With all the excitement of the summer, I’ve only just now begun working my way through First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. The book has certainly sparked some debate in circles, from the rather heavy (one might say harsh) review by Julian Kucklich to the dynamic (and, again, sometimes one might say harsh) discussion developing over at electronicbookreview (over and/or around – it’s unclear to me at this point which “responses” have and haven’t been published and/or retracted by ebr, complicated by the fact that their interface is simultaneously fascinating and infuriating).

With many pages to go, I hesitate to offer an opinion on the book as a whole, but I did want to toss out what I found to be a striking passage from Espen Aarseth’s contribution. Aarseth is well-known – and deservedly so – for both his oft-cited Cybertext as well as his stewardship of Games Studies. He has argued more than once about the battle royale between so-called narratologists and ludologists and the consequences regarding the ‘colonization’ of game studies by other fields, like narratology, literary studies, and cinema studies, most notably in his article The Dungeon and the Ivory Tower: Vive La Difference ou Liaison Dangereuse?, as well as in his DAC paper, Playing Research: Methodological approaches to game analysis [pdf] and, according to Geoffery Rockwell’s report, a keynote at ACH/ALLC.

In his First Person article Genre Trouble, Aarseth writes:

My warnings about narrativism and theoretical colonialism might seem unduly harsh and even militant. Why not let the matter resolve itself, through scholarly, logical dialogue? The reason for this vigilance, however, is based on numbers. The sheer number of students trained in film and literary studies will ensure that the slanted and crude misapplication of “narrative” theory to games will continue and probably overwhelm game scholarship for a long time to come. As long as vast numbers of journals and supervisors from traditional narrative studies continue to sanction dissertations and papers that take the narrativity of games for granted and confuse the story-game hybrids with games in general, good, critical scholarship on games will be outnumbered by incompetence, and this is a problem for all involved.

Unduly harsh and militant, indeed.

What’s particularly puzzling, I suppose, is the assumption that one’s training in a field means immediately that one is blind to one’s training; e.g., that a person trained in narratology would simply bang away with the narratological hammer, as if theory were some sort of tool to be “applied,” as opposed to, you know, theoretical suppositions to be pondered, challenged, debated, and refined. Apparently some are able to negotiate around their own conceptual blindspots, taking degrees in other disciplines before making the intellectual leap into game studies scholarship and leaving the discarded skin of former disciplines behind. If only we were all so adept.

Certainly not all complaints are misplaced. Plenty of articles exist that would have been more fascinating had they eschewed an overt and overriding affection for a particular theory (and that is not a problem unique to game studies). Yet for all the complaints, many of the articles – this one included – complain most generally about the application of terms like narrative, story, or neo-Aristotelian, usually turning to take a quick pot-shot at Janet Murray’s 1998 Hamlet on the Holodeck, and yet fail to address particular investigations of story within games.

On the other hand, we have articles like Jesper Juul’s Games Telling Stories?, which spends a great deal of time using particular aspects of narrative theory (drawing mostly on Chatman and Brooks) to show how games and narrative don’t mix. A popularly recurring example: narratological claims that “narratives are indeed structures independent of any medium” (Chatman 1978, p.20; quoted in Juul). But in doing so, Juul commits the same mistake many accuse narratologists of committing – using theory like a hammer to either support or refute the presence of narrative, of story, or, what Ken Perlin, in his Can There be a Form between a Game and a Story?, unfortunately and vaguely calls “The Novel”:

The form I have just described, of course, arises from what I will call “The Novel,” which has for some time been the dominant literary form of Western civilization. Whether it is in the form of oral storytelling, written text, dramatic staging, or cinema, the basic premise is the same. A trusted storyteller says to us, “Let me tell you a story…”

Such vagaries are problematic and ignore the material, cultural, and historical context of literary and artistic works. “The Novel” is not simply a catch-all phrase for all literary forms that tell stories – it has a particular intellectual history very well covered in such books as Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel and Michael McKeon’s Origins of the English Novel. Likewise, a more complete investigation of Chatman and Brook’s point might lead us to discuss more thoroughly the changes form/discourse have upon story – and perhaps even consider new ones. Certainly literary studies – and more specifically textual studies – emphasizes the material alongside the textual, the interface alongside the typeface. And games draw on the literary, the visual, and the performative.

