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digital rhetoric

Narratology and Ludology

A recent exchange on the grandtextauto.org blog provided some interesting insight into the debate between two approaches to the study of computer games: narratology and ludology. Put briefly, narratologists focus on the narrative structures of a game, while ludologists are primarily interested in how the rules and mechanics of the game shape the user’s/player’s experience. I briefly commented on this conversation on that site and received a short but useful response.

However, I didn’t want to continue to comment there, as the conversation has moved on to other things, and I think my perspective is too far outside the interests of that community. Put in discursive terms, they have specific uses for the concepts of narrative and ludic, that in my view are highly structural. I can see how this is useful for their work, but I believe the project of game studies will ultimately have to address the philosophical limitations of their praxis, though probably not in the terms I will lay out here.

Nick Montfort responded to my post by suggesting that I was pointing to metaphorical concepts of machines whereas they were talking about real machines, that interactive fiction (IF) requires readers/players/users to write the narrative in a what this is not metaphorical, as opposed to the metaphorical writing of Barthes’ writerly texts. This is a good point, but it is really tangential to what I was trying to ask. So let me start on the ground floor.

What is, materially speaking, a game/interactive fiction? It is code, a collection of non-phonic symbols. Through the virtual mechanism (no moving parts, expect perhaps a spinning CD/DVD) of the computer, the code is translated through a series of languages and finally shifts from the digital into the analog–voltages on a silicon chip. It then passes back through code and then back again into the analog to become light on a screen. The light on the screen forms both analog and digital information (i.e. text to be read by the user). The text is processed by the user in analog form (i.e. the bio-electro-chemical processes of the body/brain). The user responds physically through the keyboard, mouse, joystick, etc, which then goes through the translation process again, back to the game code which then relays a new set of commands in response. That user might then construct a narrative from the experience of this interaction.

So hence my original question on grand text auto: where does the narrative exist? It would seem that narrative is always already a product of interaction. However, as Nick pointed out, in IF these interactions are material in a way that they are not in traditional fiction. Furthermore ludologists argue that the experience of game narrative is largely shaped by the rules and mechanics of the game, as well as the fact that as a game, the player’s experience of narrative and interactive choices are motivated by the task of winning.

However, narrative is itself already a metaphor for embodied experience. For example, I can say that when I play Halo, I am this master chief trying to save civilization from destruction and this is the story etc, etc. I can say I am a character who has certain abilities and limitations, and that I am given certain predetermined objectives–that my experience of the larger narrative arc of the game is shaped by the series of events that make up gameplay. Either way though I am producing a metaphor for IF events.

In establishing the metaphor I am entering into an ideological process that, among other things, reifies my subjectivity and its relationship with technology. “I” do this; the computer does that. We are separate. Insert in here a Marxist analysis of how narrative functions to naturalize/obscure class relations.

An alternative to this entire business begins with an entirely different concept of space and time. Specifically, I am thinking about a topological approach to space, an event-based approach to time, what Deleuze and Guattari (after Duns Scotus) term haecceities (A Thousand Plateaus 260-65). This is a distinctly not metaphorical approach to new media. Explaining this will be a task for another post. Making this move is at least in part a political choice (necessarily since narrative is already ideological). It would be a matter not only for understanding games but for developing new compositional practices for game production. As Brian Massumi writes about the possibilities of topological architecture:

To do this would require somehow integrating logics of perception and experience into the modeling. Processes likehabit and memory would have to be taken into account. As would the reality of intensive movement. Ways of architecturally soliciting an ongoing eliciting of emergent forms-functions at the collective hinge of perception, hallucination, and cognition would have to be experimented with. Techniques would have to be found for overfilling experience. The methods would have to operate in a rigorously anexact way, respecting the positivity of the virtual’s vagueness and the openness of its individual endings. Never prefiguring.

In short, an entirely different approach to the concept of game.

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2 replies on “Narratology and Ludology”

” Put briefly, narratologists focus on the narrative structures of a game, while ludologists are primarily interested in how the rules and mechanics of the game shape the user’s/player’s experience.”
This summary shows the danger of reading blogs rather than the original research texts.
As it happens, the “ludologists” use narratology to show that games are not stories, while the “narratologists” seldom reference narratology younger than Aristotle. Are “narratologists” narratologists at all, when most of them clearly have less knowledge of narratology than the “ludologists”?
It make perfect sense, however, if you regard narratology as a religion, and disregard it as a scholarly field.

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Really? well, I agree with what you say about the potential danger of blogs. Though they can play a useful role in scholarly conversation, one can’t accomplish the sustained engagement of lengthier academic discourse. And, I will admit this discussion is on the periphery of my research.
I can see what you’re saying though. In part, the exchanges I refer to here are part of an argument of sorts over what these terms mean. Furthermore, I take your comments to indicate that you have a strong position regarding this (somewhat fictional) debate.
Perhaps what you are suggesting is that the ludologists are already moving in a direction somewhat similar to the one I am suggesting here. That is, one in which the concept of narrative is deconstructed/deterritorialized in the material, embodied experience of gameplay. I suppose how one might naively interpret this as a fascination with “game mechanics,” and perhaps what I read was such an interpretation.
In any case, what continues to interest me about these games is their potential, along with the rest of new media, to open the possiblities of time and space and engender new subjective becomings (which is what Massumi is saying, in essence).

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