIT GAMBIT Game Lab, 2008, para 2)

As we already know metaphors are everywhere, with more and more humans getting access to gaming consoles and gaming setups with high-quality output and performance, humans want games to be something more than just a known activity. Along with the immersive experience of graphics, they want a meaningful story to the game. They want complex systems that have multiple aspects of emotions involved in the game such as thrill, suspense or maybe a background love story for motivation and engagement. The challenge for the designer is to come up with metaphors that are closer to the theme of the game and gives a tangible quality to the game. Adding something tangible to the game will help the user to create a deeper mental model of the character and will be able to correlate to the gameplay. For example, in a shooting game, if the player’s health is really low, the screen will get darker and darker, which could imitate an injured person blacking out due to loss of blood. Such indicators in games are referred to as interface metaphors (Doris C. Rusch, Matthew J. Weise, Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, 2008, para 2). Humans quickly relate to technology when u add an agency or activity to it.

Metaphor and its Limitations

Though Metaphors are almost ubiquitous in our everyday life, there are limitations to the use of metaphors. More questions come to my mind, With more technologies moving towards using AI to create dynamic experience decisions, will Artificial Intelligence be able to comprehend the metaphorical analogies from the user and make decisions? Some Metaphors can create confusion or even be dangerous if not designed by taking edge case scenarios. To explain this, I will discuss two different games based on the same theme of Adventure. both games were way ahead of their time, one missed to engage with the audience due to limitations in technology and the latter missed to anticipate the addictiveness that caused accidents.

Nintendo’s Pokémon is a role-playing adventure game with the main character as a kid who is ready to start his adventure in the world of Pokémon. The game is based on the popular cartoon show Pokémon where you collect new Pokémon in tiny metal balls and then battle other characters and leaders to ascend in the game. The designers of the game have added multiple metaphors in the game such as trading cards which kids use to play with manual Pokémon cards that came before the videogame. The game was completely based on a 2D plane and was the only thing that was limiting the user to relate to the actual Pokémon animated series. Here the word ‘adventure’ in adventure games as a metaphor is misleading as to human adventure is something that occurs outside in the world such as hiking, and not indoors.

A screenshot from the game Gameboy’s Pokémon Red
Figure 1. Gameboy’s Pokémon Red, Source: pcmasterrace, Received from Reddit

2. Niantic Lab ‘s Pokémon Go (2016)

Years after the release of the first Nintendo’s Pokémon, Niantic an augmented reality company released a new version of Pokémon. they used GPS maps and augmented reality to bring the metaphor of catching a Pokémon to reality. Pokémon enthusiasts were now able to interact in real life by going to different places to explore the game and collect the Pokémon on their device. Niantic change the 2D plane to 3D augmented reality and made the new leap in making games in augmented reality. Though the game was highly played and admired by players from diverse age groups, within 2 weeks the game came into a controversy where people were getting so immersed and distracted from the reality that the number of cases of accidents by drivers and pedestrians walking started coming up on all news and social media. Pokémon GO is a new distraction for drivers and pedestrians, and safety messages are scarce. “Delayed reaction to mobile phone distractions has hampered public safety” (John W. Ayers et al, September 16, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.6274) Later Niantic updated the application with added security measures to encourage self and public safety.

Figure 2. Niantic’s Pokémon Go, Source: Bhavik Donga,2021, IN

More than Game — Gamification

Now that we have discussed Metaphors in Game there are more ways in which Game design is used in non-gaming applications. Game Design metaphors are used vastly in Education application which uses a metaphor of a track or a learning path to give a sense of story/game while learning new things. Another application of game design is using rewards as a motivation of engagement with the application. Game design metaphor is also involved in media and entertainment. Netflix’s Black Mirror (Bandersnatch is a 2018 interactive film in the science fiction anthology series Black Mirror (Russell McLean, David Slade, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, 2018, Netflix). The writers of this film have incorporated a game interaction where the viewer gets to select the next course of the film. Viewers get to redo the previous step if something went wrong similar to the actual games where if you die you get to start from the previously saved point. The motion film itself is open to different ends or climaxes. This is such an interesting use of technology as a metaphor where the game is used as the core metaphor to integrate and interact human audience in media content.


In Conclusion, technology as metaphors is not just limited to linguistic or poetry but also can be seen in Game Design. We briefly discussed how humans create mental models of everything that we perceive in the real world. Keeping mental models in mind, the game designer uses different metaphors to introduce concepts on how to interact with games. When the themes of games get complex and abstract such as love or emotions, metaphors fail to be helpful as it gets very confusing to relate to real-world objects or activities. Metaphors are used as objects and actions that act as an agency to guide the user to humans interact effectively with technology. Upon qualitative analysis of few games, we explored how different metaphors are used to make the user’s interaction rich and insightful game-play experience. Finally, we discussed how metaphors in game design are not just related to the game, it can also give a unique perspective to design gamification in other applications.


Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press, p .3 .

2. John M. Carroll and Judith Reitman Olson, (1987). Mental models in Human-Computer Interaction, Washington. D.C

John M. Carroll, Review of Mental Model, Dedre Gentner and Albert Stevens, eds., Contemporary Psychology, 30(9), September 1985, p. 694.

Smilowitz, E.D., Do Metaphors Make Web Browsers Easier to Use? Retrieved September 19 2005, from

Houser, R., DeLoach, S., Learning from Games: Seven Principles of Effective Design, Technical Communication, Third Quarter 1998, Society for Technical Communication, 1998

Amy Powell, 2005 ,Composite Metaphor, Games and Interface, Swinburne University of Technology

Doris C. Rusch, Matthew J. Weise, Games about LOVE and TRUST?: Harnessing the Power of Metaphors for Experience Design, Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab

John W. Ayers et al, September 16, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.6274

Russell McLean, David Slade , Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, 2018 , Netflix.



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