On readings: Pictionary


The discussion of meaning-making reminds me of a game called Pictionary. Pictionary is a guessing word game played with teams with players trying to identify specific words from their teammates’ drawings. The definition of Pictionary addresses several key texts discussed in the readings. First, the symbolic cognition process is accomplished or implemented via two different sign-systems: language and image. Second, there are several cognition processes happening simultaneously – expressing, representing, interpreting goes back and forth between “describer” (the drawing player) and “decoder” (the guessing player). To complete the communication circus between teammates, players usually experience the following steps:

  1. Describers get to know the object that they are going to describe, which is represented by written format;
  2. Describers draw pictures to describe or represent the object;
  3. Decoders watch the drawing process;
  4. Decoders tell what they think the object being described is;
  5. Repeat Step2 through Step4, until decoders get the correct answer.

These steps are observable. For describers, the word card that represents the object is an input, and what describers draw is an output. The process converting the written word into drawing can be roughly considered as a symbolic cognition process. For decoders, the drawn image is an input, and the spoken word that decoders use to represent what they think the object is is an output. The process converting the image they perceive into human speech is also considered as symbolic cognition.

However, the “converting” process is still a black box. As indicated in the reading: “how meaning happens – how we make, communicate, or “intend” meaning – when we use symbols, signs, and representations is unobservable.” True, what we can tell is the stage we are at, which is static; but we cannot tell is what’s going on, which is dynamic.

To clarify “what is in the black box”, researchers attempt to “build out models to account for what we can observe”. These models are testable, and open to revision and redefinition. Two models are discussed in the readings.

One model was developed by De Saussure. He pointed out that the meaning relation between signifier and signified is dyadic and static. In Saussure’s opinion, the relation between signified (the concept) and the signifier (sound-image) is arbitrary. Yes, the arbitrary principle indicates that there is no natural connection between signifier and signified. No natural connection indicates nowadays established rules of language is the result of social norm or collective habit. This inference leads to another conclusion that the establishment of the connection is a dynamic process (because the socialization is a dynamic process). The relationship doesn’t “born to be like this”. Saussure didn’t realize the dynamic relation between signifier and signified, therefore failed to explain the institutionalization process within a specific community.

Another model was developed by Peirce, who maintained that the meaning relation must be triadic and dynamic. The primary difference between two models is the newly introduced concept: Interpretant. It is this concept that explains the dynamic meaning relationship between signified and signifier. I am wondering is it possible to present the relationship between these two model as follow:

Signifier = Representatum (?)

Signified = Object + Interpretant (?)

It is Interpretant that enables “unlimited semiosis”. According to Peirce, Representatum is the material-perceptible forms of sign, which “equals” the “signifier” in Saussure’s model; Object is what the signs are “used to be” about, and Interpretant is the instant response to the signs – Object and Interpretant consist of the “Signified”. The behavior of Interpretant assumes the existence of recipient. It is recipient that differentiate the meaning of the object from the object itself. Representatum is only an “imitation” of the object, without the Interpretant, the dynamic process cannot continue. At the same time, the Interpretant can be perceived as a new Representatum, which triggers the infinite generation of Interpretants.

Take Pictionary game as example. There is a word “chocolate chip cookie” on the word card. The written word is a perceptible form of the concept “chocolate chip cookie”. For describers, they are the recipient and they are going to interpret the concept – at this moment, what in their mind is a Interpretant, something that is different from but infinitely close to the original concept (which is represented by the written word). Now, the first round of sign process ends up. The second round begins when describers start drawing. They are not recipient but “representer”. At the same time, the Interpretant in their mind becomes an original concept now, and the images drawn by the describers is the Representamen in the second round. The recipient of the Representamen is the decoder, and decoder is responsible for “interpreting” – again what decoders interpret is different from what they originally perceived. When decoders start to guess what the images represent for, the third round starts. It is the first effort of decoders to establish direct connection between the concept indicated by the word card and what they interpret. In the third round, what decoders inference from the image becomes the Representatum of the most original concept. It is a reconfirmation between the meaning and the concept. If the connection fails (in this context), then describers and decoders will repeat the second round and third round to “correct” their perception of the Representatum for them respectively. The process will not stop until the success of “confirmation”.

The Pictionary game is an “embodiment” of what we are experiencing in our daily interaction and communication. It enhance the feeling of that “We Are Symbolic Species”. In the game, we are seeking for the match between symbols and meanings, and we are continuously question the statement that “Are we on the same page?” The only difference between the game and real life is that we are not going to spare much time confirming whether we are on the same page. This feeling are attenuated, but it doesn’t indicate the absence of the sign process and the trouble brought by the sign process. We are fortunate to cultivate something called “Culture”. Culture has enabled us to share common ground to some extent, but it is culture, again, that creates gap between people. You never know the Representatum (a circle with triangle shapes on it) of the phrase “chocolate chip cookie” can be interpreted as something about quantum.


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8lMW0MODFs.
  2. Pictionary.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, September 3, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pictionary&oldid=737472432.
  3. “Semiotics-Cognition-Technology-Reader.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 13, 2016. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bz_pbxFcpfxRYTF0UjZjeWVBemM/view?usp=embed_facebook.
  4. “Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiosis: Intro.” Google Docs. Accessed September 13, 2016. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1eCZ1oAurTQL2Cd4175Evw-5Ns7c3zCxoxDKLgVE8fyc/edit?usp=embed_facebook.