Thursday, October 1, 2009

Agency - To Be Desired?

It's a legitimate question, and one that seems to be coming up a lot in one of my classes: how much agency do we really want in a media experience? Certainly we want some if we're expecting a game; without any at all, then we might as well just be watching a movie. But is more agency necessarily better? How much is too much? Is there even such a thing?

The games that give us the most agency, games like ''The Sims'', where there are no rules holding us down and we can do anything we want, are often the least "game-like" experiences. This is because games are defined by rules. The confines of the system are what give us a solid structure in which to work, to problem-solve, and to explore. It is the reduction of our agency in certain areas that highlights our agency in others.

Rules allow the game's creator to structure an experience. It allows him to provide atmosphere, to dictate events in such a way that our feelings are manipulated (the final goal of all art forms) in the way the designer desires. Such a guided experience can be very pleasurable. But if a guided experience is what we're looking for, then what separates interactive media from movies? Should we not dispense with the interactivity altogether and simply go back to our static films? This, after all, would allow for maximum structure on the part of the creator.

The fact that we do not must mean that there is something inherently pleasurable about interacting. Under this assumption then, how do we compromise? How do we maintain the pleasure of interactivity, while not losing the pleasure of a structured experience, the way we do in ''The Sims''? Game designers are still struggling with this problem, and will likely continue to do so for some time. Rather than trying to define a single answer, perhaps an impossible task, perhaps we should look at what interactivity gives us that is pleasurable. What is it about interactivity that we WANT to keep?

Perhaps foremost (arguably; I would be more than happy to debate this point with anyone who so chooses), interactivity is a powerful tool for empathy. Compared to a passive movie-going audience, players are incredibly invested in the life and well-being of the main character, because they are directly responsible for it. It is the decisions and skill of the player that determine what happens to the main character and whether that character lives or dies. By the same token, anything that happens to the character reflects back on the player. If the character is injured, it is not just the character: it is YOU who is injured. If the character murders someone close to him, it wasn't just the character's action: it was YOUR action. When a player is in control of a character, he effectively becomes that character. His own fate, his own success or failure, is innately tied to that of the character. The emotional resonance that occurs therein is therefore necessarily stronger than with other forms of art, simply by virtue of the fact that the player is participating in it.

So then, in order to make use of this powerful empathy, a player must feel like he has control over the character. If too much of the character's actions, or the effects on the character, are out of the player's control, then he no longer feels that these actions/effects are his responsibility. The feeling of empathy is broken. This can happen once the player falls below the threshold of "enough" agency, at which point he feels as though he has no control over the character, or his control makes no difference. At this point, the character becomes just as sympathetic as a character in a book or movie; we might feel something for them, but in a detached sort of way that allows us to distance ourselves from them.

So then, let us return to the question of what is "enough" agency. How much is too much? I would argue that a highly-structured media experience is preferable to an unstructured one. After all, if no creative mind is shaping our experience, then what is the point of being an artist of the medium? However, it is vital that these experiences allow enough agency to make the player feel not only that he has a vested interest in the fate of the main character, but that he has a palpable ''effect'' on the fate of the main character. When he feels this, he becomes engaged with the material, and video games (and other interactive experiences) can do some of their most powerful work.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Emotional Experiences in Gaming


So I've been thinking recently about emotional experiences I've had playing games, and what causes them. Games, especially good games, have given me quite a few to consider. In "Portal," for instance, I've had moments of genuine laughter, and of genuine panic and fear. Games have given me and others moments of real sadness, and a very real feeling of achieving victory. So what is it about these games that can make me feel so much? Emotional experiences in gaming, I've found, tend to break down into two categories, according to cause: those caused by narrative elements, and those caused by game elements.

Emotional experiences caused by narrative elements are similar to those in other fiction media. When Aggro hurled me over the edge of the crumbling bridge in "Shadow of the Colossus," and subsequently fell to his own (presumed) death, I felt real anguish. Aggro was a character I had grown attached to. He was my sole companion throughout the game, my vital aid in many previous missions, and though I was occasionally annoyed when he had a slower reaction time than I wished, I had really come to think of him with fondness. In fact, I didn't realize just how attached I had become to that horse until I watched him plummet into the canyon.

Most of us are familiar with this sort of experience. Many of us remember crying when we first read "Bridge to Terabithia" or "Where the Red Fern Grows." We become absorbed in fictional worlds, attached to their characters, and invested in their plots. The process of storytelling gives us mental models in our minds of people and events that are as real as those models we create to represent people, places, and things that actually exist in the real world. The things that happen to fictional characters are as real to us as the things that happen to, say, celebrities, sometimes more so - since we often know more about a fictional character's life and motivation than we ever know about the mysterious lives of the rich and famous. So it's not strange when emotion is evoked by a story. We're sort of used to that.

The other way games evoke emotion are through the experience of gaming - the feeling of "yes, success!" when we accomplish a difficult goal, for instance. Puzzle games can be particularly pleasurable for the feeling of cleverness and self-appreciation we get when deciphering a particularly complex brain teaser. We feel a sense of triumph - over the machine, over other players, even over the rules of the game itself. Likewise we can feel defeat, frustration, determination, unease, and even fear, concerning the goals of the game and our progress towards them. Just yesterday I felt such successes and failures when playing a fighting game with a group of friends.

This second type of experience doesn't require story - it comes straight from our real-world experience with the act of playing the game. I can be argued therefore that this type of emotion is therefore more "real," although that term seems to belittle the story-based emotional experiences, which can often be incredibly powerful - sometimes even more than these so-called "real" emotions. (In my opinion, both sets of emotions are real, whether the source they stem from is fictional or not. After all, both emotional experiences take place in the same centers of our brain.)

These two methods of evoking emotion have historically been very segregated in their study. The practice of evoking emotion with fiction has long been the study of the creative fields - creative writing, film-making, literary study, theater, and so on. Whereas the evocative powers of games, when studied at all, tend to fall more into the psychology or sociology category - how do humans deal with success and failure? With stress? With competition? It is perhaps because of the vast separation of these two fields that it becomes somewhat difficult to think about the unifying of the two types of emotional experiences.

Some of the most moving emotional experiences I've ever had in games, however, come not from either of these categories, but from clever hybrids of the two. Video games are in the unique position of being able to provide a game experience and a story experience at the same time. Here are a few examples:

When I first played "Portal," and completed the last of the official missions, I was feeling very satisfied with myself. I'd been doing very well, thinking around obstacles and proving myself to be smarter than the machine. GLaDOS was just congratulating me on finishing the test.

Then the platform I was riding turned a corner, towards a bank of fire, and I panicked. An eerie, tense techno theme rose in the background as thoughts flashed through my mind: 'Oh no, GLaDOS betrayed us' - 'I'm going to die, what should I do?' - 'Where can I put a portal?' - 'So that's why the lab is empty, this is what happened to everyone else' - 'Ohshitohshit! I'm gonna die! I have to jump!'

This series of thoughts illustrates the combination of emotional occurrences. On the one hand, my panic was engendered by fear for my game success. I had only seconds to make a difficult decision, solve a puzzle, or else the result would be failure. Actions I had been performing more or less at leisure the rest of the game were suddenly put under extreme time pressure, which caused an equally extreme anxiety.

But on the other hand, part of my panic was entirely story-related. I realized that my character had been betrayed. That all along, the AI had been planning to get rid of my character after she analyzed my abilities. I realized that this must have happened before - that all the test subjects who came before me must have been hurled towards this same fire, that maybe they'd found a way out, but maybe they'd burned to death in the flames. I panicked wondering how I - how my character - was going to get out of this situation.

