Opinion: Narrativity and The Ludic Century


Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a NordicGameBits.com Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community. 

I’m a day late – sorry!

I usually structure these posts around the analysis of a specific game according to the narrativity-based model I presented last year, but today I’d like to step back a little and cover a bit of what it entails if you buy into my way of thinking. I hope that by now you have a pretty clear idea of my ideas on how games function as media, but it is probably a good idea to think a little about what these ideas – though valuable in practice – mean in a broader context.

 

The Ludic Century

Like everyone else involved in thinking about games, I too was reading The Manifesto for a Ludic Century by Eric Zimmerman back in 2013, and like some people, I was left feeling doubtful that it was a clear picture of how digital games work in the 21st century.

I’m not the only one who reacted with critical thoughts. A quick google search will send you to the following: Abe Stein criticized the manifesto for focusing on the privileged classes that can afford digital technology. Ethan Gache listed a whole bunch of questions for the manifesto, where the best is in the title “Shouldn’t I be Playing the Manifesto for a Ludic Century?”. John Quick wrote a Gamasutra blog post arguing that the manifestos focus on digital games was a mistake. And of course Zimmerman’s collaborator Heather Chaplin wrote the first commentary right below the manifesto on Kotaku (scroll down) and also collected some early responses.

All of these are interesting critical responses to a text that is – I think it fair to say – problematic to simply adopt, but I have a criticism that the narrativity model makes clear, which I would like to point out.

Here are the first two points of the manifesto:

 

“Games are ancient.

Like making music, telling stories, and creating images, playing games is part of what it means to be human. Games are perhaps the first designed interactive systems our species invented.

Digital technology has given games a new relevance.

The rise of computers has paralled the resurgence of games in our culture. This is no accident. Games like Chess, Go, and Parcheesi are much like digital computers, machines for creating and storing numerical states. In this sense, computers didn’t create games; games created computers.”

 

Like much scholarship and commentary on games, Zimmerman is convinced that physical and digital games are the same and function in the same way. He even makes the assumption here that the systems of analogue games have in some way given birth to digital platforms.

This is a popular view, because it allows scholars to draw on a wealth of information and theory about games before the invention of digital games in the latter half of the 20th century when they discuss how digital games work. I contend, though, that it is not a correct view.

Analogue and Digital Games

In the narrativity model, we put a lot of focus on what is broadly termed formal elements. Some of these elements are systems and rules – we’ll get there, don’t worry – but a lot of the formal elements are not. They are input methods, visuals, sounds, dramaturgy and a host of different other kinds of elements that are instrumental in making a digital game the precise digital game that it is.

If you play chess – a favourite example of many game scholars – you do not need a board or a set of pieces that look exactly to specs to play the game. The rules are enough. You can play chess anywhere, with any type of pieces, as long as you follow the rules and the system. In a very real way, the game of chess is the same as the rules of chess. This is true of most, if not all, analogue games.

However, the same cannot be said of digital games.

That statement really deserves an argument, but this is a blog post, and any argument I would make would be too long-winded even for my blog posts, so I’ll let you off with an illustrative example instead.

 

Blazkowicz vs Noah

My favourite example of why digital games are fundamentally different is the case of Super Noah’s Ark 3D. Yeah, that’s a thing.

You know the Wolfenstein 3D FPS game made by the game company ID back in the early 90s, right? If not, here’s a video:

 

 

The game is an FPS game where you play as a badass soldier, escaping from Castle Wolfenstein by way of killing Nazis and finding secret doors behind posters of Hitler. You can find it here, by the way.

Now, for some reason or other, ID licensed their game to the game company Wisdom Tree who in 1994 released Super Noah’s Ark 3D for DOS and the SNES. Here’s a video of that:

 

 

The game is an FPS game where you play as biblical character Noah, calming riotous animals to save from the flood of God on your Ark. You can find it here, by the way.

I hope that this example illustrates one critical point: graphics, sound and story are not merely nice things to hold your interest while your brain tries to figure out the system that is the game. They are formal elements every bit as essential as systems and rules.

 

Systems as a formal element

Basically, the systems and rules of the two games above are the same but you’d be hard pressed to convincingly argue that they are the same game. Not so with chess, where we can play with a standard set of pieces or a fancy Star Trek: Next Generation set, but you wouldn’t say you played two different games – you’d be playing chess with two different sets.

(You could, I guess, argue that whether you play Wolfenstein #D or Super Noah’s Ark 3D, you’re really just playing “FPS”, but that would be a weirdly reductive point of view that would close off many avenues for analysis.)

No, I’d rather use the narrativity-based model to insist that digital games function as pieces of media, where the entirety of analogue game-theory – rules, systems-thinking and so forth – is one complex of formal elements. Other complexes are graphics, others are sounds and so on. This is to me much more preferable than the essentially reductionist view that digital games are adequately described as continuations of analogue games.

 

A century of systems?

Now, how does this relate to The Ludic Century?

Well, the basic premise of the manifesto is that we engage much more in systems everywhere in our lives, and since games are systems, it must mean that these systems can be understood as digital games. I would argue that they cannot – since digital games, unlike their analogue brethren are not solely identifiable with systems – and that to call the 21st century ludic on such a basis is not very helpful in understanding neither contemporary times, nor how digital games work.

 

Digital games as composite media

Getting back to the narrativity-based model, I’d like to close out that this is something that you have to accept to work within that framework. You cannot be focused on systems and rules as the only part of what constitutes a digital game and buy into my model. Digital games are – in my view and the view of the model – composite media.

Of course, you don’t have to buy into the entirety of the model to get something useful out of how I use it. But please be aware that the entire premise of looking at digital games from a narrativity point of view, is an understanding of digital games as complex pieces of media, where what we traditionally identify as “games” are only part of the mix.

Next time: something a little more specific, I promise!

Authors
Mikkel Lodahl

I’m an associate professor at the Dania Academy of Higher Education in Grenaa, Denmark. We offer two AP level educations focused on game development, one for programmers and one for designers. I teach a flurry of different analytical disciplines, and I will be blogging about various forms of analysis from gameplay and narrative analysis of games to marketing analysis and even occasionally object oriented analysis in relation to game development. My focus is on making analysis a practical skill. I hope to produce insights and lessons for use in further design, rather than analysing for pure fun and knowledge – though that certainly also has its place. Oh, and a warning: I have a weird background for games – philosophy and the study of religion – which may bleed through from time to time. I will try to blog at least once a week – always on Thursdays, occasionally also on Mondays.

Related posts

Top