I have been lagging on writing, and there is list of things I ought to be writing about which is growing ever larger. However, I wanted to bypass that to describe something that has been on my mind recently. Last week there was a panel here on games and narrative. Cleverly entitled “What is Narrative”, and it featured Espen Aarseth, Fox Harrell, Janet Murray, with Celia Pearce and Ian Bogost moderating. (This is of particular interest to me, what with my thesis committee either on or moderating the panel.) There’s a recording of the thing online. It’s all intensely academic, and is oddly political. Not political in the sense of policy, but in the sense of power and authority. The whole ludology-narratology thing goes far back and does not seem like something that will ever get resolved. I am reminded of a notable quote by Wallace Sayre: “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” This is something of a digression, but it raises the question of what is this whole conflict about, and why do we seem to care about it so much?
One argument concerning the emergence of ludology is that when academics started studying videogames, many scholars looked at games from the perspective of narrative theory and film theory, frequently bypassing the importance of rules. A problem with this explanation is that it is something of a straw-man. It is hard to imagine this perspective as being unjustified, but I’ve never seen any sources to back it up. Whatever the cause of this frustration, scholars have been arguing about the differences between games and narratives, and arguing over whether the rules are important or the story is important, and so on. Lately, by Aarseth’s most recent talk, the question has become one of “How are some games narratives?” My favored response to this is to turn this question on its head: Yes, some games can be understood as narrative, but many stories and story worlds can be understood to operate according to rules; so, how are some narratives (or story worlds) like games? Much of what I am going to say is reacting to Aarseth in particular, but the idea that I’m proposing runs a bit deeper.
The problem that’s at the root of this debate is seeing games and narrative in opposition. The classical argument is that there is an opposition between stories (which are fixed), and games (which are interactive). However, as anyone who has spontaneously come up with a story and told it to a child will know, stories can be flexible. Cases such as oral storytelling, tabletop roleplaying, and improvisational theatre all refuse to fall into the oppositional structure of games and narrative. Each of these examples share qualities with both games and stories. Instead of seeing pure extremes which create a spectrum on which any given example must fall, we must acknowledge that the reality of the situation is much messier. Opposition does not effectively describe the relationship between games, stories, and all the ambiguous and edge cases.
There is also a distressing tendency for some scholars to perform a bit of ambiguous metonymy and substitute parts for wholes. I’ve heard Chess described as narrative because its structural resemblance to European monarchy in the layout of its pieces, because of its simplified and idealized representation of gentlemanly war, and because of the fascinating history of the most powerful piece on the board. However, in cases like these I think I have to agree with Aarseth, that to call this narrative is to dilute the term beyond meaning. However, while characters and history do not make the game into narrative, they are still important in thinking about Chess as a game, particularly as a game whose rules say something about its players and the culture which produced it.
To borrow from Barbara Stafford’s work Visual Analogy: We are too caught up in thinking about differences. (And I might add, we are too caught up in thinking about categories.) We should pay attention to how things are similar. This is notoriously hard to do, as we are naturally disposed to think in terms of comparisons rather than likenesses. What is missing from this discussion is the matter of how are games and stories similar: what they have in common? What do games have in common with stories, and what do stories have in common with games? Naturally, we should not look at them universally or as poles, but rather as collections unified by common ground.
For instance, suspense novels are frequently organized into chapters which structure the flow of the reader’s tension and anticipation. Tabletop roleplaying games are organized into sessions which often tend to have similar patterns of anticipation and conflict. Action games are typically organized into levels which have their own arcs of anxiety, tension, and resolution. This is not to say that these three examples should be made out to be the same thing, but it might be fruitful to consider how they are similar, and what that says about them. Games might use a common narrative construction, such as “character”, but use them in a variety of ways. We can look at differences within a group, and then find similarities across media. For instance, games might have very shallow characters, or maybe caricatures or stereotypical characters. Characters might be introspective, or not. There might be some allusion to inner lives, or there might be only surfaces. Novels and film too use these varieties of characters. We can borrow from Scott McCloud’s treatise Understanding Comics to understand how the depth of characterization affects identification, and apply this to characters in fiction and in games. We can look at the types of rules involved in controlling characters in games, and see how they resemble the methods used in film and fiction.
We should move beyond essentializing arguments about what is narrative or what are games and focus instead on the important properties that they share in common.