Computer Game Theory: narrative vesus ludology

August 2005

Teresa Dillon, Futurelab

Computer game research and theory is a relatively new area of academic research, growing out of studies on digital texts within various arts and social science departments. However, as evident in the number of international academic conferences on games, it has become a recognised subject area in its own right, with the first peer-reviewed online journal in the field, Game Studies, appearing in 2001.

Within computer game theory much has been made of the tensions between narrative and ludology. The relationship is not straightforward, particularly as the nature of narrative and gameplay is complex and the terms are used in many different ways, depending on disciplinary background and the nature of the research.

Narrative theory has been the most popular form of theorising about video and computer games. Broadly speaking narrative theory focuses on: how stories are narrated – that is how they are told and the linguistic and representational process that are involved the narrated event – that is the activity and dimensions of the narrated situation which give rise to the story process.
Distinguishing between how the story is told and the events or circumstances which give rise to it enables us to understand certain effects of storytelling, such as temporality, speed and pace. For example, dense description in the narration may equate to slow pace of events in the story world, while shallow description may relate to fast events. From this perspective computer games have been described as having ’slow‘ and ‚fast‘ narratives. For example, Cyan’s Myst is considered a ’slow‘ narrative because of its descriptive detail, while idSoftwares‘ Doom is considered a ‚fast‘ narrative in that it uses blocky polygonal graphics, attack strategies and fast reflexes.

One of the first academics/designers to extend the idea of narrative within games was the American dramaturgist and computer theorist Brenda Laurel. In the early 1990s Laurel proposed a system for generating well-formed plots as defined by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics. In this system the computer program takes the role of the author. Consequently as the game progresses, any action by the player must be reflected in the system. In this respect the system begins to adapt to the player, increasing the possibility of making an interactive, fictitious world that is co-created by the computer and the player. The interactive dramatic paradigm advocated by Laurel has been leading the design of most videogames.

It was not until the late 1990s that Espen Aarseth analysed games and other software as ‚texts‘ by linking games and interactive fiction to the literary tradition of labyrinthine or ergodic texts. Ergodic texts refer to stories, such as mystery books, that do not have a linear structure, and in which you choose what the character does next. Aarseth specifically drew comparisons between computer games and ancient ergodic texts, such as the I Ching, where meaning is determined by how the reader responds or acts on the interpretations provided in the text.

Although Aaresth drew comparisons between games and other literary traditions, he was cautious in advocating a theory of games that was defined purely through narrative traditions and disciplines. Despite his caution, Aarseth’s early validation of games as an area of serious academic study paved the way for the theorising of games both as a form of narrative and ludology.

As an academic discourse, ludology was a response to the overemphasis on narrative explanations of gaming, which failed to acknowledge how they were different to other forms of media (eg television, film).

One of the leading ludologic theorists is Gonzalo Frasca. Frasca defines ludology as including videogame theory but going „beyond it to include all games and forms of play“, stressing that ludology is „the study of games“. At the heart of this approach is that belief that videos, cybertexts and computer games should be considered as forms of games and play in and of themselves. From this perspective ludologists focus on the game-specific dynamics of games, such as the relationship between rules, strategy and game outcomes.

Frasca argues that, although video and computer games share some of the characteristics of narrative (character, plot, setting, event), they are not like traditional media because they are not just based on representation but on an alternative semiotic structure – simulation. What makes simulations different is how they operate, and it is their unique way of operating which leads to new rhetorical possibilities. In discussing this distinction, a recent explanation provided by Franca is helpful:

„A film about a plane landing is a narrative: an observer could interpret it in different ways (ie ‚it’s a normal landing‘ or ‚it’s an emergency landing‘) but she cannot manipulate it and influence on how the plane will land since film sequences are fixed and unalterable. On the other hand, the flight simulator allows the player to perform actions that will modify the behaviour of the system in a way that is similar to the behaviour of the actual plane. If the player increases the power variable on the simulator, the simulated plane will move faster through the virtual sky on the computer screen. games are just a particular way of structuring simulation, just like narrative is a form of structuring representation“.

(Frasca 2003, p. 224)

Consequently, in researching and in developing games what Frasca and colleagues (eg Jesper Juul) highlight is the need not just to concentrate on traditional narrative interpretations of games but also the kind of simulation the game provides and the mechanics of the gameplay – the rules, strategies, typologies and models.

This of course has implications for how we make games, as the position we take can foreground some aspects of the game and background others. In this respect when making games for learning it is important that we not only keep sight of our underlying pedagogical aims but also do not become trapped into pushing one aspect of gaming to the detriment of the other.

In sum ludologic perspectives have made an important contribution to game theory. By addressing the medium on its own merits, ludologists have provided the beginning of a coherent understanding of what makes video and computer gaming unique and the particular forms of gameplay they support. On the other hand, narratologists consider video and computer games as part of an extended tradition of how humans use tools to express themselves and tell their stories. This has provided valuable insights, which have influenced how we think about and make games. Both approaches continue to generate interesting debates and work. What is important for those of us working in this area is that we understand the underlying principles behind both approaches, their contributions and implications for game culture and the next generation of game development.

References

Aarseth, EJ (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Frasca, G (2003). Simulation versus narrative: introduction to ludology. In MJP Wolf and B Perron (eds), The Video Game Theory Reader. London/New York: Routledge

Laurel, B (1991). Computers as Theatre. Addison-Wesley

Murray, J (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

Games references

www.gamestudies.org – peer-reviewed online journal of computer games
www.cyan.com – Myst, Cyan
www.doom3.com – Doom

Further reading

Aarseth, EJ (1994). Nonlinearity and literary theory. In GP Landow (ed), Hyper/Text/Theory (pp51-86). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Dillon, T (2005). Adventure Author, Context Paper. Futurelab. Retrieved 8 August 2005. www.futurelab.org.uk/projects/adventure_author/context

Frasca, G (2000). Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and Differences Between (Video)games and Narrative. Retrieved 15 December 2004, 2004, from ludology.org/index.php and www.ludology.org/articles/ludology.htm

Frasca, G (2001). Simulation 101: Simulation Versus Representation. Retrieved 15 December 2004, 2004, from www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101.html

Gee, J Paul (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave MacMillan

Juul, J (2001a). A Clash between Game and Narrative: A Thesis on Computer Games and Interactive Fiction. R, from www.jesperjuul.dk/thesis

Juul, J (2001b). Games telling stories. Game Studies, 1

Laurel, B (ed) (1990). The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design. Addison-Wesley

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