Game talkInteractivity

 Posted by (Visited 1860 times)  Game talk  Tagged with:
Jul 092014
 

One of the things I have seen a lot among younger critics who prefer narrative-centric approaches in their games is an emphasis on questioning definitions of “interactivity.”

Here’s the thing: noticing that the act of interpreting something is effectively “interactive” is not a novel observation.

To start with, it is a rather fundamental notion in learning theory in general. For example, it’s a cornerstone experimental result in studies of how learning to read in the first place works.1

But let’s jump to art rather than cognition; the premise that you can be changed by, say, a book, is hardly new.

Beginning with the exploratory

It’s been discussed in literary theory for decades if not centuries. Horace in Ars Poetica argued that poetry should instruct and delight; instruction is fundamentally “interactive.” The Romantics were discussing these ideas in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and  is implicit in Wordsworth’s Preface to the 1802 Lyrical Ballads:

the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants… It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor… To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse. When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort with which I have endeavoured to counteract it…

And of course, clear back in 500BC with Simonides2 we had someone saying that this applied in just the same way to poems or paintings.3

These days science is in on the act too. You’re likely to get pointed at the work of Robert Gerrig4 but he’s building on results in psychology that go back to the 1930s, when it was noticed that where a reader was from profoundly impacted their interpretation of a text. Gerrig conducted experiments showing that unquestionably, on a cognitive and psychological level, readers bring a huge component of the act of interpretation or indeed even comprehension. When Gerrig et al say

In light of this evidence, we propose that fiction, like fact, necessitates a willing construction of disbelief…

they are not so far off from Coleridge desiring

…to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

In the world of hypertext criticism, there was active discussion of the issue of subjecting oneself to an all-powerful narrator; Jay Bolter, for example, was rather critical of the very notion of immersion, arguing that immersion in the sense of passively accepting what the author tells you is what “bad” readers or “lazy” readers do, and condemns writing meant for pure escapism that is written according to conventions of genre.5

It’s even been thoroughly looked at in the context of virtual realities and simulated environments and games by scholars such as Marie-Laure Ryan.6 Ryan even provided us with helpful terms for discussing the concepts of “interactive that is interpretive” (she terms it “exploratory”) and “interactive that changes things” (her term is “ontological.”)7

If we want something a tad farther along this scale than purely interpretive, it is trivially easy to draw connections between, say, Dear Esther or other experiential work that relies primarily on player “assembly and interpretation” and say, the poems of Gertrude Stein. As she says in Tender Buttons,

Why is the name changed. The name is changed because in the little space there is a tree, in some space there are no trees, in every space there is a hint of more, all this causes the decision.

That frankly sounds an awful lot like a lot of experiential criticism of certain videogames. ;) I mean, Stein even said she was after capturing “moments of consciousness” which sounds rather like what Tale of Tales says when they use the term “notgame.” Or maybe they mean “emotions recollected in tranquillity.”8

I could go on and on. The assumption of “exploratory interactivity” is basically rampant throughout the arts. So I, at least, take this part for granted, and for that matter, don’t think videogames as a form do anything at all new or special here. Not even notions like Bogost’s procedural rhetoric are outside the mainstream current of thinking on this front: there are elements in a work, these are subject to interpretation, the audience all sees it slightly differently, the audience’s world may change a bit, hurrah.

When supposedly formalist critics say things like “that isn’t very gamelike,” “not very interactive,” “on the experiential side,” and so on, what they tend to mean is “there’s very little ontological interactivity.”

Starting to get ontological

It’s important to realize that given the observation, there is still quite a lot that is interesting in looking at work in various mediums that uses the ontological form9 of interactivity: that which requires the reader/viewer/player to do more than assemble mental models, but to make a choice which causes a differing output in the work.

This is not new either.

After all, Homeric verse was declaimed, and likely altered on the fly as it was misremembered, changed around based on audience response, etc. Those of us with a literary background are getting tired of citing Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela, Carolivia Herron’s Thereafter Johnnie, or Nanni Balestrini’s Tristano.

It’s been done in theater. A lot. A typical example cited is Ayn Rand, of all people, with her play Night of January 16th. In this courtroom drama, some audience members join the jury and vote on whether the accused in guilty. The play has multiple endings. But you could go for a less interactive form, and cite clapping for Tinkerbell in the stage version of Peter Pan. Indeed, J. M. Barrie rather breaks the fourth wall in the original book text as well:

His head almost filled the fourth wall of her little room as he knelt near her in distress. Every moment her light was growing fainter; and he knew that if it went out she would be no more. She liked his tears so much that she put out her beautiful finger and let them run over it.