Aarseth states as much,

Games are games, a rich and extremely diverse family of practices, and share qualities with performance arts (play, dance, music, sports) material arts, (sculpture, painting, architecture, gardening) and the verbal arts (drama, narrative, the epos).

but the tautological introduction to that sentence offers an unnecessary caveat, an obfuscation of an otherwise appropriate description of the many media forms that influence games. That they are games seems the most obvious point of all.

I’ve seen no missive – perhaps I missed it – passed through the ranks of established departments laying sole claim to the study of games. No English departments spiking flags in fertile soil; no Drama departments chasing ludologists off of their performance plots of land. Nor do I understand the rhetoric of colonization so frequently bandied about; games are not some Promised Land, and ludologists – certainly a newcomer group as much as any other – are not the natives. Such rhetoric creates a myth of ownership and an accusation of invasion, neither of which are particularly helpful – or honest – to the history or future of game study.

Maybe I’m missing the urgency that drives the self-proclaimed “militant” message in this piece, the impossibility of investigating such questions “through scholarly, logical dialogue,” or why literary and cinema studies are particularly at fault, while “sociology, linguistics, history, economics, and geography” get a day-pass. Game studies is a field that enjoys various influences and, as such, should encourage all types of critical perspectives (even, occasionally, those that are wrong or misapplied). Or to quote a gentler Aarseth from his introductory editorial at Game Studies: “These are interesting times. You are all invited!”

Previous related posts:
Notes: Commercial Games, Genre, Engines, Form – May 6, 2004
Notes on a Form(al) Theory for Games – March 15, 2004
Games Studies Levels Up – November 14, 2003
Joining the Hokey-Pokey (or, Putting My Left Foot in) – June 19, 2003
Game Methodology and Misc – June 17, 2003
Col. Mustard, in the blog, with a keyboard – April 28, 2003


10 Responses to First Person: Reading Notes

  1. greglas says:

    Nice post — thanks.

  2. Matt K. says:

    Sure seems like those of us who work in English departments are increasingly singled out as somehow uniquely unqualified to talk about games and other forms of cybertext, doesn’t it? Of course the assumption here is that literary studies = narratology. Hmmm. I’ve read enough of Espen’s work to know otherwise in his case, but in most instances such rhetoric says more about the parochial training of the person giving voice to it than it does about any meaningful intellectual perspective.

  3. Jason says:

    Always glad to have you drop by Greg.

    And I agree Matt – curious indeed. I think one of the problems – another personal recurring topic that I’ll revisit in a future blog post – is a “Genre Trouble” of a different sort: the continued grouping of all games as though they will all fall neatly into a single rubric, rather than recognizing in a critical way that different sub-genres of games will function in different ways.

    Or, short form: I don’t expect Tetris to tell a story any more than I expect a lyric poem to.

  4. CJ says:

    I’m stuck on the title of Aarseth’s article. Aarseth’s choice of title seems to invite a comparison to Judith Butler’s well known book Gender Trouble. Genre and gender are frequently linked in literary studies… so why use an oft quoted literary theory reference to argue that games are not within the perview of literary studies? Moreover, Aarseth’s deliberate choice of the title belies a misunderstanding of Butler’s point. Butler’s article seeks to find justification for “feminist studies” as an actual field, since the term “woman” is essentializing and does not recognize the inherent fragmenting of the female self. She argues that gender is one of the “grand narratives” we create in order to establish stable identities… but identities aren’t stable and gender is not absolute.

    So, here’s the problem I see for Aarseth starting out this way: How can you argue that game studies is absolutely something different from narrative or outside the perview of literary studies, when its (game studies’) own identity exists as fragmented and not absolute? You can’t take a text that destabilizes absolutes and use it to title an article that argues that games are wholly separate from any other genre. It just doesn’t make sense… Neither does the argument that narratologists are the ones who “confuse … story-game hybrids with games in general” In fact, it appears that Aarseth is doing this himself by arguing that the story be ignored and that all games should be “other” than story.