Another such powerful experience comes from the game "Call of Duty 4," and is one I've written and talked about often before. In the game there is a sequence where one of the characters - a character which the player has been controlling for about half the game thus far - is caught in a nuclear explosion while trying to escape by helicopter. The helicopter goes down, and the player assumes that the character has died.

But wait - he's alive! The GPS locator in the game's loading screen focuses on the character, finding him amidst the wreckage, and the game drops you down into the man's body once more. You awaken to find yourself in the midst of the helicopter wreckage, so injured you can barely move except for a slow crawl. As you stumble out of the twisted hulk of metal, you find yourself in the midst of the nightmarish aftermath of the explosion. An enormous mushroom cloud towers over you on one side, while the wind blows pale-colored dust and debris in a fierce storm all around you.

It quickly becomes horribly obvious: this situation cannot end well. There is no reasonable hope of escape. Everything around you is dead, dying, or destroyed. The faint hope you felt at finding your character alive quickly dwindles into a shocked acceptance of the truth: you are going to die.

The emotional impact here is once again two-fold. On the one hand is the obvious impact of the story elements, the horror of nuclear war, the desolation of the environment, the doomed fate of a well-liked character. But on the other hand, the despair is also game-based: there is no way to win. All the previous missions (with the exception of the "mission" over the opening credits, which is almost more of a cinematic sequence, and should probably be considered differently for a variety of reasons which I won't get into here) have always had a win state, a goal to accomplish, a way to survive. Now, the player must gradually come to terms with the fact that there is nothing he can do. There is no way to win, no way to save the situation, or keep this character around for later use. This is it. You lose.

By combining these two emotional impacts, the game delivers an exceedingly strong message about the danger and destructive force of nuclear war. Neither emotional resonance on its own would do the trick - just forcing you to lose a mission without the story context would be meaningless and frustrating, while having you watch a static story-based cutscene about the character's death would seem preachy and cliche. But together, the combination of the two delivers a startlingly effective experience, reaching out to the heart and soul of the player.

Because of the strength of this impact, I think it's very important in the study and creation of games for us to think about the nature of such emotional experiences - after all, the ability to evoke emotion is one of the strongest powers of Art, no matter what its format. We must learn to appreciate the nature of games in both their capacities to evoke emotion, and think long and hard about the best ways to combine them.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Indirect Storytelling in Facebook's Packrat

I've been playing the facebook app game "Packrat" (copyright Alamofire Digital Collectibles) for over a year now. It's an addicting little sucker - a collectible card game wherein you use in-game credits to purchase cards from stores, or use cards you already have to steal new ones from other people. The cards belong to various themed sets, and each card has a point value. Low-level cards from the same set can be combined to form higher-level cards from that set (which, most of the time, cannot be gotten in any other way), and the object is to collect all the cards from a given set and "vault" them so that they can no longer be stolen from you. It can be played with or without active friends playing the game, although as with most facebook apps, there is a bonus for getting friends to join.

I didn't start thinking about Packrat as a form of narrative until recently - perhaps because they've only just started using it as such in a more blatant fashion. It's not direct, obvious narrative like you'd find in a novel or a movie, but much more subtle. It arises from the nature of the card sets, and how they're designed. Allow me to explain via example. The following is one of the current sets of cards, "The Razor's Plunder," and the cards required to make each card:

Base Cards:
Treasure Map Fragment
Metal Detector
Trail of Treasure
Iron Heart (a sort of steampunk engine)
Stone of Fortune
Marked Palm Tree
Unfortunate Treasure Hunter (a skeleton)

Built Cards:
Captain's Gig: Iron Heart x3
Treasure Cave: Metal Detector, Marked Palm, Unfortunate Treasure Hunter
Captain Auger Confrontation (a fearsome-looking pirate with a sword): Treasure Map Fragment, Trail of Treasure, Stone of Fortune
Converted Cutlass Arm: Pickaxe, Shovel, Iron Heart
Swashbuckling!: Treasure Cave, Captain Augur Confrontation, Converted Cutlass Arm
The Razor Triumphant (the Captain with a handful of gold): Swashbuckling! x2, Captain's Gig

Consider the direction in which these card combinations leads the mind. Like a connect-the-dot drawing, the makers of Packrat lay out a few key points along the way to allow the player to construct a narrative of swashbuckling pirates, hastily assembled mechanical limbs, and a struggle over hidden treasure. The details of the narrative may differ from player to player as they construct it in their minds, but the essential plotted course is there.

"The Razor's Plunder" is not the only Packrat set with an implicit narrative. Recently released sets include an "Independence Day" set wherein you make Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock, and combine them to form the Declaration of Independence. "Ink Wars" told the story of two rival tattoo parlors, one upscale and one rundown and sketchy, and the tattoos produced by each. Currently in progress is an "Ants & Grasshoppers" set, which seems to be a slightly revised version of the classic tale about work and procrastination. (The high card in that set is called "Bug Summit," and seems to be a meeting between the emperor of the grasshoppers and the queen of the ants.)

Packrat is an interesting example of a non-traditional narrative - but one nonetheless clearly intended by the game's creators. The combinations within each set are clearly intended to evoke some very specific images and causal relations. But the narrative itself - including its timeline - must be literally constructed by the player from these building blocks. It's a good reminder that our current models of narrative are not all-inclusive, and that it is still possible to think of storytelling in new, and entirely radical ways.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Required Playing: Eternal Darkness

Silicon Knights. 2002. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. Nintendo GameCube. Nintendo.

Reading a description of the plot of Eternal Darkness might not give you the greatest confidence about the game's innovation; the plot reads more or less like a cheap Lovecraft ripoff. When I played it the first time, I was looking specifically at its "fourth wall"-breaking elements. I was not expecting to be completely blown away by the narrative structure. Since I played it, it has become my opinion that this game should be required playing for anyone discussing narrative in video games - its narrative structure is one of the most unique and well-designed that I have ever seen in a video game.

Eternal Darkness goes like this: a young girl named Alexandra is told that her grandfather has been murdered, and goes to his house to find out what happened. There she discovers a mysterious book - the Tome of Eternal Darkness - containing a legend about the Elder Gods, each of whom is trying to come into our world and take it over. The legend also tells of one of the God's undead servants, a former Roman soldier called Pious Augustus. While reading, Alex notices that most of the book is missing - it seems to have been removed. She inspects the house to find the other chapters.

The first chapter features a young woman in an ancient temple, bearing the very same book. At this point, however, the legend is all the book contains. As the young woman progresses through her journey, she writes down her experiences within the book. At the end of her life, she finds herself trapped within the temple.

As she has finished reading, we return to Alex in her grandfather's study. We now have all the information that the young woman in the chapter learned, including any spells she discovered. Alex can use these spells to uncover the next chapter of the book in the house. This chapter features a new character, and his autobiographical segment. Because he has inherited the book after the young woman of the first chapter, he too has access to all her information and spells. He adds his own as he discovers them, thus giving these same powers to Alex.

This goes on for 10 characters, each giving the next piece of the story of the Elder Gods, and providing further clues about what happened to Alex's grandfather. Each character has his or her own strengths and weakness, different items, and different fighting style. The controls, however, are similar enough across characters that the player can easily adjust to a new character within moments. By the time she has completely reconstructed the book, Alex has all the information she needs to defeat Pious Augustus and his Elder God.

The structuring here is brilliant. The multiple flashback system allows for a fascinating nonlinear narrative, while at the same time the inheritance feature of the book allows for completely plausible linear character ascension - the player continues to gain more and more powers, never losing ones she had previously, but without any sort of artificial feeling of "leveling up." Each character is entirely unique, and gives a refreshing change to gameplay (younger characters might have more strength, religious characters have greater sanity, older characters tire more easily, etc.), without being so different as to require the player to learn a new control scheme every time.

