Between Pleasure and Reality: Theorizing Video Games as Transitional Objects


When I was young, I had a yellow blanket with a smooth satin lining around the edges. But it wasn’t just any blanket—it was my “blanky,” my ever-present companion in sleep and in play. Most people I talk to can readily recall their own equivalent of my “blanky,” whether it was a blanket, a stuffed animal or some other prized possession.

British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott would refer to objects like my blanky as “transitional objects,” a term that he used to describe physical objects that the infant uses for two important and related developmental purposes: 1) to differentiate between internal reality and external reality and, 2) to cope with an increasing independence from one’s caregiver.

To elaborate, the transitional object bridges the gap between the solipsism of the infant and the harsh reality of the external world. The transitional object is filled with meaning that the infant projects onto it, yes, but it is also a crude thing that will not act unless physically acted upon. In other words, it occupies a middle space between subjectivity and objectivity that is necessary for the infant to transition into an understanding of the outside world.

The transitional object also helps the infant replace (to a certain extent) her bond with her caregiver. In Winnicott’s view, child-rearing is ideally a process in which the caregiver allows the infant to deal with increasing levels of frustration on her own. Because increases in frustration can be dispiriting, the infant turns to her blanky or her bear for comfort in the absence of her caregiver. The object then, helps the infant transition from total dependence on the caregiver to a marginal degree of independence.

How are video game designers like caregivers and video game players like infants? And how is a video game like a transitional object?

Before I approach these questions, though, I should explain why I’m motivated to ask them in the first place. In his classic volume Playing and Reality, Winnicott argues that the study of any form of human play requires us to also examine the shape of the initial relationship between infant and caregiver. My questions, then, stem from the hypothesis that video games, like all forms of play, emerge from the initial infant-caregiver relationship as mediated by transitional objects.


Game designers are like caregivers because they both, generally speaking, allow players/infants to cope with increasing levels of challenge.

Winnicott argues that, at the start of the infant’s life, the caregiver should meet the infant’s needs “almost completely,” providing nourishment, proximity and comfort at the baby’s whim. But, as the infant gets older, the caregiver needs to gradually taper off in attentiveness, allowing the infant to cope with increasing amounts of “frustration.” In sum, then, the caregiver:

makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens according to the infant’s growing ability to account for failure of adaptation and to tolerate the results of frustration.”

This ideal adaptation of the caregiver corresponds to a general trend in game design to gradually increase a game’s level of challenge, risk and complexity as the game progresses. In the first few moments of Super Mario Bros., for example, there are no pits, just a simple plane on which the player can familiarize herself with the basic mechanics of running and jumping. By the end of Super Mario. Bros., however, the player must expertly navigate perilous pits of lava with near-perfect timing.

Jenova Chen’s concept of “flow” (which he borrows in turn from the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), is an attempt to provide a psychological foundation for this trend in game design. Chen presents “flow” as the ideal mode of engagement that a player should have with a game. When the game’s challenge increases apace with the player’s increasing mastery of the mechanics, the player is in a state of “flow.” Flow is a middle space between boredom and frustration. If the game remains easy for too long, I’ll get bored. But if the game becomes difficult too soon or too suddenly (often referred to as a “difficulty spike), I’ll get frustrated and quit.

For Winnicott, too, it is important to keep the infant just challenged enough. If the caregiver’s close attention is “continued too long,” the infant will experience reality itself as a “hallucination” that is under her “magical control.” Similarly, a player that is coddled for too long by tutorials and easy gameplay, will feel an omnipotent boredom that precludes any meaningful engagement with the facticity of the game’s systems. On the other hand, if the caregiver does not adequately adapt to the infant’s needs from the beginning (the “difficulty spike” scenario), the results are even more devastating; in this case, the infant won’t even be able to begin to develop an understanding of external reality. Similarly, when game designers do not adequately protect the player from challenge in the early stages of a game, many players simply quit, retreating from the intolerable reality of the game’s systems.

dangeroustogoaloneOne of the major challenges of game design is that the game must cater to thousands, sometimes millions, of players, whereas a domestic caregiver typically focuses on one newborn infant at a time. As Winnicott notes: “active adaption demands an easy and unresented preoccupation with the one infant.” So how can a game designer be expected to accomplish anything akin to “active adaptation” when the game will be played by a thousands of players with varying levels of skill?

