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Prop Theory in a Nutshell

This piece provides an abridged introduction to Professor Kendall Walton’s make-believe theory of representation. This theory is sometimes referred to as “pretence theory”, but since in many cases there is no express pretence involved I prefer to call it prop theory. What follows is true to the spirit of Walton’s theory but reflects some tweaking of the terminology.

miss_scarlet Any time we interact with a representative art work – be it a painting, a sculpture, a song, a novel, a comic, a play, a film, or a game – it involves the exercise of our imagination, and as such we can see this deployment of our imagination as a game (in the manner of a child’s game of make-believe). Looking at a painting, we imagine we are perceiving what is depicted; listening to a song we imagine the story or sentiments mentioned in the lyrics and invoked by the music; reading a novel or comic or watching a film we imagine the events of the story unfolding; playing a game we imagine the reality of the events that occur.


Fictional Worlds

In prop theory, representations of all kinds are seen as props that prescribe specific imaginings. What is imagined is fictional, that is, true in the fictional world of the game that is played with the prop (Walton says “What is true is to be believed, what is fictional is to be imagined”). What it is prescribed that we imagine when we play such an imaginary game with a certain prop depends upon the features of the prop itself and also the principles of fiction that are in effect. For example, it is a principle of fiction for paintings, films and digital games that even though the prop is in two dimensions, the fictional world of the painting, film or game is in three dimensions.


Principles of Fiction

Principles of fiction are like rules that define what is imagined, but they need not be normative as rules are: some principles of fiction are innate and thus relate to our physiological circumstances – the previous example of perceiving a three dimensional world in a two dimensional image may be of this kind, as Noël Carroll has suggested. However, some principles of fiction are normative i.e. conventional – for example, that green depicts positive circumstances and red depicts negative circumstances (e.g. health in a digital game). We can easily imagine other cultures where this would not be so.


Normal Games

Fictional worlds are where our imaginary games take place, and a normal game (Walton’s authorised game) is a game of this kind that conforms to the cultural norms associated with the prop in question.

Although the prop is directly involved in generating the fictional world in our imagination, the fictional world can include radically more than what the prop itself prescribes. This is because we seldom play with single props – we also make use of other props, including our model of reality, as part of the game. For example, nothing in a film makes it expressly the case that the characters have blood in their veins but in a normal game we include our expectations from our model of reality unless something makes this untenable.


Depictions & Narrations

All props (i.e. all representations) are either sensory depictions (e.g. images, sounds), verbal narrations (e.g. novels, sentences, titles), or mathematical narrations (e.g. game mechanics, scientific models – not mentioned in Walton’s theory, but implied by it), or some combination thereof. Depictions require less imagination than narrations, and mathematical narrations require greater imagination than verbal narrations.



In the normal games of almost all artworks, multiple representations serve as props, so that, for instance, the title of a painting (narration) is as much a contributor to the fictional world of its normal game as the marks on the canvas (depictions). In board games, there can be a great many props, including all of the playing pieces, the board, and the rulebook, all of which interrelate – the image on the card for Miss Scarlet (pictured above) prescribes we imagine certain things about the red pawn, both of which are props in the relevant normal game. (The game as a whole may also be called a prop – the term ‘prop’ is ambiguous in scope, much like ‘object’).

Similarly, a single comic may be insufficient to play a normal game with it – the fictional world that is culturally authorised for such a comic may involve the contents of other comics as additional props. This is even the case with classical art – a sculpture of a figure from Greek mythology uses the Greek mythological megatext as a subsidiary prop, and as mentioned, almost every artwork makes use of our model of reality in a subsidiary role of some kind.


Critical Parsimony

As well as the fictional worlds of any imaginary games that are played with them, the primary props collectively define a work world that consists (according to Walton's approach) only of those propositions that are fictional in all normal games that are to be played with those props. In other words, if there are multiple normal games that can be played with a particular set of primary props, then anything that is not fictional in at least one of those normal games cannot be considered part of the work world. This work world is of specific interest to critics, since it represents the core content of any work of art. The principle of critical parsimony is thus that the work world contains only what it must contain in all normal games.

For example, it is not part of the work world of the first Star Wars movie that Princess Leia is Luke Skywalker's sister. Although there is a normal game in which all of the Star Wars movies serve as primary props in which this claim is fictional (i.e. true in the fictional world of Star Wars), and indeed this may be the most common imaginary game played with this movie, there is also a normal game in which only Star Wars is used as a prop – and nothing in this movie alone makes this proposition fictional. Thus, according to the principle of critical parsimony it is not fictional in the work world of Star Wars that Luke and Leia are siblings, although this is fictional in the work world of the Star Wars megatext.


Imaginary Things

Those things that we are prescribed to imagine present in the fictional world of the normal game for any given set of primary props are fictional entities or ontic fictions. Any emotions we experience in connection with these fictional entities are quasi-emotions – genuine feelings triggered by or expressed towards imaginary things. (Ontic fictions may also depict ontic facts – the chair we see in a movie may have been a real chair that was captured on film, but this is tangential). These imaginary things are fictional i.e. true in the fictional world of the normal game they belong to, and are ‘not real’ (i.e. not ontic facts) in the way this term is usually used. However, the props and the principles of fiction that collectively create these fictional worlds are ontic facts in their own right, and in this way everything fictional has a real foundation.

For more about prop theory, please consult the the Mimesis as Make-Believe serial or buy the new book Imaginary Games!


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Chris, thanks a lot for this nutshell!

Just as an inspirational aside: here in Germany (no sources in english avalable, I'm afraid) there is a growing network of consulting professionals who use "interactive techniques of imagination" (or "imaginary mini-games" or "ad-hoc games of narrative imagination" or...or whatever you'd like to call it) to create a "third space" of interaction between people - a space of genuine contact and open communication in which problem-inducing limits and blind spots can be jointly made visible, investigated and maybe resolved.

"third space" in this sense means that a "imaginary realm" (a game space in the context of this blog, I suppose) is created where interpersonal communication trancends current limitations - in a serious, ontic sense.

Unfortunately from a game theorists viewpoint this development is driven by psychologists / therapists who do not regard the concept of "games" as serious enough for their cause, apparently the old story. Instead, the process is referred to as "trance-like" or "flow" states related to concepts from hypnosis / hypnotherapy.

translucy: thanks for your comment! I felt the need for the 'nutshell' so I could revisit some of Walton's themes over the next week or two without expecting people to remember the content of the dual serials. :)

Also, thanks for this information about imaginative consultation - this so clearly fits into my framework of imaginary games, but I can imagine that those who are peddling this technique hold to a view that 'game' is a trivialising term.

Oh, while I have your attention, can I use your German language skills to check my faux Kant title "Grundlegung zur Spielästhetik" - did I get that right?

All the best!

Sounds fine to me ;-) though I have to admit that combining Kant and "Spiel" in one piece raises pretty high expectations... as I mentioned before the most famous person to follow that route was Friedrich Schiller in his philosophical reflections on Kant, in my view with the intention to make Kant's philosophy more widely accessible and workable using "Spieltrieb" as the access point...

Best wishes!

Great! Thanks for verifying this. I only make mention of this phrase as a passing joke in the preface, so I think I'm fine. :)

I know so little about Schiller beyond his friendship with Goethe. Any essay you'd recommend as an introduction to his philosophy?

Thanks again!

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