The flashbacks are even played with in the narrative in other ways; certain levels will take place in the same maps as previous levels, but with gaps of often hundreds of years. Therefore, things the player does in previous levels, as previous characters, can affect what the player can and cannot do in subsequent levels. (For instance, if you retrieve the longsword the first time you are in the monks' abbey, you can find it again on that character's corpse when your new character returns there years later.) All the stories interweave effortlessly with each other and with Alex's frame story.

As if this astoundingly well-crafted narrative wasn't enough, the game also provides some really interesting breaking of the fourth wall. The game features a "sanity meter" (it is not the only game to do so, but as far as I know, it's the only game to handle it quite like this), where the character you are currently playing has a limited amount of sanity, measured by a green vial on the screen. Witnessing strange and unbelievable horrors will drain your sanity meter, as will falling under the gaze of the game's monsters.

As your sanity drops, you begin to experience some strange effects. Blood might drip from the walls, the floor turns to quicksand, statues turn to watch you as you go past, etc. This is all your standard horror-genre sort of fare, but the game doesn't stop there. It also tries to mess with the player directly. When sanity gets low, the game might throw up a message that the controller has been disconnected, just as you enter a room with a huge crowd of enemies. It might tell you that the TV has been muted, or that the console has been restarted. All these effects are completely outside the context of the game, and aimed specifically at you the player, meant to make you doubt your own sanity. I will admit to being caught in at least one or two of them, and I knew they were coming! This clever little gimmick might be worth checking out on its own, even if the game wasn't a must-play for narrative structure.

I think games like this are a must-play before anyone argues that games can't have innovative or unique narrative structures. True, most games are linear or tree-style narratives, but just because many are, doesn't mean they have to be. I have never been as pleasantly surprised with a game as I was with Eternal Darkness, and while it may not be the most popular game in a commercial sense, I do believe it should be required for all Game Studies academics.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Readings in Game Studies: Avatars of Story and Half-Real

These are my final two books for now, and I'd like to offer them side-by-side for comparison purposes. These books represent two opposed schools of thoughts in game studies: narratology and ludology.

From what I've gleaned from my reading, this particular argument has gotten muddier and muddier as time has gone on. On the surface, the question is simple: should video games be studied as narrative artifacts, or as examples of games? (Perhaps, ludological artifacts? Or ludive? Ludic?) But both arguments have had voices that tend to lend a certain extremism and, importantly, both arguments have framed the other as extremist. The extremist narratological view states that games with stories are necessarily better, and that every game has narrative. The extremist ludological view states that games cannot have narrative, and that the goals of games and storytelling are fundamentally opposed to one another.

I agree with neither school in particular - my personal feeling on the matter (which I discuss in chapter 1 of my paper) is that games should be treated as the medium in which a story takes place, and thus the study of narrative in games is nearly impossible without looking at the game elements. Similarly, games can be studied as games in themselves in the same way that language can be studied separate from its content, but a full study would not be complete without looking at the unique tools that they offer the art of storytelling.

Still, I'd like to present these two books as the quintessential viewpoint for each school of thought.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Avatars of Story. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Ryan offers some rather excellent summary and analysis of how narrative has been constructed in the past, in more traditional media, and how interactive narrative is now being born in new media. Her actual reference to video games is rather small, consisting of a single chapter in the entire book. Rather than dwelling on one particular form of interactive media, Ryan explores all aspects of how storytelling can be dynamic, including such experimental forms as hypertext fiction. Her approach is largely theoretical, and includes, for instance, a very informative series of diagrams on different potential narrative structures.

My one beef with Ryan's work is that, when she discusses video games, she seems to speak from a position of complete inexperience. With most other game studies writers, it is obvious from the text that the writer is familiar with video games, has - to a greater or lesser degree - played some of them, and, while perhaps not preferring it, has the potential to adopt a "gamer" persona when necessary. Not so with Ryan. Her references to various games come across as stilted and distant, and often she goes so far as to underestimate and even denigrate the medium she is supporting.

For instance, she refers to the narrative in FPSs as an "'affective hook' that lures players into the game. [...] Once the players are absorbed in the fire of the action, they usually forget whether they are terrorists or counterterrorists, humans defending the earth from invasion by evil aliens or aliens conquering the earth. Having fulfilled its role as a lure, the story disappears from the player's mind displaced by the adrenaline rush of the competition" (197). While this may be true of multi-player shooter "death-matches," single-player FPSs often have protagonists that the player identifies with more closely than with any other genre. Only the cheapest instances of the genre have stories bland enough to allow for this kind of disregard. (Granted, this book was written in 2006, and some of the best examples of storytelling in the FPS genre have only come out within the past two or three years. But that does not mean that reasonable examples were not present before that.)

Similarly, when describing how we look at/study games, she says, "A game does not need to tell stories that would provide suitable literary material to immerse the player in the fate of its fictional world, because the thrill of being in a world, of acting in it and of controlling its history, makes up for the intellectual challenge, the subtlety of plot, and the complexity of characterization that the best of literature has to offer" (195). It may be unintentional on her part, but she seems to be implying here that video games don't or can't contain "intellectual challenge," "subtlety of plot," or "complexity of characterization." Granted, a lot of current games don't contain these things. But then, neither does most current fiction. The "best of literature" is few and far between, and I do believe that games are fully capable of this depth, and that it has already been seen in some current examples of games. (Try Portal for "subtlety of plot," given how creatively the game asks the player to construct backstory from carefully-planted clues.)

She continues: "The pursuit of large audiences by the game industry and its reluctance to take risks explains in part why it has been sticking so far to stereotyped narrative themes and formulae, such as medieval fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, horror, and the mystery story. But through their emphasis on action, setting, and imaginary creatures of fantastic appearance, these narrative genres are much more adaptable to the interactive and fundamentally visual nature of games than "high" literature focused on existential concerns, psychological issues, and moral dilemmas. Literature seeks the gray area of the ambiguous, while games and popular genres thrive in the Manichean world ofthe "good guys" versus the "bad guys": if players had to debate the morality of their actions, the pace of the game, not to mention its strategic appeal, would seriously suffer" (195-196).

This just seems to indicate an ignorance of modern trends in gaming; morality and the player's consideration of it has become such an overused trope in modern gaming that it has in some cases been reduced to the level of gimmick. Gray areas abound in modern games - what about the US marine in Call of Duty 4 who dies slowly in the aftermath of a nuclear blast, unable to do anything to save himself? Consider the commentary this offers on warfare within a game focused on the player's participation in war. What about the scene towards the end of Metal Gear Solid 3, where the player is forced to kill the main character's mentor in order to fulfill his mission, despite the character's emotional attachment to her? Granted the game industry has often stuck to more easily implemented genres, as she says, but that doesn't mean that deeper, more meaningful games do not exist and, importantly, have the potential to exist in the future.

But I suppose one of my biggest complaints is the fact that she seems to show little regard for the games as artifacts in themselves. It may not seem like a big deal, but the fact that she gets a popular game title wrong (it's Tomb Raider, not Tomb Raiders) is almost personally offensive to me. Combine this with the fact that she does not list any of the games she mentions in her bibliography, and one begins to wonder if she actually played any of these games at all.

Still, regardless of this (and for many who might be interested in the sort of subject material she discusses, this criticism is really little more than a pet peeve on my part), she does have some truly insightful discussion of narrative, which is worth taking a look at. In particular, I found her three sets of diagrams of narrative structure (mentioned earlier) to be an excellent summary of some often very difficult concepts. She also has a very good point-by-point rebuttal to the classic arguments of the school of ludology.

Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2005.

Compare this to Jesper Juul's Half-Real, which Avatars of Story references directly upon occasion. Juul is a ludologist, and believes that games should be studied as game objects, not as narrative objects. Although this book takes a more compromising stance than previous remarks on the viewpoint. (He now argues that it depends on how one defines "narrative" - a perfectly reasonable argument, although I still disagree with his conclusions.)

Juul prefers to look at the gaming experience as something that is half real - that is, half made up of a player's experience interacting with a set of concrete rules that define a game - and half fictional, referring to the virtual worlds in which these games take place, and the cues that the fictional aspect of games can lend to the rule-based system. (I know that agent X is a bad guy, because it looks like the green slimy aliens that my character is defending the world against.)

While I disagree on several of the points where Juul implies the lack of importance of game narrative, his arguments are well-formed and completely reasonable. His approach, while not the only way, is certainly one entirely valid way of studying games in general and even video games in particular. His compromising position provides more of a concession to the importance of the fictional aspect of games than do many ludological approaches, and thus helps prevent a certain loss of richness in study that one might get from an approach that completely disregards all narrative elements.

Both texts are worth a read, both on their own merits and the way they frame the ludology/narratology debate. As a conclusion here, I would like to present a short summary of the ludology vs. narratology question, as presented by either school.

Basic Idea:
Games can be studied as narrative artifacts, looking at the way they tell stories.

Extremism (as framed by own school):
All games tell stories; they are a superior story-telling medium to other media.
"[Tetris is] a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s--of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught." (Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, 1997: 144 (quoted in Juul, 133))

Extremism (as framed by opposite school):
Games are better the closer they resemble more traditional narratives.
"In the rhetoric of narratology – or the storytelling rhetoric – we find an aesthetic understanding of video games in which researchers study how games might live up to the demands and requirements of narratives in literature and movies. Usually literary and film theorists are involved as representatives for this kind of rhetoric. Looking for narratives, the focal point of attention has explicitly been narrative-based games like adventure and role-playing games." (Aarseth 1997 (quoted in Konzack, 2007))

Basic Idea:
Video games are examples of games as a form of play, and should be studied as rule-based systems.

Extremism (as framed by own school):
Games and stories are of opposite nature and therefore incompatible.
"...story is the antithesis of game. The best way to tell a story is in linear form. The best way to create a game is to provide a structure within which the player has freedom of action. Creating a "storytelling game" (or a story with game elements) is attempting to square the circle, trying to invent a synthesis between the antitheses of game and story." (Costikyan, "Story vs. Game," 2000)

Extremism (as framed by opposite school):
Games are incapable of telling stories, and narrative can only be found in literature.
"Ludologists [...] are generally partial to the definition proposed by Gerald Prince in 1987, but since modified by its author [...]: "Narrative: the recounting ... of one more more real or fictitious events communicated by one, two or several (more or less overt) narrators to one, two or several (more or less overt) narratees. A dramatic performance representing many fascinating events does not constitute a narrative, since these events, rather than being recounted, occur directly on stage." (1987, 58)." (Ryan, 184)

Having read these two texts, I think I shall have to rescind my earlier position as "probably a ludologist" and claim the title of narratologist. It's hard to determine where one fits in when so much of the argument is framed by the opposition, but the fact of the matter is that I'm looking at how games tell stories. So that makes me a student of narrative, and thus a narratologist.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Readings in Game Studies: What Video Games Have to Teach Us

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Revised and Updated Edition. New York: Palgrave and MacMillan, 2007.

This book is excellent - I highly recommend it for anyone interested not only in gaming, but in anything to do with teaching, learning, and literacy. Gee uses the medium of games and how they teach skills as an example to express the necessity of teaching (particularly in schools) in dynamic and involving ways. The writing style is engaging and his analysis is fascinating. Definitely a good read, even for the non-academic.

As for relevance to my own work, I marked so many passages in this book that I actually ran out of post-it notes halfway through and had to go out and buy more. There are so many quotes from his book that I find useful that I'm not sure I'll be able to fit them all in a single post. So, while very much of his work directly impacts my own, I'd like to focus for the purposes of this post on a single section that I felt was of the most interest - Gee's categorization of video game identity.

Because I've been studying narrative theory a lot lately, I've been getting caught up in the terms they use to describe the voices that go into the telling of a story and the reception of it. Terms like "implied narrator" and "implied reader" and so on. However, when one tries to transfer these personas to video games, the terms start to break down. The narrator is the character through which the "text" is experienced, but in a game, that same character is also the implied reader, since the player is assuming that character's role. It seems the previous literary terms must be discarded in favor of a new system of terminology. That's where Gee comes in.

Gee breaks the identity of the video game player down into three categories, each with different degrees of actual existance. His categories are the virtual identity, the real-world identity, and the projective identity. The real-world identity is the player playing the game - James Paul Gee, or Kyla Gorman. The virtual identity is the character in the game - Sora from Kingdom Hearts, or Gordon Freeman of Half-Life. The projective identity, in my opinion the most interesting of the three, sits somewhere between the two. The projective identity is the player as character. This identity represents the player's imagining of herself in the role of character - a "projection," as well as the player's wishes for the character to develop in a certain way - the player's "project."

Video games use this intermediary projective identity as a way to equate the other two identities, drawing them closer together and creating the player/character empathy I'm always harping on about. Through the projective identity the player feels involved on two levels - the level of experiencing the events of the character - the projective-virtual connection, and the level of removed interest in fulfilling an implicit game goal, controlling the character's development - the real-world-projective connection. By linking these three identities together, the real-world identity can mentally place herself in the position of the virtual identity, through the projective identity. This creates immersion and empathy, which in turn is responsible for much of the power of digital storytelling.

(If this sounds interesting to you, you really should read the book - Gee's identity formulation can be found in Chapter 3, "Learning and Identity: What Does it Mean to be a Half-Elf?")

I'd like to start by sharing the Gee quotes I've marked about identity, followed by the quotes on immersion, of which there are also quite a few. Finally, I will add the other miscellaneous relevant quotes to finish. I fully realize that there is a great deal of quotation here, but keep in mind that this is AFTER I have pruned what I marked and taken out the less-relevant remarks. As I said, Gee is a very insightful guy.

On Identity

"Each of these traits [that the player can customize] will affect how your character--that is, you--carries out dialogue and action in the world of Arcanum and how other characters in the world respond to you." (46)

"First, there is a virtual identity: one's identity as a virtual character in the virtual world of Arcanum--in my case the half-elf Bead Bead. I will represent this identity as "James Paul Gee as Bead Bead," where Bead Bead is italicized to indicate that, in this identity, the stress is on the virtual character Bead bead acting in the virtual world of Arcanum (though I am "playing/developing" her)." (49)

"The successes and failures of the virtual being Bead Bead (me in my virtual identity) are a delicious blend of my doing and not my doing. After all, I made Bead bead and developed her, so i deserve--partly, at least--praise for her successes and blame for her failures." (49)

"A second identity that is at stake in playing a game like Arcanum is a real-world identity: namely, my own identity as "James Paul Gee," a nonvirtual person playing a computer game. I will represent this identity as "James Paul Gee as Bead Bead," where James Paul Gee is italicized to indivate that, in this identity, the stress is on the real-world character James Paul Gee playing Arcanum as a game in real time (though Bead Bead is the tool through which I operate the game)." (49-50)

