Rally Sports Challenge : Cognitive Artefact and the External Symbol Storage

Well, when i was 4, my dad bought a trusty XBox. you know, the first, ruggedy, blocky one from 2001. we had tons and tons and tons of fun playing all kinds of games together – until he died, when i was just 6.

i couldnt touch that console for 10 years.

but once i did, i noticed something.

we used to play a racing game, Rally Sports Challenge. actually pretty awesome for the time it came.

and once i started meddling around… i found a GHOST.


you know, when a time race happens, that the fastest lap so far gets recorded as a ghost driver? yep, you guessed it – his ghost still rolls around the track today.

and so i played and played, and played, untill i was almost able to beat the ghost. until one day i got ahead of it, i surpassed it, and…

i stopped right in front of the finish line, just to ensure i wouldnt delete it.


This is a story I read online a few years ago, and I find it a fine example helping me to understand media technologies as “symbolic-cognitive artefacts”, as well as how do video games, creating a virtual reality world, serves as an “external symbolic storage”, and constructs to the “symbolic material culture” [2].

According to Norman’s “Cognitive Artefacts”, this story can be examined from the system view as well as the personal view [3].

The system view sees the total structure of the person and the artefact together in accomplishing a task [3]. As Renfrew points out, indicators of thoughts take form of visual symbols (artefacts). As components of the material culture, they are reflective and constitutive to the cognitive categories [2]. Rally Sports Challenge, or video games in general, creates a virtual reality world for its players. As a kind of cognitive artefacts, video game serves the representational function as a community where people of similar interests could spend time together, communicate and entertain, even though normally the game itself cannot bring any material reward to the player. The meaning of video games is not the software itself, but a platform where people, through their interactions, could develop meanings and form collective memories. It could also be seen by Cole’s definition of “tertiary world”, that “constitute an arena of non-practical but come to colour the way we see the “actual” world, providing a tool for changing current praxis [4]”.

The personal view focuses more on how the artefact has affected the task to be performed [3]. In this case, it is how this particular game, has become a unique symbol of memory for the boy.  It has a dual material-conceptual nature. On the material level, it is a group of code carrying the record of the fastest player in this game, and on the conceptual level, it carries a cognitive task and forms an “external symbol [5]”, loading the father’s willingness  to accompany and take care of the boy even after he has passed away. Thus the memory of the boy playing games with his father is given an material form out of the brain, the ghost player is a symbol bearing the weight of parental love. From that point on, some new and exclusive meanings are created beyond the original intention of the game (entertaining), symbolizing a deeper bond between the father and the son even when the father is not there anymore. This also reflects Renfrew’s point of human as symbolic species: the roles of artefacts are practical as well as symbolic, and based on the interactions with the existing artefacts, we are enabled to further develop meanings [5].

To end this post, I would like to think about where technology and artefact design should lead us to. As Norman points out, artificial device enhances human cognitive capabilities [3]. It helps us to develop through a co-evolution of human brain and the external world. For me the story is a special one, as it to some extent reveals the humane care in technology. In my point of view this is an important notion to be combined in the design process, as when our performance is enhanced by artefacts, this notion would keep us in a better linked community to create collective and cultural memories, and also helps us to know our standpoints better in the process of development.


[1] Torchinsky, Jason. “Son Finds His Late Dad’s ‘Ghost’ In A Racing Video Game.” Jalopnik. Accessed September 27, 2017. https://jalopnik.com/son-finds-his-late-dads-ghost-in-a-racing-video-game-1609457749.

[2] Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.

[3] Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Read pp. 17-23.

[4] Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Connected excerpts.

[5] Colin Renfrew, “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage.” In Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage, edited by Colin Renfrew, 1-6. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999.