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Jason Pook's Games Design Blog

CATS Logbook Entry 3- 18/10/13

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In this session of CATS we was introduced to semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, the official definition is “The study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation”, basically how we read signs. Using semiotics there are multiple ways to read signs, for example: colour (red danger/passion, white peace/purity), body language (posture, slouched, straight, hunch), combination of colours, Text (use of font, size, colour, bold, italics, underline) and so on really.

The definitions for the keywords we learned in the session of semiotics:

  • Semiology- The study of signs, signals, symbols, gestures and messages.
  • Semiotics- The study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.
  • Signifier- a sign’s physical form (such as a sound, printed word, or image) as distinct from its meaning.
  • Signified- the meaning or idea expressed by a sign, as distinct from the physical form in which it is expressed.
  • Denote- be a sign of, indicate. simile.
  • Connote- imply or suggest (an idea or feeling) in addition to the literal or primary meaning. metaphor.
  • Arbitrary- based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.
  • Polysemy- the ambiguity of an individual word or phrase that can be used (in different contexts) to express two or more different meanings.

Semiotics give you a range of meanings to just a basic picture, you are basically deconstructing or decoding the works to find out through semiotics what the meanings or purpose of that particular part in an image could be.

We then briefly learnt about 3 people who were involved in the making of semiotics and the theories behind it,

Ferdinand de Saussure– In 1906 Saussure taught a course on General Linguistics at the University of Geneva. His teachings were so monumental his students published a document of them, using their lecture notes to guide them. He was interested in the state of language, moreover, ‘an understanding of the conditions for existence of any language’ and  the nature of the linguistic sign. From this he argued the linguistic sign or ‘unit’ was a two-sided entity. This he called a dyad (picture on the left). And this is what they define.#1Picture1

Signifier- a sign’s physical form (such as a sound, printed word, or image) as distinct from its meaning.

Signified- the meaning or idea expressed by a sign, as distinct from the physical form in which it is expressed.

The connection between the two is in fact what we call arbitrary meaning based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.
Charles Saunders Peirce– Peirce’s Sign Theory, or Semiotic was an advanced version of Saussure, is an account of signification, representation, reference and meaning. Peirce’s accounts are distinctive  for capturing the importance of interpretation to signification (signifier/signified). For Peirce, developing a theory of signs was a central focus. The importance of semiotic for Peirce is wide ranging. As he himself said,
“[…] it has never been in my power to study anything,—mathematics, ethics, metaphysics, gravitation, thermodynamics, optics, chemistry, comparative anatomy, astronomy, psychology, phonetics, economics, the history of science, whist, men and women, wine, metrology, except as a study of semiotic” (SS 1977, 85–6).
 He argued with Saussure’s work, that rather than being a dyad, the linguistic sign consists of a triple relation between the sign the object and the referent. Peirce proposed 3 categories that we could identify between signs and objects:
An Icon- ‘where the sign relates to its object in some resemblance with it, i.e. a photograph’. It physically resembles what it stands for.
A Symbol- ‘where the sign relates to its object by means of convention alone, e.g.  word, a flag’. Relates to via social convention.
An Index- ‘where the sign relates to its object in terms of causation, e.g. sundial, paw print, medical symptom’. It correlates with or points to.
So leading from this a sign can be iconic, symbolic and indexical.
Roland Barthes– Barthes was interested in the connotations of meaning in an article he published called “Mythologies” he explored the denotations of popular cultural French signs, he argued that certain signs betrayed their convention as they are myths, this is how connotations are constructed. his ideas were very similar to that of Peirce in that icon, symbol and index was changed by Barthes to Linguistic message, Coded iconic message and Non-coded iconic message so a more insightful look into semiotics with these 3 steps.
An example of an icon (Icon definition- a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.) would have to be people that inspired other and changed a generation, so musically iconic is like Elvis the king of rock and roll is iconic, scientific would be Albert Einstein with all his theories and discoveries, boxing Muhammad Ali, or political like Ghandi. And so on there are many icons in this world and some people have personal preferences to who is an icon to them.
A symbol example would be just to give one, the cross of Jesus Christ, this is probably the most symbolic symbol in the religious world of Christianity for many reasons and it is a symbol of the sacrifices he made for our race.
An index example is where the sign relates to its object in terms of causation, e.g. sundial, paw print, medical symptom or a clock, it correlates or points to something.
#1mario1We was then shown this picture of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS, In the picture we was told how semiotics works and to also put our own input in. The idea of the main character Mario is going in the right direction is a sign of good as the direction right is often symbolised with moving forward, whereas all the bad characters the Goombas and the rocket bullet are heading in the left direction which is symbolised as going backwards/ wrong way in a side scrolling game like this. The use of bright colours for Mario the reds, blues and yellows for his outfit suggest he is the good guy, with a slight powerful edge to him in the colour red. The colourful background gives us an idea of the target market which would be the younger generation but as we know Mario was so successful its an all ages played game. The enemies of the Goombas are brown which is suggesting dull, boring and not essential so they can be stomped on. This is giving you an idea of how semiotics can be used to analyse an image, it may not be intended for that purpose but using semiotics we get all this information about what’s going on relatively simply. (Here is one I did on Marlboro).
This is bringing the session to an end so here is what I personally took away from this lesson:
I learnt the basics of semiotics and what they symbolise, the purpose of semiotics, the history behind semiotics with people like Roland Barthes. Overall the most I learnt was how I can personally use semiotics in day to day situations to get hidden meaning behind e.g. a film poster or a game cover. Just by using semiotics you can get a rough idea on what it may involve like darkness or danger in a superhero film, or like previously shown in Mario multiple things just in one shot of a level. Since then we have used semiotics multiple times in other non CATS related sessions (Graphics and signs) to study semiology and maybe why the company has chosen to represent themselves that way.

Author: Jason Pook 3D

Current student at Hull School of Art and Design studying Games Design.

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