"A third identity that is at stake in playing a game like Arcanum is what I will call a projective identity, playing on two senses of the word "project," meaning both "to project one's values and desires on to the virtual character" (Bead Bead, in this case) and "seeing the virtual character as one's own project in the making, a creature whom I imbue with a certain trajectory through time defined by my aspirations for what I want that character to be and become (within the limitations of her cpacities, of course, and within the resources the game designer has given me)." This is the hardest identity to describe but the most important one for understanding the power of games like Arcanum. I will represent this identity as "James Paul Gee as Bead Bead," where the word "as" is italicized to indicate that, in this identity, the stress is on the interface between--the interactions between--the real-world person and the virtual character." (50)

"The kind of person I want Bead Bead to be, the kind of history I want her to have, the kind of person and history I am trying to build in and through her iss what I mean by a projective identity. Since these aspirations are my desires for Bead Bead, the projective identity is both mine and hers, and it is a space in which I can transcend both her limitations and my own." (51)

[In discussing the difference between the three identities as exposed by the way failure is represented differently by each.] "The projective identity of Bead Bead as a project (mine) in the making can fail because I (the real-world James Paul Gee) have caused Bead Bead (the virtual me) to do something in the game that the character I want Bea Bead to be would not or should not do." (52)

"It is not uncommon, even when young people are playing first-person shooter games featuring a superhuman hero (like Master Chief in Halo)--a character that, unlike Bead Bead, they usually cannot choose or develop but must take as is--that they will redo a given fight scene because they feel they have "let their character down." They want to pull off the victory more spectacularly, as befits a superhero. They feel responsible to and for the character. They are projecting an identity as to who the character ought to be and what the trajectory of his or her acts in the virtual world ought, at the end of the day, to look like." (53)

"As a player, I was proud of Bead Bead at the end of the game in a way in which I have never been proud of a character in a novel or movie, however much I had identified with him or her. [...] my satisfaction with Bead Bead is thinged with pride (it could have been regret had things turned out differently), at various levels, in and with myself. This feeling is not (just) selfish. In a sense, it is also selfless, since it is pride at things that have transcended--taken me outside of--my real-world self (selves), if I am playing the game reflexively." (54)

[on students in science classrooms, projecting their identity as scientists] "They want their scientist to become this sort of person, whether or not they are themselves anything like this in their "everyday" lives. In good science learning, learners are not just role-playing being a scientist of a certain sort (their virtual identity). They are also proactively building that virtual person as a certain kind of person with a certain kind of history. They are projecting their own hopes and desires onto that person." (62)

"The learner, in this case, gets to customize the identity the game offers him to a certain extent--this, in fact, is an important feature of good video games." (37)

"Thus, Von Croy's remark [about which buttons the player should push] perfectly melds and integrates talk to Lara and talk to the player. This melding is part of what marries the player's real-world indentity as a player and his or her virtual identity as Lara. This type of talk is very common in video games." (118)

"Such language is one among many devices in a good video game that encourages the player to relate, juxtapose, and meld his or her real-world identity (actually, multiple real-world identities) and the virtual identity of the character he or she is playing in the virtual world of the game. Such a process also encourages the player to adopt [...] a projective identity." (121)

"...when you are playing as a virtual character in a video game, that character, (you) is the hero (center) of the story and in that sense the "good guy" no matter how bad he or she might be from another perspective." (147)

"Good video games offer players strong identites. [...] In video games, players learn to view the virtual world thorugh the eyes and values of a distintive identity [...] or one they themselves have built from the ground up." (216)

On Empathy

"Players can choose strategies that fit with their style of learning, thinking, and acting. This, of course, is highly motivating both for learning and for playing the game and a rich source for reflecting on one's own styles of learning and problem solving (and, perhaps, experimenting with new ones)." (78)

"When the character you are playing dies in a video game (and it is always, of course, a main character), you can get sad and upset, but you also usually get "pissed" that you (the player) have failed. Perhaps you even feel that you have failed yoru character. And then you start again, usually from a saved game, motivated to do better. The emotional investments you have in a video-game story are different from the emotional investments you have in a book or movie." (80)

"Players are placed, by the very design of the game, in the same psychological space as Lara--learning from Von Croy but not subordinating themselves entirely to his old-fashioned professorial need for dominance. The game's design encourages the player to take on a certain sort of attitude and relationship with Von Croy--and, more generally, a certain sort of personality--that represents, in fact, just the sort of person that Lara is." (117)

"As we said earlier, the player is encouraged by the very design of the game to be more Lara-like--playful and willful--leaving behind fears and hesitations about authority and the risks of exploration." (122)

"But, alas, Heinrich got me in the end. I went down with more pride and dignity (remember, in my projective identity, I care about such things), but I went down nonetheless." (127)

The movie Saving Private Ryan [put the audience in the middle of a full-scale battle] as well, but the game puts the player right in the midst of the action, pinned to the ground, surrounded by deafening noise and woundedm, wometimes shell-shocked soldiers, and facing the near certainty of a quick death if he or she makes one wrong move." (145)

"Video games have an unmet potential to create complexity by letting people experience the world from different perspectives. Part of this potential is that in a video game, you yourself have to act as a given character. As you act quickly, and not just think leisurely, and as you (while playing) celebrate the character's victories and bemoan his or her defeats, you must live in a virtual world and make sense of it." (159)

"[...] players feel a real sense of agency, ownership and control. It's their game." (217)


"The experience brought home to me, forcefully, that learning should be both frustrating and life enhancing, what I will later call "pleasantly frustrating." The key is finding ways to make hard things life enhancing so that people keep going and don't fall back on learning only what is simple and easy." (3)

"Rather, [people] think best when they reason on the basis of patterns they have picked up through their actual experiences in the world, patterns that, over time, can become generalized but that are still rooted in specific areas of embodied experience." (9)

"Finally, despite some claims to the contrary, the fact of the matter is that the effect size of video-game play on aggression is smaller than the effect size for television, thereby rendering the claim that there is something special about the interactivity of games as a source of aggression suspect." (11)

"The game [Pikmin] encourages him to think of himself as an active problem solver, one who persists in trying to solve problems even after making mistakes, one who, in fact, does not see mistakes as errors but as opportunities for reflection and learning. It encourages him to be the sort of problem solver who, rather than ritualizing the solutions to problems, leaves himself open to undoing former mastery and finding new ways to solve new problems in new situations." (36)

"The story line ina video game is a mixture of four things:

1. The game designers' ("authors'") choices.
2. How you, the player, have caused these choices to unfold in your specific case by the order in which you have found things.
3. The actions you as one of the central characters in the story carry out (since in good video games there is a choice as to what to do, when to do it, and in what order to do it).
4. Your own imaginative projection about the characters, plot, and world of the story.

The first and fourth of these itmes are true of books and movies, as well, but items two and three are true of video games only.

Thus, in video games like Deus Ex, stories are embodied in the player's own choices and actions in a way they cannot be in books and movies." (79)

"The intertextual principle is concerned with the fact that after players have dealt a good bit with certain types or genres of video games and the texts associated with them, they can begin to see these texts themselves as a gmaily or genre of related texts." (106)

"...the episode is also meant as a training module where the player is explicitly coached on how to play the game." (116)

[on a character referencing the control scheme for instructional purposes] "Now this is, if you think about it, a strange thing to say. However, it does not seem the least bit strange when one is actually playing the episode. Von Croy is tlaking to the virtual character Lara, a character who walks and jumps in the virtual world but has no computer whose keys she can press, push, or hold." (118)

"In a good game, the player leanrs to play the game by playing in a "subdomain" of the real game. This is an important learning principle and, again, one regularly ignored in school. [...] Furthermore, this episode usually offers a concetrated sample of the most basic and important actions, artifacts, and interactions that the player will need to deal with throughout the game." (122-123)

"This and other games have brought home to me that I hold cultural models about learning like: "The final goal is important, defines the learning, and good learners move toward it without being distracted by other things" and "Good learners move quickly and efficiently toward their goal." I also hold other models: "There is one right way to get to the goal that the good learners discover (and the rest of us usually don't)" and "Learning is a matter of some people being better or worse than others, and this is important." These models all get entrenched in school repeatedly." (173)

"In playing video games, hard is not bad and easy is not good. The six-year-old mentioned earlier was once asked whether easy or hard was better in a video game. Without a pause, he said hard is always good, easy is not. Would that children said such things about learning in school." (175)

Readings in Game Studies: Unit Operations

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Game Criticism. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2006.