Her voice was so low that at first he could not make out what she said. Then he made it out. She was saying that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies.

Peter flung out his arms. There were no children there, and it was night time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees.

“Do you believe?” he cried.

Tink sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to her fate.

She fancied she heard answers in the affirmative, and then again she wasn’t sure.

“What do you think?” she asked Peter.

“If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”

Many clapped.

Some didn’t.

A few beasts hissed.

The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless mothers had rushed to their nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved.

As in the case of the exploratory angle on interactivity, I think there’s ample evidence that outside of games there’s a robust tradition of what might be termed “mild” forms of ontological interactivity. I say mild, simply because most of these examples are limited to simple branches:

A Choose Your Own Adventure story is actually a fixed set of stories glued together through commonalities in plot.

Most experiments in random ordering fall back on what might be termed an impressionist approach; your overall perception of the narrative is not significantly different based on the order.

There are exceptions, but thinking here of stuff like Afternoon: A Story;

The reader of a classical interactive fiction–like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon–may be fascinated by his power to control the display, but this fascination is a matter of reflecting on the medium, not of participating in the fictional worlds represented by this medium. Rather than experiencing exhilaration at the freedom of “co-creating” the text, however, the reader may feel like a rat trapped in a maze, blindly trying choices that lead to dead-ends, take him back to previously visited points, or abandon a storyline that was slowly beginning to create interest.

- Ryan, http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/ryan/

or Tristano…

The experience wasn’t fun, or moving, or riveting, but as I forced myself to slog through its juxtapositions and disjointed scenes, I started wondering if there was an idea embedded in the project’s architecture. Through its play with contingency, variation, and instability, Tristano forces us to talk about it like we talk about the world and about politics. It situates us in a specific viewpoint—different from but no less legitimate than anyone else’s—and then challenges us to seek out the common ground that makes discourse possible.

http://www.blunderbussmag.com/coping-with-chaos/

Or the aforementioned Rand play, where the actual point of the play is apprehended by seeing both endings. Perhaps a linear version of this might be Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

What lies beyond

As Ryan puts it,

Interactivity is not merely the ability to navigate the virtual world, it is the power of the user to modify this environment. Moving the sensors and enjoying freedom of movement do not in themselves ensure an interactive relation between a user and an environment: the user could derive his entire satisfaction from the exploration of the surrounding domain. He would be actively involved in the virtual world, but his actions would bear no lasting consequences. In a truly interactive system, the virtual world must respond to to the user’s actions.

Or as Bolter says,

The computer therefore makes visible the contest between author and reader that in previous technologies has always gone on out of sight… this traditional belief in the fixity of the text cannot survive the shift to the electronic writing space.10

In mild forms of ontological activity, the world responds only by unveiling yet another predetermined brick in an edifice of authorial logic. This is why we have some game critics claiming that all systems, all artistic works, are in fact built of false choices, of the tyranny of the author.

But there are many games where what the player brings to the table is not “choice” of using a tiny set of verbs on a tiny set of largely irrelevant props, all aiming in the end towards the same predetermined authorial lesson. Systems can be designed for authorial imposition — Wordsworth’s or Horace’s intent to educate and illuminate — or for players to express, create, and even innovate. It is here where games like The Sims, Eve Online, Minecraft, Universalis, Dwarf Fortress,11 and even less “free” designs like Core Wars lie. And there is a case to be made that in that space are things that only games can do.

The main reason why critics keep thinking in terms of linearity, exploratory interactivity, and false choice is because that’s what most of the games they have played offer.

An article like Beirne’s portrays “ye olde interactivity paradigm” as a) the notion that interactivity is the unique quality of games, and b) interactivity is “pressing a button in a game to make stuff happen.” As the above hopefully shows, he’s correct to say that both are false, and correct to say (as he does) that he’s built a strawman. But along the way, “make stuff happen” is being erased.

And if we’re talking about “ye olde” definitions of interactivity, it doesn’t hurt to point back at Crawford, kind of the granddaddy of all the formalists in videogames, who defined it as

A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks, and speaks—a conversation of sorts. In this definition, the terms listen, think, and speak must be taken metaphorically.

