This is the first article in The Academics Are Coming series.

1. prologue

Perhaps one of my saddest university memories is when I shrugged my shoulders and accepted the end of mathematics.

Before my undergrad years, I devoured every mathematical fact I came across as if starved of adequate mental nutrition. School did a bang-up job of cauterizing the subject, giving the impression that mathematics was done, there was nothing else to know. Congratulations. Game over.

Yet at university, I was faced with an enormous banquet of knowledge that, at first, made me physically excited. I just couldn’t get enough. However as I consumed and digested my way through lecture after lecture, I came to the unpleasant realisation that I wouldn’t be able to know everything. In a personal way, it was the end of mathematics and the beginning of unavoidable specialisation.

Mathematics divides into branches and branches within branches. It’s like Inception minus the snow soldier shoot-out. It’s ridiculous to vote down one branch as being more “important” than another (fuzzy logic versus probability theory, for example) because each theoretical direction has its place, a purpose.

Take, for example, the humble quadratic equation. You’re taught in school that the solutions of

$latex ax^2+bx+c=0$

can be calculated from:

$latex x = \frac{{ – b \pm \sqrt {b^2 – 4ac} }}{{2a}}&s=2$

A decent teacher might let slip that there’s also a special formula for cubic equations (involving powers of 3) and another for quartic equations (powers of 4). And what you certainly don’t get told, for fear of shaking your belief in all things holy, is that no one was ever able to find a nice formula for quintics (powers of 5).

It’s not that mathematicians weren’t trying hard enough. The quartic solution was discovered in the 16th century and all attempts to derive a quintic solution were fruitless. It took another three hundred years and a detour into a highly abstract branch of mathematics called algebra to prove that a general quintic solution doesn’t exist.

Algebra is a strange land with terms like cyclic groups, isomorphisms, Noetherian rings and algebraic closures. The takeaway from this is that all of these different mathematical lines of inquiry relate to each other in obscene, almost underhand ways.

And then you have games studies.

2. enlistment

The first post in which I started to see where I was going with Electron Dance was an essay called Anti Games. At the time, I was feeling distanced by “art games” and trying to find my way through. I threw out this pet theory that games could be visualised in terms of their “activity” (mechanics and agency) versus “emotional” content:

I imagined art games and traditional games at different ends of a sliding “emotion-activity” scale, with Tetris being full-on activity and, say, Photopia being a low-agency example from the other end of the scale. This all made sense to me.

But it wasn’t just the aesthetic-heavy “art game” that bothered me. How many versions of Chess do you really need? Typically, it’s just the one. Yet we’re comfortable with twenty different platformers, provided they olive branch us a bit of a story, some gloomy ambience or a freakish mechanical gimmick. Does the world really need any more platformers?

For example, I found Mattia Traverso’s One and One Story, a finalist in the 2012 IGF Student Showcase, to be a platformer with a few quirks that shoe-horns coarse meaning into its activities. Its “emotive” component sent me rushing back to Emily Short’s article on overwrought indie art game prose. (Traverso’s game has recently hit the headlines after being cloned for the iOS platform.)

I did Bioshock, but couldn’t bring myself to buy Bioshock 2. I just wasn’t interested in Rapture any more and its mechanics were spent. Later I listened to Jonathan Blow’s infamous lecture at Rice University on games exploiting players. While he believed games should mean something, many of his arguments dismantled games in terms of their activity, what they were making you do. The idea of RPGs being about progress, for example, is a lie; it essentially auto-balances so you’re working out a flat difficulty curve. Evolution, Blow said, gave fun and boredom a purpose, but game designers were abusing that.

Thus I was on the fast-track to being the kind of party-pooping game reductionist who compared games through their component mechanics; all scientific intellect and no soul.

In the last few months, I’ve noticed that the re-ignited “ludology and narratology” debate bears a close resemblance to my troubles with the emotion-activity scale. This academic debate doesn’t really impinge on the everyday lives of players so I’ve been wanting to take some time out to explore what the debate is actually about.

