November 14, 2003

Game Studies Levels Up (thoughts on conference recaps)

I've been following the Level Up! conference reports with great interest. Lisbeth Kalstrup details some of the issues at play in the (so-called) narratology/ludology debate. Lisbeth draws attention to the important distinction between "narrative in games," rather than "games as narrative" - a distinction I hold a great deal of affinity for. At the recent AoIR conference, the 'gaming group' got together for a "Birds of a Feather" meeting (at 8am, no less), and as we did the normal round of introductions, I explained my interests with a similar disclaimer - "I'm interested in narrative in games ... which is not to say, games as narrative." Sighs of relief seemed to penetrate the friendly chuckles around the table.

Which is odd, because I've never had to say, "narrative in books, not books as narrative," "narrative in drama, not drama as narrative," or "narrative in films, not films as narrative." Apples and oranges? I'm not sure, but it certainly seems telling of some issue, perhaps akin to media confusion when dealing with something like a William Blake print. Is it text or image? Both and/or neither? When you surgically remove the words from their illuminate state, what happens? Can you really - as some claim - pull a narrative from a game, without any real consequence to the game itself?

Anyone up for a rousing game of ProgressQuest?

Gonzalo Frasca, of, provides his assessment of the conference, where he describes his talk as an attempt to move past the "narratologist/ludologist" debate, in which he claims:

such debate never took place and was based on a series of misconceptions and unfounded accusations of radicalism (at least between its main protagonists). . . Right from the start, the first paper ever published on ludology, clearly stated that its goal was "not to replace the narratological approach, but to complement it". Clear as water, right? I would have rather used my article to explore some of my recent research, but I decided to try to tackle this issue and put a final nail on its coffin. Sadly, the issue seems to still be appealing to many of the newcomers, so I am afraid that this issue would keep haunting us for a while. Luckily, all the people I discussed it with (including Aarseth, Juul, Murray, Mateas, Jarvinen and Eskelinen) consider the matter as just a detail in the field's recent history and are ready to get past it.

Andrew of GTA shares his thoughts about the conference, and likens Gonzalo's assertions to Rodney King's "Can't we all just get along?" An interesting choice, since I'm not sure why there is the perception that serious debate needs to be codified as hostile (and I'm not targeting Andrew here; I think he's just picking up on the vibes at play in The Debate itself - or perhaps the debate about The Debate?).

I am looking forward to Gonzalo posting his paper, because I'm hoping it will include a fairly detailed discussion of what he sees as the progression of The Debate. Call me crazy - or maybe I'm just one of the "newcomers" that "sadly" refuses to give up on the issue? ;) - but I actually find the legitimizing process involved in developing an academic field rather interesting. I'm also hoping to see why this is an issue to get past, rather than an issue to build on; in other words, what good came out of The Debate, if any?

As to looking towards the future, Lisbeth details what she believes is necessary for the "narrative in games" crowd:

I believe, what 'we' (those interested in narrative aspects in games) need to focus on now, is the concrete use of narrative devices in specific games, not looking at these games as narratives who should produce the same kind of emotions we know and expect to be rewarded with when we read narratives in books or on screen, but contemplating how narrative devices can be used inside games for the purpose of creating good gameplay and in order to produce a desire for the completion of the game (i.e. how narrative devices can help create "an anticipation of completion" and not retrospection, perverting Peter Brooks a bit).

Lots of great thought in this statement, although I think a lot of work also remains to be done to detail the relationship of story to any media. In fact, as I argued in my paper at AoIR, I think that one of the most radical ways to legitimize the field is to show how study of games can transform previously established academic methodologies and theories (just as hypertext helped reinvigorate - and popularize - scholarship about 'the Book').

Other recaps of Level Up! include:
Jason Della Rocca (with pictures)

EDIT: Here's an excellent conference evaluation by David Thomas of Buzzcut.

Posted by Jason at November 14, 2003 7:18 AM | TrackBack
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