When people seem like games fundamentalists, they are stretching for greater agency, not less. They are trying to identify the structures that lead to this strong ontological interactivity. When they talk about systems, they are reaching for realer choices, not false ones. When they minimize narrative, they are saying they want to think for themselves more, rather than be told what to think. When they say “interactivity” they mean freedom from those thousands of years of mainstream cultural current that say you must be lectured to. It is not an accident that self-determination theory is being found to have great applicability to game systems design.

None of this means that exploratory interactivity is bad. Or that mild ontological interactivity is bad. They’re not. There’s nothing wrong with making an exploratory interactive text and calling it a game. There’s also nothing wrong with doing fairly bog-standard literary exegesis work on games like that. But they are found in many media. Strong interactivity, though, is found in fewer places, mostly tied to improv: music, comedy, roleplay, games.

Which means that focusing on this powerful and relatively rare tool, one that has only been able to come to fruition fully on a digital stage, is actually a really valuable effort, and not one that deserves denigration as sterile formalist wankery.

In fact, one might even make the argument that flowerings of ontological interactivity layered atop exploratory games — as in the case of speedruns, glitch hunts, subversion such as pacifist FPS play12are signs of the ways in which players themselves are engaged in this same exploration, like water that naturally seeks to break out of its prescribed channel.

So where does that leave us? Well, Bolter mentions that Harold Bloom believed13 that

each poet must misread his or her predecessors in order to create a new text under their otherwise crushing influence.

To me, that feels very much like the enterprise that many game critics are currently engaged in.14


  1. Such as, for example, the work by Rumelhart et al starting around 1977. For examples of experimental results, see http://psych.stanford.edu/~jlm/papers/RumelhartMcClelland82.pdf

  2. Well, at least according to Plutarch. We don’t actually have a lot of Simonides left. 

  3. ut pictura poesis as Horace had it. 

  4. such as http://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/BF03210803#page-1 

  5. “Losing oneself in a fictional world is the goal of the naive reader or one who reads as entertainment. Its is particularly a feature of genre fiction, such as romance or science fiction” — page 155 of Writing Space

  6. A good synopsis of her work can be found here: http://www.humanities.uci.edu/mposter/syllabi/readings/ryan.html 

  7. This builds on the work of Espen Aarseth in Cybertext, but I find Ryan’s formulation more succinct. 

  8. Wordsworth. 

  9. or “squinteractive” as Stephen Beirne calls it in his piece here: http://normallyrascal.com/2014/07/07/ye-olde-interactivity-paradigm/ when he states “I’m going to try to move away from the application of interactivity to almost exclusively mean ‘press button to make stuff happen’ by giving a name to this old critical/design model. I’ll call it ‘squinteractivity’, because it only makes sense if you squint really hard. Also I suppose because it offers only a very narrow perspective.”  

  10. Writing Space again, pp 154-155 

  11. whose most recent patch note included the marvelous statement “Some dwarves have life-long dreams and it is possible for them to recognize that they’ve accomplished the ones relating to skills and family. They cannot yet realize their dreams of taking over the world.” 

  12. see for example, Conscientious Objector. 

  13. all the coolest quotes in Writing Space are indeed on pages 154-155! Or rather, all the stuff that has held up the best, anyway… 

  14. The preceding post expanded from an abortive tweet that was kinda grumpy. Sorry. :)  

  30 Responses to “Interactivity”

  1. I don’t think the divide between exploratory and ontological makes great sense. Just because I use buttons or controllers to articulate a row of signs (a pac-man image) that run counter to another row of computer-generated signs (a maze, dots, ghosts), doesn’t mean I do not depend on mental models in order to change aspects of a fictional World in which I have become a subject who carries out meaningful actions.

    One can’t escape the act of constructivist activity (i.e. reading, the articulation of signs according to the rules of a specific grammar that collapse into a fictional and meaningful world). Be it trough text, through sound and image, or through haptics, one must recognize schemata (say, the pac man, the ghosts, the dots, the maze), the relationship between these schemata (i must collect all dots in this maze without getting caught by ghosts if I want to keep playing) and other clues (and rules before one can meaningfully alter the fictional World that has been put into existence through both my physical and mental work.

    The ontological and the exploratory aspects cannot be seperated. It works the same for paintings or novels. Some paintings are quite straight and ask you to take in a single position in front of the image, some invite you to play with them (as it is the case with anamorphosis; you must now walk around to find the spot that enables you to articulate the image and read a meaning in it; or the case with many optical illusions that offer several reading lines, and therefore seem to contain several images: think of the “vase or face?” illusion). On the other hand, some novels are bound and ask you to read according the rules of the codex format, whereas some are unbound and allow you to construct texts as you desire.