Obvious caveats for academic readers – I have no games studies experience and I am making some gross simplifications. Well, I’m not writing for academics, after all. I’m sure you guys already have this stuff covered.

3. a very civil war

The term “ludology” is now associated with a study of games via mechanics and rules, although some would argue that ludology is just the study of games, because mechanics are what make games special. The terms “narrativism” or “narratology” (these are not interchangeable terms but both are used) describe a particular method for the analysis of literature, film or games via narrative.

The story goes that there are supposedly two theoretical camps in game analysis, there’s Team Ludology that believes in rules and order, and Team Narratology that thinks story and chaos are king. They wage a proxy war through academic papers, rarely confronting each other directly, and gamers are caught in the middle. For those of you with great taste in televisual science fiction, it’s basically the plot of Babylon 5.

But this is a simplistic reduction of the situation. There aren’t people who go around with badges marked “narratologist” and “ludologist” but some academics adopt research stances which align them with these perspectives. And gamers aren’t really caught in the middle, because most developers pay scant attention to what goes on in deep academic space where no one can hear your peer-reviewed screams.

There are figures like Janet Murray who are interested in the future of storytelling, making efforts to extend literary theory into the digital now. But all the cutting-edge digital storytelling is happening in games – so naturally Murray will gravitate towards an exploration of games. In Murray’s book Hamlet on the Holodeck (1998) she famously read the “narrative” of Tetris as “a perfect enactment of the over tasked lives of Americans in the 1990s – of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught.”

Murray is still going strong. Her recent seminar contains all sorts of observations about modern games from Bioshock to Red Dead Redemption, arguing that digital storytelling is important because it supports more complex narratives than traditional media, which can “help us to understand the world better.”

Return to the Holodeck slide [Design: "Gunslinger" Mixed Reality]

But some academics who were trying to create a new field for researching games were becoming concerned that those versed in literary theory were starting to interfere in the embryonic development of a new, independent field: an academic landgrab. Espen Aarseth wrote in the first Games Studies editorial in 2001, “Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonizing attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again.” He added those fields “had 30 years in which they did nothing.”

Their core tenet was that games could not be approached as stories and the same theories could not apply. Narratology could hinder attempts at studying games in their basic form- as rules, as mechanics. This is how ludology is characterised as being about rules, rather than just an umbrella for all games studies.

In the very same edition of Games Studies, Markku Eskelinen wrote “The Gaming Situation” in which he characteristically used charged language to nuke his point home: “hilariously obsolete”, “double assassinations”, “annihilation for good”. He skewers Janet Murray’s attempt to read narrative from Tetris as “project[ing] her favourite content onto it”. Say hello to the academic equivalent of the middle finger.

But it is in this fight of absolutist theories that something goes wrong.

In all the bluster, attempts to shoot down studies of “games as narratives” inadvertently shoots down the study of story in games, as if acknowledging the presence of stories would associate you with the old-skool narratologists. Eskelinen wrote: “In this scenario stories are just uninteresting ornaments or gift-wrappings to games, and laying any emphasis on studying these kinds of marketing tools is just a waste of time and energy.”

This would not go unaddressed. Rune Klevjer responded in 2002 with a paper called “In Defense of Cutscenes” choosing to take the most hated unit of game story and defend it against the most vicious attack. Klevjer reads from Eskelinen: “The puristic ludological approach will leave us relatively helpless, forcing us to conclude that players are stupid, that they have been duped by the industry, or that they do not really like games.” That is, as players love games with swathes of story like Planescape: Torment, the ludological perspective implies that the players are at fault.

Gonzalo Frasca, who could almost be labelled the original ludologist, had studied under Janet Murray and tried to calm things down in 2003 with “Ludologists Love Stories, Too”. He argued there was no argument here at all although his main thrust concerns the absence of definitions – “well, what really is narratology or ludology, anyway?” – which sidesteps the actual problem. Frasca also implied Klevjer was misinterpreting Eskelinen’s position, in what appears to be a misinterpretation of Klevjer’s position.