The development of dynamic difficulty adjustment (or DDA) can be read as an attempt on the part of game designers to pay as much attention to the needs of each individual player as a caregiver would to the needs of an infant.  DDA is a design feature that assesses how well the player is doing at the game and increases or decreases the challenge accordingly. Binding of Isaac, for instance, will make enemies less challenging if the player is struggling and more challenging if she is advancing too quickly. This adjustment is performed on the fly without informing the player of the change. Ideally, DDA keeps each player in their own personal “flow zone.” DDA then, is an attempt to make the game to be as focused, reactive and adaptive to the player as the caregiver is to the infant.

If video games, like any form of play, emerge from this adaptive infant-caregiver relationship, then how are games themselves—their systems and mechanics—like transitional objects? 

Because, according to Winnicott, the transitional object marks the infant’s first step toward understanding that things in the world have a “vitality or reality of [their] own,” it must be able to “survive” the infant’s “pure aggression.” Only after the infant attempts to destroy the object can she truly love it. As Winnicott pantomimes on behalf of the infant: “You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you.”

A video game, similarly, should be able to survive the player’s attempts to “break” it, or to intentionally thwart the intent of its design. There are cases in which breaking a game can become a game in itself but, generally speaking, a game that can be broken is at risk of becoming invalidated. For example, the original Deus Ex (2000) allowed the player to climb walls by building ersatz ladders made out of proximity mines. As game theorist Jesper Juul notes, such an exploit “make[s] the game less enjoyable” as the player no longer needs to engage meaningfully with the full range of the game’s systems in order to progress.

The fact that such game-breaking exploits are frequently found and popularized within days of a game’s release is a testament to the fact that video game player’s naturally test the boundaries of a game’s rule set. Much like infants, video game players need to know that an object will not bend to their every whim before they can take it seriously as an externally imposed reality. When the game holds up—when players fail to circumvent barriers to progression—it accrues value and demands the player’s respect.

Apart from their mutual ability to withstand aggression, both video games and transitional objects are curiously poised in a “third space” between pleasure and reality, between subjectivity and objectivity, between internal and external worlds.

Video games, like transitional objects, are neither pure projections of our subjectivity nor are they simply objects that can be reduced to a crude, material existence. This is partially, but not quite, what Jesper Juul is noting when he refers to games as “half-real.”

For Winnicott, the transitional object is the infant’s first tool in realizing that the world is not fully contained inside her own mind. It is a wake up call from the idea that there is “nothing but me.” But the transitional object nevertheless remains animated by the infant’s subjective needs even as she grapples with its external facticity. In other words, it’s not a “subjective object,” strictly speaking, but it’s also not “an object objectively perceived.”

megamanAt a basic level, the fact that video games are a uniquely interactive medium that require player input serves to situate them firmly in this middle space between the poles of subjectivity and objectivity. Games impose an objective, intransigent reality onto the player: lines of code that circumscribe her actions. But the player must animate the systems of the game with her own input and imagination. The game is neither an idiosyncratic byproduct of the player’s mind nor is it a radically independent object; rather, the player’s subjective experience of the game is radically intertwined with the game’s objective reality.

Winnicott dramatizes the paradox of this third space by noting that the infant cannot answer the question, “Did you create [the transitional object] or did you find it?” On some level, the infant is beginning to understand that she did not simply conjure up the transitional object. But she also remains unwilling to accept that it was simply presented to her from without, as a present. As a child, I wanted to believe that my blanket was with me from the beginning of my life even though I knew, at some level, that my parents had simply purchased it for me.

