This is the first article in The Academics Are Coming series.
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
can be calculated from:
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.
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.”
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.