It evolved more like a cold war than a raging debate. No one was flinging mud on a day-to-day basis, but there was tension and the occasional Scud. Nick Montfort effectively snubbed ludology as “Tetris studies”. Murray delivered her own highly charged “last word” on the debate at DiGRA 2005 – characterising the ludology crowd as trying to shut out anyone else from studying games and not embracing a diversity of approaches.

There were more papers and discussions and papers and discussions that paved these good intentions straight to Hell, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Next week: It’s the twenty-first platformer that fucks you up

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28 thoughts on “A Theoretical War, Part 1

  1. It really is just extraordinary how much I can learn about a field as focused as video games without knowing much more than the very basics of programming. It’s strange, but Electron Dance (as well as a-not-even-close-to-comprehensive list of other regularly-visited sites) Always manages to inform. Which is all the more astounding when coupled with the necessity for over-the-top understanding in informing others, as well as HM’s limited time. Put another way, when I go to ED…no, Electron Dance, I will usually have 3-4 tabs open. I will have 10 by the time I finish an article.

    You mentioned chess as being a singular game; a concept I reject. Chess is a lot of different games jammed into 64(+) tiles. For one thing, each match is a different game. There are similarities, yes, but can you honestly say that prep, mid, and endgame require the same skills? That despite the same rules, forcing a king out into the open and enacting damage control when that damn queen lands in that one goddamned spot are similar experiences? (etc.) What’s more, games are regularly played with different players, and even the same people will play differently, go in with a different strategic outlook, and go in with varying degrees of seriousness. Which leads to the next game: the social aspect. One is constantly trying to predict another’s actions, and trying to align one’s mechanical actions with one’s sentiments. In addition, especially in less serious matches (I think. Never played competitively), a conversation is going back and forth, with the match providing good points of discussion. Lastly, one is, at least if they’re paying attention, constantly learning, which is something that is hard to shake off, even at the higher levels. Oh, and black jokes. Vital part of the game, you know? (I swear to god the white pawns are just a little thicker).

    I don’t mean to say that chess retains its freshness because of raw complexity, but rather that it is constantly shifting, and becoming a slightly different game. No, I don’t like that explanation. I want to say its because it scales in difficulty perfectly. The more one looks at it, the more one sees. So, a casual player will see as much as he can handle, and so will a grandmaster. Or something. I guess there’s a lot of ways of looking at it.

    This reminds me of a story I heard once. A couple kids were thinking of, oddly enough, the physical form happiness would take. The best answer to come out was glass. It’s always there, even when you don’t see it, though it does warp the world a little bit, it’s very fragile, and one need merely shift one’s point of view slightly to see it again. Yes, it’s from a show.

  2. Interesting to characterise ludism as order and narrativism as chaos – I’d have thought of it the other way round. As far as the player’s concerned, the ludist approach means that within the given ruleset you’re free to do as you choose and generate complexity; narrativist design (the extreme case being the Syberia-style purely linear game with little or no interactivity beyond the prescribed walkthrough) imposes order and allows no opportunity to introduce complexity.

  3. mwm: Thank you for saying such positive things which makes it harder for me to point out that you just fell into the trap the ludologists had set for you. There’s much scoffing from those in the hardline ludology camp at modern mainstream with its cutscenes and little surprise on a second playthrough. Something like Chess is the perfect game – a simple set of rules with leagues of undersea depth. Tetris and puzzle games like it are also applauded because they reward replay in a way that Dead Space doesn’t. It’s also another reason why there’s some ludological gravitation towards multiplayer and away from singleplayer which has been characterised as a doomed mutation in the evolution of gaming.

    On the social aspect: there is research being done in the direction of what players bring to the game and I have to point out Miguel Scart and Doug Wilson working down these roads. I think (think!) your basic ludology, narratology and even proceduralist models talk about the game as a unit, about what it can do for a player and not as much about what the player can do for the game. And that’s an important component as you’ve highlighted.

