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.