    Ok… this all being said without reading the article… only what comes to mind when you just look at the title.

  5. Espen says:

    First: Thanks, Jason, for commenting on my old First Person article (written in August/Sept 2001). I’d say that all the bruhaha in reaction to my and other anti-narrativist (NB: not anti-narratologist!) articles lately shows that there is a real issue here; otherwise, my essay would have been passed over in silence. Why are those opposed to game studies as its own field so invested in this issue? Many of them say they are not, but doth thereby protest too much, methinks… (If the tension is unavoidable, so is the field.) Perhaps I was too pessimistic in 2001, but I think this is more than a battle of words. These are still interesting times, as the Chinese say.

    You seem to suggest that I fail to address “particular investigations” of the narrativists. Well, I don’t like to single out examples of bad scholarship; it doesn’t deserve the attention and my point seemed clear enough as it was, or so I thought. I did refer to my earlier critique (in Cybertext) of Brenda Laurel’s drama-inspired approach. My book also contains numerous other critiques of literary approaches. And in my response to Murray’s essay I point to her “Games are always stories” statement. I have to say that Murray’s claim in First Person should indicate that the “games-are-games” slogan may not be so obvious after all, especially back then.

    The problem with First Person is that it is a time capsule; the field has advanced significantly since it was written, and the informed researchers who read it do not recognize the urgency, for good reason. However, the game-oriented researchers who are not yet aware of the field of game studies (and they do exist) might actually still find the debate relevant.

    Anyway, contrary to popular mythology (hi, CJ; do read my essay!) I have never said or written that games should not be studied from a narratological perspective, or that English departments are colonisers of game studies. The first statement would be shooting myself in the foot, and the problem with most English/Literature departments is not that they love games but rather the exact opposite, to the great detriment of those poor students (not to mention tenure-seekers) who want to take games seriously. (Yes, I know that the few, enlightened English professors who contribute to game studies will not recognize this picture, and that the MLA and other conferences have sessions on games, but, face it, there is still much silent suffering out there, twenty years after Mary Ann Buckles unhappily had to leave UCSD and academia as the first literature PhD in games.)

    Many media studies departments, on the other hand, want to subsume (digital) game studies, and this (if adopted as the only institutional solution) could indeed become a problem for those of us who believe that 1) games are not a medium (i.e. like film or TV), and 2) Game studies should incorporate a broad range of disciplines, from psychology via economics and anthropology to computer science, and if it is simply swallowed up by media studies, this will not happen.

    As for the problem you mention of grouping all games as one form, that was the idea of my “genre trouble” title to begin with. But there is still much to do, so please, go ahead. And again, thanks for the comments. For me, this is not a personal issue, but a fascinating institutional war caused by the formation of a new field. Part of this (and any) war is an inability or refusal to listen to what the opponent actually says, and instead construct the enemy in the way that best serves one own’s purpose.

    Just one example: The so-called “ludologists” never attacked any narratologist for merely applying narratology to games nor used “narratology” to denote the position and practice they opposed. Indeed, since practically all of them are trained in narratology, and have themselves applied narratology to games, this would be absurd. The critique is directed towards naïve applications of narratology (often with Propp as the most recent theorist) and overgeneral conclusions, and towards academics who never question their own methods or concepts when they apply them outside their original empirical domain. From this methodological critique to a whole-sale rejection of any literary or cinematic approaches to game analysis there is quite a bit of intellectual distance, and I cannot take responsibility for those who manage to conflate them.

    Yet, common superstition has it that a group of narratologists are at war with a group of anti-narratologists. How did this ideological framing happen? Now, there is a question for critical minds.

  6. Jason says:

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Espen.