    Hey, we haven’t called you The Correction Nazi for several weeks. And I’m not done talking about platformers yet.

    Phlebas: I’m trying to shy away from absolute statements here – a truckload of opinion has been dropped from A Theoretical War – but I don’t disagree with your point. But I still think it’s a fair way of arguing the styles of analysis, looking at the method rather than its results: a focus on mechanics might be seen as too rigid in thinking; a focus on storytelling might be seen as too woolly and disregarding of the nature of interaction. On the other hand, I wouldn’t read too much into that, it was more literal flair than actual meaning especially as it doesn’t have any impact on where we’re going in the next two weeks and the final point of this essay.

    On your maths question: I eventually specialised in water waves research, so that’s applied maths, numerical solution of PDEs. I confer to you access to a secret page on Electron Dance! Achievement unlocked.

    gnome: It’s already written, but you all have to wait =)

  4. First, a little nitpick: are you sure it’s not “Markku Eskelinen”? I wouldn’t have noticed except that I handed in my dissertation on “Empathy and Role-Playing in Interactive Fiction” on Monday and he was in my bibliography.

    I think I broadly agree with you – although since I have to wait until next week (which I eagerly, eagerly anticipate) I’m not completely sure.

    My biggest complaint against ludologists is… well, my irritation arises out of something Espen J. Aarseth said in “FirstPerson”, an anthology of game criticism. I don’t want to dig out the quote – it’s lost in my many many notes – but he basically said “If I play the national anthem on a rock guitar, that’s a different context for the national anthem so I’m saying something about that anthem. But if I play tetris with a new skin or new music, it’s still tetris.” This is just such a huge misunderstanding of games that I was bowled over by it, particularly as I’d idolised Aarseth up to that point as being the level-headed author of “Cybertext”. My retort was this: if that’s the case, why did people get so riled up with the Columbine High RPG (a turn-based top down isometric RPG which simulates the real-life massacre at Columbine high school), when it essentially has the same mechanics as a Final Fantasy game? Yes, mechanics are important, but context is also important.

    I’m also not a huge fan of splitting games into “Emotion” bits and “Mechanics” bits. Yes, that is largely how games have been seen up to this point. But the game I would like to see would blend mechanics and story to such an extent that there is no perceptible seam between them. You would simply experience the game and act within the game world with suspended disbelief, the same way that someone reading a novel reacts to characters by thinking “Oh, I feel very sorry for Mr. Lydgate!” rather than “The words on the page in my hand which imply a fictional construct referred to as ‘Lydgate’ are seeking to evoke sympathy for me.” In my view, the differentiation between emotion and mechanics or, put in industry terms, between shooty and talky bits, or between gameplay and cutscenes, is not a diagnosis of what games *are* but *part of the problem*, and is preventing people from thinking they could be anything more than that.

    Actually, Janet Murray’s “Hamlet on the Holodeck” has a really interesting chapter in which she suggests the kind of game that might solve that problem. It’s basically a game constructed of story-blocks, where the story-blocks are in no particular order but are procedurally slotted together, in the same way that folk tales often share similar elements which fit together in particular ways. It’s not a panacea for the problem, but it is a really interesting way of thinking about it.

  5. A great piece, HM. I look forward to more.

    Games studies have been in a tricky phase for a while now – in part because of the battle between ludologists and narratologists, but also because many even within the development community don’t believe that games bear study at all. And you also have the art form debate. It’s endless, and if you’ll forgive the pun, academic. In my view anything bears studying that someone wants to study.

    In the end I suspect that, like math, game studies will simply specialize under certain banners – narrative ludology and mechanical ludology, for example. The mistake the hardliners in both these camps make is failing (or refusing) to recognize that there is always some crossover. Not every game must be Tetris; but not ANY game can be exclusively narrative, since in order to be a game at all some mechanics are required. In my view there’s ample opportunity and reason to study all aspects of the medium.