While I did manage to pull several relevant quotes from Bogost's book, I have to admit that I found it largely unhelpful. Bogost's book outlines a critical framework wherein a "text" is looked at as a larger structure built up of individual base units. He relates this critical approach to object-oriented programming.

While I got very little out of this book myself, I thought I should perhaps outline his approach here anyway, in case it will be useful to anyone else. (And so I have some place to keep track of the quotes I do intend to use.)

One of the central tenants of programming is the idea of breaking up large chunks of code into smaller, easier-to-manage pieces. I may have a difficult time writing a single program that simulates a queue at an airport counter, but it will be much easier if I write, for instance, a single function that models a person entering a queue, another function that models someone leaving a queue, a function that models the process of the first person in the queue being served by the counter attendant, and so on. Each individual piece is easy to write, and by combining them all together, I can make my larger program with far greater ease. There are two ways I break up code into smaller chunks: I can create sub-routines that do pieces of the work, or I can create "objects" - units that describe smaller pieces of the simulated "world," and can be interacted with in simple, easy-to-understand ways.

Bogost proposes looking at criticism in this way - having single, simple concepts that can be built up to create larger, more complex wholes. This approach in relation to criticism leaves me with many questions. How are we to determine what these base units are, precisely? How far is it acceptable to go downward into taking pieces apart? (In one chapter, he presents the base unit for a particular set of critical analyses as the "chance encounter." It seems to me that this unit is still made up of smaller units such as "character," "location," etc.) What impact does this form of structuring have on our greater conclusions? (I did not see much of one, personally, but perhaps I missed something.) What is to distinguish these units from tropes, or from standard story elements?

On the whole, I think this sort of rigidly functional approach does not lend itself as well to literary (and thus, the narrative aspect of video games, although it certainly relates to the software, computer-science-related side) criticism as Bogost argues that it does. Formal systems, like computer software, are built on rules - rules that define and, importantly, create the system they describe. On the other hand, creative works such as literature, while they may be described by rules, are created in an absence of them (even sometimes of the fundamental spelling and grammatical rules of the language containing them, especially in the case of more modern poetry), and often specialize in breaking these rules, or finding ways around them. You can't find "a way around" a programming syntax without invalidating any program written in that language. However, you can strategically break rules of, say, the detective novel genre and generate a new and innovate work that nevertheless still belongs to the genre.

I've always thought of the central difference between the sciences (in particular, computer science) and humanities as the difference between a binary relation and a gradient. In computer science, there is a Wrong answer. Your program either works or it doesn't. Sure, one working program might work more efficiently than another, or the coding style might be more readable, but if the program doesn't compile, or gives faulty output, then it is Wrong.

On the other hand, creative works such as writing tend to operate more on a gradient. We can tell, for the most part, when a work is Good and when a work is Bad. But there is almost never a single error or failure that we can point at and say, "look, if this was fixed, then the story would be Good." It might be better, but there's no clearly-drawn line to cross between success and failure. There is wiggle room. Furthermore, an author's particular technique might be successful in one way, but fail in another, which requires a subjective "was that sacrifice worth it" judgement on the part of the critical audience. You can't argue that one program is better than another because it sacrifices the successful completion of its goals for a neater, more readable coding style. Your program no longer works - therefore it is objectively not as successful as a program that does work.

I realize that there is much creative thinking that must go into the sciences, especially when you get to higher levels of thinking. Just as I realize that there are certain things in literature which are generally considered good and bad according to formalized rules. But no matter what, I can always say that a faster program, all other things being equal (including the program's end goals), is better than a slower program that performs the same task. Whereas in literature, a technique that may have seemed highly evocative and creative years ago could seem stilted or foolish to a modern audience. Some readers may subjectively think that one story is better at evoking sadness, while other readers disagree and point to another.

I think Bogost's "units," while certainly an interesting new way of looking at criticism, and an interesting parallel to point out between vastly different systems, imposes just a bit too much of this discrete, objective framework on an inherently subjective and gradient-based discipline. But that is merely my opinion; others who read Bogost may disagree.

Below are quotes that I found useful from Bogost. They are, unfortunately, incidental to Bogost's subject material rather than integral to his approach, and therefore probably won't give readers a very accurate idea of Bogost's overall philosophy. Still, they were useful to me, and may be so to others as well.

"Ludology is one way to address this need to explain what games are and how they work. From the Latin ludus, meaning game or sport, ludology addresses "games in general, and videogames in particular."" (xi)

"...DiGRA [Digital Game Research Association] president Frans Mayra offers an especially unambiguous vision of "three theses" for game studies:

'Thesis one: There needs to be a dedicated academic discipline for the study of games.
Thesis two: This new discipline needs to have an active dialogue with, and be building on of existing ones, as well as having its own identity.
Thesis three: Both the educational and research practices applied in game studies need to remain true to the core playful or ludic qualities of its subject matter.' " (52-53)

"The field of "hard core" game studies is thus revealed to be essentialist and doctrinaire, its theorists hoping to reinvent a different kind of isolationist techno-textual criticism that privileges the ludic over the literary, culturing the virulent oppositions of a future whose media ecology we cannot foresee." (53)

"Game engines are no more transcendental than genres, in the sense that one cannot play a game engine but only a game that encompasses and integrates that engine to create a work. However, game engines do enjoy a different status with respect to authorship and criticism. The first-person shooter is clearly a genre of videogame and, for better or worse, perhaps the medium's most common genre. But first-person shooter game engines construe entire gameplay behaviors, facilitating functional interactions divorced from individual games. Genres structure a creative approach to narrative; they describe a kind of story. While one can imagine a conceptual description of any of the film genres just mentioned, it is much more difficult to imagine the unit-operational underpinnings of such a genre. [...] Game engines differ from genres in that they abstract such material requirements as their primary--perhaps their only--formal constituent." (57)

"Especially right now with current technology, there are a lot of limitations in terms of what we can do with character simulation. So, to me that seemed like a really good use of the abstraction because there are certain things we just cannot simulate on a computer, but on the other hand that people are very good at simulation in their heads. So we just take that part of the simulation and offload it from the computer into the player's head." (Will Wright in Bogost, 85)

"Because The Sims is a game, players have an opportunity to explore the conditions, assumptions, and outcomes of the simulation through interaction, something impossible in the poems of Baudelaire and Bukowski." (85-86)

"What the game allows that the literary medium cannot is interactivity, the direct manipulation of the "narrator" in the simuated world. Because the sim waits for the player's input by default, the game affords a unique perspective on chance encounters in the simulated and real world. On the one hand, the player is forced to register the event not only from the perspective of the character (does that sim look like someone I'd like to meet?), but also from the perspective of the simulation (what are the social rules to which my sim conforms?). Otherwise said, the simulation exposes the various strategies the player can choose in approaching his sim's situation." (87)

"...the gaps in the simulation that the player fills in "in his head" function equally well no matter how the player directs his sim." (87)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Readings in Narrative Theory: The Rhetoric of Fiction

I have saved the best of my narrative theory summaries for last with Wayne C. Booth's classic The Rhetoric of Fiction (second edition). This book and this critic have been cited in nearly ever other narrative theory work I've read (at least, the ones that came out after this book was published). To be quite frank, I can see why. Not only is he complete and insightful, he is also clear and concise. Therefore, before I get to the actual text, I would like to begin this post with a short note about writing style and readability.