    My assumption (always a dangerous thing for all involved) was that your First Person article was an updated and revised version of the talk given in 2001. One reason I assumed this was because of the tenor of your 2002 Game Studies editorial, where you said:

    “If 2001 was the year of beginnings and optimism in the game studies field, 2002 might be the year for reflections and strategic thinking. As beginnings go, 2001 was a success: it was the year we could finally imagine and conceptualize a new academic field focused on the aesthetics, cultures and technologies of computer games.”

    With the 2004 reissue of this First Person essay, the impression is the opposite – that the optimism of 2001 and the strategic approach of 2002 had resulted in a defensible position in 2003/2004 (as evidenced by the self-proclaimed “militant” tone of the article). Perhaps broader editorial contextualization in First Person, highlighting the historical nature of your essay (rather than situating it more as a current comment on the state of the field), might have gone a long way towards resolving the issue, pushing the argument back to 2001.

    But clearly you are right – something is unresolved, since many appear to revisit the issue on a periodic basis. Part of my ‘real issue’ is that I believe that certain sub-genres of games use fictive elements (and some outright use stories) for particular (and often different) effect. Since my research focuses on how those elements work in relation to the game engine/rules and the visual elements, I suppose my approach could be called narrativist, visualist, or ludologist, depending on one’s own inklings (though since I come from an English department, the first is more likely that the latter two).

    Institutionally, I think both sides are engaging in a little straw man politicking – arguing against existing fields creates a substantial reason for creating departments dedicated to studying games, while those (as you seem to read it) “opposed to game studies as its own field” justify their dissertations or book projects in home departments likely to smirk behind their hands or just plain refuse support. Not personal, as you say, but the natural progression of academic exchange (though I’d probably decline to call it “war”). This convenient “ideological framing” will hopefully result in a nice mixture of game studies departments, working groups, and specialists in already established departments (Media Studies, English, etc.) and it’s good work that you and others are doing to ensure that at least some schools fund Game Studies programs in their own right. Clearly, as someone dissertating in the field, I’m hopeful that such programs continue to open and expand.

    I’m also hopeful, however, that established departments recognize the merits of studying games, not because they make as much money as box-office movies (hardly an effective measure since games make much less money that the U.S. film industry as a whole, and since I think games merit a broader study than, say, Ernest Goes to Camp), but because I believe that games do challenge commonly accepted aesthetic and theoretical models.

    Further on the theoretical side (as opposed to institutional), I don’t think the debate, then, is all “superstition” and “mythology.” When there are hundreds of years of paragone competition (see CJ’s post), not to mention a schism between Arts and Sciences often reified in our educational systems and general culture, it’s unsurprising of course that when a medium (the computer) and a system of physical, verbal, and visual interactions (the game) mixes all these things together, some fairly healthy conversation will take place. Not just so-called “remediation,” but full-on inter-arts competition that takes place in games both in the process of creation and in their popular and critical reception.

    Which brings me to my final resistance to placing games solely within their own discipline: while I value studying games in their own right, broad historical understanding is a crucial element in any theoretical undertaking. Clearly you think so, since Cybertext situates ergodic literature as part of a chronology rather than as a unique, sudden instantiation. There’s danger on both sides of the argument: A lack of specificity, such as my gripe about Ken Perlin’s use of “The Novel” in my original post, or an overwhelming urge to too closely link an object of study to an established genre, such as your gripe about Janet Murray’s “Games are always stories.” Specialized approaches from various departments might exacerbate but can also help allay these kinds of issues.

    While it is perhaps in bad taste to single out bad scholarship, there are multiple examples of showing shortcomings in previous thought: Marie-Laure Ryan is clear in her critique of early writers on hypertext (Landow, Bolter, etc.), while simultaneously praising their early vision; as you mentioned, your Cybertext eagerly engages with previous theorists, including Laurel; and in the essay following yours in First Person, Stuart Moulthrop provides a measured accounting of Janet Murray’s contributions to our field, without mincing words on his perceptions of her shortcomings. I think actual examples of “naive applications … overgeneral conclusions … and academics who never question their own methods or concepts,” regardless of methodology, should of course be called to task or ignored, although I wonder if they are perhaps rarer than you think they are (since I’m sure you see plenty of unrefined work as Editor of GS) … and more frequent than perhaps I think they are. Currently, I wonder if narratology simply takes the brunt of this type of accusation because self-proclaimed ludologists are so well versed in the theory (as is clear in their use and adaptation of it).

