Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards – Ludology

Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards is an exhaustive look at video games, the ambiguities of art, and how they come to rest on objective standards – though maybe not in the way you were thinking. This series intends to show video games are a unique medium that deserves a special criteria and methodological examination. This is part and parcel of my theology as well. I invite you to leave comments on any section below!

So last time, we made a full and complete definition of video games, at least for the purpose of argumentation. Now, we come to discussing other, alternate ways of viewing video games in the fields of ludology and narratology. Game Studies hasn’t existed for a long time, but it has already developed its own ideas and traditions in terms of defining games, their function, and how to categorize them.

Ludology, however, does not become subsumed under the common categories of the narrative. Ludology, at its most basic, is the study of games as games, defined succinctly by the fact that games have rules. Although narratives do exist in games, and ludologists would rightly point that out, this is not their primary functioning. I imagine someone might see this as an overly reductionist view of video games in general, but they do have a point. As Espen Aarseth states in the first volume of Game Studies (available online for those interested)

Games, however, are often simulations; they are not static labyrinths like hypertexts or literary fictions. The simulation aspect is crucial: it is a radically different alternative to narratives as a cognitive and communicative structure. Simulations are bottom up; they are complex systems based on logical rules.

A game, as a text, does not work without being played, for it is both an object and a process. There is an innate social element within games that are multi-player, a distinct characteristic of games that does not fall into a traditional textual model of narratology. Thus, ludology towards video games imposes a formalism upon game studies that treat games as composites of rules, and how those rules bring about any myriad number of results. The representational elements of the games, while interesting if we primarily viewed games like a text, are completely incidental to the inner workings of the formal systems underneath. This has great appeal to me, personally, but the way they go about it always shows that they do not take this criticism as far as you might think. I will save that for later.

Their problem with narratology, from this perspective, is that applying narrative to games, according to Jesper Juul,

…is not neutral; it emphasizes some traits and suppresses others. Unlike this, the act of comparing furthers the understanding of differences and similarities, and may bare hidden assumptions.

Narrative is an existing paradigm; thus, its years of cultural history imply a certain approach, a certain sense of “meaning”, and certain assumptions about what constitutes a “good” and “bad’ ‘ narrative in advance of the novelty of form. That isn’t even to mention that this relies primarily on the Western tradition of what constitutes quality work at all, rendering the criteria rather bizarre for a supposed multidisciplinary field. Ludology, by contrast, assumes that a new methodology fitting to both the idea of rules and the essential aspect of interactivity make games a form that does not have narrative as its primary concerns. I agree with this in part, as you might notice; narratology equals a reductive approach.

Ludologist Jesper Juul gives several reasons why games do not fit a narrative mold. First, not all games require a anthropomorphic protagonist; most narratives require a connection between the reader/watcher of a book or movie, for otherwise there is no connection to the events. The person playing the game, in Juul’s words,

…inhabits a twilight zone where he/she is both an empirical subject outside the game and undertakes a role inside the game.

The game, as stated earlier, presents a goal, and the player interacts with that goal under the stipulation that he/she follow the rules of the game. Secondly, narratives are told from a “past” perspective, whereas interactivity does not exist in a particular time frame; the temporality of a game is in the here and now. Lastly, imagine the myriad movie to video game translations – many of these games do not directly translate the narrative of the movie into the game, for that would be exactly like the movie. Instead, most game developers focus on one or two exciting action sequences in that film to translate into the game’s rules and mechanics, allowing the player to experience the feeling of becoming the protagonist. Even then, without the film’s name, the game would remain inherently playable – thus, games have essential elements (what Murray, in her criticism, calls “Game Essentialism”), and they are the game’s rules.

Half Real jesper Juul


As a methodology, this is a fine and wonderful way to examine game. As “art”, however, we can see the deficiencies from the outset. Do these categories help us decide what is and is not a good game? Think about what aspects of video games that ludology losses over. What about its aesthetic elements, level design, structure, or anything to that effect? Do we take these into account when we discuss games, or are we merely looking at zeroes and ones? We once again see that a methodology not willing to change basically guts the whole enterprises from the outset. In this case, we discuss mathematics and formal systems, but we don’t often discuss video games. Again, it is a methodology derived from something else, rather than studying video games as actual people playing the game would.

I suppose that’s a bit of a slight against most academic enterprises, really. Most of them are scholars, and that is a useful task in itself. That doesn’t make them much of a theorist or generalist, however, and they sometimes find themselves within the same loopholes of closed thought over and over again, unable to see outside the ivory tower. I like to think of it like Chesterton thinks of democracy: if there’s something worth doing, it’s certainly worth doing badly by me specifically:

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

That explains the website, after all; I would rather work these issues out and fail miserably, spectacularly, than spend ten years thinking of every jot and tittle I would like to write about the subject, fearing criticism at every corner. There’s a large gap between your work as an object of study and your work as part of a hobby, and my writing falls squarely in the latter category. I enjoy this much, and I am well-versed in a lot of fields, if not an expert in particular.

So if this sounds like a warning against totalitarianism in thinking and following the rigors of academic work, it is in its own way. Be careful NOT to think like other people, or you will find yourself in the same loopholes and certainties that many before you find themselves. I would call my college education in general a similar experience; it was only by considering every alternative that I found myself where I am now: crazy.

We could also call it an attitude adjustment. I realized I did not know everything, nor could I know everything. It’s a strange relief to realize that, I assure you. That probably has something to do with society’s confidence in its own knowledge as the right way, but there’s so many thoughts and ideas about such things that none of them is possibly the entire right answer to anything. Rather, now I can simply enjoy knowledge and ideas for what they are, rather than how they fit into a total logical, coherentist system. In other words, the Word of God is my backing, and the rest comes when it comes; I’m in no rush. James 3 tells all I need to say about that:

13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.