Ye Olde Disciplinary Punch-and-Judy Show

So the "ludology" vs. "narratology" debate has flared up again, along with accompanying feuding over whether "game studies" really is or should be a discipline. Markku Eskelinen 's reply to Julian Kucklick (via Ludology) is only one of the stones that Kucklick's review of the anthology First Person has set in motion. Jasper Juul also has replied to Kucklick at his weblog.

So I thought I'd take a crack at this old chestnut myself. On one hand, I think the ludologists are if anything being too generous to some of what has been said about games by scholars who come more from the narratology end of things--the problem with some narratological accounts isn't that narrative is somehow intrinsically different in games, it's that some people coming out of literary or cultural studies have a tendency to write about genres and texts that they know little or nothing about. On the other hand, I don't have much sympathy for the desire to make "game studies" a discipline, partly because that's not where my bread is buttered, but also because I think academic writing about games provides a good opportunity to practice a new middlebrow form of academic cultural criticism that consciously avoids the insular norms of scholarly writing.

Read on for more detail if any of that makes you sharpen your knives...

On my first foray into the world of academic game criticism at Bristol in 2001, one of the things that fascinated me anthropologically, as an outsider looking in, was the heated conversation between self-professed ludologists and narratologists, and the way that conversation—sometimes conflict—interlocked with a parallel conversation about whether there should be a new discipline devoted to the study of games or whether games should be an object of study within existing disciplines.

I had been thinking about computer and videogames in isolation, more or less, as the next step in the development of my growing intellectual investment in cultural studies that followed on my earlier work on children’s television. Since that work was consciously middlebrow from the beginning, shaped by my sense that there could and should be an academic practice focused on popular culture that read and sounded differently than mainstream academic literary criticism, and sought a different relation to its audiences, I suppose that I was less surprised by the bid for disciplinarity in games studies than I was opposed to it outright. Not opposed from the perspective that games could be studied narratologically in a properly academic way in an existing discipline, but opposed instead from the position that games criticism was an ideal place to invent a new middlebrow academic practice that did not reproduce the norms and apparatus of academic respectability as they are typically structured, particularly not the isolating and hierarchically exclusionary mechanisms that come with proclaiming a new “discipline”.

My position on this whole question is a by-product of my own institutional situation. I have standard-issue academic respectability (probably fading fast the more I blog) as a historian of modern Africa. I don’t need to protect myself as a games researcher—but others do, and to do that, they need the apparatus of a discipline. If we’re not going to break down disciplines as a whole, then anyone who wants to move into a completely new line of inquiry needs parity with established researchers. So the argument for “normal” disciplinarity makes a certain kind of sense, and I oppose it only because I have the professional luxury to do so.

Henry Jenkins has read through the narratologist vs. ludologist debate very throughly, and there’s no need to reiterate his many keen observations again. But it is worth noting that the debate, such as it is, essentially tracks very closely against a much larger metadebate within the academy, about the strengths and weaknesses of the trope of textuality. You can find that discussion situated very sharply within history and anthropology, for example. In history, it’s centered around the “linguistic turn” and the practice of cultural history; in anthropology, around the idea of “experience” as something separable from “text”, and "participant-observation" as the favored methodology for understanding experience.

What the debate boils down to in many cases is an assertion by some scholars that there is a (social or otherwise) reality which has an ontological status that cannot be reductively encompassed as “text” or "representation". Those who argue this might concede that that we might benefit at times from understanding practice or experience or society as “texts”, but that to make this out to be more than a provisional heuristic or metaphor, to begin to believe that text or representation is ontology, that it is turtles all the way down, is a big mistake.

The ludologists seem to me to have been making a version of this point, that understanding games has to involve narratology (what a game says, what a game means, what the content and story of it is) but always also attention to the concrete practice of its consumption, the experience of play. Not because we have to study everything (because one could say the same even about literary texts, that we simultaneously should try to understand the social reality of their consumption as well as their content) but because the content of games is defined by their modes of practice. On that point, I’d say I’m a ludologist as well. But so are most of the scholars who describe themselves as narratologists in their approach to games. Broadly speaking, in fact, the rise of the historicist mode of literary criticism and hybrid forms of cultural studies in the humanities means that at least some lip service to encompassing texts in terms of the totality of their production, circulation and consumption is usually made even in scholarship that largely focuses on hermeneutical and interpretative readings of “texts”.

This point is only one-half about grand metadebates on ontology and epistemology. It’s also a pretty simple claim about methodology, and here too, I suppose I’m a ludologist, and more sharply so this time.

The thing of it is that at least some of the most obviously narratological treatments of video games out there share a similar flaw. They don’t seem to know anything about games in general or the game-text they’re dealing with in particular.

This too is not unique to the study of games. One of my most pressing critiques of a great deal of writing about “colonial discourse” is that it tries to emulate Edward Said’s Orientalism by cobbling together a few cherry-picked quotes from a smattering of thinly-related texts to pronounce the existence of a “discourse”.

In the context of games criticism, this tendency might lead to a narratologist placing enormous interpretative weight on the fact that most first-person shooters are structured by conflicts between the player’s avatar and small groups of three to six enemies, seeing this as a narrative choice that has authorial intent behind it, that can be related to various similar kinds of narratives in other media (e.g., the ur-narrative of Die Hard or Rambo or James Bond films, the narrative pacing of action films where the uber-masculine hero crushes small packs of slightly-less-manly bad guys). The problem is that the narratological kinship between Die Hard and first-person-shooters is a much more complicated matter in its actual historical evolution. If anything, when first-person-shooters first appeared with narratological structure that resembled the narrative of action films, to some extent that content was a superficial add-on rather than a deep structure of gameplay, a kind of narratological “skin”. The original Doom is a very good example of this pattern. The deep structure of the game (single player avatar versus distributed clusters of enemies) was, before anything else, a technical requirement dictated by the number of enemies it was then possible to have on the screen. This continues to be the case even though computers have much more processing power because the enemies have become much more graphically demanding.