This paradoxical positioning of the transitional object bears a strong resemblance to the discourse around player “immersion” in video games. Warren Spector, project director on Deus Ex (2000), notes that, in an immersive game: “nothing reminds you that you’re just playing a game—not interface, not your character’s back-story or capabilities, not game systems, nothing.” In an attempt to make games more immersive, designers have started to either minimize heads-up display (or HUD) elements or find creative ways to incorporate the HUD information into the game world itself. Dead Space (2008), for instance was widely praised for its HUD-less design. As game developer Greg Wilson notes: “… nothing screams ‘this is just a game’ louder than an old-fashioned HUD.”

But video game players are clearly aware of the fact that they are playing games. Immersive games, then, involve their own sort of paradox: “I know I’m playing a game, but don’t tell me I’m playing a game!” The player knows that the game is not her pure subjective reality and she further knows that the game must be an external system in order to hold her interest. But, at the same time, she does not want to admit that the game is just lines of code on a disc. Just as an infant would insist that her teddy bear was “real,” the video game player captivated by immersive game design wants the game to feel “real” while simultaneously knowing that it isn’t. It is precisely by accepting this paradox, however, that she is able to become “’lost’ in play” (to use Winnicott’s words) and to enter the “near-withdrawal state”  that we often associate with game playing.

Why does it matter if video games are transitional objects?

I’m drawn to the metaphor because Winnicott provides us with a theoretical framework that does not pathologize play, that does not cast play as a regression to an infantile state. For Winnicott, “no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality,” and, as such, we never fully stop leaning on our transitional objects. In other words, spending time in the third space between subjectivity and objectivity is a perfectly natural thing to do. But Winnicott goes even further to suggest that play retains a positive value throughout one’s life. He argues that it is “only in playing that … the adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.” In a Winnicott-inspired framework, playing a video game, like any form of play, is not a regression to an infantile state but a healthy continuation of a form of play that first took shape during the infant-caregiver relationship.

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman, ex-Mormon and a PhD student in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. She writes regularly for The Border House and has contributed to Kotaku. She is also an erstwhile singer-songwriter. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.

Further Reading:

Challenge is Conflict: How Difficulty Makes Game Narratives Work (Medium Difficulty)

Difficulty is Difficult: Designing for Hard Modes in Games (Gamasutra)

Chen, Jenova. “Flow in Games.” (MFA Thesis. University of Southern California

Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. (MIT Press.)

Winnicott, D.W. Playing and Reality. (Tavistock Publications.)

This entry was posted in Criticism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Jesse Miksic

    Concise & convincing piece here. I’d be interested in further elaboration: to what degree are films, & even books, transitional objects? The suspension of disbelief is similar across all narrative media, and therefore occupy some sort of place between the subjective & the objective. On the other hand, you’re right that difficulty & learning curve are addressed much more sensitively by video games.

    BTW, there’s a discrepancy between the byline of this piece and the bio clip at the end of this piece. Eep.

    • Kyle Carpenter

      Thanks for the heads up! Fixed that as quickly as possible.

    • Samantha Allen

      Hi Jesse, I meant to reply to your comment earlier but my phone was not co-operating with Disqus. Winnicott does locate a lot of cultural production in the “third space” typified by transitional objects. He cites art, religion, philosophy, dreaming and (my personal favorite) fetishism as phenomena that walk a similar tightrope between subjective and objective realities. But he doesn’t elaborate on the art connection in his own work, so it’s left to others to apply the idea to specific media. I think the difficulty curve is such a noticeable parallel in the case of video games but there are certainly ways in which we can conceptualize “film” in this same way. Film theorists have commented on how the conditions of a film screening are intended to make the viewer feel as if she is seeing the film in her mind’s eye (darkened room, projection from behind).

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

  • Chris Lepine

    Okay, so there are a bunch of arguments made here and I’ll do my best to tease them apart and make sense of them. I should start off by saying that, as a student of psychoanalysis, this does a good job of communicating Winnicott’s language. I’m thinking out loud here, so forgive me if I don’t make a ton of sense. And forgive the length of the reply – obviously you struck a chord.

    Video games are like Transitional Objects/Video games rule systems can act like transitional objects/Designers are like caregivers
    Winnicott’s object relations language was a way of making sense of child-caregiver relationships… it helped him to describe the gradual distancing process that happened as the child gained increasing amounts of independence in an increasingly harsh, external reality with a decreasing presence of the caregiver.