    But while Butler’s _Gender Trouble_ disrupted an essentialist view of gender to argue for a discipline, as CJ points out, it appears as though you are arguing the opposite in “Genre Trouble” to achieve the same purpose: stating “games are games” appears to argue an essential model over a fragmented model (which celebrates the mixture of media and genres, and which is open to investigation from a variety of disciplinary perspectives). Perhaps the question of genre – and sub-genre – is really what we need to sort out after all.

  7. Espen says:

    Jason, your points are well taken. Ten years from now it won’t matter that First Person was written in 2001 and (for boring publishers’ reasons) not published until 2 1/2 years later. That is not an exceptionally long time by any standard, so the only persons who will feel strange about this are those right now who have followed the debate from within medias res. But, to stick to Latin, quod scripsi, scripsi. No regrets here. If my essay raises the awareness of new students of games for what they are doing (even if they first hate me for what I write) I can live with that, happily. Having studied games for twenty years, I have learned that patiently waiting for more self-critical scholarship does not make it happen.

    Partly I would have expected people to say: “Of course Aarseth is right in his rather banal point that importing theories to a new empirical field calls for self-critical evaluation. But why does he even bother to say it? This is just common sense!”

    However, in the climate we still have, this sort of thing still happens, large-scale. Most of it we don’t get to see, because most term papers and dissertations are not read. (Hell, even most books…) And with so few senior researchers sensible to the nature and culture of games, the needed critical approach is not encouraged, and probably, in a lot of cases, discouraged, by shere institutional “autism”. It takes a very strong student to ignore their supervisor’s methodological directives.

    If I did not believe that a department of game studies will eventually produce better research than game studies confined to existing departments, I might as well not believe in departments (i.e. localised research groups) at all. Are there better places for the academic study of literature than literary departments? Theatre departments for theatre? Music departments for music?

    If we are saying that games don’t need their own departments, unlike these other empirical fields, the we are saying that they are a lesser form, or should I say, activity. Of course, we might say that there should not be departments at all, or that one media studies department is what we need, but that is a whole other revolution. (And part of the current “down-sizing” of the Humanities, if you ask me. Funny how our friends in the hard sciences don’t seem to have this issue.)

    Between those of us rooting for an autonomous field and those who take their chances in the established departments, there is a very real political dissonance, no matter how we stand (and even agree) on theoretical matters.

    Games have not been taken seriously for so long that special effort and attention is needed. Call it affirmative action, if you will. Perhaps some kind of essentialism is unavoidable in this historical phase of the field, just to make sure there is enough momentum. Although I admit that the Butlerian pun of my title was not very deeply intended (I do admire Butler and did enjoy reading CJ’s comments), I don’t really agree that my approach to games is essentialist. I tend to see games not as object but as a (broad) perspective, which, like any perspective, forgrounds certain activities and marginalises others. And since I am particularly interested in variety within the wide field of games, I would suggest that my approach might instead be seen as differentialist.

    But just as with feminism, before we have basic visibility, there is no possibility of celebrating the diversity of games out there. I am arguing a pluralist, open model (cf the paper I co-presented at LevelUp). If games are presented as a subgenre of narrative, all those games that have no resemblance to narrative will be theorised out of existence. And before we know what “games” might encompass, we have no good way of discussing the border cases and the in-betweens. I don’t see why a game-centered discourse need be essentialist, although it certainly could be.

    About what you say on games using stories: that is my point also: many certainly do, but ‘using’ is not ‘being’. And then we have stories that use games, like Max Payne. (See my newer essay on quests as postnarrative discourse in Ryan’s Narrative Across media 2004). Many phenomena use stories without being stories, e.g. people. This is a complex issue, but we have made some progress. But this progress could probably not have happened (at lease not as fast) without the field, because the same narrativist mistakes would have been repeated over and over, unopposed. Established departments and fields would just not be able to provide enough critical feedback, because the generalists liberal enough to allow games research probably are also not strict enough to make sure that their specialist students don’t miss existing research. Statistically speaking, of course.