It would probably be possible to go back and re-do the original Doom with its original graphics and engine on a contemporary computer so that the player had to face armies of two or three hundred enemies at once—a narrative structure that would have a certain kind of “realist” modality to it, and would surely result in the regular unheroic death of the unnamed marine sent to invade the base if the marine’s relative power and weaponry were kept constant with the original game’s design. That developers do not create such games has a little bit to do with the structured narrative of action heroics (with all the possible meanings one could reasonably interpret as residing within that narrative) but a lot more to do with the technical requirements of game production and the path-dependent nature of any particular genre or cultural form. First-person shooters are today first and foremost what they are because of what they have been, and what they have been first and foremost goes back to the roots of the videogame form itself, roots which were and remain structured significantly by the technical capabilities of the medium itself.

Another good example of this is the “cut scene”, which some narratologists have also chosen to see as an intentional authorial mechanic that is characteristic of visuality and representation in games, a perspectival shift that meaningfully forces the player from first-person interactivity into third-person spectatorship. It’s true that this may be the ultimate impact of the “cut scene”, and it is certainly an important thing to analyze narratologically for that reason. But it is not necessarily an authorial artifact, a mechanism which was originally intentionally put into games as a communicative act by game producers or authors. Again, it’s actually a kind of technical kludge, a reflection of the technical and creative difficulty at one point in the evolution of computer games of feeding scripted content through the same engine that supported gameplay. More and more, the kind of scripted content that once appeared solely in “cut scenes” that were visually and perspectively set apart from the game engine and gameplay are now being integrated within the game itself in some fashion. It doesn’t make the difference between scripted content and gameplay unimportant—it still requires analysis from a fairly “narratological” perspective, with “narratological” tools—but that analysis has to come from some kind of fairly situated understanding of why that structure exists in order to prevent over-reading its meaning and intentionality.

It’s somewhat catty of me to suggest that narratologists are more prone to not knowing what they’re talking about, but I’ll go out on a limb and say just that—not only about games, but as a general tendency across a vast array of genres and forms. Cultural studies struggles enormously with this problem, with the appropriation of new genres of popular culture and particular texts within them into preloaded, preconceived analytic frameworks.

A while back on a cultural studies listserv, for example, I ran into several scholars talking about the reactionary qualities of the comic book character Captain America, and their assumption that his comics would be the natural habitus for pro-Bush representations of 9/11. It might be true that the entire idea of Captain America is reactionary in some fashion, but a detailed reading of the history of his comic book reveals some interestingly ambivalent and complex reconfigurations of “patriotism” through and within the character himself. In fact, because Captain America is so bland a personality (pretty much from the character’s origins to today) he has always tended to be a natural prism for contemporary contestations about the nature of American nationalism. So in the 1970s, the character turned his back on his identity to roam around Easy Rider style, looking for America. At various points in his history, he’s run into and confronted conspiratorial interests at the highest reaches of the American government—recently including a post 9/11 Secretary of Defense seeking to manipulate paranoid fears about “homeland security” (who turned out to be the Red Skull). So in actual content, the character turns out to be much more polymorphous and multivalent in political terms.

There is a very real style of academic cultural criticism that simply grabs at quick, unsituated readings of texts and fits them to a procrustean bed. I see it with comic books, I see it with “colonial discourse”, I see it with a great many subjects—including games. If some academics interested in games have protested about “narratology”, this style of writing is often what they’re really talking about, rather than criticizing a very legitimate and important kind of games criticism which focuses on the narrative structure of a game, or on the larger ways that narrative functions in games and between games, or legitimate and necessary concerns with the meaning and content of games. Much of what could be classed as narratological doesn't have this problem, and some of what could be classed as ludological does--the fact that you think games are something different than texts doesn't mean that you actually know anything about games. But it's more likely, for many reasons, that someone who stresses the continuity between a game-text and other kinds of texts that they have already studied is going to just casually and appropriatively fit a game into a pre-existing analytic framework without really getting to know it.

So it’s a very simple methodological point: know what you’re talking about before you talk about it.

That demand doesn’t commit me at all to the proposition that writing about games as an academic needs to take on the normalized forms of academic respectability, however. Who, after all, knows the most about what games are, about their history, their technical functioning, their consumption, and their real intertextualities? Gamers and designers. Academic games criticism can bring a great many things to the table, but gamers themselves have already set it. There’s no reason, as Justin Hall has noted, for game criticism to take a rhetorical and substantive form that dramatically overstresses its distance from the already existing (and often sophisticated) discourse of gamers and designers themselves. As a recent discussion at Grand Theft Auto suggested, that distance is not necessary or productive. There’s every reason for scholars who want to do game criticism not to adopt tedious academic practices of artifically exaggerated respectability which interfere with the timely delivery of relevant analysis and findings, such as lengthy peer review—one reason I’m really excited to be blogging at Terra Nova, because I think the group blog is an excellent form for delivering just-in-time critical analysis of games and the issues that surround them.

Comments on Ye Olde Disciplinary Punch-and-Judy Show:

barry says:

Nicely put, and with much that I, for one, would agree with. Cultural Studies (my old stomping ground, I suppose) can get so many things wrong. Here's hoping 'game studies' or whatever it is doesn't go the same way.

Posted Sep 10, 2004 12:54:52 PM | link

greglas says:

Wow, Tim. Nice work. *Really* happy to have you here.

I must admit I've been personally fascinated by the lud/nar internecine war too and have read thousands of pages trying to get to the bottom of it. I've very much enjoyed the reading, but my conclusion is that I'm not sure why the debate exists. My position doesn't qualify me to speak with much authority, though, so I haven't said much.

But I'm glad you opened the can of worms. I want to comment (perhaps agree) on several points, namely:

1) The capture of academic game studies by either ludology or narratology seems much less serious an issue than does the capture of game studies by disciplinary jargon and "tedious academic practices of artifically exaggerated respectability" -- the end result of that will simply be exactly what often happens when the humanities colonizes a new social sphere: we'll gradually empower a new set of critics with their own discourse as "experts in talking about games" and exclude designers and gamers and other non-academics within that "discipline" from speaking.