    It’s worth nothing that we have seen narrative games that could not have been told as effectively in another medium. Pathologic comes to mind: there is a twist midgame that would be meaningless had you just been watching, or just reading; if you had not been playing the game the twist would lack impact. I guess conceivably it could be done in a graphic novel, but even then the reveal in question breaks the fourth wall in a way that pretty much no other medium has the capability to do.

    In a more recent experience, I was discussing an important moment during Dark Souls – a cutscene reveal of a new location. While it’s a great scene, and the art is fantastic, you can’t fully appreciate the spiritual relevance of what you’re seeing unless you’ve toiled through the game up to that point. I could describe it, even show you a picture (or the cinematic itself), but the emotional impact would be underwhelming compared to the in-game reveal for a player.

    So pure ludologists offended by the idea that narrative exploration has a place in game studies are incorrect. Narrative ludology is really about the study of games’ emotional impact rather than pure story in the normal sense; that emotional impact is tied to mechanical execution where games are concerned is obvious, but for some reason many of the scholars can’t seem to find that common ground.

    Excited for more! Great work!

  6. I don’t see how a narrative-focused game would especially lack replayability. People watch movies more than once. Even then, a lot of those games have variances that allow for the littlest alteration on how the player approaches the mechanics a second time to have a satisfying impact. And when that runs out, there’s the joy of cheats/hacks/mods (which developers started mostly leaving out instead of integrating them further).

    Then again, saying some element of story is crucial to games is odd. There’s definitely instrumental music that tells a story out there, but some of it just doesn’t- it just hits the right triggers in our brains. Mechanically-focused games can do this, too.

    Of course, games are not movies or music, but the comparison will do until we figure out what games are supposed to be (I guess).

  7. First, let me say: excellent piece, as per usual. This is a really useful and important series for those who are enthusiastic about games but aren’t neck-deep in all of the academic jargon. And I don’t know how you did it, but you managed to “narrate” an academic debate in a compelling fashion.

    Now, I’ve never really understood the idea that narrative and gameplay are two separate, irreconcilable entities. I mean, is exploration of an audio and visual aesthetic in a game like Proteus not gameplay? If somebody writes a story about playing Dwarf Fortress, what are the writing about? Lately, I guess I’ve been thinking about narrative as “stuff that happens.” I feel like anything can be a narrative device: prose, poetry, music, organized noise, gameplay, whatever. When a developer designs a set of rules for how a player can interact with a universe, he’s making a statement. If you took out the prose and aesthetics in Braid and all you had left were the mechanics, then there would still be narrative. It would just be really abstract, and the developer would have less control over readings of it because it wouldn’t have all of that imposed context. And I guess the player would be more free to bring an outside reading to the mechanics like Murray did with Tetris. If a videogame is something that can use a bunch of different narrative devices to say something, then why is the discussion about how gameplay isn’t narrative and narrative isn’t gameplay? I guess I have yet to grasp this discussion in its entirety.

  8. James- Oh my God, I can’t believe I still got “Eskelinen” wrong after I thought I checked it a dozen times. grrr… I’m going to fire my editor. Fixed, anyway.

    A Theoretical War tells three stories: the ludo/narr debate, my journey from discovering the debate by myself in 2010 to my current position and, finally, a more significant question which leads into the rest of the series. So my actual opinions are not quite on show here, although I’m still a fan of observing games in terms of activity or emotion – not componentizing them into “this is the teary bit and this is the challenge bit” but where the game puts its weight, so it becomes a divide between art games/traditional games. I’m not going to fight this corner, because A Theoretical War isn’t about that. You can always browse Anti Games if you want to read more on it; I don’t have too much to add as it’s not really much of a theory. But it has a Venn diagram!

    Your philosophical beef with Aarseth comes up next week, although I don’t use that particular example. The interesting thing is that what started out as ways to analyse games has turned into a debate about the value of story in games. They’re not unrelated, but it’s not exactly the same fight. But that’s where the debate moved to, that’s where we are now.