    Linearity or non-linearity (=interactivity?) are not intrincsic aspects of these media, both aspects must be achieved and held up by means of bending the medium used for that particular goal, and both aspects, linearity and non-linearity may become “industry standarts”, standarts of which we, if they dominate the cultural sphere for long enough, may think of as they where the natüre of the media that are standardized in that way. We should avoid such essentialism and step away from “either-or” approaches.

    If you think that computers are really cool things to make games with, then say that. If you think it’s much cooler to have texts that allow you to roam freely, than say that. Otherwise you’re just adding confusion to the confusion that already exists.

    Plus: narrative theory is not simply the study of rigid structures. It is about meaningful structural patterns that must be constructed and held up by author, artifact and reader, it is about temporary structures that have been achieved, that may dissappear, reappear, undergo transformations, be combinatory in one of their aspects or rigid in another etc. Here, form is not the equivalent of static or rigid. And formalism is not the simply the study of everything linear or of things written in stone. It is about discovering the patterns that make constructive interpretation and meaningful action possible: in all media, and yes, in those used by or developed for games. Formalism/structuralism as the study of rigid structures is unfortunately the rigid view of ludologists who rely on hearsay and clichés.

  2. Oh come on. Sorry, but you just touched a nerve.

    Paragraph one: as stated, happens everywhere, with everything. You’re restating the basics yet again.

    Paragraph two: a reiteration.

    Paragraph three: another reiteration.

    In paragraph four, in the desire to emphasize that not everything in experiencing a work is intrinsic to the work, you basically deny the work itself any structure and erase it. It is not essentialism to state that the work has characteristics independent of what is going on in your head.

    In paragraph five, you miss the point. Yes, computers are cool things to make games with. Yes, texts that allow you to roam freely are neat too. So are ones that don’t — I spend far more time with ones that don’t, personally! That has basically nothing to do with what I am saying, which is that there ARE constructs, artifacts, etc, which have been created with structures that encourage and invite roaming freely, or play, or whatever. And gosh, games happen to tend to fall on that end! Erasing that fact in favor of “oh, everything is that way because we build a mental model” seems fatuous to me.

    The last paragraph commits the same erasure in the name of defending narrative theory. Yes, of course all sorts of stuff is at play in the head. Hurray. The text in most cases is fixed anyway. Both can be true at the same time, and it’s rather silly to deny it. The “holding up by artifact and author” is, as we all know, only *actively happening* at a given moment in the reader’s head.

    I find it ironic that you end by calling out rigidity when what the essay is calling out is specifically someone saying that “oh, this pattern that makes constructive interpretation and meaningful action possible is irrelevant.”

  3. “Doing *more* than assembling mental models”. That’s the point where my nerves were touched. That sounds to me like you think of the possibility of purely “ontological” games. And where it also sounds to me that you treat the explanatory and the ontological as if these were substances that are present in games or narratives in different proportions/ratios. But why for example do we need to put the exploratory and the ontological into an assymetric relationship, or speak of them as if they were “measureable”? Or could we not say for example that the more ontological a game is, the more exploratory investment it demands from a player? I do not understand what maintaining this divide is good for?

    Sorry, but I have to reiterate: The exploratory aspect makes the (more, or less) ontological aspect possible. There is no way to speak of ontological games without speaking of the exploratory base that enables the recognition of such ontology. Hence, I find the divide between these useless, even confusing.

    Why did I stress this point to a degree that upsets you ? Because this point invites us to reconsider the divide between interaction and interpretation, between action and thought, between gameplay and story, between games and narratives, and between ludology and narrative theory: Less or more ontological, less or more exploratory; it does not matter to narrative theory, and it should not matter to ludology. Narrative threory deals with how more, or less, ontological structures have to be dealt with by players in also exploratory terms. I think there’s something for ludology to learn here from.

    I hope this time I was able to make my point. My sincere apologies for upsetting you. Peace.

  4. That sounds to me like you think of the possibility of purely “ontological” games.

    I don’t think any games are purely ontological, no.

    it also sounds to me that you treat the explanatory and the ontological as if these were substances that are present in games or narratives in different proportions/ratios. But why for example do we need to put the exploratory and the ontological into an assymetric relationship, or speak of them as if they were “measureable”? Or could we not say for example that the more ontological a game is, the more exploratory investment it demands from a player? I do not understand what maintaining this divide is good for?

