[Warning, you might find yourself walking on familiar and well traveled ground. This post, sparked by recent conversation, is part notes, part rehashing of old thoughts, and some rambles towards additional ones. Comments, of course, always welcome.]

In the recent discussion (aka, as the front page reads, Morpheus is fighting Neo in the Construct!Alien vs. Predator vs. Ludologist vs. Narratologist!) about games, ludology, narratology, and whether or not games should make you cry (psychological depth of games) at Grand Text Auto, a subthread emerged on who studies what kinds of games and what role commercial or noncommercial games should play in the discussion.

Espen Aarseth’s describes Max Payne 2 as

perhaps the most lavish and successful story-game hybrid out there. I absolutely enjoyed playing it, yet it left me completely cold in terms of its psychology, and I cared about the main “characters” much less than I care about an individual ant in my garden.

Nick Montfort responds:

I would hate to characterize video game scholars as being people who, if you throw them a story, begin to dribble, but there has been great neglect of some of the recent interesting computer game work that relates to literature – probably because it has happened mostly in a slew of innovative non-commercial games. Restricting your attention to commercial games is a reasonable (and perhaps financially sustainable) policy, but making claims about what all computer games can’t do, based on such studies, is really rather tenuous.

Behind both statements – and throughout the thread – are several recurring questions:

  • Is psychological depth or player emotional response an accurate measure of success for games or, in fact, any media?;
  • What types of games do or do not lend themselves to stories? Are such narrative attempts successful, and does narrative function in the same way in games as it does in other media (in other words, just because it looks like a story – is it a story in the way we commonly understand it)?;
  • Is it possible to create a ‘theory of games’ that is both useful and can account for the wide range of game-types or media-types associated with games?;
  • and the always present, What is the relationship of games to literature (or narrative), or is the comparison even useful?

But what caught my eye was the subthread focusing on the commercial aspect of games. In some respects, we can perhaps tweak Nick’s statement to read:

Restricting your attention to commercial games any one genre of game is a reasonable (and perhaps financially sustainable) policy, but making claims about what all computer games can’t do, based on such studies, is really rather tenuous. [strikes and italics mine]

And that would probably be a fair statement (and speaks to the second question, above, though it by no means answers it). But the vexing question remains – how do we deal with the commercial/industry attachments of many games? This is particularly important to me as I continue work on my dissertation, which over time to focuses more on specific – and specifically commercial – games and less on literary works I saw as related to games – although my approach continues to draw from a blend of narrative and textual studies as well as ludic and interface design principles.

Aarseth counters Montfort’s criticism above by stating that

literary critics would not be having this conversation – “so, you only analyse commercially published novels, how opportunistic of you”

And while Montfort’s response holds true to a certain degree –

A comparison to a film department that only considered Hollywood movies would seem more apt. Or, perhaps, to an Emily Dickinson scholar who only studied the seven poems she commercially published during her lifetime. If we’re going to make the cross-media comparisons.

– Aarseth’s point is well-taken. After all, Jack London’s Martin Eden is but one of many literary explorations of the business side of ‘creative writing.’ Many film studies have, in fact, considered only “Hollywood-style” movies. And instead of using Dickinson’s published work as a counter to her unpublished, I think the more accurate comparison might be between the relatively unpublished (in a traditional sense) Dickinson and the published – and very public – Whitman. I’m being a bit pedantic, but I am intrigued by the intersections of business and art, of commercial independent game (and film) development, of Barnes & Noble and the ‘vanity press.’ What institutional differences account for independent game designers’ – from the IF writer to the mod and plugin designer – ability to avoid that last (often disdained) demarcation?

Where is the fine line that divides the commercial and the independent? Under which category would we file Turbine’s Asheron’s Call? Published by Microsoft (until recently), but developed in a studio apartment by a team who paid the CEO with insurance money he received when he was hit by a car (read Jon Monsarrat’s story of Turbine’s creation – click on Business, “A Company I Founded”). Alongside the rags-to-riches stories, what do we do with the mod designers whose work gets repackaged and sold on the shelves? The plug-in designer whose ideas get built into the next generation engine? The independent developer who uses a commercial engine, like Bioware’s Aurora engine?

I suspect part of what is needed (conveniently, since it’s part of what I’m writing my dissertation on) is a ludo-textual-studies-style examination and contextualization of the various game engines, an exploration of how rules discourage and encourage certain aesthetic choices, how specific engines help define the formal features of their associated games. Doing so also helps us examine the distinction between commercial and independent games that use (or are based on/enhancements of) commercial engines. Importantly, it also seeks to address the issue of speaking towards one type – platform, genre, commercial/noncommercial, etc. – of game as representative of the whole (as in Montfort’s quotation above). Just because something is game-like doesn’t mean it must overwhelmingly share properties with other games, a point made forcefully enough in literature that it is seemingly odd for Nabakov or Danielewski or Eggers to use conventions of critical works (footnotes, etc.) as fictional devices. Their very oddity speaks to our expectation of and familiarity with convention within particular genres.

