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Theory Wars: An Argument Against Arguments in the so-called Ludology/Narratology Debate

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This paper attempts to offer an alternative to the agonistic debate presented by Gonzalo Frasca in "Ludologists Love Stories Too," in Level Up, DiGRA 2003 conference proceedings. While Frasca’s position is that the ludology/narratology debate is spurious and fraught with misunderstandings, his paper simultaneously succeeds in deepening the gap by further polarizing the alleged two sides of a debate that, in Frasca’s words, "never took place." Furthermore, the paper adds to the misunderstandings by further mis-quoting and decontextualizing some of the points made by other authors. In this paper, I will argue that there is little value in categorizing scholars into two "camps," even if one is doing so in an attempt to bridge the gap. I will further build on arguments I have made in the past, some of which compliment the work of other game scholars, that to think about games in the simplistic terms of "narrative/not narrative" is neither useful nor productive, especially when applied in vague theoretical terms. Over the past decade, I have made the argument that games should not be looked at in terms of whether or not they are narratives by various theoretical definitions, but that "narrative" should be framed as an adjective rather than a noun. The more interesting question is not "Are they/are they not narrative?" but "In what ways are they narrative?" I have advocated the notion of "narrative properties," an approach which is outlined in my paper in First Person (Pearce, 2004) and which echoes work by other scholars such as Janet Murray (1997). In it, I propose an approach to narrative that privileges the player experience, rather than some particular theoretical and abstract school of thought. Thus, we can look at specific games and ask: In what way do they use narrative elements to enhance the player experience? Far too much of game scholarship is spent debating ideas in vague, broad terms, while greater value can be derived from looking at specific player experience. It is interesting to note that in "Ludologists Love Narrative, Too," while many theorists are named, only a single game is mentioned—chess—cited (and mis-quoted) from the paper mentioned above (Pearce, 2004). If you talk to the average game player (an easy task for any college professor), you quickly find that players have a very clear idea of the connection between story and gameplay. Many gamers I have talked to find cut scenes gratuitous and interruptive, offering little enhancement to the gameplay experience. On the other hand, they understand that a narrative encasement around gameplay, especially one that fits the game mechanic well, creates a higher level of engagement and a stronger connection with the game and its characters. Often cited by players is the introductory sequence of Half-Life. Here you are thrown at the onset into an in-game scenario which provides contextualized directions, and plunges you, in character, immediately into the story. Through a specific example such as this, we can begin to better understand the ways in which gameplay and story fit together. We can also look at the role of agency where the story is not told (as by a narrator) but lived through (as by a player.) A useful exercise is to look at the ways that stories have been adapted into games. We can begin with the popular Indiana Jones series by LucasArts, which builds its mechanic around the inherent game-like qualities of the films. Another example is Blade Runner by Westwood Studios. In this game, the key question the main character (the player) must ultimately address is whether he himself is a replicant. The game AI attempts to analyze the players’ shifting perception of his own identity through modeling player behavior. If the player behaves in a sympathetic fashion towards replicants, the game directs the player down one path; if he exhibits antipathy, he finds himself on a different path. (Pearce/Castle, Game Studies, 2002). This game was a bold attempt to integrate a genuine ethical struggle into a game. Here story and game are so intermingled that they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. While these are examples of ways to develop a game mechanic around a narrative framework, there are a range of games which take what could be called the "story kit" approach. In games such as The Sims or Everquest, players are given a set of options that allow them to craft their own stories through game play. This is an example of what I have referred to in the past as "emergent authorship," wherein players construct their own stories, many of which are meant to be shared with others, whether in the form of the social co-performance within the mechanic of an online game (Everquest), or through uploading storyboards or games in-progress for others to play (The Sims). This is less literary and more akin to techniques of improvisation and theater games, where performers (players) are given a set of parameters through which to develop impromptu stories. Alongside others in the field, such as Jenkins, Ryan and Murray, I have also advocated the notion of spatial narrative as applied to games. Game designers liberally borrow from a long legacy of spatial narrative practices, ranging from temples and cathedrals to theme parks. Myst is probably the most canonical example of this. Here the spatial design is inextricably tied to the game mechanic—there is really no way to separate the two. Furthermore, the narrative is embedded in the space in a deconstructed form (in fact, the game’s goal is precisely that—to reconstruct the story.) We can also easily see how spatial narrative and emergent authorship can merge in a games like The Sims or Everquest. These are just a handful of examples, but they illustrate the complexity of the game/story problem, and set the stage for a richer, deeper discussion of the relationship between story and games which this paper will both advocate and illustrate. References (Additional references will be included in the final paper) Frasca, G. (2003). "Ludologists Love Stories, Too: Notes from a Debate that Never Took Place." Level Up, Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) Conference Proceedings, November 2003. Murray, J.H. (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MIT Press. Pearce, C. (1994). "The Ins & Outs of Nonlinear Storytelling." Computer Graphics, Volume 28, Number 1, May 1994. Pearce, C. (1997). The Interactive Book: A Guide to the Interactive Revolution. Indianapolis, Macmillan Technical Publishing. Pearce, C. (2002). "Story as Play Space: Narrative in Games." King, L. (ed.) Game On Exhibtion Catalog. London, Lawrence King Publishing Limited. Pearce, C. (2002). "Emergent Authorship: The Next Interactive Revolution." Computers & Graphics,Winter 2002 Pearce, C. (2002). "Sims, BattleBots, Cellular Automata God and Go: A Conversation with Will Wright," Game Studies, Volune 2, Issue 1. Pearce, C. (2002). "The Player with Many Faces: A Conversation with Louis Castle," Game Studies, Volune 2, Issue 2. Pearce, C. (2004). "Towards a Game Theory of Game." in Wardrip-Fruin, N. & Harrigan, P. (eds.). First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press. Jenkins, H.. (1998). "Games as Gendered Playspace." in Cassell, J. & Jenkins, H. (Eds.) From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. Cambridge, MIT Press. Jenkins, H. (2004). "Game Design as Narrative Architecture." in Pat Harrington & Noah Frup-Waldrop (Eds.) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, MIT Press. Games Cited Blade Runner EverQuest Half-Life Indiana Jones series Myst NeoPets PacMan The Sims
Contact: Celia Pearce, Cal-(IT)2, UC Irvine,
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