2) The small numbers in the debate actually worry me quite a bit -- we know the relevant lud/nar players and they could probably fit in an auditorium or even on a stage. Many of them have distinct voices and nuanced views that can't be consolidated into a camp. I'm not even sure we'd find a "games narratologist" who would call herself that. So it isn't so much a Punch and Judy show -- it seems like a Punch and anti-Punch show, with most of the debate stemming from the question of whether Punch has a right to claim he exists.

I think Jesper summed it up nicely:

>> I do think the “ludology-narratology” thing has been genuinely useful in helping shaping the fíeld and getting people to consider their positions - additionally, it has been the interesting angle that mainstream journalists have latched on to. But perhaps it is a bit tired by now. It also seems that some people really feel that the mood has been nasty at times

Beyond that, I really enjoyed this and how you linked this to broader issues in academia. The point you take from it "know what you’re talking about before you talk about it," seems (to me) just right. It gets at the reasons the ludologists planted the flag, so to speak, as well as the reasons to lower that flag now and move on to talking about specific games, not talking about how to talk or not talk about games generally.

But for some reason, I do think we'll still be talking about games as narratives and not narratives ten years from now...

Posted Sep 10, 2004 1:49:53 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:

The problem with the "games" is that the space they occupy is that its just too darn big. And furthermore its in the middle of a lot of other synergistic interests (entertainment, AI, simulation, training, sociology, law, economics). Now, coarsely stated, there are two views on what to do. Either shave off bits to a manageable core discipline and (in the case of games) risk "going fringe." Or, accept a language and dialog of anaylsis that is open, inclusive, and responsive to disciplinary shifts over time. My take: big, fast evolving spaces are likely better off tolerating a bit of pidgen in their discussion and seek "emergent consensus" :) rather than risking an analytical and language lock-down that becomes self-isolating.

Posted Sep 10, 2004 2:06:36 PM | link

dmyers says:

[quote] I think the group blog is an excellent form for delivering just-in-time critical analysis of games and the issues that surround them. [/quote]

My, my, what a surprise.

And is the celebrity boxing format of First Person then the exemplar to which we must all aspire? Personally, I think much is lost without the clay animation.

But, without going very deeply into THAT, I can at least say that I always find Kucklich's comments at least somewhat substantitive, and Erskelinen's most typical comments, caught as they are in that annoying false fury fugue, less so.

Posted Sep 10, 2004 4:45:17 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

> It would probably be possible to go back and re-do the original Doom with its original graphics and engine on a contemporary computer so that the player had to face armies of two or three hundred enemies at once—

But would this be fun? Another reason for 2-3 enemies (other than some kind of authorial intent) may be that designers have a metric of fun in their minds, and that killing slightly less powerful enemies in groups of 2-3 simply is, for some physiological reason, a most satisfying form of play. It's a ludological point, of course, but just more evidence that playing that game is required, indeed, not just playing the game, but playing the game and finding it fun as well. Plenty of people have played EverQuest, but not all of them get it. One blogger said to me "I don't get these MMORPGs. They're boring!!" And that is perfectly OK as a personal taste (more than OK, really), but it also makes it unlikely that that person will really be able to analyze the impact or meaning of MMORPGs.

And as for why this is so difficult to nail down - it's because Science hasn't bothered to think about Fun very hard. Fun is an integral part of game experience, indeed it could be said to be the only objective, or the defining objective. I'd even venture to say that there's a certain kind of fun, a specific but still unidentified and unnamed mental experience, that you get when you play an AI-based interactive game. In other words, we still don't know what we are talking about. Nothing new, I guess.

Posted Sep 10, 2004 5:46:06 PM | link

John Arras says:

Wow, I didn't realize this was such a big debate. I haven't paid attention to this much, since I mostly care about what I can use to make games that seem interesting.

Here's how I see things:

Computer games are programs that interact with players to create patterns of events. The player of a computer game can influence the patterns of events that appear in the game. Since all that a computer game does is produce patterns of events, the goal of the player is to try to create patterns of events. Humans have the ability to give meaning to patterns of events (stories).

So, when players use the event generator and try to create certain patterns of events, they're using the same "meaning generator" in their minds that they use when they read a story. Therefore, players play the game and their goal is to try to make desired patterns appear. This doesn't mean that the same kinds of patterns are found in games and stories, but both rely on our "meaning generator" as a motivation for continuing to read or use the game controller.

I think the focus of computer games has to be on the mechanics and processes, since that's what computers do: they compute. However, when deciding what kinds of patterns and events to allow the game to generate, I think we should be looking to other "pattern recording and playback" disciplines to learn what they know about making meaningful patterns of events. I think their ideas are a good starting point to use to learn what classes of patterns would be interesting to have generated in games (VW's at least).

But, I think the big stumbling block is that to use computers to their fullest, we must allow the machine to generate patterns in response to player actions, not merely playback prerecorded patterns. For that reason, I think the difficulty arises because the existing storytelling patterns shouldn't just be used explicitly in cutscenes and scripted dialogue and such. Since then the computer isn't generating patterns, it's merely playing back recoded patterns. I believe the key is to to look to story themes and patterns that can be abstracted into the game mechanics so that those themes and events appear at meaningful times.

Posted Sep 10, 2004 5:55:01 PM | link

Chris says:

>> It would probably be possible to go back and re-do the original Doom with its original graphics and engine on a contemporary computer so that the player had to face armies of two or three hundred enemies at once—

>But would this be fun?


It would never sell today, though, games can't actually be difficult anymore.

Posted Sep 10, 2004 6:02:27 PM | link

Marty says:

Yeah, there definitely are games out there where you face many, many enemies (Gun Valkyrie comes to mind), but they aren't all that popular because they can be fiendishly difficult. And there are things in the middle, like Halo, where there are times you have to take on a dozen or so enemies during some frenetic stages. For the most part, though, the tried and true rule of 3 stays in effect. That's one of the things that is driving me insane about Doom 3. It sure looks great, but it is soooo predictable.

