Is There a Ludologist in the House?

Is There a Ludologist in the House?Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Part of: Princeton Video Game Conference reflections.

The absence of European videogame theorists turned the Princeton Video Game Criticism Conference, at first simply by default, into a polite but noticeable anti-ludologist festival. I don’t want to give the impression that we were overrun by knee-jerk narratologists, of course, but the program was arranged so that it ended with those speakers who made it a point to disagree with the Scandinavian model.

Here at the Princeton English department, the narratologists had the home team advantage, especially when the last few speakers drew on the discourse of literary criticism.

Eric Hayot, Edward Wesp (who co-authored two presentations), and Barry Atkins, author of More than a Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form, deliberately positioned themselves in opposition to the Scandinavian ludologists — notably Gonzalo Frasca (who is, of course, not actually Scandinavian, but I digress).

Atkins began with the stereotypical image of the insanely focused gamer, hunched over and madly pounding on keys. Like the character Jack Nicholson plays in The Shining (who types endless variations of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”), the person in question is not having any fun. (Of course, neither is he accomplishing much work… )

Atkins recalled Aarseth’s observation that a cybertext requires “labor,” and notes that anything that you have to work at ceases to be fun. Note to self: Google for Tom Sawyer’s line about work, which consists if everything a body doesn’t want to do, and fun.

Atkins cleverly extended his “work” trope by examining the relationship between games and the workplace, noting that in an effort to control employee actions, employers are removing solitaire and other standard games normally installed as part of Windows. I don’t believe he explicitly mentioned the “boss button” (which interrupts a game by popping up a fake spreadsheet or text file in case your boss walks by), but he did note that each level of an action game is typically geared towards a fight with the level “boss.”

“Labor” and “work” are both reasonable interpretations of what Aarseth called the “non-trivial effort, required by readers if the “ergodic” texts such as videogames, interactive fiction, and literary hypertext. Such a text begins to reveal its contents only in response to actions of the user; this is an entirely different kind of effort from the effort one invests in interpreting those texts.

But there are plenty of kinds of effort that don’t qualify as “work.” Perhaps more to the point, as Tom Sawyer teaches us, in the right context, effort can be both work and fun.

I’m forgetting now how much of this comes from his talk and how much comes from the conversations we had in taverns and in cabs in and around Princeton, but Atkins feels that the European model of games scholarship is too serious — that is, the theory of videogames currently being formulated in ivy-covered halls pays far too little attention to the fact that we play games because we expect them to give us pleasure and we stop playing them when they cease to be fun. Without a theory of fun, scholarship is too dry, and risks becoming irrelevant to the common experience of gamers.

Note: Regarding the alleged lack of attention to “fun,” Jesper Juul writes:

That is so strange considering how much time I’ve spent on discussing fun.
Even my 1998 MA work discusses it:
And here: And in relation to the experience of time:
At the 2002 Manchester conference I also presented a paper on gameplay and fun.
And a general essay about theorizing fun and the issue of focusing too much on games as being challenges:
I don’t really understand how this idea came to be, it’s just so patently untrue.

Point taken, Jesper, but see my clarification below.–DGJ

One reason for the disconnect is because younger scholars who don’t have the benefit of working in an environment that already recognizes new media objects as worthy of critical study [Note: Added for clarity. –DGJ] are, of necessity, courting the approval of their superiors. Mary Ann Buckles, whose 1985 study of “Adventure” seems to have been the first PH.D. devoted to the study of a computer game, does not seem to have had that kind of institutional support, and the result is worth examining: What Ever Happened to Mary Ann Buckles? (

Just as the theologians, priests, congregations have significantly different roles to play on the inside, and more distant observers who can place a particular religion in a greater context have a role to play on the outside, the culture of games affords plenty of room for theorists, designers and consumers on the inside, but it seems to me game studies is a bit top-heavy — many theorists, but few who are doing the basic research that establishes cultural and technological influences on recent developments in game culture. I enjoyed the nostalgia books (such as Herz’s Joystick Nation), by my own recent examination of the “Colossal Cave Adventure” source code, and two presentations on the Atari 2600 have stirred the latent geek in me… I want to know more about the instruments and palette that the early game designers had available to them. I look forward to Matt Kirschenbaum’s book on the development of storage media; while he has more to talk about than just games, the creative ways early game programmers worked around severe constraints is definitely worth study. (If there are more places to look, and I just haven’t found them, someone in the know please set me straight.)