I know some of this is covered in Rules of Play and, while I haven’t read it yet, I believe (based on shelf browsing) that this is the kind of important work that Montfort does in Twisty Little Passages (and thanks to the fact that my 3-month old daughter has amazingly achieved a relatively regular sleeping schedule, I hope to tackle the book soon). It’s this kind of focus on genre and platform that simply removes from the equation complaints that an argument doesn’t account for another kind of game, but also leaves plenty of room for extrapolation.

Which really brings me right back to rehashing the same old points. One final note, and a launch pad for future discussion: Nick summarized Marie-Laure Ryan’s conference talk as follows:

She suggested that a cognitive approach to narrative, which saw story as a world that had characters and objects undertaking meaningful actions, actions that had consequences in a system with rules and laws, was particularly amenable for use in understanding some computer games.

I need to plumb Ryan’s work for a discussion of what “meaningful actions” might be, in the sense that (coming back to “commercial” games) the potential for meaningful action is, in fact, often fairly limited, although the illusion of meaningful action is at time effectively offered (a focus of my chapter on agency in Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights and Turbine’s Asheron’s Call).


6 Responses to Notes: Commercial Games, Genre, Engines, Form

  1. Ryan says:

    the more I read about and of the narratology vs. ludology debate, the more I am reminded of old rehashings between theatre and english departments over who gets to speak about drama–theatre practitioners claiming that literary studies can’t take into account the live elements of performance and English practitioners claiming that an approach that privileges only performance can never appreciate the texture and depth of the language that calls such performances into existence.

    And of course both camps are wrong about the other’s blind spots, since drama scholars can and do take performance into account, and many performance theorists and theatre practitioners base their live events on very subtle and compelling readings of dramatic texts.

    And yet this debate still underlies every interaction I have whenever I end up at a theatre conference–why?

    University politics. What some (certainly not all–far be it from me to be overly reductive) of it boils down to is a certain amount of territorial pissing over who gets which university resources: tenure lines, funding streams, journal subscriptions, sabbatical grants. While I know ludology has hardly reached the status of mainstream department, the English departments where narratologists frequently hang their hats are, and are (and often must be) targeted as methodological monoliths in order for other emergent disciplines (or anti-disciplines, as may be the case for game studies) to gain a foothold.

    Now, I can only claim ignorance about the finer intellectual points of the debate, but I’d posit that the fervor behind the discourse isn’t all about the epistemological possibilities of games (as is the case in drama/theatre/performance studies), but also the material conditions under which that discourse itself is produced.

  2. greglas says:

    Ryan — I think it is a bit of a classic Oedipal struggle. Personally, it reminds me of being at parties several years ago where sociology and cultural anthropology PhD students talked about the same things while claiming they weren’t.

    Jason — If you want a much worse example of the divide between fine art and popular art, compare today’s commercial illustrators with their “fine art” counterparts. E.g., can you point to a single 20th century artist who is both respected by university-affiliated scholars and whose work you might see hanging on a wall in a typical suburban home?

    Compare, e.g., Damian Hirsch’s severed animal corpses with Thomas Kinkade, painter of light. Sure, there’s Andy Wyeth, who is grudgingly admitted into the art history books, and there’s Salvador Dali, who has been adopted by the counter-culture — but if you drew a Venn Diagram, you’d see Precious Moments and Patrick Nagel dominating one side and Duchamp on the other as the grist for PhD students.

    When I was working on an MFA, there were classes called “illustration” and there were classes called “painting.” Both sides defended their turf — and you can imagine what they had to say about each other. Game studies will likely suffer a similar fate, if it has not already.

  3. Jason says:

    Academic and aesthetic turf wars are certainly part of the issue at hand and both have at least one hand in the cookie jar (the cookies being those of financial and cultural capital ilk). Aarseth’s “The Dungeon and the Ivory Tower: Vive La Difference ou Liaison Dangereuse?” [ http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/editorial.html] is a clear example of how university politics plays a central role in scholarship and legitimacy, especially in this growing field.