Posted Sep 10, 2004 7:04:08 PM | link

magicback says:

Getting a bit off subject, but I want to point out that there are lots of numeric norms that are constant in nature: PI, Golden Ratio, Fibonacci Sequence, etc.

Some example I can think of:
150 people in a single social group
3 points of focus for the mind
5 items on menu
.6 The golden ratio of natural growth

I mentioned this as I feel that this is more than "ludology" vs. "narratology", its a more integrative art/science, declaring "nothing is sacred!"

I like TN as TN approach this space from many angles.


Posted Sep 10, 2004 8:27:34 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Oh, I don't think Doom with 200 demons in each map would be fun (not to mention that it would be impossible); I have in mind a narratological claim I heard in conversation (at the Bristol conference, actually), that the narrative structure of Doom was authorially designed to reproduce a typical capitalist-individualist-masculinist narrative of a single male "Horatio Alger" type beating the odds. One of the pieces of evidence for this was the resemblance between "Die Hard" and "Doom"; the other was a kind of reasoning that if "Doom" were really about an assault by demons on a marine base, the demons would assault in hundred or thousands, rather than in conveniently "beatable" small groups.

This gets historical relationships between different media products wrong, but it also asserts by way of "narratological reason" a feature of the game narrative that just doesn't make sense as a deliberate statement or authorially intended communication: Doom is the way it is both because it was technically necessary to limit the number of demons in a given map and because it's no fun to die repeatedly as you're mobbed by 500 demons. Nothing more is meant by the narrative structure as it was made. Of course, if there were "really" demons assaulting a "real" science fiction marine base, they'd probably do something other than attack in small waves. But then there wouldn't be health packs and the marine couldn't carry ten weapons on.

Now where you can do some good work is on the rear end of all that--you could say that at some point the narrative logic of the lone man against conviently spaced groups of bad guys becomes a narrative convention for future games even when the technology no longer dictates it AND even when it's possible to imagine a game that is "fun" which is also somehow more "realistic"--and then you might ask, "Well, why do videogames continue to follow the same pathways?" Then you might be able to say some interesting things about the overlap between that narrative and stories from films or comic books, and about audience desires, and about the path-dependent nature of genres and many other things that I think "narratology" excels at. But it's important to know the text of which one speaks, and there is a style of cultural studies that permits or encourages analysis when that knowledge is lacking.

Posted Sep 10, 2004 9:33:25 PM | link

Barry says:

OK, but this is where I get confused. Why is the above a 'narratological' claim? Can't see the connection with narratology. If someone made that kind of statement about Doom without qualification (and anyone who has emerged from lit in the last 20 years wouldn't touch assumptions about authorial intent with a bargepole) then they just weren't paying enough attention, possibly, to the specifics of games. But why narratology as a term to describe this? I just don't get it...

Posted Sep 11, 2004 2:30:54 AM | link

Barry says:

And, as someone who would probably be labelled as a narratologist (and would deny it to his boots) any assumption that others like me don't understand that dropping a model of understanding from anywhere else on games and forcing games to fit it, rather than seeing if our understanding of games can be interestingly illuminated by observations from elsewhere, is potentially galling. I remember writing a by the numbers post-colonial theory reading of Tomb Raider to see how quickly I could do it. About three sentences to dispose of the obvious, from memory. It was meant as a joke, but I recall seeing it quoted somewhere recently. Ah well.

Posted Sep 11, 2004 2:48:54 AM | link

Julian Dibbell says:

Great post, Tim!

It brought to mind a conversation I had with a smart young man at the Level Up game-studies conference in Utrecht last year. We were standing by the snack buffet between sessions, and maybe the coffee fumes had gotten to us, but it suddenly struck us as entirely reasonable that if games could be analyzed according to their narrative aspects, then it should also be legitimate to evaluate literary works in terms of their playability, balance, and other ludological categories.

The obvious example is Tolkien, whose works, God bless them, don't stand up too well to literary analysis but look shockingly good as blueprints for the adventure game. Yet you could just as easily get ludological about Finnegan's Wake, Gravity's Rainbow, Dante's Inferno, and any number of other literary classics. And more to the point, you could take this style of analysis into as many realms of cultural study as the narratological style itself had already invaded.

The problem with ludology, we therefore concluded, wasn't that it was being too fierce in its resistance to outside disciplines. It was being too wimpy. Instead of just trying to fend off the "imperialism" of the narratologists, it should be maneuvering to become an imperial power itself.

We were sort of joking. But since then I've come to take the idea more seriously. I mean, think about it. Some 70 years ago, Johan Huizinga wrote that famous book of his, Homo Ludens. It was a brilliant attempt to unearth the ludic foundations of human culture, ancient and modern, but at a time when games scarcely counted as culture themselves, the poor dude really had to stretch to make the point. Now imagine if he came back today. Not only have games become wildly complex and popular, but their intimate, organic connection with the computers and networks that shape the emergent cultural world have made them as significant as they are ubiquitous. What Huizinga (or maybe some of his followers among the Situationists of the 50s and 60s) could do with the present landscape of games would blow the mind. And it should be the highest goal of today’s ludology to be that mind-blowing. The words What Would Johan Do? should be taped to the monitor of every ludologist working, and all should be working toward the day when humanities scholars everywhere speak of the “ludic turn” with the same awe and annoyance they now bring to bear on the linguistic turn.

That’s why, though I recognize the value of the ontological housekeeping that seems to be the main pursuit of the Copenhagen school, it’s a little disappointing to see so much effort spent on bean-counting the differences between games and other cultural forms and so little on finding the connections, both to other cultural forms and to the culture at large. I definitely concur, Tim, with your critique of “narratologist” laziness and ignorance, and I certainly endorse the idea of attending to the insights and sophistication of actual players and game designers (amen, Justin!). But I’d like to see ludologists doing more than just cataloguing the phenomena of play, and I’d like to hope that the “middlebrow” games discourse that emerges doesn’t end up ignoring the big philosophical and cultural questions that lie a little further up the brow.

Oh, and like I said, we were sort of joking that day in Utrecht, but some of you may be interested to know that the smart young man who joined me in dreaming of a rampantly imperialist ludology -- a ludology not just unconquered by narrative but conquering -- was none other than Julian Kucklich. Make of it what you will, folks!