    Steerpike- Thanks, good sir. I imagine you’re going to just sit there nodding in agreement over the next two weeks. I’m not going to come back on any of your points, because they’re all in the text to come. Pathologic is still on my list, you know that right? (P.S. Get back to those Dark Souls diaries, I need to be spoiled more.)

    Beam- Ludology reveres replayability. It’s what sets the men apart from the animals, the games from the linear media. A narrative-focused game is aping the movie, with its diminishing returns on repeated plays. Few movies are watched by an individual as many times as Tetris or Chess might be played. How many people here have played Planescape: Torment more than once? It’s one of most bankable games in terms of The Art of The Medium, but how much joy will you get from a second game? I certainly have no interest in running through it again. Ludology would smack you on the botty for mentioning cheats/hacks/mods: those are mechanic-changers leading to different games from the perspective of analysis. I’m not saying I agree with the viewpoint – I do not think replayability is key – but I want to point out why cutscene-saturated shooters would be talked about in dismissive tones.

    Alex- Thanks! Some of the academic pieces are easier to navigate, others are torture and I had to walk away empty-handed. I’ve not captured every subtlety on show in the debate (I wasn’t going to sit down and figure out narrativism/narratology for example) and I hope it doesn’t matter too much…

    With regards your narrative/gameplay point… first, traditional definitions of narrative don’t work with games; this comes up in some of the ludology papers, for example Jesper Juul showed in his PhD thesis that they are just incompatible. This will come up next week. All this means is that we need a different definition of narrative that covers what happens in games – the kind of thing Murray is doing, the kind of thing ludology sees as a landgrab. But I think I have a piece just perfect for you that I was lining up for Link Drag: go have a read.

    Links for further reading will be presented at the end of part three.

  9. I read this on Tuesday but didn’t have the gall to comment until I’d chewed on it all for a bit. It’s proven tricky to digest mostly because I’m not familiar with a lot of the terminology and academic side of these things. I think I’ll let the interesting discussion wash over me for the time being until I’ve got a better understanding of it all (or parts of it or whatever). Looking forward to the next entry HM.

    “…they reward replay in a way that Dead Space doesn’t.”

    What? You obviously haven’t unlocked Very Hard mode.

  10. *laugh* All right, Harbour Master, if you insist I’ll get back to the Dark Souls Diaries. I’ve been having a crisis of self with them at this point. There aren’t many left and the humor is mostly gone. I think I made a mistake telling the world I’d finished the game; I’d have been better off pretending that I was publishing the Diaries concurrently with my progress. I was toying with the idea of letting the project peter out, but we’re so close to the end now I have a responsibility to get it done. 🙂

    In truth there’s no reason why the narrative and “pure ludology” camps can’t be reconciled. 99% of all games fall in the middle ground between them: some story and some mechanics. It’s simply that scholars on both sides don’t want to reconcile. I’ve found that bearded academics can be the most childish people of all.

  11. Wilson does interesting work indeed, check out hir writings on abusive game design!

    I think the thing is that luddologists put too much emphasis on games as independant artifacts and formal definitions, while the other camp would be the total constructivist that cannot see that any actant/artifact has any deep/essential connection to any other, thus making any action such as defining a video game only something to be understood as a power-struggle within this or that discourse.

  12. @Gregg B: Just let it wash over you. Enjoy the shower of words cleansing your brain pores.

    @Steerpike: That can be a bit of a bind. It’s like my apparently ill-fated Armpit Empires series which has never received much love. It’s one episode away from being completed. I still intend to finish it off, but I need to do some work first…

    BTW, don’t conflate “bearded” with “academics”. The bearded are the ones who are the most childish. Don’t you forget it. Don’t forget to shave either. I’ve seen your Skype photo.

    @Ava: My academic background is in science so most of the language employed by game studies papers, particularly on the narratology side, really does go over my head. This means I’m not going to be getting in too deep into the real philosophical underpinnings of either camp. Maybe I should just defer to your experience! On the other hand, you’ll be pleased to hear that Doug Wilson will be making an appearance in this series on 03 July as per the schedule. He may also pop up somewhere else too.

