Thursday, August 23, 2012

Gaming, Curation, and Memory: Some Definitions.

When did gaming, specifically video gaming, change? When did narrative move to the front?


I stood slack-jawed in a CompUSA one night, watching the very first Halo demo on a huge video screen. I'd never seen a game like it. The earth was shifting under our feet, yet most people couldn't tell. Was I the only one in the store who realized what was happening?

Halo gave the player real agency. Sure, there was a storyline and tasks to complete, but how that happened was up to the player. In some ways, it was like the free will versus determinism debate: Players had to get through the storyline, but because the world was interactive, they had more leeway than ever.

This interactivity is now commonplace in video games, of course. Its real value is in the way players construct multimodal game narratives--recollections, chats, game film--around that interactivity.

Some definitions:

Games studies: The humanities-based counterpart to game theory (Simons 2007; note the plurals).

Game theory: The mathematics-based counter part to games studies (Simons); a discipline that gives me a headache.

Narrative games, narrative gaming: Games that have as critical elements storytelling, player interaction, and recountable narratives. (This is my definition; other definitions exist.)

Social gaming: Games associated with social networking and social media, eg, Farmville.

So, then, what is ludology?

Ludology looks at games from the mechanical, rule-based point of view. For ludologists, the way a given game "works" is the important part; the player and the designer are significantly less important. At one point, the ludologic position was that games exist separately from those who created them and those who play them. Narrative was thus a colonialist, imperialist strategy. After some academic bickering, ludologists conceded the importance of narrative in games. 

Admittedly, it's easier to stand one's ludic ground when Galaga and Scrabble are the dominant games, less so once Heavy Rain emerges.

The reader/writer/text dynamic, a key aspect of textual studies across many disciplines, has been replicated in gaming. For video games, we have the player/designer/game dynamic, and for narrative video gaming such as that of LA Noire and Alan Wake, the reader/writer/text dynamic remains significant. For RPGs, the player/creator/system dynamic is almost inextricable from the reader/writer/text dynamic. 

Example: A given game system is a critical part of the gaming experience. I stepped away from D&D at version 2.0 because I thought the skill system was laughable; 3.0 and 3.5 left me cold because of the munchkin culture they encouraged. Conversely, I found the BRP system used by Chaosium to be wonderfully open, largely because of its granular nature. Each of these systems radically affected my gaming experience. Again, it is the nature of a game system to define the terms of the experience. This argument is easily made for video games as well; different systems have different controllers, and skill with a given controller is a massive determining factor in the total experience.

I emphasize these trimodal aspects, then, because they are foundational.

Narrative gaming is multidisciplinary and multimodal. In World of Warcraft, player choice is the key to character development, and exploits can be recounted, commented upon by others as they occur through chat, and saved as game film. Narrative gaming embraces other modes and brings them in to serve narrative.

As you can see, I am on the narratologist's end of the spectrum. (For the record, and for any ludologists lurking about, I see simulation as part of game mechanics, not narrative development.) *The key difference between narratology and ludology is the performative element of narrative gaming*. Galaga and Space Invaders were simulations: repetitive, rigidly structured, linear. On the other hand, World of Warcraft is highly narrative, that narrative being one of the primary reasons its players participate.

Many of these differences become key factors when we consider curation and memory, my next topics.

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