    First off, I do believe they are measurable. Certainly the exploratory quality is measurable in all other media. So I don’t see why this is an issue?

    could we not say for example that the more ontological a game is, the more exploratory investment it demands from a player?

    In fact, I did say something similar, here: http://www.raphkoster.com/2013/11/06/gdcnext13-slides-for-playing-with-game/

    But that presentation illustrates the divide here too, I think. There ARE differences between the explorations possible with a spoonfed narrative, with a system with little “play” to it, with an expressive architecture, etc. Looking at things solely from the exploratory side cannot illuminate or explicate those differences.

    There is no way to speak of ontological games without speaking of the exploratory base that enables the recognition of such ontology. Hence, I find the divide between these useless, even confusing.

    Short form: you can’t talk about Dwarf Fortress or Sims or Eve intelligently without talking about the ontological characteristics. Doing a narrative theory analysis on them treats the source of the explorability as a black box.

    Less or more ontological, less or more exploratory; it does not matter to narrative theory, and it should not matter to ludology. Narrative theory deals with how more, or less, ontological structures have to be dealt with by players in also exploratory terms.

    Agreed! But where it fails is in talking about
    - how the structures work
    - how they achieve their effects
    - why they are structured the way they are
    - subtler things, like how cultural structures influence the ontological side

    Which is why I called for new formalist critique that pays attention to this side in the name of enriching even the narrative theory approaches: http://www.raphkoster.com/2014/03/24/a-new-formalism-critical-proximity-talk/

    Basically, narrative theory alone reduces all ontological structures to being the same by placing primacy on the mental construct. In the name of removing essentialism it also removes the thing itself through elision. This isn’t a flaw — narrative theory just isn’t equipped to deal with the kinds of things ludology looks at any more than it is equipped for dealing with economics or physics. It’s a mistake to claim primacy for either perspective or any given critical lens, and that is what rubbed me wrong.

  5. I had a lot of great discussion arising from this post on twitter, so here’s a Storify of it all:

    https://storify.com/raphkoster/reactions-to-interactivity

  6. In regard to where you think narrative theory falls short of bringing good answers to how structures work, how they achieve their effects etc. You should get a copy of Umberto Eco’s The Open Work. It’s a great study that addresses probabilistic narrative structures, and it deals with a broad range of media and arts, from music to literatüre, from novels to computers. It was written in 1962, short after Wiener’s Cybernetics (1955?), and contains an evaluation of what this book means for literatüre and narrative studies. It’s brilliant if you ask me, and it has been largely neglected by ludology so far.

    There are a number of other sources from the formalist/structural arsenal that have extensively dealt with the issues you point out.

    How the structures work: From russian formalists to french narrative studies, to Jakobsen to Todorov to Barthes. It’s their central question!

    How they achieve their effects: already the russian formalist draw attention to what they call the “poetic function”, and they try to understand how poetic work breaks Daily language to achieve poetic impact. That’s similar to ask how Daily life routines, objects (and of course humans) gain a different/ludic aspect when they are gamified or contrived into taking on a role in a game World. In the end, the question is how fiction works, regardless of the medium it is brought to us. If you prefer to go without narrative theory, you prefer to go without the findings of one of the strongest disciplines in this regard. Don’t :)

    why they are structured the way they are: again, from Russian Formalism to post-structuralism, dozens of intelligent studies: Todorov, Jakobson, Eco, Barthes, Ricouer, Greimas, Fabbri…

    how cultural structures influence the ontological side: structural anthropology and other 20th century anthroplogical approaches have dealt with this extensively, for example Levi-Strauss, Cliffort Geertz, and Roger Caillois. Paul Ricouer speaks of “meaningful action as discourse”, an approach that puts forward a (player) theory in which the exploratory and the ontological are inseparable.

    You see, plenty of what you believe to be missing has been explored by formalists and structuralists.

    I do not say that we should give up ludology and stick with narrative theory. I do not say narrative theory is the 42 of all things ludic. All I say is: what most ludologists believe narrative theory to be, has no thorough basis. Don’t write it off, especially not on what has been told us about narrative theory in the past 15 years by ludologists. It’s extremely misleading, and sometimes based on utterly wrong assumptions on narrative theory.

    Anyway, thanks for the conversation, and my sincere apologies if I sounded offensive :)

  7. […] – Raph Koster, Interactivity […]

  8. So, you’re clearly more widely read in some of that material than I am. But I too suffered through quite a lot of it in graduate school, and have in fact cited a bunch of those very same authors in my presentations. So I am not unaware of them (though I have not read that particular Eco, and it sounds like I should).