Posted Sep 11, 2004 3:15:07 AM | link

Bugmaster says:

I am not a professor of literature (not even close), and thus I don't think I can contribute much to the topic. Still, I am a gamer, and thus I find the topic quite curious. In any case, isn't it possible that there are simply different kinds of games ? For example, Tetris, in its pure form, doesn't have any narrative at all; and, in fact, a plot of some kind would only encumber the game. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Infocom-style text adventures, which are all about story. In the middle, we have RPGs such as Final Fantasy (pick any one) that combine strategy, action (sometimes), art, and a strong plot.

I think everyone can agree that all three examples are quintessential games (and I didn't even have to bring out Pong -- oops, too late); however, these games have virtually nothing in common. In light of this, I don't think it makese sense to speak of games as being primarily about narrative, or primarily about ludology. That would be like talking about all modes of transport (cars, planes, boats, etc.) solely in terms of the number of wheels they have.

Posted Sep 11, 2004 5:37:55 AM | link

greglas says:

Bugmaster>> I am not a professor of literature (not even close), and thus I don't think I can contribute much to the topic. Still, I am a gamer, and thus I find the topic quite curious. In any case, isn't it possible that there are simply different kinds of games ?

This pretty much captures my frustration with the "debate" -- it's a simple point that you're making, and I think it's obviously correct -- games are different in some ways and the same in other ways. So, it's a debate about degree of sameness and difference -- if we try to ignore the individudal, identifiable, quite nuanced voices (and that is quite hard to do because there are a limited number of people who seem to be players in this debate, as I said before). To catch the tenor of how nuanced/fussy/personal/nasty the lud/nar struggle looks in practice, see this thread on GTxA or Eskelinen's email to Kuecklich.

I've got to say, while Kuecklich seemed a little critical, there was a lot in his review of FP that I thought was pretty much on point. I liked FP, but it seemed more like a blog with a binding, where I was hoping for something more like a book.

I wonder to what extent the whole lud/nar thing is not really about a typical academic turf struggle, but about how those struggles are playing out in the age of weblogs, which Tim praises and Dave laconically punctures, in his trademark fashion.

How do scholars relate to those who criticize their ideas and efforts in an age when non-credentialed weblogs (and books that feel a lot like weblogs and/or incorpoate online discussions) are disrupting what used to be the easy authority of journals, academic positions, and print publications?

Posted Sep 11, 2004 8:06:31 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

I'm spending more time on the underlying debate than I like, but this cracked me up:

Markku Eskelinen: "Let me try to explain this like I would to a child. The ludological slogan “games should be studied as games” is based on game definitions, and means (among other things) that games have primary characteristics such as rules, goals, and the necessity of more than interpretative player effort. They are primary because without them there would be no games, and however hard and disappointing it may be to some scholars, these primary features can’t be adequately explained, theorised and analyzed by theories uncritically imported from other fields (including literary and film studies). This uncritical tendency of ignoring and downplaying dominant game-specific features, and not interdisciplinarity, was what the ludologists opposed and did so rather fiercely in 2001 when I wrote my First Person essay as a response to the first wave of narrativist nonsense."

Wow. What a wierd kid THAT would have to be. "Daddy, may I manipulate the uni-directional bonding strip?" "Sure, son, you can play with the duct tape."

Reading through Eskelinen/Kucklich, while I understand the points being made (scored?), I'm not sure I'll ever understand the passion. Where did the 'So What?' question go? Isn't that the first test to apply? It was very nice of Tim to even bother to put this into some kind of perspective. But the whole thing makes me want to play a videogame instead of read.

Posted Sep 11, 2004 11:20:07 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Also, on this:
Greg>How do scholars relate to those who criticize their ideas and efforts in an age when non-credentialed weblogs (and books that feel a lot like weblogs and/or incorpoate online discussions) are disrupting what used to be the easy authority of journals, academic positions, and print publications?

The tension between popularity and professional licensing as metrics of success is erupting all over the place. It's a mirror of the conflict between elitists and aesthetes on the one hand and crass libertarians and economists on the other when it comes to the notion of Value.

in the end, any system other than mere popularity is going to be the imposition of the opinion of a small group, top-down, oppressive. That's OK, and even the very best system, if the processes by which a person develops from schmoe to certified, licensed, opinion-hegemon are good processes. if the process of leadership-selection in academia were such that only the wise (and ideally all the wise) became tenured, became editors, became reviewers, became authors, then everything would be fine.

but that's not the way it is, is it? the moron quotient (in economics, at least, the field i can claim to know something about) is so high, i wouldn't believe it if i had not seen it with my own eyes.

if blogs are having an influence, and mere sensible people are using them to shake up the professors, the professors only have themselves to blame. indeed professors who subject themselves to the rigors of blogging are going to become better thinkers. that's how dead most academic discourse has become.

Posted Sep 11, 2004 3:00:07 PM | link

Jason Craft says:

Tim, this is a great piece, and not only because you've given props to historical readings of Captain America :). I'm going to do a hit and run on a number of points, and am looking forward to expanding on them through discussion here.

It feels strange and kind of thrilling to think about ludology as affinate to cultural studies, after being convinced for a while now that my decision to work within cultural studies puts me outside ludology in a big way. Unfortunately, I don't know if these connections between the two are always acknowledged in the preexisting debate. I think that the origin of the ludological position -- Aarseth's Cybertext -- interprets the extratextual as something very different from what we as cultural scholars understand as production and consumption, culture, or use. His distinction is not between texts and reception but between texts and textual machines, and the ludological focus of study is the textual machine. The player is necessary to actuate a semiotic sequence, but her or his historical or sociocultural doesn't really seem to enter into the equation.

