Tuesday, June 04, 2002

Henry Jenkins: Game Design

Last Tuesday I read quickly through this article and promised I'd come back to it. Today I have been going through it more carefully in order to figure out what it is about this article that disturbs me. I agree with a lot of Jenkins' statements. His view of games is very close to my own opinion on this topic: they are not narratives but environments which can accomodate or support narratives and can have narrative elements. The argument on spatiality is to the point and captures one of the main differences between games and narratives, and his argument as to why games basically focus on science fiction and fantasy put something in its proper place for me:

Often, such works exist on the outer borders of literature. They are much loved by readers, to be sure, and passed down from one generation to another, but they rarely figure in the canon of great literary works. How often, for example, has science fiction been criticized for being preoccupied with world-making at the expense of character psychology or plot development? These writers seem constantly to be pushing against the limits of what can be accomplished in a printed text and thus their works fare badly against aesthetic standards defined around classically-constructed novels. In many cases, the characters - our guides through these richly-developed worlds - are stripped down to the bare bones, description displaces exposition, and plots fragment into a series of episodes and encounters. When game designers draw story elements from existing film or literary genres, they are most apt to tap those genres - fantasy, adventure, science fiction, horror, war - which are most invested in world-making and spatial storytelling. Games, in turn, may more fully realize the spatiality of these stories, giving a much more immersive and compelling representation of their narrative worlds.

However; much as I agree with such keen observations, I can't reconcile myself with the article. I think that is because I find that it has conflicting agendas, or perhaps goals which cannot be achieved with the information Jenkins bases his writing on. The goals as I understand them:

1) To end the feud between ludologists and narratologists
2) To tell the ludologists how important narrative still is for understanding games
3) To argue for why game-designers should learn about film theory

1) Ludologists and narratologists
Who are these mysterious ludologists who just can't understand that narrative is important to games? According to Jenkins, it's Markku Eskelinen and Jesper Juul. It's a testimony to the fragility of narratology in popular culture that two voices are taken to represent an opposing community. Jenkins devotes an otherwise exellent article on narrative elements in games to the "ludologists'" lack of submission to a certain theoretical approach, in order to educate, convince and might one perhaps even thing silence them? Among scholars who devote as much time and energy to the study of games as Jesper and Markku and have the same claim on being "ludologists", there are other voices. These are however mostly ignored because they pose no threat to the hegemony of narratology. The strategy of positioning in a field is a well-known and effective rhetoric technique; pick one or two enemies, create the largest gap possible between yourself and them and then argue against the extreme expressions of the oposing paradigm. That is where the perceived bloodfeud between "ludologists" (whoever they are) and "narratologists" is at right now, and where it will remain as long as the criteria of news value rules academic attention.

2) Tell ludologists about narrativity
Jenkins argues as if he thinks "the ludologists" don't know narrative theory, and are incapable of doing independent analysis of the narrativity of games. I find that Jesper Juul's thesis contains among other things quite nice discussions of the narrative elements of some of the games he studies. The assumption that enough knowledge of narrative theory will bring enlightenment to the strayed sheep is a political or perhaps religious conviction rather than a valid academic argument. At the end of Jenkins' article someone who studies games rather than stories can only nod and say: "yes, all of this is correct, but games are still different from stories, and we need to take those differences seriously, rather than try to incorporate the games in a too narrow field." This conviction of the faith of ludology is also based on study and research, and is as entitled to respect as is any other fairly well researched belief in Academia.

3) Teach narratology to Game Designers
Where did this come from? Or perhaps I am wrong about who the ludologists are? Are they the game designers? In that case I agree, just as I agree that my journalist students need to learn about advertising, propaganda and fiction writing: Because game designers need to be able to communicate with their audience, and they should use as many tools as possible in order to do that. Along the same vein I think that fasion designers can benefit from taking classes in art history, and architects should study comparative politics. The one thing isn't the other, but it's possible to benefit from knowing about it. Just don't confuse Game Designers with the initial "ludologists" and this should be uncontroversial.

To answer Gonzalo's question from last week: I agree with a lot of what Henry Jenkins writes, and I know there are several dissertations about to be finished on the topic which will give more space to this topic than he can do in this short article. I don't agree with the rhetoric goal of the article, as I find that it is based more on sensationalism than on actual knowledge. Still, it's the best piece I have read on the topic games/narrativity in quite a while, and as mentioned, there are one or two passages in that article for which I am quite grateful to Jenkins.

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