    In that way, I agree – there are surface similarities between the ways in which a game’s rule systems (especially with DDA) can create increasing amounts of independence in the beginner player. At least when taken within the confines of the player-game dyad, it looks like there’s an external world that the player is coming to grips with through the “mechanics” of the game. But that dyad is limited and temporary – the gamer steps away for a minute, and that world disappears… the gamer steps back out a “reality” that exists outside of the game with power bills, human relationships, and a workplace.

    The child by definition cannot make that same step outwards, because their entire world is composed of the family home/caregiver. For the child, the transitional object serves to mediate their growing relationship between their old internal world and new external world. The metaphor breaks down here, because video games are tiny, imaginary realities contained with much larger realities of work/love/money that the gamer is already immersed within.

    Similarly, the designer is not like a caregiver… for that implies that teddy bear manufacturer-designers would be like caregivers too. :) If we stay strictly within Winnicott’s use of the language, a transitional object gets its meaning from the child projecting his/her desires and frustrations upon it. In that way, a game gets its meaning from the gamer’s projections of desire and frustration; the designer stands completely outside of that process.

    Players can act like infants.

    Perhaps. But in a very limited manner, again, only within the confines of the game’s reality in which the player is a complete beginner. But most players are not complete beginners, and come with a fluency of game language that changes what game mechanics mean. It is only the neophyte player that learns rule-systems and abides by them (like a child)… fluent gamers often ‘play’ the game by exposing flaws and ‘making their own fun’.

    Video Games are transitional objects
    So this seems like the central question of the article: are video games like transitional objects, or are they a kind of transitional object? Is Winnicott’s theory just a language for understanding games in a theoretical/intellectual manner, or is there a developmental ontology implied in understanding games as transitional objects?

    I don’t have an answer for this kind of question. Part of me agrees with the view that video games are a middle-space between the subjective reality of the player, and the objective reality of everyday life… but a part of me says that we need to toss the whole subject-object language that Winnicott himself struggles with, and find a language that pays a lot less dues to Freud’s old philosophical debts.


    • Kyle Carpenter

      I’d be curious about what of Freud’s debts you are most interested in jettisoning. I’m not particularly familiar with British analysis, personally, but am quite familiar with Lacan’s readings of Freud, which do a lot to recontextualize “la maitre.”

      On that note, I am curious about this language of the caregiver, in particular. It does seem to me that games offer a kind of surrogate “Other,” which I don’t know if I’d think of specifically as “M-other.” I see your point, Chris, that the child has no choice but to use a transitional object, while a player’s relationship to a game is strictly voluntary. I would tend to read the relationship to the game as a relatively controlled relationship wherein one can assume a relatively stable and reassuring identity: “I am good, I am smart, I am fulfilling the game’s expectations of me,” etc. This would be my sense of what “flow” is – the furnishing of a desired ego; either the demands are too strict, and I turn off the game, or the demands are too lax and I’m unable to recognize my merit in accomplishing them.

      Anyway, I am coming from a different analytical language, so I’d be very interested in seeing what you (either Samantha or Chris) would have to say about this understanding.

      • Samantha Allen

        Kyle, first I want to note that although Winnicott uses the language of “mother” (and the now famous phrase “good-enough mother”), he does have some caveat in there about how the sex of the caregiver is not necessarily the important part about the relationship. I think he might differ from Freud or Lacan in that respect as they lay much more emphasis on sexual difference.

        I definitely see the Lacan in your comment, particularly the idea of “the furnishing of a desired ego” with demands that are either too strict or too lax. I think it’s a different analytical language, yes, but it’s centering around the same problem. I think you could do something interesting with the mirror stage, there, right? We need to be able to imagine ourselves as powerful, standing on our own. If the game just punches us in the face, it shatters that illusion but if it’s not holding us up just a little bit, we can’t stand in front of the mirror. I’m not a strong Lacanian myself, but I’m open to that reading!