  13. @HM

    You might as well defer to Ian Bogosts Persuasive Games or Unit Operations, since zie expresses what I said sort of, but even more so in the context of janet vs aarseth! 😛 … whereas my usage of the word actant for example puts me somewhere in Latour-land and a more general theoretical discussion concerning ontology — a place which Bogost would not feel alien too seeing as zie is active in the whole object oriented ontology-movement and even released a book called alien phenomenology just now!

  14. Hey! I maintain a rugged stubbly look to appear roguish and adventurous! I’m really very much like Brad Pitt or Indiana Jones in those regards. In other regards too. Actually I basically am Indiana Jones.

    What Ava said about Ludologists working too hard to establish formal definitions and rules is true. It almost seems like an effort to over-formalize something that is naturally somewhat ambiguous. I approve of the scholarship of games but I often think that some of the academics work too hard to… how to put it… to academic-ize what they’re academic-ing.

  15. I think one should in part look beyond what people are saying, in most discussions, and see what feelings they are actually expressing. Then maybe one can see what’s at stake: what people believe that story should be told through mechanics instead of old media such as film, what people think that aspiring for richness of text is the wrong way to make others take video games seriously, etc. This is one way of looking at it.

  16. Ava: I suppose you’re right. I personally think that both narratologists and ludologists have useful things to say about games, and I guess that any complete theory of games has to have elements of both. I get the impression, though, that the reason these debates can get sort of narrow-minded is because they’re not entirely based on reason: they’re based on the debaters’ emotional response to the implied question, “What *should* games be?” Maybe this is too straightforward, but if someone’s perfect game is Tetris they become a ludologist, and if someone’s perfect game is Planescape: Torment they become a narratologist.

    Maybe that’s too simplistic, though. I feel kind of unnerved writing that, so I’ve probably left something really important out.

    Personally I’d prefer the world of games to be filled with Planescapes rather than Tetrises, but – oh my goodness! – both Tetris and Planescape can exist in the same universe without compromising each other! Who’da thunk it? 😀 My point is that, while there are some people who resolutely refuse to recognise the value of story in games, and who remain absolutely rooted to the idea that games are nothing but procedural systems, should never tell stories, and are about unfolding play rather than “narrative” – even though I disagree with them on almost every single point, if they ever *do* make a game, it will probably be incredibly engaging and I will probably enjoy it very much and it will probably make the world of videogames a slightly more interesting and enjoyable place to be simply because it now has this cool new thing in it. So… well, basically, I think there’s room for both disciplines. The problems arise when you start saying “This is *the only* way”. Because computers are simulation machines, which means they can do *anything at all*, that means that games can do pretty much anything, so it’d be silly to stamp a single model onto videogames as a whole.

  17. @Ava, @Anonymous: I’m biting my tongue some more as I don’t want to basically write the other two parts of the essay right here in the comments =) But from many discussions I’ve seen online the ludology archetype appears to be board games rather than Tetris: it’s about mental challenge and so take issue with games which promote story over challenge or innovation. Tetris is what ludology is known for, but it’s board games is what the field is referring to. It’s why the lines in ludology/narratology debates are – interestingly – closely aligned with the single-player is a mutant development/single-player is progress debates.

  18. Egad, my comments are always a grammatical faux pas-athon. I spend days over my articles and mere seconds over my comments.

  19. @ Anonymous

    I tried to find a link to an entry tale of tales did on their blog on what games are, which for me speak very clearly to that their definitions spring from their own desires for what games should be, since most of the points on that list were clearly wrong. 😛


    Looking forward to the future articles then!

  20. Late to the party, which puts me into an uneasy space: When I had read nothing but this first part, I rushed to write a reply (weeks after the post was published), because there is one position that really helped me to understand what made me feel uneasy about the whole debate for years. Then, before posting it, I read the other two parts, and suddenly, it can’t help feeling kind of pointless, because I do agree: The fact that the narratology vs. ludology-war rages on, this time in the fields outside of the ivory tower, might be proof that the academic discourse is even more insular than we are aware of anyway.

