The field of computer game studies is a relative newcomer to the scholarly landscape, but it is not without controversies. Even the words used to define the field have been challenged, defined and redefined – is “computer game” the best term, when many of these games are played on game consoles and phones? Is “game” accurate, if no skill or agency is involved?
If we trace the formal study of game studies to the late 90s, as established in my previous paper, one of the earliest conflicts with the field was between the camps of Narratology and Ludology. Jasper Juul, writing in 2001, laid out the differences between games and stories, which essentially came down to the idea of interactivity. A story is something you consume passively, while a game is something in which the player (no longer just a reader) is a co-creator of meaning. He allows that there is a role for the study of narrative in games, but states that, “relying too heavily on existing theories will make us forget what makes games games: such as rules, goals, player activity, the projection of the player’s actions into the game world, the way the game defines the possible actions of the player. It is the unique parts that we need to study now”. When combined with Aarseth’s statement that games are “too important” to be left to the scholars of other areas, the ludologists staked out their territory. Leave narrative, an inessential part of games, to the literature and film studies people. They were going to address the more important aspects of games – the structural elements that helped to define something as a game.
Janet H. Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace focused on the evolving role of narrative, though at that time the struggle between narratologists and ludologists was in full swing. Her title is important, though – she was examining the future of narrative, and already in 1997 allowed for not only the possibility but the necessity of it becoming interactive. Rather than the “game” elements being the main point and any narrative elements merely providing a context or pretense for the gameplay, Murray, although limited by the technology at the time when explaining what was possible at the time, incorporated science fiction elements into her prediction of the future direction of narrative. Cyberspace was a far cry from virtual reality, and further still from Star Trek’s holodeck, and Murray’s book dealt explicitly with interactive stories, which need not necessarily be games. Given the definitions they were working with at the time, the two camps’ positions make sense. But in the nearly two decades since then, our definition of what a narrative is has shifted.
Certainly, there are still people who take an arguably formalist approach and focus on games-for-games-sake, but as the role of storytelling is acknowledged in fields far beyond games – marketing , health literacy, and education – denying the value of storytelling in games becomes more difficult. In the years since ludology was first established in contrast to narratology in the study of games, fewer and fewer articles have been published. The initial conflict – whether or not games had stories – is less of a focus, because the definition of narrative has expanded. While Juul explained some fifteen years ago that games were not simply narratives, because narratives lacked interactive elements, the goalposts have been moved. It is generally accepted that narratives can be interactive. That doesn’t mean that things like mechanics and gameplay do not matter – on the contrary, they have been subsumed as part of the overall definition, and now are the vehicle through which stories are made interactive. Even in Henry Jenkins’ 2006 article “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” the line has blurred, and game elements are pressed into service to create narrative spaces, in which a non-linear narrative can be uncovered by players as they move through the game space.
Carolyn Handler Miller’s book, Digital Storytelling is subtitled A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment. Storytelling is now interactive. Narratives can allow for agency on the part of the reader/player/end user. Rather than focusing on games, the book explores the nature of interactive stories, with a primary focus on what you can do with them, and how they can be applied to the burgeoning field of transmedia storytelling.
The more pertinent question now seems to be not whether or not games have stories, but how stories can be used in combination with other game elements to create an immersive experience, in which the player (for lack of a better word) is invested in the outcome. Not only does this deepen the player’s connection to the game’s outcome, this can be transferred to apply to a consumer’s connection to a brand, a student’s desire to master a skill, or countless other interactions that apply to games, but also beyond them. In spite of some early game theorists’ desire to stake out their own territory separate from that of other fields, the floodgates are open, and computer games – which always incorporated multiple disciplines in their creation – now are a part of countless other industries. There is certainly still a role for game theorists, but meaningful contributions can now come from many fields, and the work of game studies scholars has implications far beyond that of entertainment. Game elements and story elements are both pressed into service into the creation of interactive narratives, of which traditional computer games are one among several forms that they can take.
Sources and Further Reading
Aarseth, Espen. “Computer Game Studies – Year One.” Game Studies, vol. 1, issue 1, 2001. http://gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html. Accessed 20 September 2016.
Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”. In The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, Ed. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. MIT P, Cambridge, MA, 2006.
Miller, Carolyn Handler. Digital Storytelling (3rd ed.). Focal Press: New York, 2014.
Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories?” Game Studies, vol. 1, Issue 1, 2001. http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/ Accessed 5 October 2016.