    I also think there is an honest interdisciplinary discussion here, one that not only includes varying humanities departments but also involves those in the sciences (from social to computer). We all have our distinctive jargons and we all tend to get a little annoyed when someone or another employs a term that – as we perceive it – is used incorrectly. So part of what is happening is a perfectly natural and understandable hashing out of a common discourse. And I don’t want to get too deeply into this here, although I’ve discussed it briefly elsewhere, but I think the discussion also speaks directly to the competition that has existed between different art forms for years (visual, textual, lyrical, ekphrastic, etc. etc.). Games use multiple media, so it strikes me as a natural battleground for this continued argument.

    But I would draw a few distinctions from your examples Ryan. While I think there would be little debate that *both* close textual attention *and* staging practices are essential to understanding theatre (the question is one of primacy), I think the presence of narrative (and I use this term intentionally over ‘story’) in some games is still very much a question. The persistence of such a question really derails certain conversations about what a game – or, perhaps more appropriately, capital-G “Game” – *is*.

    In some respects, I think your analogy, Greg, might be more apt – while both “illustration” and “painting” fall under the heading “Art,” the two camps (based on Greg’s observations, which I’ll certainly trust over my own neophyte understanding) see the two artistic methods perhaps as intended for different purposes the more privileged form. That being said, both illustration and painting might be said to be intended for “visual representation” – representation in the loosest sense, even (to account for tastes, trends, and methodologies) – which implies a common goal through different methods.

    But with games, that common goal may not be so evident. Some of our basic questions center around, is this specific game supposed to tell a story? Does it help us tell a story (a retelling of our played events)? Does it help me learn how to place four different shapes of blocks in a carefully arranged order at an increasing rate of speed?

    Personally, I am of the mind that plenty of games are *not* intended to tell a story – and that’s coming from a guy who is most interested in (and writing a dissertation on) the intersection of game and story. Chess does not tell a story (and I meant to reply to your comment on the GTA thread Greg, but I’ll do it here instead) – and a retelling of a chess match, while possibly interesting, means that you are creating a narrative thread (in print, orally, in drama, in film) *about* a game, but not *in* a game. That is telling a story about an experience (playing chess, walking the dog, taking the Metro), which is in most respects no different than traditional methods of relating past experience via narrative. And there is a middle-ground; I find it endlessly fascinating how people use game engines to create audio-visual narratives, from Sims-Screenshot-Stories to Machinima.

    Tetris is not a story. Combat is not a story, although I can create one from it. Defender is *maybe* a story in the loosest sense (save the world from aliens), but it’s certainly not a complex narrative – the story is superficially overlaid (basically, a backstory). Asheron’s Call? I think that narrative plays a key role (but not the only role). Neverwinter Nights, Morrowind, Max Payne? The use of stories in these games are fascinating and complex and – most importantly – *built into the game engine itself*.

    And that’s where I think we need to look for some evidence of narrative, because looking into the code, the database, the software itself, helps us see whether or not narrative plays a crucial role. In theatre, staging and text are both built into the “engine.” (Tautology alert) In visual art, visual representation is built into the “engine.” But in games, narrative is not necessarily built into the engine … and I think that’s where the schism is.

  4. Barry says:

    It actually reminds me of a battlefield I had to cross while doing my PhD, where I was working on the intersection between academic historiography and prose fiction in 1920s US modernism. Historians were outraged that literary critics were taking some of those nice shiny bits of jargon provided by deconstruction and saying that all that was worth studying about history was story. And they had a point. There was an awful lot of work lacking in any kind of nuance, that refused to attend to the difference between the historical work and literary fiction. I had been trained both as a historian and a lit critic and could sort of see it from both sides, but there was an awful lot of miscomprehension going on. Same here.

    But the anxieties that seem to be expressed seem to be all about the possibility of exclusion, and I don’t think there is anything to really worry about. I don’t see anyone actually claiming that the study of digital games should only consider their narrative qualities and potential. Or that we should only ever consider games as systems or in terms of rules or whatever. Or seriously suggesting that there is no value to the study of IF, or games on either the commercial or non-commercial extremes. It’s a big field (whatever we call it) and there is an awful lot of variety out there. Space for everyone, I would hope.

    At his presentation at GDC Matteo Bittanti pointed towards the possibility of schism (and of schism being potentially good), but with a little of the rhetoric toned down he makes a good point – this is a wonderfully rich field with some fascinating primary material awaiting our attention. However we choose to approach it. I wouldn’t assume that I couldn’t pitch an article to Game Studies just because I once published a book with both game and narrative in the title, nor would the editor in me seek to exclude more self-declared ludological approaches when putting together a collection of essays.

    When push comes to shove this little internal conversation that always seems to present the debate in ‘versus’ terms probably doesn’t matter. No one is able, even if willing, to man the walls of the field and exclude interlopers. There is too much to say, and too many people that want to say it.