    Then again, the text I want to point out is not really at odds with your conclusions, so here I go nevertheless (for those who want to listen, even if it’s nobody at all):

    Ian Bogost’s “Videogames Are A Mess” is a crucial text in the whole ludology vs. narratology-debate, IMHO:

    Bogost discusses the different paradigm shifts in videogame ontology and comes to a series of important conclusions:

    – there are more than a few attempts to overcome the simple dichotomy of “ludology vs. narratology”, one of them coming from a former ludologist himself, Jesper Juul (in “Half-Real”)

    – the problem even with the “solutions”, though, is that they don’t give up a hierarchical kind of thinking: even though by now, everybody agrees that it’s not a simple “either-or”, most people still think that one aspect of games is (way) more important than others

    – the ironical thing about it is that both narratology AND ludology focus a very small part of what a game consists of: They are both, in the end of the day, formalist approaches

    – Bogost’s very pragmatic and thus not even that original idea is thus to “level the field” in a kind of “flat ontology”. He suggests to look at the things like this: „The question we can then pose is, for a particular game in a particular circumstance, which units matter?“ Units can be way more than just “story” or “rules”, though; Bogost and Montfort suggest at least 6 different levels that could be interesting for “game studies” in a broader sense; what both narratologists and ludologists care about is only one such level, which Bogost/Montfort call “form/function”.

    As I said, Bogost’s ideas really shouldn’t be all that revolutionary; that they still somewhat are goes to show that the longevity of the whole narratology vs. ludology-debate is more a question of academic politics than theoretical incongruence. [Or, you know, politics at large, considering the twitter flame wars etc.]

    As such, it’s not even that unusual; it rather follows a pattern of reconficuration of the academic field that follows in the wake of every new medium’s discovery.

    Apart from that, I do agree: It all points to a fragmentation of the field of Game Studies, something that has been the de facto status quo for a long time anyway (just look at all the research coming from psychology, behavioral studies etc. that can’t be bothered with questions about narratology anyway…)

    But if that means that we can stop fighting, and, well, start being prodcutive, fragmentation is a small price to pay, I guess.

  21. gotohaneda: I agree. This whole debate reminds me of nothing as much as the literary divide between “form” (the way a poem is written) and “content” (the actual meaning of the words). This was a pragmatic division until somebody pointed out that form is only another kind of content. What had happened was that people had got it into their heads that form and content were different things, and so people had carefully devised lovely forms and lovely content and put the one into the other and made lovely poems. The only reason “form vs. content” worked to describe these poems, though, was because the people *writing* these poems were convinced that poems were comprised of form and content, so they wrote poems which were very formal and which contained content. Once poets realised this was just one way of viewing poetry and that actually it could be whatever they wanted it to be, they wrote things like the Pisan Cantos [] or A Supermarket in California [] or sound poetry. And if you try chopping those poems up into form and content – well, sure, you can, in the same way you can divide a television show into sound and image, but why would you want to do that when clearly it’s the way sound and image interact and what comes out of that that is important?

    To be honest, while I love games that have come from both the narratologist and ludologist side of the fence, the games I am most interested in are the ones that will emerge from a point where both terms are obsolete.

  22. @gotohaneda: Welcome! I was wary of getting into a more blow-by-blow analysis of the debate for two reasons. On one hand, I was trying to just give a high-level overview. On the other, I thought I’d make a hash of it. The more I read, the more I realised I didn’t know or understand and I couldn’t see an end to my cursory analysis of the academic papers (not having a background in sociology nor literature rendered the reading an uphill struggle in many cases).

    All of which is to say I appreciate your breakdown of Bogost’s paper. I don’t think it’s such a big deal for games studies to fragment- I’d love to see lots of different approaches than have a single, monolithic approach especially as it is clear the current approaches are not feature-complete.

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