        • Kyle Carpenter

          Lacan actually empties sexual difference in the parental/oedipal relationship (they are structural functions rather than expressions of gender) and has basically nothing to say about developmental psychology; his stance is that a subject will afford developmental importance to a past event from a position in the present. Even the Mirror Stage should be understood as a myth along the lines of Freud’s obscene father in Totem and Taboo – not something that actually occurred, but a demonstration of a structure that shows something essential in the neurotic subject. I guess the idea of “transition” as a developmental (rather than, say, narrative) process is where my sense fails.

          In any case, I really enjoyed this article; thank you so much for sharing it. You’ve got the wheels in my head turning in some pretty interesting ways.

    • Dan Solberg

      I definitely see the connection between video games and transitional objects, as they’re presented here. Chris’ question about whether games are transitional objects or merely like transitional objects is relevant though. It seems like there is potential for video games to be both, but in most cases games are only transitional objects within the game world, a simulated infant-caregiver relationship with its own boundaries.

      Do video games help players to “transition into an understanding of the outside world?” Maybe. Video games add another layer of complexity to the equation because of their existence as both physical objects (controllers, screens) and virtual environments. Is the “game” object the content of the digital world or the disc that spins inside the console?

      Controllers are a real barrier for true beginner players, as their initial moments with a game will be in testing out what individual inputs do. I feel like there are two tiers of learning with video games: one of an understanding of how the physical arm of video games effects the virtual, followed by the second tier of exploration of the game space where suspension of disbelief and flow are possible.

      I don’t have a background in psychoanalysis, so apologies if this s offbase.

      Lastly, a broad question that popped into my head while reading the final paragraph here: When we interact with video games, is that always considered “play?”

      • Samantha Allen

        Chris and Dan, I’m going to respond to both of your comments in one because you’re thinking through some similar questions.

        First off, Chris, I think you’re on point about positioning the designer as the caregiver being less accurate for the analogy than the game itself being in that role. To the extent that the designer’s intents are folded into the game, the metaphor holds, however loosely, but I think you’re right to pin that as a weak point in the analogy as I’ve laid it out.

        I also think that both of you are asking what the utility of the metaphor is, or if it’s even a metaphor! Are video games transitional objects or are they just LIKE transitional objects?

        Chris, you point this out by observing that adult game players are in a much different place developmentally than the infant. Dan, you point this out by asking if video games are still helping us to understand the outside world.

        In a pretty speculative fashion, I want to respond by accepting Chris’s point that many people who play games have successfully made the shift from (to use some Freudian language) the pleasure principle (“I want everything all the time now!”) to the reality principle (“I still want everything all the time but I realize that gratification must be deferred until I confront the exigencies of the external world!”).

        The wedge that Winnicott throws into Freud’s equation, though, is to point out that this is NEVER a complete shift and that there are plenty of “non-pathological” middle ground between pleasure and reality. In other words, you can occupy that space happily without being psychotic. Freud has some stuff on day-dreaming but it’s pretty light. Winnicott, on the other hand, is quick to emphasize play as a continuous experience that needs to continue into adulthood.

        So I don’t think that people are necessarily USING video games to fulfill a crucial early childhood developmental function the same way that we use our teddies (although who knows?! I didn’t grow up playing video games, but I see babies with iPads all the time now!). But I DO think it’s more than just a cute metaphor and I think that it challenges our concept of video games as just a retreat, or a form of “escapism.”

        As adults, we do have the bills to pay and that might not terrify us as much as it would have if we were three, but there’s still a certain terror to that, right? But I don’t see video games as a retreat back to that kind of pure, boundless, imaginary play of making gurgling noises and giggling. There are rules to grab onto. There are generally ways to fail, even if there are no material consequences for failure. So playing a game is a move into that transitional space that we all learned to occupy of necessity, not just a retreat to some sort of undifferentiated newborn pleasure. But ultimately, for Winnicott, even “transitional” is a misnomer because (much like a gender transition!) it’s a process that’s never really over.

        Other threads that I have no comment on right now but I think are super interesting: Chris: finding ways around subject/object language. Dan: thinking about the physicality of playing a game.

        Thank you both for really interesting points.