    I don’t dismiss the work that is carried out in literature departments (much of my own was), but neither do I want to wait another twenty years for them to get their act together. Also, I think the rich composition of games warrant a wide but integrated approach that these existing departments cannot provide, where the creative and the critical co-exist. Something like architecture, where the social, the aestetic and the technological form a whole, fragmented and unstable as it is.

    And, finally, the historical perspective is indeed imperative: There is a tendency today to focus on “digital games” which is neither historically or theoretically sensible. This focus is just as problematic as the pseudo-field of “new media” , where ideological pressures and techno-fetishism create an empirical amnesia that will last until the next fad comes along.

    Anyway, this over-long rambling is of course a blogvert for my PhD course in Copenhagen in December, which focuses on the formation of game studies. For more info please click below…

  8. Jason says:

    Thanks again, Espen, for your thoughtful response. Feel free to blogvertise – the seminar looks fascinating. If not for the ever oppressive triad of time, distance, and money, I would eagerly apply (as an aside, the website is unclear: how much, if anything, does the actual course cost?).

    The example of feminism is a useful one, since it finds its home in both a specialized department as well as other disciplines. It brings to mind recent discussions with a friend of mine who studies feminist theatre and finds himself pursuing job searches in three different fields – English, Women’s Studies, and Theatre – each which believes, according to my friend’s survey at least, that theirs is the appropriate purview for that topic.

    I suspect that kind of interdisciplinary approach will be the final result in Games Studies as well, though I applaud and encourage your agenda (I liked your nod towards architecture as a model). Games certainly deserve individual and careful attention, although I do believe that we need to better articulate why, as too many articles, blog posts, or conference papers (including my own) toss out a comparison to box office revenues as justification enough. I believe that the better answer lies in these discussions of inter-arts relationships, aesthetics (tricky word as that is), and culture (and so I side with Stuart Maulthrop when he asks about cultural representations of women vis-a-vis Lara Croft) – which is not to say, incidentally, that there isn’t a lot of good work being done already. Showing how games are relevant to the overall humanities fields (art, literature, etc.) only increases drive for institutional support, rather than diminishing it. How do we create useful comparisons and interactions, then, between genres and art forms without invoking the potential for colonization? Or how do we reframe the arguments so such concern is unnecessary?

    For now, I have to justify my dissertation within my own department, though thankfully with a very supportive advisor who is neither overly prescriptive about methodology (other than it be scrupulous), nor ignorant to the arguments in the field. I imagine that I am especially lucky in this regard. What you see as dissonance, therefore, I see as a practicality. The study of games has to grow from somewhere; my best argument for a department solely dedicated to Game Studies, as a dissertating student, is to (hopefully) add to the scholarship that proves such studies are needed. Situating the discipline within the larger humanities discourse strikes me as imperative to such a cause. So does drawing from the pools of researchers (and especially Ph.D. students) in a variety of departments who want to study games but have marginal, if any, institutional support to do so. That seems to be the best way to grow the base that will eventually advocate for and populate Game Studies departments so that, perhaps, future Ph.D. students need not lament the fact that the only graduate seminar discussing such issues this semester is several thousand miles away in chilly Denmark.

  9. Espen says:

    Just very quickly (I am prepping for a doctoral offense): The PhD course is free. (I would have been ashamed to ‘vert it if it were not.) And there are direct flights from DC and NY, so it is not that expensive/timeconsuming to get here. plus the Other Players conference as a bonus.

  10. Jason says:

    I’m afraid that the combined loss of leave at my full-time job and the $400-$500 plane ticket is beyond my means, but hopefully some others can attend. Any plans to post some of the lecture/conversation from the seminar online? It would be nice to pursue that dialogue through means that do not involve long, trans-Atlantic flights.

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