A world to escape to? Digital gameworlds as otherworlds

26 Jan 2024·
Dom Ford
Dom Ford
· 4 min read
City-builder games allow the player to “build your dream city” (SimCity BuildIt, 2023) where “you’re only limited by your imagination” (Paradox Interactive, n.d.). Of course, those are marketing statements, but most titles emphasise a large degree of creative freedom. Players generally understand that their virtual city is, in fact, limited. Computational power, assets included in the game, gameplay mechanics. But less acknowledged is the degree to which city builders limit the imagination too. The hidden choices—conscious or not—regarding what is and is not possible in gameplay also limit the imagination. Outside of the game too, I argue, these game design decisions play a role in limiting the imagination for what cities can be in general.

Presented at Digitale Spiele im Wandel: Technologien – Kulturen – Geschichte(n), Bremen, Germany, 24–26 January.

Extended abstract

Digital games are often understood in terms of escapism, the avoidance of everyday, ‘real’ life. But are gameworlds necessarily escapist? I argue that this escapist paradigm reveals an underlying assumption that gameworlds are separate from the ‘real world’. Instead, I propose that we can better understand gameworlds and their role in our lives and in society through the concept of otherworlding (Frog, 2020).

Otherworld describes a variety of usually spiritual and/or geographic places which are in some way separate from the ‘ordinary’ world. The afterlives in various religions, for instance, overlapping spirit realms, fairyland in English and Scottish folklore. However, Frog observes issues with the term in that what makes an otherworld ‘other’ “is invariably linked to a perspective of what is ‘not other’” (2020, p. 455). Imposing inherent qualities such as ‘supernatural’ flattens the role an otherworld plays in its society.

Instead, Frog suggests we turn our attention to otherworlding as a process “of othering linked to places and spaces, contrasting ‘ours’ or ‘the familiar’ with ‘other’ … the familiar or recognizable forms a frame of reference against which fractions of difference become emphasized” (2020, p. 458), drawing on concepts of othering (from, e.g., de Beauvoir, 1949/2011; Irvine & Gal, 2000). Otherworlding allows us to avoid false binaries, and instead focus on processes and the dynamics of power and control that determine the construction of places. Who or what is being othered, by whom, on what basis, and to what end? What is ‘normal’ in contrast to which this world is other?

Otherworlding can in this way be applied to gameworlds too. Doing so allows us to see past the notion that gameworlds are fundamentally separate from the ‘real world’, to which players can ‘escape’. This distinction has long been challenged in game studies (Klastrup & Tosca, 2004; Mortensen, 2018; Radde-Antweiler et al., 2014; Taylor, 2009), and is also implicitly challenged by frameworks beyond game studies such as deep mediatisation, which stresses the fundamental technological interrelatedness of media (Couldry & Hepp, 2017, pp. 54–55). But while these perspectives are vital for understanding that gameworlds are inseparable from wider society, otherworlding recognises that there is in fact an intention to separate gameworlds, to construe them as an otherworld.

I argue that otherworlding is a valuable way to view gameworlds as separated spaces without buying into the asserted disconnection from society. This helps us to grasp both what the construction of a gameworld as a whole says about the society from which it emerged, but also how the persistence and proliferation of particular gameworlds may impact back on society at large. And it enables us to show how gameworlds are not homogenous in construction and impact, but are fluid, porous and constantly negotiated spaces.

To exemplify how gameworlds can be analysed through otherworlding, I will present an analysis of the popular fantasy action roleplaying game Elden Ring (FromSoftware, 2022) and its surrounding community, which is well-known both for its dedication to and passion for the game and FromSoftware’s other titles, but is also embroiled in controversial discussions surrounding exclusionary community practices (Orme, 2022). With this example, we can explore otherworlding both through the creation of and investment in a fantastical fictional world, but also the way in which players form a community surrounding that world, demarcating digital spaces in which different social rules, structures and relations apply.


Couldry, N., & Hepp, A. (2017). The mediated construction of reality. Polity Press.

de Beauvoir, S. (2011). The second sex (C. Borde & S. Malovany-Chevallier, Trans.). Vintage. (Original work published 1949)

Frog. (2020). Otherworlding: Othering places and spaces through mythologization. Signs and Society, 8(3), 454–471. https://doi.org/10.1086/710159

FromSoftware. (2022). Elden Ring [PC]. Bandai Namco Entertainment.

Irvine, J. T., & Gal, S. (2000). Language ideology and linguistic differentiation. In P. V. Kroskrity (Ed.), Regimes of language: Ideologies, polities, and identities (pp. 35–84). School of American Research Press.

Klastrup, L., & Tosca, S. (2004). Transmedial worlds: Rethinking cyberworld design. 2004 International Conference on Cyberworlds, 409–416. https://doi.org/10.1109/CW.2004.67

Mortensen, T. E. (2018). Real game worlds: The emotional reality of fictional worlds. MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research, 34(64), 16. https://doi.org/10.7146/mediekultur.v34i64.97015

Orme, S. (2022). ‘Just watching’: A qualitative analysis of non-players’ motivations for video game spectatorship. New Media & Society, 24(10), 2252–2269. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444821989350

Radde-Antweiler, K., Waltmathe, M., & Zeiler, X. (2014). Video gaming, let’s plays, and religion: The relevance of researching gamevironments. Gamevironments, 1. http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:gbv:46-00104169-12

Taylor, T. L. (2009). Play between worlds: Exploring online game culture. MIT Press.

Dom Ford
Postdoctoral Researcher
My research focuses on myth, digital game communities, monsters, spatiality and the representation and depiction of history and the past (both real and fictional histories) in digital games.