Ludology and Narratology
Ludology and Narratology
0The most prominent disagreement about how to study video games resides in what has come to be known as the âludology vs. narratologyâ debate. Though the debate as such seems to have cooled,5 and some suggest that it never really occurred,6 the disagreement does reveal some very different ideas about how videogame studies should be carried. Part of the reason for the escalation of rhetoric in this debate is surely that the field is young, with much of the disciplinary territory remaining unclaimed. The territorial attitude is directly encouraged by Espen Aarsethâs position statement to launch the journal Game Studies:
0The greatest challenge to computer game studies will no doubt come from within the academic world. Making room for a new field usually means reducing the resources of the existing ones, and the existing fields will also often respond by trying to contain the new area as a subfield. Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonising attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again. (Aarseth, âComputer Game Studies, Year Oneâ)â
0In this formulation, the work of game studies as such is first and foremost that of staking a claim of priority and warding off theoretical conquistadors from other fields of study. While Aarsethâs attitude is perhaps understandable in the context of introducing a journal, his often-repeated colonial metaphor is indicative of a surprising hostility in what really should be a congenial discussion.
0The terms of the debate are allegedly simple: so-called ludologists are supposed to argue that videogamesâ formal properties such as rules define gamingâs core characteristic and require an appropriately rule-oriented criticism, whereas so-called narratologists are supposed to argue that videogames are simply a new form of storytelling much like film or hypertext fiction. But both of these characterizations are inaccurate and promote flawed arguments if taken in the isolation that some more vocal scholars have advocated.7 The term ânarratologistâ is also particularly problematic since those who do study games with an eye toward narrative are not necessarily following the methods of the narratology that has its roots in Vladimir Proppâs morphologies of folktales. That is, someone accused of narratologism may not necessarily be at all interested in incorporating the ideas of GÃ©rard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov or Seymour Chatman into a study of games. In fact, so-called ludologists are more likely to draw on Structuralism in general or Russian Formalism in particular in developing their own typologies of game structure.8 Michael Mateas and Gonzalo Frasca have used the term ânarrativistâ to more accurately portray non-ludologists as those simply interested in story elements, but even that term carries its own baggage as it also used within discussions of table-top role-playing games to refer to a particular game strategy.9
0Though much of this debate does appear to be territorial, there is more at stake in these disagreements than one type of discourse simpling holding privilege over another. Videogames are a powerful and pervasive medium, and the ultimate objective of any study of gaming, whatever its disciplinary heritage, should be to increase or improve our understanding of these artifacts. Thinking critically about and with videogames can only come about through an open and intellectually honest discourse that involves the best thinking of all relevant fields.
0As a way around the ludology versus narrativism discussion, some writers have either sought to strike a compromise between the two positions or, recognizing that both extremes are untenable, sought entirely new approaches. Jesper Juulâs Half-Realâ attempts a compromise route, arguing that games are always both rules and fiction. The title of his book puns on the games Half-Life and Unreal and proposes that the half-reality of games consists in their rules being real, and their âworldsâ being fictional. While Juulâs conciliatory approach is encouraging, the organization of his book betrays his belief that rules are the fundamental characteristic of games and that the fictional worlds are superimposed arbitrarily on the underlying rule structure. Certainly, there would be no game without rules in some sense, but the so-called âfictionâ of games (which must include the graphical representation of game entities as well as aesthetic and narrative features) exists only in service to those rules. The risk of separating these two functions of gameplay is that a videogameâs potential for expression, including elements like narrative, aesthetics, and cultural context, is relegated to the gameâs non-essential or arbitrary components. In other words, the fiction of games is not a fundamental component, and any expression we identify in gaming is something that could also potentially appear somewhere else. This bifurcated view is tempting from the perspective of a designer, since some games like the endless Space Invaders clones available as Flash games on the web do attempt to inscribe meaning onto a universal game template by exchanging the symbols for the aliens or the gun turret.10 The transformation of Space Invaders into Tax Invaders (Figure 1-1), Pepsi Invaders, or countless others occurs at Juulâs fictional level, and therefore, the most important message of these games is occurring at a symbolic level.
0Juul actually demonstrates this in two ludically identical games offered on his website: the comic âPuls in Spaceâ (after a Danish TV Show) and the satiric âGame Liberationâ (Figure 1-2) which replaces the invading aliens with invading academic fields (narratology, psychology, film studies, pathology) threatening to destroy ludologyâs position of privilege.11 Furthermore, while this oppositional structure is appealing as a universal template for the production of meaning in games, it sacrifices too much of the experience by relegating it to a phenomenological autonomous space in which its meaning-making need not be actually game-derived. In other words, in the âGame Liberationâ example, following Juulâs formula for analysis, we gain the entire meaning from a description of the game (that ludology shoots down other theories) without having to play it at all.
