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Download it (for PC or Mac), play it, and use your knowledge of games (from Koster, Laurel, Juul, Aarseth, and other sources we have read) to analyze it. Take a look at the course objectives on the syllabus page, and do your best to demonstrate your ability to apply what you have learned.
For tomorrow's discussion, construct a well-thought-out thesis statement, which makes a non-obvious claim (something deeper than "This game is fun/boring" or "This game makes a point about food"). Make a claim that a reasonable person might disagree with, rather than issuing a polished, carved-in-stone pronouncement that only a fool would dare challenge. Quote the exact words of the sources you consult; include the page number of the direct quote. All this is practice for the skills you'll need to develop a good term paper.
The in-game tutorial is long, and it's not immediately clear how to exit out of some windows (the circle with the X in it is not close enough to where the information is listed), and when the message "enter" appears on the screen, I keep wanting to push the "enter" button (rather than space, which is what the game expects). Feel free to post your initial reactions about playing this game.
What does Juul mean by "emergent narrative," and how does it differer from the narrative you would find in a book?
Included among the topics students have brought up have been the function of violence in video games (sparking copycat violence, or a way to release pressure harmlessly?) and the effect of Lara Croft (offensive stereotype or empowering icon?). Apply Juul's statements on "stylization" to one or both of these discussions. See if you can work your response into the form of a thesis statement.
(Use the index to look up these terms.)
1) First, how familiar are you with Tomb Raider (as a game, movie franchise, or simply in popular culture)? If you are not familiar with the the series, choose a different game in which gender seems to feature prominently.
Ms. Pac Man would count, if you carefully look at the ways it differs from Pac Man... despite the feminist "Ms" she is still defnind as a kind of "Pac Man" -- not a separate construct called "Pac Woman." But some branches of the Galatea storyline lend themselves well to a gender-based analysis.
2) Whether you choose Tomb Raider or something else, look at your game through the lenses Laurel supplies... that is, examine the game not based on whether you personally would choose to play it during your leisure time, but rather apply Laurel's lenses and evaluate the game based on what it has to offer in terms of values, role-models, depictions of power, and the kinds of stories it tells.
3) Come up with a thesis -- a claim, framed in such a way that it invites discussion.
Make a claim about your chosen game, following a general formula such as "Although [examples that work against the claim I am going to make], [details 1, 2, and 3] suggest that [here's where you put the claim].A claim like "The sky is blue" or "Hitler is evil" is not really worth arguing about; neither is "Point-and-click games are more relaxing than button-mashing games," since that's just an opinion that depends completely on your personal definition of what means to play a relaxing game.
Since there are so few female video game protagonists to choose from, it is appropriate to feel grateful to Midway/Naamco for creating Ms. Pac-Man, who can in her game do anything and everything that Pac-Man can do in his game. Because the ghosts in Ms. Pac-Man move randomly rather than in set patterns, and because there are more portals that the player can use to teleport from one side of the screen to the other, Ms. Pac-Man require more lateral thinking and more multitasking -- skills that women are traditionally better at than men. However, the animation sequences that take place between levels, depicting a growing relationship between Ms. Pac-Man and Pac Man, and culminating in a stork's delivery of a baby Pac, reinforce a traditional hierarchy. The world of Pac-Man has meaning in and of itself. Only when that circle is changed through the addition of red lipstick or a bow can a generic yellow circle take on female characteristics, but note that Pac Man sports no icons of masculinity, such as a mustache or tie; when we see his pure form as a featureless yellow circle, we are expected to accept him as male. Like the "Ms" in the title and the pink color of the maze walls, both the game and the between-level animations are an echo that depends for meaning on the existence of the masculine world, and as such the game is hardly a feminist landmark, but rather a cynical attempt to get quarters from women.I think that thesis is a bit strong -- I'm really only making this claim in order to demonstrate the difference between writing a response and offering a claim. In fact, the history of Ms. Pac Man is even richer than that, in that it began as an unauthorized hack that caused some legal troubles for its creators. If I were working this claim into a full paper I might note the ways in which Ms Pac-Man improves on the original game.
I'm not actually asking you to flesh your thesis out into a full paper; rather, I hope you will make a claim that sparks a discussion.
As part of the discussion, remember to read what your peers have to say, and offer thoughtful commentary.
In 1998, Jesper Juul (author of Half-Real) delivered a paper at a conference in which he lamented what he felt was an excessive, and unproductive, attempt by humanities and literature scholars to treat video games as if they were stories.
[C]omputer games and narratives are very different phenomena and, as a consequence, any combination of the two, like in "interactive fiction", or "interactive storytelling" faces enormous problems.
I'm not the first person to make that point. The merit of this presentation is hopefully the detail with which this point is made. But it is slightly strange to be saying this. On one hand, it seems that the idea of an "interactive narrative" died commercially around 1993-94. On the other hand, much work and effort is being put into claims that game and narrative can be mixed- witness Janet Murray. And the dominant theoretical way of dealing with computer games still seems to be claiming that they are in some way narratives.
