Video Games, Art, and Objective Standards – Narratology

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!

Last time, we discussed a somewhat rigorous definition of “game”, “video game”, and other such terms. Hopefully, this will make the conversation moving forward a bit more streamlined, and the earlier material at least exists as a primer on my views on the subject. But, even then, there’s a side of the subject matter we haven’t seen yet: game studies.

Story, play, and steam: Thermoludic narratology in video game studies.

I picked this picture because the book title frightened me.

Having been something of an academic myself, I’m somewhat familiar with the field of game studies. It seeks to study games qua games, an interesting idea that has been revitalized in recent years by video games and their striking diversity. Over time, two sub-fields have developed that each latch onto a specific component of the video game: narratology and ludology. Although game studies retains a general agreement on what games are, how they should be studied, as art or otherwise, remains a subject of contention. This discussion, in game studies, is known as the narratology vs. ludology debate, and each will be described in turn.

Narratology, in essence, is the study of video games as a novel, or new, form of narrative. In Barry Atkins’ definition, it is “the study of how stories are told”. Narratology understand video games, a cultural vehicle, as a device for artistic expression among many others such as painting or film. Interactivity, though a unique element, provides a space for narrative to occur in a different form. I imagine you can find countless examples of this literally anywhere in modern games writing. Reviews are become more about the subjective experience of one’s feelings towards a game; the mechanics themselves do not warrant a large description, but how I felt about the experience does.

I imagine this comes from our culture, which takes a narrative view of both its history (heck, the very use of history makes that clear). That, subsequently, becomes a part of our collective psyche. So it is that narratology tries to make video games into another form of media, like the novel or the film, that serves a primarily personal, subjective, and story-based purpose.

Many video games have stories; these are used as motivation for the player to progress forward. In this sense, narrative is a defining element of many video games, which use the visual and audio elements alike to furnish a narrative, however base and banal “kill all your enemies” might be as an objective. According to Janet H. Murray, who rejects the label of narratology entirely, games can furnish experiences “such as the feeling of immersion, the enactment of violent or sexual events, the performative dimension of game play, and even the personal experience of winning and losing.” In effect, the essential element of a game is its narrative; everything else becomes subservient to this factor.

Barry Atkins, in his work More Than a Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form, describes a situation he encountered that encapsulates such experiences. He had, in the course of playing a World War II strategy game, been on the side of the Germans. Much like the film Inglorious Basterds, through the game’s mechanics, he had actually created a revisionist history where, at the Battle of Arnhem, Atkins’ forces completely destroyed the Allies (rather than just repelling their assault) and secured victory for the Third Reich. This disturbed Atkins in some sense, as the game ”provided a fractured version of the past uncluttered by political, economic, social and (most particularly) human context.” In fact, the story could be retold within the game’s rules any number of times, perhaps causing the defeat of the Germans at the hand of the Allies the next time. In Atkins’ words, “Here was a form of fictional freedom: I could tell the story again and again and bring the story to a variety of conclusions. Here was a form of fictional restraint: I could only tell the story in a particular way.”

Atkins argues that video games represent a qualitatively unique form of narrative expression for fictional texts, in that they require interactivity to tell their stories. Contrary to the spectatorial model proposed by Roger Ebert (i.e., the viewer always passively absorbs the artist’s work in retrospection), game narratives change based on the whims of the players operating within the rules of the game, whether more constrained (progressive) or free (emergent). Thus, video games are more than a game, in that “it can also be a form of fiction making…presents a fictional text that rewards close critical scrutiny.”

Though, for Atkins, they have not yet reached the level where they can engender individual or cultural transformation, they may have that possibility in the future. Many indie games, taking this into consideration, attempt to provide a particular narrative (spoken or not) that takes advantage of video game presentation. However, and this might appear slightly disconcerting, the fundamental status of the video game does not have uniqueness except in form; though not entirely akin to the observation of “art” in a book, painting, or film, this is a formal difference only, not a qualitatively different object of inspection and observation. We could peg many video gamers and developers into this category; the narrative reigns supreme.

Because of this, most video game narratologists dispense with the supposed distinction between narratology and ludology (to be defined in a bit!); Murray, for her part, states “It is time to re-frame the conversation. At some point in all of these debates, these two common-sensical facts are usually acknowledged: games are not a subset of stories; objects exist that have qualities of both games and stories.” Thus, narratologists define narrative as primary and the game’s rules itself as constituent parts of the fiction which the video game creates.

As of now, I will not list a very exhaustive criticism, but I’d rather leave this open ended. Think about what aspects of video games this narratology glosses over. What about game mechanics? What about its aesthetic elements, level design, structure, or anything to that effect? What does the narratologist leave such essential elements of game design out? Narratology, for me, does not approach video games on their own terms; it mostly takes a pre-existing framework and makes it fit, but not very well!

Same goes for theology; to bring your own preconceptions into Christianity, whether in Scripture or the Church, leads many of us to incorrect and faulty conclusions. When I see Proverbs 3, I never see people take it in the sense in which it’s meant:

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
6 In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the Lord and turn away from evil.

Leaning on our own understanding appears a constant pitfall. We do it all the time, and so do I! Yet we are told, rather explicitly, that to be right and good in our own eyes isn’t enough. To smuggle our own notions of truth into the matter isn’t sufficient. What God thinks and how God speaks remains of ultimate importance. This will become a common theme in this series, I assure you; I just hope my answer strikes a little closer to the truth. Next time: ludology!

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.