0Furthermore, it is interesting that Game Liberation is a piece of software, and as such is subject to non-explicit affordances which nevertheless influence how the game may be interpreted. By considering the formally material conditions of the game as it is deployed in a web browser, we can arrive at contrary interpretations of the game text that rely on the limitations of the gameâs fiction. Game Liberation is a piece of software written in the programming language, Java. The game runs in a Java applet within a web browser, so in that sense, its primary platform may be considered the Java engine running on the userâs computer, while its secondary platform is the userâs specific web browser. In some cases, the applet or section of the web page containing the Java engine, fails to render the game correctly, resulting in alterations of the experience, and if we are meant to understand the rhetoric of the game by interpreting the appearance and behavior of the symbolic elements within it, then the variations in those elements must also be considered significant. For example, in one memorable instance of playing the game, an error in my browser caused the graphic for the player-controlled gunship to disappear. I discovered, however, that the game was otherwise running correctly, and because the game encodes the playerâs ship sprite in a way such that its ability to fire bullets does not depend on its actual visual presence within the game space, I found I could fire at will without any risk of my ship being destroyed. Reading this in the context of the argument Juul is making both with the game and with Half-Real, it seems that the meaning that my broken version of the game generated communicates the idea that ludologists attack competing theories without asserting their own or exposing themselves to counterattack. This may be an effective tactic, but it is a unfair one, only coming into play when the rules of the game had already been broken. This counter-reading of Game Liberation relies on an accidental intrusion of the apparatus, but it exposes the limitations both of the template game as a rhetorical form and the adversarial rhetoric implied by its counter-reading.12
0These technological and material elements of the apparatus remain external to the ârealâ structure of the game and seem to be elided in Juulâs discussion: âthe material support needed to play a game (like the projector and the screen in cinema) is immaterial, since games are not tied to a specific set of material devices, but to the processing or rulesâ (Juul, Half-Real 53, emphasis in original)â . By this, Juul does not necessarily mean that material support is irrelevant, but statements like this betray the positivist assumptions behind Juulâs argument and foreclose certain kinds of analysis in the same way that a good deal of the more general conversations around computing treat electronic text and image as entirely separate kinds of objects. The technological reasons for this separation are practical, but the intellectual fallout is debatable and, I would argue, is at the core of the hyperbole surrounding some discussions of computers within Humanities. In other words, by granting a separate ontology to words and image, theorists encourage thinking of text (code) as a sort of ideal form of presence for an image. In the same way, rules form the source code for Juulâs discussion about the structure of games, and his analysis similarly favors semiology at the expense of a more robust, materialist approach to the medium.
0A different response to the ludology and narratology divide identifies each extreme as a consequence of similar same functionalist impulses. In Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, Ian Bogost outlines an approach based on understanding a videogame or potentially any text as âa configurative system, an arrangement of discrete, interlocking units of expressive meaningâ (Unit Operations ix)â . The key to this idea is that it defines games as configurative systems whose meaning is determined by the relationships among constituent elements, but Bogost makes an important point to distinguish his approach from earlier videogame theory.
0For Bogost, these units can include programming structures (specifically, object-oriented programming), story elements, or player interaction, and their significance is in the way they mutually interlock to generate the expressive content of the game. Among these elements, the graphic appearance of game content also contributes to the gameâs total expression. In a typical first-person shooter (FPS) game, for example, the three-dimensional environments of the game are generated through a software engine that projects three-dimensional planes and decorates these with image files known as textures. Together, these textures and spaces generate the cumulative effect of a gameâs spatiality, and that spatiality can be as expressive and aesthetic on its own terms as architecture is in the real world. In other words, the labyrinths, cityscapes, and forests that provide the setting for three-dimensional video games express their particular sense of spatiality through the interaction of graphical and architectural elements. But moreover, the goals and pathways set by the rules of the game involve the player in a performance that, along with the rendered spaces of the gameâs environment, expresses its spatial âfeel.â
0Along with these surfaces, an additional surface that is often taken for granted stands between the player and the game world into which text intervenes. This surface, known as the Heads-Up Display or HUD, usually provides information to the player that corresponds to her goals and status in the game. The information acts as a kind of glue connecting the elements of the game world that constitute its peculiar spatiality with the actions and intentions of the player in a way that completes the total, unit-operational system of the game. At first glance, the HUD seems to provide a textual context for the visual, spatial world of the game, and if considered this way, one might argue that this demonstrates a hierarchical relationship between words and images in which images provide content and words provide context. But this hints at the same semiotic tension underlying Juulâs definition of games. In the FPS game, Call of Duty, for example, alphanumeric text and informatic images at the corners and top of the screen provide constant feedback indicating the values of various statistics like ammunition quantities and health, as shown in figure 1-3.