But computer games are not narratives. Obviously many computer games do include narration or narrative elements in some form. But first of all, the narrative part is not what makes them computer games, rather the narrative tends be isolated from or even work against the computer-game-ness of the game. I'll briefly try to isolate that gameness, and to sketch a way of saying something meaningful about a computer game.
The main point of this paper does clash with several to be presented tomorrow. Since fighting over words tends to be unfruitful, I'll mainly be pointing to characteristics of the traditional narrative media and compare them to the computer game. But I do think that the term narrative doesn't fit the computer game very well. ("A Clash Between Game and Narrative")
It's not necessary to insist that games are either stories OR systems of rules, but Juul made strong statements against the value of the narratology approach, and those strong statements prompted defenses of narrative, since Juul seemed not only to be questioning the conclusions of games scholars who critiqued various games based on how well they told stories. We can see how the passage quoted above works against the central importance of stories to the philosophy of Brenda Laurel. Juul also seemed (to some) to be challenging the whole premise of the humanities scholars whose influential books helped to legitimize video games as a legitimate subject of academic study.
Juul's central claim -- that games are unique creations and they require a brand new vocabulary so that we can talk to each other about what matters to designers, players, and critics of games -- seems perfectly obvious now.
By the late 90s, most of the scholarship being done on computer games was happening in literature departments, and some of the prominent names who wrote about games were not themselves gamers. They interviewed gamers about what they they thought about games, they watched gamers, and they certainly sampled the games in order to see what they were like, but they were not themselves committed and dedicated gamers, who would have recognized when one game referred to a different game, or what was notable and innovative about this level, and so forth. Games scholarship had to start somewhere, and traditionally literature departments have been where scholars have had the flexibility and freedom to study emerging and marginalized genres (such as cinema, the graphic novel, pioneer women's journals and letters, etc.).
But in 1998 few universities would have offered courses in video games, other than engineering and technical schools where the focus was on using games in order to teach students basic programming techniques, or a design course where students demonstrated their ability to create a game. At my previous job (where I started teaching in 1998) I had a hard time explaining to my fellow professors why video games were worth studying, and part of the reason was because there were few published works that I could turn to in order to help me explain my interests in ways understandable to my peers (who mostly specialized in more traditional literature subjects).
Juul is absolutely right that the narrative lens heavily influenced early scholarship on computer games. His radical insistence that the narratological approach was just a lens (and an unproductive one, at that) ruffled a few feathers, placing Juul in the position of looking like an anti-narratologist (rather than a pro-ludologist).
My main goal in bringing up this topic is to prepare you for why some of the things Juul says in Half Real are notable. After this book came out, only narratologists fret about the narratology/ludology debate -- the ludologists seem to feel the question is settled; Koster's point of view includes narrative as an important part of understanding games, but as we have seen Koster's central theme is not story or rules, but "fun."
While I tried to include authors who write from different perspectives, it's not necessary for you to decide whether you feel Koster, Laurel, or Juul are "right" -- they all make statements that work well together, but each wears a different lens, so it is possible to find arguments that work against each other.
Note that Laurel wrote games with stories that she hoped would become part of the lives of millions of girls. Koster emphasizes that any game is destined to become boring -- used up. Juul writes, as part of his argument against the centrality of narrative:
In literature there is an idea of the endless work, of books you can read and read, and never tire of. This can both be a religious work like the bible, or a modernist work like Ulysses or The Wasteland. Contrast this with the term trash novel, implying that a book is disposable once read. It does seem that repeatability is perceived as connected with high culture, the reverse with low culture. The surprising part is that the notoriously "low" computer game lives up to this much more than novels tend to. The dominant mode of receptions of narratives is one-shot, but games are inherently something you play again, something you can get better at.For today's discussion question, find a point of contention or disagreement, where Koster, Laruel, and/or Juul seem to be at odds. What disagreement do you find? Resist the urge to dismiss the issue by saying "The real truth lies somewhere in between," or "It's a matter of opinion whether you agree with one or the other." How do you, as a student in a liberal arts degree program, respond to the issue?
It then appears that trying to add a significant story to a computer game invariably reduces the number of times you're likely to play the game. Literary qualities, usually associated with depth and contemplation, actually makes computer games less repeatable, and more "trashy" in the sense that you won't play Myst again once you've completed it. There's no point. ("A Clash Between Game and Narrative")
A few years ago, film critic Roger Ebert announced that he does not consider video games to be an art form. Here, he has (at the bottom of the page) a thoughtful exchange with a reader.
I'd like you to look beyond whatever gut-level reaction you might have, in order to address the reasons why Ebert is predisposed to think the way he does. What lenses color his perception of video games? What lenses color your own perception, contributing to your own take on the subject? Where are some assumptions that Ebert and his questioner make, and how can we usefully challenge those assumptions in order to learn more about the debate? (Note -- this isn't about making your opinion look good by mocking people who hold different opinions; this is about looking for paths to agreement, on the assumption that we come closer to truth by examining multiple different answers to a question, rather than trying to "win" by calling the other guy names.)
(Because the blogs were down for part of the day, I've posted today's discussion questions on the J-Web forum.)