    That said, I stand by the statements I made. Narrative theory does have lots to say about structure, but it fails utterly in discussing procedurality at the level of algorithms designed to create NP_hard puzzles, to pick just one such example. It discussed how effects are achieved, but it does so largely from a phenomenology perspective, rather than addressing cognitive science. And so on. There IS a new realm there, one that crosses readily between humanities and sciences, and narrative theory, particularly given its fetishization of subjectivity, isn’t really all that well-equipped to go there.

    I am not saying to discard narrative theory. I am saying that it has blind spots. Even the premise of “the question is how fiction works” is a seductive yet incomplete siren. It wouldn’t get you very far in chemistry class, and there are aspects of games where it won’t get you very far either.

  9. Yes, of course, narrative theory has it’s shortcomings, but it is after all humans and institutions that develop, spread, and hold up certain theories and approaches, so it’s vital that ludology too, keeps being criticised, because even ludology can be as blind in regard to games than any other discipline. It’s not about a certain approach “naturally” lending itself better to certain research subjects, but to keep refining and questioning the conceptual tools and models that it adopts, and also to question whether the reasons that it puts forward to discard others, are justified. I am someone who is off the belief that ludology’s desire to be a stand-alone discipline, which historically has been held up at the expense of narrative theory, is one if it’s handicaps.

    The idea that narrative theory does not work well for the study of “procedural rhetoric” is in my opinion a wrong statement. It follows the footsteps of Espen Aarseth’s claims in his Cybertext (1997), which goes along “computers and games are entirely different things compared to traditional media and arts like films and books, they are non-linear, they are dynamic, not static and linear like for example novels and movies”. There is a lot of confusion and utterly wrong uses of not only narrative theory terminology in this book, but also confusion in regard to notions and models in communication and art theory. A lot of the thoughts in this book are still unquestioned and his arguments have been rushed through quite quickly during the early game studies days. The problems I am talking about are at a more abstract theoretical level, and need to be discussed in length, something which we may not be able to do here, but for now, let me point out that his approach confuses for example the notion of the “reading line” with the notion of “discourse”. This leads to the idea that “linear” traversal excludes non-linear storytelling, but first, all discourse maintains a specific reading line, even in a game, as open-ended as gameplay may proceed, you go through things step by step, and second, the impossibility to go around such linear articulation of signs, doesn’t necessarily mean that this step by step linearity can only result in chronological storytelling: A discourse can present a story in any temporal order. A film like Memento, a poem like Queneau’s A Hundred Billion Poems, clearly shows us that all media have a potential for non-linearity and probabilistic strategies in the construction of their narrative structure. Thinking that only computers can do this, is to make a fetish out of them. Aren’t the D&D series the best proof that narratives may be procedurally generated, and that playing and narrativity cannot be separated? Do we ignore all this just to be able to justify ludology as the only capable discipline to deal with computer-aided narratives?

    You could say the same for AI studies. Quite a lot of studies in this area make extensive use of narrative theory, especially when it comes to develop and hold up semantics structures that the algorithms are suppossed to make run smoothly. The use of narrative theory has grown far beyond natural language processing, for example the work done by Mateas and his students at Santa Cruz is to me a proof that narrative theory is of big use in the realm of procedurality. If you should decide to have a look at Eco’s Open Work, you will see that this compatibility between narrative theory and AI studies is not a coincidence. Even in Propp’s work (Morphology of Folk Tales, I think you mention it in your presentation on game grammar), you see the desire to recognize structural patterns in what looks like an open space of endless possibilities. In the end, it boils down to how a certain path is held up in a narrative forrest that seems to have endless forking paths. In my opinion, narrative theory has done some of the crucial groundwork in regard to games, and if ludology can overcome the prejuidice that it maintains against this discipline, it can only flourish.

  10. Well, I obviously cannot speak for all of ludology — I don’t even necessarily consider myself “a ludologist” per se! But I don’t feel like I am prejudiced against narrative theory, I use it all the time! I do feel prejudiced against the tendency to believe it has all the answers. :)

    I do think there is something in ludology that is a discipline of its own, but I really don’t think it stands alone at all. My “standard model” for a game loop (which I really should post up at some point) has linkages to a good half-dozen fields. Narrative is one of them.

    I really do think that there is a pretty big gap between Memento and Minecraft — yes, both are experienced linearly, but there are qualities to Minecraft-as-object that just can’t be easily expressed in a film, ever.