0Unit analysis also provides a reasonable means for including typographic form within the expressive domain of videogames. Among the units in operation that potentially contribute to the gameâs overall aesthetic, the appearance of text and the shapes of letterforms contribute to the total expression of the game experience. This is especially important when considering the role the HUD plays in making sense of the playerâs interface with the game diegesis, and it is logical to think of this text as a image when it is narrowly informational or numeric. That is, since text within the HUD supplies little semantic content of its own and is most often plainly numeric, its primary function is fulfilled in being glanced at as opposed to being read. Also, although the numerical values do correspond to discrete values assigned by the programmatic conditions of the game as it progresses, the HUD communicates those values in a particular way, and the aesthetic appearance of that text depends on the graphical context of the game world and works together with it to produce an overall effect. Therefore, even though text and images in computing are stored and retrieved through fundamentally different means (at least for modern games), the possibility of expression, particularly in video games, depends on their interlocking operation. In other words, with unit operations in play, a game like Half-Life 2 can be said to rely on images and text in such a way that visual information (e.g., spatiality) is employed toward semantic ends and textual information in turn contributes to the visual spatiality of the total game apparatus.
0The recurring question of narrative and whether games should be considered narratives is something of a MacGuffin for game studies. Markku Eskelinen, for example, uses the specter of narratology as a wedge for excluding certain individuals or disciplines from the valid study of videogames. Marie-Laure Ryan, an acknowledged narratologist, addresses this by taking the question of narrative as one of degrees. In this way, and through a list of potential qualities, Ryan elaborates a context in which videogames may be acknowledged as having some degree of narrativity, which is a different type of conclusion than the âgames are narrativesâ argument Eskelinen selects to disagree with. This is relevant not only to the question of narrative in games, but also other areas of narrativistic controversy such as instrumental music. As Ryan writes, the question of intent and recognition is also significant to the narrativity question:
0The property of âbeing a narrativeâ can be predicated of any semiotic object produced with the intent to evoke a story to the mind of the audience. To be more precise, it is the receiverâs recognition of this intent that leads to the judgment: this text is a narrative, though we can never be sure that sender and receiver have the same story in mind. âHaving narrativity,â on the other hand, means being able to evoke such a script, whether or not there is a text, and if there is one, whether or not the author intended to convey a specific story. (Ryan 10 - 11)â
0Later, Ryan refers to the relationship between computer games and narrative as one of elective affinity, rather than ânecessary union,â indicating a productive way forward in the debate (183)â .
0Ryan does not mention expressive typography specifically, but it is clear that this elective affinity could strike parallel balance in these and other forms of semiotic text. As an example of this, Johanna Drucker writes in The Alphabetic Labyrinth of many attempts in the 19th century to divine the hidden meaning of alphabetic symbols. Paraphrasing one such writer, Luther Marsh, Drucker writes, âNicely articulating the crucial stimulus to fascination with the history of the alphabet, Marsh stressed that the alphabet itself was the repository of history, not only its instrument or meansâ (Alphabetic Labyrinth 278)â . In this way, the tension between content and form in typography, and the interpretation of form as expressive content, is in some ways similar to the conflict between narrative and interactivity. Both invite the reader to engage the text on more than one simultaneous and (possibly) mutually exclusive semiotic levels.
- 5. Julian KÃ¼cklichâs DiGRA Hardcore column, for example, addresses the debate as having already concluded. In his estimation, the ludologists won (âGame Studies 2.0â)
- 6. See, for example, Gonzalo Frascaâs presentation at the 2003 Level Up conference, âLudologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place.ââ
- 7. The otherwise excellent volume First Person: New Media as Story Performance and Gameâ contains some of the shrillest examples of this kind of exchange.
- 8. Aarsethâs taxonomy of the varieties of cybertext is particularly indebted to this variety of category formation.
- 9. Cf. Edwards, Ron, GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory.â
- 10. âJohn Kerry Tax Invadersâ (archived at <http://web.archive.org/web/20040517093809/http://www.gop.com/taxinvaders/>) is a particularly ineffective example of this type of game.
- 11. Game Liberation is available on Juulâs website: <http://www.jesperjuul.net/gameliberation/>.
- 12. I understand, of course, that Game Liberation is intended facetiously, but the way it presents the relationship among schools of thought is literally (and ludically) confrontational.