In First Person, both Jenkins and Moulthrop note this elision of cultural considerations in much ludological literature, and the ludologists' responses to them don't disagree. I think Juul's response to Kuklich, which you cite, signals a gradual reconciliation between games as ludic systems and games as artifacts within larger systems of media production and consumption, which makes me very happy. But I would argue that is a fairly recent development. Again, I like very much your assertion of the importance of a historical, even Bakhtinian perspective on game genres, but I think this perspective is a departure from most canonical ludological writing, even more so than the narratological view as you've presented it:

In the context of games criticism, this tendency might lead to a narratologist placing enormous interpretative weight on the fact that most first-person shooters are structured by conflicts between the player’s avatar and small groups of three to six enemies, seeing this as a narrative choice that has authorial intent behind it.

Is this a narratological position? It seems to map pretty directly to the ludological method Frasca calls "simulation rhetoric" in The Video Game Theory Reader. Sometimes I worry that "narratologist" becomes a straw man, a signifier more for "dilletante humanist who knows shit about video games" rather than "practicioner of narratological methods of inquiry." Certainly this isn't always the case, but the tendency toward agonism and ad hominem attack in the responses of Eskelinen and others makes me worry that what begins as a distinction between different opinions can easily slip into counter-productive othering. At this point, I have no idea whether I'm a ludologist or narratologist, and I suspect I'm not alone.

Then there's the institutional question. I agree 100% that there are plenty of opportunities in new fields of inquiry (including game studies) to upend traditional academic publishing and use the blogosphere and other contexts that are much less ossified. But there's still that darn institution, and envisioning game studies as non-institutional seems to ensure that those who study games academically must do so through the backdoor, after getting a tenured position in something else, as many of the scholars here have done. You have the professional luxury to decry the journals and celebrate the blogosphere, but I'm a kid scholar looking at a US academic market where formal publication is still a prerequisite to success, and the most popular games studies programs are looking for a shipped title, not a Ph.D., under one's belt. These contextual realities bear on my perspective quite a bit. I have lots of material in my diss that speaks to the points you raise here, and I'd much rather blog about it than go through arduous journal submission, but every time I put something out on the Web, I'm consumed with anxiety about what it does to my chances of getting a book contract. This is a young field, practiced by young scholars, and I'd love to see some more discussion about ways to reconcile old (journal) and new (blog) modes of publication and distribution.

Finally, I'd like to open up the question: how well does ludology address the question of virtual worlds? Juul and Rules of Play have both noted that MMOGs deviate from the classic pretty considerably (Caillois-ian) definition of games. Virtual worlds impact the ludology/narratology debate in a big way, and this is the ideal place to begin teasing out exactly how.


Posted Sep 11, 2004 4:44:06 PM | link

Jason Craft says:

Darn it, you proofread three times, and it's still full of typos.

"her or his historical or sociocultural doesn't" -> "her or his historical or sociocultural position doesn't"

"deviate from the classic pretty considerably (Caillois-ian) definition of games" -> "deviate pretty considerably from the classic (Caillois-ian) definition of games"

Posted Sep 11, 2004 4:49:07 PM | link

greglas says:

Ted> The tension between popularity and professional licensing as metrics of success is erupting all over the place. It's a mirror of the conflict between elitists and aesthetes on the one hand and crass libertarians and economists on the other when it comes to the notion of Value.

Yes, I agree. I think the phenomenon of the celebrity professor has been with us for quite a long time, but the blogosphere seems to be adding a new wrinkle.

Ted> ...professors who subject themselves to the rigors of blogging are going to become better thinkers. that's how dead most academic discourse has become.

Well, I don't know about this one. I like blogs. I read a bunch of them. So I'd like to think we're on the cutting edge of something transformative and superior. But my read of the blogosphere / non-blogosphere discourse in my own field makes me dubious that we'd be in a much better position if blogs took the place of articles.

Posted Sep 11, 2004 4:53:15 PM | link

magicback says:

Open blogs have the benefit of speedy feedback from all walks of life and disciplines, but the publishing processes have the benefit of prescribed rigor (like levels or stages).

Closed blogs (blogs limited to members only), however, may end up as a communication tool in the traditional vetting process of academic publishing.

So my questions are: is TN a blog or something else? is VW a game, a storytelling medium, or something else?

Posted Sep 11, 2004 7:51:11 PM | link

Cory Ondrejka says:

Tim> Oh, I don't think Doom with 200 demons in each map would be fun (not to mention that it would be impossible); I have in mind a narratological claim I heard in conversation (at the Bristol conference, actually), that the narrative structure of Doom was authorially designed to reproduce a typical capitalist-individualist-masculinist narrative of a single male "Horatio Alger" type beating the odds. One of the pieces of evidence for this was the resemblance between "Die Hard" and "Doom"; the other was a kind of reasoning that if "Doom" were really about an assault by demons on a marine base, the demons would assault in hundred or thousands, rather than in conveniently "beatable" small groups.

Chris> Robotron! It would never sell today, though, games can't actually be difficult anymore.

Actually, Serious Sam (and its sequels) is almost exactly 3D Robotron (in spirit if not in design or license). With 10s to 100s of enemies on the screen, pumped up weapons and a relatively wimpy character, it is hard, exciting and hell of a lot of fun. It was the creation of Croteam, a small, independent group in Zagreb, Croatia.

The "kill the 3 to 8 enemies" is largely an artifact of the transition from 2D to 2.5D and 3D. Being the (nearly) unstoppable force against hordes was a major component of a lot of early arcade and console twitch games, but 3D rendering took a long time to catch up to what good blit hardware could do in 2D. Amusingly, the limitations imposed by that transition have taken on a life of their own and games are only now starting to break those "rules."

Posted Sep 11, 2004 10:01:55 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:

But my read of the blogosphere / non-blogosphere discourse in my own field makes me dubious that we'd be in a much better position if blogs took the place of articles.

So my questions are: is TN a blog or something else?

The New England Journal of Medicine recently modified their policy about reporting clinical trials (url below) - now you have to register a trial before you start it if they will publish it after its completed. The objective is to discourage selective reporting (only report favorable results)...

The nice thing about the blogs and more specifically the TN paradigm - is that ideas and work are "published" and ideas revisited - whilest scrutinized by an engaged readership. Over the fullness of time one can track the evolution of thought and arguments of the core issues.