    D&D is a much more complicated example, and one I don’t have time to write about here. :) Suffice to say that sometimes, D&D isn’t a ludic artifact. Sometimes, it is. Sometimes, it’s better thought of as collaborative improvisatory storytelling than as “game” in the traditional sense. Sometimes, it’s played almost like a sport. And that’s fine. It’s a rich system.

  11. Yes, of course there are differences between how different media enable you to hold up narrativity. But what I want to say is that once something can be expressed and read, be it through minecraft-as-object or memento-as-object, narrative theory has quite good concepts in understanding how meaning is articulated and experienced through body and mind.

    It requires more analytical work when you have to deal with branching stories, for sure, and it is often the case that a study cannot exhaust the many narrative propabilities that an open structure supports, but then, this isn’t new, or an aspect that applies only to games: Queneau’s A Hundred Billion Poems is said to require over 200 years from a dedicated reader, if all possible combinations in the book are ever to be activated. It’s just made of ten sonnets with 14 lines per sonnet. But since all lines are snippeted, it offers endless variations, maybe more than the average “interactive” game will support. Analog and rather clumsy, yet quite algorithmic and procedural! Yet, like many other disciplines, narrative theory or formalism offers us concepts that can help to abstract a structure that helps us to understand how the the physical and also discoursive configuration of this book enables structure and meaning to appear. It can, and has done the same for other “interactive” or probabilistic structures.

    By the way, the thought that narrative theory provides all the answers of the world would be turned down by most serious narrative theorists. But a smart reseracher may use this approach to study traces of narrativity in almost every aspect where they appear to exist: from nationalistic myths, to biblical texts, to Daily chatter. Realistic or empiricist counter-parts usually object to the thought that “everything is narrative” based on the primary role they assign to “material” experiences, that is to say, an object is not simply the Word that it is named after, but also the real object that the name refers to. It often seems to empiricists that narrative theory ignores “reality” and only perceives words and meanings. And that it reduces real world experience to narrative itself. However, narrative theory, along the tradition that it comes from -structural linguistics- means to say that our experience of the material World is hugely influenced by the way in which we classify the World through names and verbs, and through the causal/logical structure (grammar, semantics) through which we become able to assign meaning to reality and our own existence. It deals with how the real World and the self becomes “readable” to us. It does not say “the real World does not exist, everything is just made of narratives”, it says that the way we perceive and experience the world is influenced by the language and register we stick with in order to capture it and make meaning of it.

    Hence, when someone says “games are narratives”, it does not mean that yet another thing has been reduced to narrative, but that the person who says it, is interested in understanding how games, in all their materiality, hold up narrative experiences before, during and after gameplay. A lot of ludologist find joy in making a caricature out of narrative theory in exactly this way – for narratologists only narrative exists, and everything is narrative-, but let me tell you that all good narratology has a very strong sense of the material World, and that it wants to know how language and meaning is related to such materiality. One should not confuse it with idealism or rationalism. Good narrative theorists are not fools that live in a fantasy World, but they are well aware that fantasy is an important aspect in the way we experience materiality :)

  12. Yeah, I think even the idea that games can be “read” in the typical senses of the word is somewhat fallacious. Many can be, of course, most even, but that isn’t where I think the heart of games, or even the heart of game messaging, lies — anymore than it does with architecture, music, etc. We’re not talking merely combinatorics here.

  13. I think the objection against terms like “reading” and “text” stems from taking these words in the literal sense, and not in the sense that narrative theory and other interpretative methods understand them. In narrative theory, “reading” and “text” do not simply refer to the act of reading or to a text such as a paper or a print book. These are concepts instrumentalized in a way to achieve a certain sense of the research objects that a narrative study approaches. The way they are constructed requires one to look beyond mere dictionary definitions and to delve into studies that describe the properties, functions and meaning of these concepts. After all, we could look up a Word like “being” from the dictionary, and say a being is something that is, but when you approach it as a philosophical question, then it becomes a concept, and you cannot simply say for example Heidegger misses the point of what a “being” is, you have to sit down and try to understand how he Works it out, instrumentalizes it and applies it. You have to recognize that his question is not simply “what is being?”, but that it is “what is *is? and how does our understanding of *is* alter our understanding of the Word *being*”.