It is a painful task for students, scholars, and general audience readers to have to slog through a badly-written text, particularly an academic text. Writing clearly and obviously is a skill that many academics seem to lack. If your text is indecipherable to the average reader outside the field, this does not automatically make it a good text. In fact, unless it is about a topic so specific that such language and obscurity is required, I would even go so far as to say that this automatically makes it a bad text.

I've heard excuses before like, "This author is very dense, and you have to read him several times to truly understand what he's talking about." But in my mind, this is not an acceptable excuse. Booth is very dense, and his text definitely benefits from re-reading, yet The Rhetoric of Fiction text is still entirely accessible. Compare, if you will, a selection from two narrative theory works. The first is from Reading for the Plot, by Peter Brooks. (Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. New York: Knopf, 1984.) The second is from the Booth book:

"Plot, then, might best be thought of as an "overcoding" of the proairetic by the hermeneutic, the latter structuring the discrete elements of the former into larger interpretive wholes, working out their play of meaning and significance. If we interpret the hermeneutic to be a general gnomic code, concerned not narrowly with enigma and its resolution but broadly with our understanding of how actions come to be semiotically structured, through an interrogation of their point, their goal, their import, we find that Barthes contributes to our conception of plot as part of the dynamics of reading." (Brooks, page 18)

"For experienced readers a sonnet begun calls for a sonnet concluded; an elegy begun in blank verse calls for an elegy completed in blank verse. Even so amorphous a genre as the novel, with hardly any established conventions, makes use of this kind of interest: when I begin what I think is a novel, I expect to read a novel throughout, unless the author can, like Sterne, transform my idea of what a novel can be." (Booth, page 127)

To me, the latter paragraph displays a high degree of skill in communication. While the relative value of the subject matter may be something for critics to debate, the forms in which the subjects are related are clearly of very disparate quality.

There are three reasons, I think, why a critic might write with the former tone rather than the latter. The first is a lack of ability to communicate clearly, either through an intrinsic inability or perhaps the blunting of communication skills through too much exposure to similar academia. Judging by the prestigious list of schools attached to Brooks's name, I would hesitate to attach such lack of skill to the man. Especially considering he is working in a field dealing with the English language, if anyone should be able to communicate effectively, it should be him.

The second reason a critic might write with such obfuscating language is that the subject matter is so detailed and in-depth that it defies more conventional language. I think this excuse is dangerous territory, although it may often be the justification that writers use for themselves. Booth covers very detailed and nuanced ground with perfect clarity. My suspicion is that Brooks's own points have the potential to be captured just as neatly, with the right choice of language.

The third reason is a selfish and misguided one, and that is a certain pretension of appearance. The idea that such language will keep those who are "not worthy" from understanding the subject matter, or the idea that there should be no reason why the author should have to "dumb down" his language for the sake of his audience. Clear communication is not dumbing-down - in fact it shows the author's skill more clearly. Not only that, clear communication allows readers of all levels to enjoy a work and to absorb the ideas it contains, which should be the goal of any author who is convinced that his ideas have merit. I can't claim to be an expert in such clarity myself, but I think it is something that one should strive for.

I'm not sure which of these three reasons - if any - afflict our dear Mr. Brooks, but I do have to say that I was disappointed with his text. I think the writing style is an unpleasant barrier to the understanding of his work, and that his ideas suffer for it. It is my hope and my goal to write in a clear, understandable way. If I am not, feel free to call me on it.

Anyway. Now that I've gotten that particular vitriolic rant off my chest (I apologize - sometimes I get a little too passionate about these things), on to Booth.

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Second Edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1961, 1983 (second edition).

I've found much of interest in my reading of Booth, even beyond what directly relates to my project. For anyone doing anything even tangentially related to narrative theory, I would include this work as a must-read (even somewhat dated as it is). Don't be afraid of its large size - it's relatively easy to read (for an academic text, very easy). Because of space limitations (this entry will be quite long as it is), I will only cover the areas I found directly related to my work, but even so, there are multiple. I will therefore be dividing up the rest of this post into segments based on focus.

Section 1: Reader Objectivity / Player/Character Empathy

As readers of this blog might remember from previous posts, I have a particular interest in the ability of games to give the player a strong emotional connection to the character she plays. In the novel, it is much more difficult, requiring great skill on the part of the author, to give the reader a sense of emotional connection to his characters, especially if the characters are very different from the reader. (Booth compares the reaction of two readers - one with a lisp and one without, to a character that speaks with a lisp. Obviously the more similar reader will react more strongly to the character.)

I will not go into too much depth at the moment about how this technique of empathy is evoked, since I do so not only in previous posts, but also in the section below. Nevertheless, I would like to offer the quotes that Booth has on the subject.

[speaking about the tendency towards an "alienation effect," where good works are considered those that don't involve the emotions] "...the novelist will find himself in difficulties if he tries to discover some ideal distance that all works ought to seek. "Aesthetic distance" is in fact many different effects, some of them quite inappropriate to some kinds of works. More important, distance is never an end in itself; distance along one axis is sought for the sake of increasing the reader's involvement on some other axis." (123)

"It is only as I read that I become the self whose beliefs must coincide with the author's. Regardless of my real beliefs and practices, I must subordinate my mind and heart to the book if I am to enjoy it to the full. The author creates, in short, an image of himself and another image of his reader; he makes his reader, as he makes his second self, and the most successful reading is one in which the created selves, author and reader, can find complete agreement." (138)

"Much more important [than authorial commentary], the sustained inside view leads the reader to hope for good fortune for the character with whom he travels, quite independently of the qualities revealed." (246)

"While only immature readers ever really identify with any character, losing all sense of distance and hence all chance of an artistic experience, our emotional reaction to every event concerning Emma tends to become like her own. When she feels anxiety or shame, we feel analogous emotions. Our modern awareness that such "feelings" are not identical with those we feel in our own lives in similar circumstances has tended to blind us to the fact that aesthetic form can be built out of patterned emotions as well as out of other materials. It is absurd to pretend that because our emotions and desires in responding to fiction are in a very real sense disinterested, they do not or should not exist. Jane Austen, in developing the sustained use of a sympathetic inside view, has mastered one of the most successful of all devices for inducing a parallel emotional response between the deficient heroine and the reader." (249)

[on a lack of authorial commentary] "[Miranda] must be accepted at her own estimate from the beginning, and that estimate must, for greatest effect, be as close as possible to the reader's estimate of his own importance. Whether we call this effect identification or not, it is certainly the closest that literature can come to making us feel events as if they were happening to ourselves. As we read, we know only Miranda's world and we know only her values. Our only value becomes, in a sense, her well-being, and we accept any threat to her happiness precisely as she accepts it. The slightest suggestion that she is at fault will create too much distance; the slightest sign that author and reader are observing Miranda from above rather than alongside will destroy at least in part, the quality of our concern and hence of our final revelation." (277)

"This kind of near-identification can be used for innumerable effects. [...] A motion picture can achieve this kind of thrill perhaps more easily than any other medium, but the devices of showing developed by modern fiction can do it well." (277)

"And then he is gone. He is dead, and we have experienced a personal loss, a personal blow, of a kind that would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve with a technique which provided us with any clear moral or intellectual guidance about the meaning of his death." (278)

Section 2: Types of Literary Interest

Booth has a very interesting section in his text where he discusses the "types of literary interest," or the elements of fiction that keep our attention and force us to continue the experience. While this is related to the idea of immersion, I think a look at how these interests relate to games may deserve an additional section of its own.