It is sometimes useful to know and document the process, including the dead-ends and the speculative tangents, in addition to the conclusions. I think this is particularily true for dynamic areas such as virtual worlds and their concerns.

NEJM citation:

Posted Sep 11, 2004 11:34:08 PM | link

Jesper says:

I think we are constantly shifting between to meanings of "narrative" (and hence of "narratologist"), namely: 1) The traditional Aristotelian and structuralist focus on text structure and 2) the "poststructuralist" master trope for all kinds of content, meaning, experience, and ideology.

Tim says: "The ludologists seem to me to have been making a version of this point, that understanding games has to involve narratology (what a game says, what a game means, what the content and story of it is) but always also attention to the concrete practice of its consumption, the experience of play."

I think there are some additional twists to this: Many "ludological" texts come from a narrative(1) tradition of close readings, examining text structure etc... in order to point out how the player experience is special in a game. But many "narratological" texts come from a narrative(2) tradition, where on one hand people are keen to point out the activities of the user, but on the other hand the idea that a text/game may possess specific properties is not always acceptable.

As for the question of having game studies as a separate discipline, it's only recently I've begun to understand that many people feel that a discipline is something that excludes other fields - I always thought it meant having a forum for the exchange of ideas!

PS. I would like to add that, catchy as it may sound, there just is no Copenhagen School - we are a large group of people working in quite different directions ...

Posted Sep 12, 2004 5:39:09 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

I think Jason's right that what I'm doing is identifying what the ludologists have called "narratology" as being something else entirely--really as being what I would call "the bad appropriative mode of cultural studies and literary criticism". As such, nobody's going to stand up and say, "I speak for bad appropriations! That's my practice!" So in some ways I eviscerate the debate by saying, "There is no debate: there's good analysis of games that thinks about experience and meaning and narrative, and there's bad analysis of games that casually reaches out from established critical practice and enfolds games because it looks like a market opportunity to move from talking about film to talking about videogames".

Except that there is also the deeper ontological debate between "text/representation" and "experience" to consider here, and that one I think has more philosophical and critical substance to it. It's just that it's not peculiar to thinking about games.

Jason's other point about disciplinarity is a fundamental one. It's why I can't simply extoll a middlebrow mode of writing about games in which the distance between academics and designers/gamers is minimized. Any junior academic (grad student or finishing Ph.D) who took that vision too much to heart would almost certainly be finished within the US academic market. Having a dossier that was largely built around 5-10 page middlebrow essays that were published in web format, whether on a blog or some other online publication, would almost certainly leave you at a fatal disadvantage against candidates practicing more normative kinds of scholarship.

There are really two ways for a junior academic to go in the US market if they want to focus on video and computer games. The one is to look for the extremely small number of positions that might be targeted specifically at that specialization. How do you increase the number of those positions? One answer to that is disciplinarity, to push for "game studies". The other is to look for a wider variety of positions in cultural studies, new media studies, IT, communications, and possibly even more vanilla disciplines like English or (nah, it'd never work) economics. But here you'd have to treat games as an "object of study" which gets remediated back out to the core languages of the discipline--which tends to mean that you have to deemphasize the degree to which games are their "own thing".

In either case (disciplinarity or not), the sociological organization of academia is interfering with what most gamers and designers, as well as a wider public, would view as common sense understandings of videogames. Which is where my interest in middlebrow criticism comes in. Academics have specialized tools and knowledge that can really enhance that kind of writing. Think about some of the core debates among gamers and designers: "What is immersion, and do we want it?"; "What are the demographics of the gaming audience, and if we wanted to change those demographics, how would we do it?"; "Why is it so hard to make a MMOG?" and so on. Academics--whether from "game studies" or a wider discipline--can do some interesting things with those questions that nobody else is positioned to do. But not if they lock up the answers behind discursive walls.

Posted Sep 12, 2004 8:56:18 AM | link

Will Jordan says:

First of all, Tim, excellent post. I love the ludology/narratology debate and I hope a definitive compromise between the two camps is not reached for quite a while longer. I think the division (real or artificial) has done a great deal to provoke discussion about where games and game studies fit within the larger sphere of humanities discourse.

I think we all agree at this point (petty squabbling aside) that blindly applying narrative theories to games can not adequately explain them, but the theories are still valuable for understanding the narrative aspects of many games. The debate, or at least the part which remains unresolved, is concerned with how we approach the study of games at a more basic level than claims of the unsituatedness of narratological accounts of games. Ludologists differ from narratologists on the scope of the subject of game studies. The ludologists' call for a new, self-contained field of study has a much firmer ontological grounding than the desire of a few iconoclastic game-playing academics wishing to have their work acknowledged as 'new' and 'different' from the rest of academia. I also think that the ontological argument for the establishment of a new field of game studies does not exclude opportunities for interdisciplinary studies of games.

Using your terms, while narratologists wish to study the 'content' of games, ludologists wish to study the 'modes of practice' themselves. The necessity for a distinct field of game studies is not due to the fact that games mediate new structures through which content can be studied, but because the study of the structure itself as it's realized through the experience of game-playing necessitates a new discipline.

The ludological argument is that the study of 'games as games' has no place to call home. When you strip away the artwork, music, backstory, and are left with nothing but a set of arbitrary signs manipulated by a set of game rules, there is still an aesthetic experience that is utterly undescribable within narratological (or any other) discourse. The need to study games in this way is separate from narratological and other interdisciplinary studies of games but does not discount them as unnecessary.

Again, this is not to say that no games can be productively analyzed using methods adapted from other fields. The point of contention is that games can not be analyzed in their entirety without creating a new field of game studies, that looks not only at computer games and new media artifacts but sports, gambling games, board games, mind games, children's games, economic game theory games, and even complex systems we don't traditionally frame as games such as stock markets. And I would argue that such a discipline, if eventually realized, would be anything but 'middlebrow'.

Philosophy of sport comes close to serving the needs of game studies, but it necessarily limits its discourse to the primarily physical, skill-based sports. Also, it has been more concerned with topics like sportsmanship and fair play in regulated amateur and professional sports than with the aesthetics of the play experience and game design in general. Still, some ontological work has been done by Bernard Suits and others that is very useful as a foundation of game studies.

