09 Jan 2008 [ Prev | Next ]

Narratology and Ludology

Among scholars who study games, there was until fairly recently a lively debate about the relative value of treating games as if they a way to tell interactive stories (narratology, from a word meaning "to tell") and treating them as a system of rules (ludology, from a word meaning "game"). 

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).

Having said that, interactive fiction actually has been a subject of academic study for about 20 years; the first person who earned a Ph.D. for studying games wrote a dissertation on "Adventure."  So I was able to convince my textually-thinking colleagues that, of all the possible things it is possible to do with computers, it was especially worthwhile to study computer-assisted storytelling.  Since my colleagues know how to respond to stories, and it was a simple matter for me to use stories as a launching point to explain what was interactive about interactive fiction. I found myself defending the narrative approach not because it is right for every game, but because it is well-suited to the study of interactive fiction.

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.

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")

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?



Derek Tickle said:

Hi Everyone! Here is my blog entry for this disucussion topic. http://blogs.setonhill.edu/DerekTickle/2008/01/new_terminology_with_video_gam.html

Zach T said:

Unlike Juul I feel games are stories and do involve a certain vocabulary tool. With Juul feeling this way towards game and then reading, “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.” Isn’t that in a sense storytelling? Story telling is never the same for each ‘story’ told, there’s always a unique way of showing/telling it, right?

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