  5. greglas says:

    My guess is that the ludology/narratology fault line has served its duty as a “games are different” red flag and if Gonzalo and Jesper didn’t own those snazzy binarily oppositional domain names, we’d all be moving on at this point. 😉

    The commercial/avant-garde schism, though, is a real issue for game critics, because I think people have traditionally expected serious “authors” to pioneer, to challenge, to break new ground. Many popular commercial games, like Hollywood block-busters, obviously are about profit, not artistic expression, and can be easily tagged as formulaic, uninspired, and derivative. So if we’re going to replay modernism here, the academic establishment of game studies will coincide with the formation of a canon of “high culture” game authors. Either that or games studies will be like cultural studies, and embrace games as a way to critique culture, not authorship. But I think Barry is right — this is not really an either/or — both will happen.

    Anyway– I have not read half as much of the relevant literature as I should and I’m very rusty on my literary theory. But what the heck -It’s true that Tetris and FPS games are primarily physical and reaction-time challenges, and that Chess is like math, but if you can fruitfully approach an historical account as a literary text (see the Illiad or the Bible), I don’t see why we should ever discard the narrative toolkit when dealing with games. Since Barry brought up deconstruction, doesn’t this quest for narratives seem a bit reminiscent of Levi-Strauss? Might it be more fruitful to come at games through semiotics rather than look for some deep ur-narratives lurking underneath the surface? I’m thinking of a move away from a focus on authorship to a focus on individual player readings. E.g., when I read Aarseth’s paper on Morrowind, that’s the kind of criticism I see. He doesn’t seem (to me) to be talking about Morrowind in the abstract, because there is no Morrowind divorced from his individual experience. (No comment about Barry and Half-Life!)


    Anyway — just my two cents. And, like I keep saying, I need to read more, but it’s just hard to find the time.

  6. Jason says:

    Barry, I totally agree that the schism is healthy and good; I think it leads to interesting questions. In fact, as I tried to hint at above, I think part of the discussion plays into some very persistent, age-old questions about form and media, as well as disciplinary boundaries and questions of genre study. Of course, things rarely break down so easily in “vs.” binaries and I think we certainly should continue to move beyond them into more nuanced (and specific) arguments. As far as being excluded – no, not personally worried about such a thing (I’m far more concerned about the marketability of my dissertation in academia generally speaking, rather than the acceptance of my methodology in game studies – as you say, plenty of room for various perspectives).

    Greg, I still maintain that certain games don’t use/contain narrative and that we can, at least in part, find evidence of this by looking at the game engine itself. I don’t see this as a structuralist approach per se, but rather a kind of formalism. We can make assumptions about a sonnet because we know it is a sonnet; the form informs the poem and places where the poem (the words themselves) break the form are instances of note (i.e., doing so has some significant impact on a reading of the poem). Likewise, a game engine provides form and structure to the game as we perceive it; in fact, the game engine allows for a certain semiotic structure (the code establishes a system of visual and textual signs) to exist. That’s not to say that if we understand the game engine, well, all done here, but rather to suggest that the formal aspects so typically associated with ludology play a crucial role in examining any game (or narrative). I see that as different that a structuralist view; there’s still plenty of play in the meaning.

    Espen’s reading of Morrowind may be his, specifically, but I’m not sure I agree with the idea that there is no Morrowind divorced from his experience. If he never played the game, but he knew how to understand/read the engine (of course, one easy way to do this is through play experience, but for the sake of argument…), assertions could be made about the type of game, the style of play allowed, and so on. Would we get as rich an experience in performing such an investigation? Certainly not as rich if it were otherwise combined with a ‘close reading’ that you gain through play and experimentation. Overall, though, I think Aarseth’s article is a good one – interesting at least – and accounts for a variety of perspectives (I think I might have blogged a bit about it sometime last year, and I think I liked it then?). But I also think Aarseth’s article very much centers on understanding the controls set in place by the game engine (an author-function, of sorts) and how player experience relates to that (the textons vs. the scripton, as it were).

    In some respects, isn’t this a lot about genre? I mean, lyric poetry isn’t narrative, but it has form and structure (rules). A dictionary isn’t a narrative, but it also has form and structure. And both are writing, text on a page and often bound in a book form. They share those attributes with a novel, but I would only claim that one is a narrative. Likewise, I have few problems claiming that Tetris doesn’t use narrative and Asheron’s Call does, even though both are games. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    In any case, thanks to all for the thoughtful comments (past and future). Greg, I sympathize with your difficulty finding time to read – with a forthcoming move, a full-time job, and a 3 month old, I’m in the same boat 😉 Too much stuff happening, too many books and articles coming out, too little time. Not to mention the fact that finishing games takes way too much time.

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