I think a somewhat reasonable analogy of the relationship between studies of games and narrative can be made between music and narrative. You can certainly study music in terms of theories of narrative, but there are elements that can only be viewed by studying 'music as music' and examining the aesthetics of the aural experience, which justifies the position of music theory in academia as a discipline separate from narratological and other interdisciplinary studies.

Of course, I don't speak for anyone here but myself (as a not-yet-junior academic), but that's what I've come to see as the heart of the game/story issue and the parallel debate on the future of the game studies discipline.

Posted Sep 12, 2004 2:33:20 PM | link

Espen says:

Jason Craft asked: " how well does ludology address the question of virtual worlds?" I don't pretend to speak for "ludology" (after all, my training was in narratology) but for what it is worth, chapter seven of Cybertext deals with this topic. And - believe it or not - chapter eight deals with the politics of reader/usership.

Btw, anyone really interested in the question of how stories and games relate (rather than just interested in the field formation of game studies) should read Ragnhild Tronstad's essay from the Cosign 2001 conference, where she solves the problem.

Posted Sep 12, 2004 2:46:25 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Will, I would say that your view of the need for studying games as games, as a type of human artifact which is unlike any other type of artifact and requires its own tools to understand, creates more problems than it solves if you insist that demand applies to games alone.

Across the broader span of the humanities, the experience/representation binary is at play in so many domains, even when it has been complicated or refigured by the last two decades of critical theory. If the argument that games are games is *not* a subset of that general debate--if it is a special case argument--then I think an enormous burden falls on those that want to maintain it. To say that games are games and fundamentally unlike any other human artifact or cultural system--and that they are such across the entire span of human history, so that a videogame of the 21st Century is part of the same highly bounded class of things as the earliest practices we might call games--is a really ambitious philosophical and classifactory claim.

It always seems a mistake to me to definitively choose to be a lumper or a splitter. Sometimes you need to disaggregate something to gain clarity, sometimes you need to squeeze things together. Disciplines are sociological constructs that reproduce themselves in institutions, not just collections of methodologies and epistemologies. When you make one that is dedicated a particular act of "splitting", e.g. of saying that the object of study is fundamentally and permanently unlike any other object, that tends to surrender the necessary flexibility that is inevitably needed to "lump" again.

Posted Sep 12, 2004 5:19:14 PM | link

Will Jordan says:

Tim, I agree that applying such a discipline only to videogames and other entertainment artifacts that the general public would willingly call 'games' is problematic, much in the same way that it would be foolish to arbitrarily restrict the discipline of narratology to literature alone. Perhaps my music analogy was unclear, but I meant to highlight a fundamental split between ludology and narratology, between two fundamentally different cultural attitudes towards objects, not between two fundamentally different classes of objects themselves. I think that ideally a discipline of ludology would find itself standing alongside narratology in its claims of near-universal applicability and providing a unique perspective on culture (like an 'anti-narratology') rather than becoming a strictly exclusionary system of classification. The question 'is x a game?' is as equally meaningless as asking, 'is x a story?', but that doesn't discount the fact that some artifacts can be better understood as narratives than as games and vice versa. It is the popular game forms such as videogames and sports that stand to gain the most from ludology and are therefore the most direct contributors to the demand for such a field.

The open question is whether ludology could or should stand on its own in relation to narratology - do games and narratives give us two fundamentally different ways of looking at artifacts, or are they ultimately variations of the same overall perspective?
Whether the still-present need for a discipline to fully study games as games will be solved by an extension of narratology to encompass the study of performative structures or instead by the creation of a field of ludology devoted specifically to their study is yet to be determined, but I would be personally satisfied either way.

Posted Sep 12, 2004 6:37:34 PM | link

Doug Sharp says:

I gave a talk at the 89 Game Developer's Conference called "Story vs. Game: The Battle of Interactive Fiction":

I wrote the talk after finishing my game "The King of Chicago" for Cinemaware. The talk also goes into the design of my Dramaton interactive narrative system. A view from the old-school game dev trenches. With a still-cool narrative tech.

Posted Sep 12, 2004 10:42:31 PM | link

torill says:

I see both Espen and Jesper have replied, now all we need is Gonzalo and all the Ludologists should be gathered, I think.

And this is probably the reason why ludologists appear too wimpy. They are not defined through their own aggression, but through other people's need for categories. I guess I am one of those who should be lumped as a ludologist, but I don't want to attack narratology or fight this battle of terms because I don't think creating a new label immediately creates a new discipline. To a certain extent I think this label may now be well past its use-date as a term for game-studies, and it's time to start looking at the wider potential for studying games.

The main problem which the conflict narratology/ludology made visible is the media blindness of academia. There is a conviction that everything can be analysed as if it was everything else. This is a reaction to a period of interdisciplinary isolation: when there was only one right way in every discipline. Neither end of the scale is good: while we definitely need a cross-fertilisation of ideas across disciplines, methodologies get developed for a reason. What we now need to focus on isn't whether narratology is better than ludology or vice versa, but what is the best methodology for studying games.

There is still a WIDE world of interdisciplinary conflicts we can get into. I am miffed at the lack of imagination among game scholars. Why have nobody else have mananged to think up and bring into focus a new conflict? So how about it - what should be attacked next? There's no law saying only narratologists and ludologists get to disagree.

Posted Sep 15, 2004 9:03:21 AM | link

gus andrews says:

OK, Torill, I'll dip in a toe to muddy the waters further: I personally see video games as part of media studies (while of course that cuts non-video games out of the picture), and I think to some extent the industry would agree -- video games are one competitor in the media ecology, subject to similar demands on people's time and attention, advertising, etc. So why don't y'all consider yourselves part of media studies? raar! fight! ;)

If you really want to stretch your intellectual boundaries, consider the fact that the University of Riverside's *dance* department has a specialist in video games on staff...

Posted Sep 17, 2004 1:55:33 PM | link