    When narrative theory speaks of reading, it addresses thereby processes of signification and sense-making. This is basically about how any expression, regardless through which medium it is expressed, is articulated by author/designer/creator, and how it is re-articulated by reader/player/perceiver. Constructed in this way, the concept “reading”, lends itself to study processes of sense-making or signification across every instance where this takes place, be it during play, during watching a movie, or engaging with a sculpture. It is in that sense that the concept “read” applies to everything “readable”. However, one should not think that the concept “reading” does ignore the properties of the medium in question. Studies take into account how the possibilities and limitations of a specific medium impact signification processes. The same can be said for social and cultural aspects that play a role in the signification process. It does not simply throw away the material aspect and jump into a dreamlike realm of signs and meanings, it does not simply reduce the object to the meanings that can be “read” in it. It does so only where necessary, and only temporarily, just like when a barber lifts certain layers of hair to deal closer with another layer, but the whole of the head is always kept in mind.

    The concept of “text” Works in the same way: anything that can be “read” is approached as a “text”, that is, an artifact that is designed to make certain ways of reading possible, or that is constructed in a way that suggests certain types of reading, but eliminates other reading options. Again, like it is the case for the concept of reading, “text” is therefore a concept applicable to everything that holds up signification processes: games, literary Works, sculptures etc. Again, it does not reduce everything to text or meaning, and when it does, then it is temporary and for “tactical” reasons in the analytical process. It’s obvious that someone WHO constructs a concept must be careful not to take it as a fact, and stay alert in regard to how his construction of the concept alters his perception of the research object. Good narrative theorists are good in seeing a “text” in artifacts, but they are also good in keeping in mind that they should not confuse the model with the object.

    When we miss the point that we speak of scientific abstractions, and not about text and reading in the literal sense, then narrative theory sounds really dumb and limited, because in the literal sense, we directly assign these words to books and the act of reading, and it is only a small step from here to think that narrative theory is meant for books and book-reading only. From there it is even a smaller step to bring in arguments such as “books and reading is linear, and narrative theory is only useful for linear media”. But once we recognize that we speak of quite flexible analytical tools and realize how and why they are constructed the way they are, we understand better what it is all good for, and that they give us additional options to capture games and gameplay. Salen and Zimmermann speak of “meaningful play”, and that is something that narrative theory can deal with by seeing games as “text” and by seeing play as “reading”. As long as we do not take these words literally and understand what they amount to as concepts and instrumental abstraction, we avoid to fall victim to the reflex of saying “but games are not texts, books are texts” :)

    And that is actually the point where I criticize ludologists: Intentionally or not, they do not take the time to study the concepts “reading” and “text” (or “sign” and “signification”), and they take these words literally, missing that these are constantly refined abstractions designed to achieve a certain type of knowledge about how the world, the artifacts in it, and our actions and experiences become meaningful to us.

    Anyway, this can go endless. And I feel now like *the* advocate of narrative theory. I admit that I always felt it close to my heart. But I do not try to convert everyone into a narratologist. I just want to clarify the points that make game studies and narrative theory look like they were opposites. Peace and more understanding between the two will help this area a lot. That’s all I want to work towards: Peace :)

  14. No, you misunderstand me. I am quite aware of the senses of text and reading as used here. I am saying there are forms of apprehension that don’t fit well under that rubric, and games, music, and architecture all tend to use them quite a lot — forms that are extremely subconscious yet affect the brain rather powerfully, where the reader is NOT engaged in sense-making. I don’t think of these as being “reading” in the usual narrative theory sense though perhaps you do. A read of the text of chess, or even of one match of chess, is not all that chess does, is what I am trying to get across.

    I don’t think that ludology and narratology, or whatever other terms we choose for that axis, are opposites either. It’s foolish to attempt to exclude the various forms of narrative that arise from games. I DO think that the language of narrative theory tends to make it difficult to talk about the ludological aspects, historically, mostly because it so thoroughly attempts to colonize the terminology. (Conversely, ludology has historically blanked out narrative to far too large a degree).

  15. […] follows. Stephen Beirne took a couple of shots at the concept of “interactivity”. Raph Koster responded, the conversation flooded over to Twitter, and then Raph wrote another post addressing […]

  16. […] Consider the teaser trailer for Interactive Narrative Experience™ “Fragments of Him” by SassyBot Studios an example of passive, non-optimal / traditional storytelling, welded to a participant-active medium (or maybe not, as Raph Koster argues) […]

  17. […] ‘Unravelling some ancient mystery’ just doesn’t seem as interesting as, eg. a mysterious space / process which continues to be mysterious, outside and even despite player intereactivity […]

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