Booth breaks up literary interest into three types: intellectual interests, completion of qualities, and what he calls practical interests, but which I shall call empathic concerns (since I feel that more accurately captures the sort of interests he describes).

Intellectual interests refers to curiosity. We have a sort of impartial, academic interest in facts and in how the story will play out. Completion of qualities refers to pattern recognition and the desire for pattern completion. Booth includes in this all types of pattern completion, from story concerns - capture and punishment being the natural completion of crime, and so on - to more formal concerns dealing with the literary discourse (the form of the story rather than the content) itself, as described in the first quote ("a sonnet begun calls for a sonnet concluded..."). Finally, empathic concern deals with our relation to the characters, and our desire to see things unfold based on how we relate to them. We would like to see sympathetic characters have happy endings, villainous characters get their just desserts, and so on.

Booth's analysis of these three aspects and how they interact with one another is quite in-depth, and I will not go into all of it here. (If you're curious about it, it's in chapter V of the book, beginning page 125.) What I would like to discuss is how these types of interest might relate to game studies. Let's put side by side the way each of the three interests work in both media.

Intellectual interest in the novel: I am curious about how this strange egg came to be in the middle of the field. I am curious about what the egg is. I am curious about what will happen if the main character goes up to the egg and touches it. I keep reading, hoping that the author will see fit to answer these questions.

Intellectual interest in the game: I am curious about how this strange egg came to be in the middle of the field. I am curious about what the egg is. I am curious about what will happen if the main character goes up to the egg and touches it. I go up to the egg and touch it, definitely answering at least the final question, and hoping that my interest will trigger further information about the first two.

The interest has gone from a passive experience to an active one. In the case of intellectual interest, a game can be directed by the specific interest of the player, allowing for more engagement - the player need not rely, as the reader must, on the good grace of the game's creator to focus in on what the player finds interesting. The player chooses the area of focus. However, she must still rely on the game designer to create the game in such a way as to allow it to respond to her curiosity in a satisfactory manner. The game designer can accomplish this by making as much as possible of the environment reactant. A reader, on the other hand, must hope that the author's area of intellectual curiosity matches up with her own, because only the author determines what areas of the novel are further explored.

The completion of qualities area is similar. Rather than waiting in suspense to see if the author will complete the patterns I see forming in the novel, I will actively seek out these pattern completions in a game, if I find them desirous. However, this does remove one element crucial to the enjoyment of the novel - suspense. Because he maintains total control, the author can withhold the completion of certain patterns as a method of keeping the reader interested. When the player can actively seek out completion, the suspense is weakened, if not destroyed.

Pattern recognition is also an integral aspect of gameplay, and the learning inherent in gameplay. Players learn that certain actions are available, and will have certain effects. Unlike the real world, the effects of actions in a game are generally consistent. We build our experience of playing the game through learning to recognize and use patterns, in fighting, in problem-solving, and in a number of other ways. Many players gain pleasure from the repetitions of certain patterns, as in the steadily increasing difficulty of certain puzzle games, where the answer to each new puzzle incorporates skills and tricks learned in previous puzzles, and a recombining and shifting of patterns produces new results, which can then be added to the player's repertoire of puzzle solutions for use on future puzzles.

Finally, empathic concerns. This, as touched upon previously, is an area where games really shine. Controlling the empathic relations of a character with their reader is exceedingly tricky business in a novel, and requires a good deal of skill on the part of the author. A game, on the other hand, generally starts with an advantage, given that the character is under the control of the player, and thus the player is forced to relate to their actions (as they are the player's actions as well). We have a very personal stake in whether the story will work out well for the main character, because this happy ending likely coincides with our successful completion of the game. There are, of course, exceptions to the happy ending - but we still tend to presume that we are moving the character towards a certain goal, and that the goal is somehow desirous, at least for the player. Our empathic concern is less necessarily for the happiness of this character, but more of the success of ourselves as players. Nevertheless, this method still operates by harnessing the same sort of interest as does our empathic concerns for a character in a novel. The focus has just shifted from an exclusive focus on the character to a mixed focus on the character and ourselves.

A combination of these three elements of interest are why I think games have a tendency to be "addictive." Combining a high degree of emotional resonance with the pleasure of repeated pattern recognition (technical, at the very least) and the ability to actively pursue the objects of one's curiosity combine to capture the audience's interest and hold it fast.

Here are some relevant quotes from this section of Booth:

"...our desire for causal completion is one of the strongest of interests available to the author. Not only do we believe that certain causes do in life produce certain effects; in literature we believe that they should. Consequently, we ordinary readers will go to great lengths, once we have been caught up by an author who knows how to make use of this interest, to find out whether our demands will be met." (126)

"If we look closely at our responses to most great novels, we discover that we feel a strong concern for the characters as people; we care about their good and bad fortune. [...] It is of course true that our desires concerning the fate of such imagined people differ markedly from our desires in real life. We will accept destruction of the man we love, in a literary work, if destruction is required to satisfy our other interests; we will take pleasure in combinations of hope and fear which in real life would be intolerable. But hope and fear are there, and the destruction or salvation is felt in a manner closely analogous to the feelings produced by such events in real life." (129-130)

"Such [emotional] concerns are not simply a necessary but impure base, as Ortega would have it, to "make contemplation possible" but "with no aesthetic value or only a reflected or secondary one" (pp. 80, 76). In many first-rate works they are the very core of our experience. We may refuse assent when an author tries to manipulate us too obviously or cheaply with a casual bestowal of goodness or intellectual brilliance or beauty or charm. We all have use for epithets like "melodramatic" to apply against abuses of this kind. But his does not mean that human interest in itself is cheap. It is true that our involvement in the fate of Raskolnikov is not different in kind from the involvement sought by the most sentimental of novels. But in the great work we surrender our emotions for reasons that leave us with no regrets, no inclination to retract, after the immediate spell is past. They are, in fact, reasons which we should be ashamed not to respond to." (130-131)

" is clear that no great work is based on only one interest. Whenever a work tends towards an exclusive reliance on intellectual interests, on the contemplation of qualities, or on practical desires we all look for adjectives to whip the offender with; a mere "novel of ideas," a mere "desiccated form," a mere "tear-jerker" will offend all but the small handful of critics and authors who are momentarily absorbed in pushing one interest to the limit." (133)

Section 3: Person / POV

I don't have much to offer in the way of quotes for this section, but I am impressed nonetheless by the incredibly nuanced view which Booth takes towards the idea of "point of view" in literature, from distinguishing between "person" in the traditional manner to more complex ideas of "dramatized narrators" and so on. What I think is very interesting about point of view in games is the way that certain games embody what we often think of as traditional points of view.

A game is almost always told from the point of view of the PC. This makes the PC the "narrator-agent," as it were, or the narrator who is also a character in the story. However, the character also shares the experience of being the implied reader as well, as he is the intended avatar for the player within the game, and thus all responses to the player's input will be received via the game's relation to this character. In the same way as a text is "speaking" to the implied reader, the game is "reacting" to the character, which is implied to be the player. Narrative theory will have to come up with a whole new terminology to describe exactly what position the player and the PC hold within the narrative - games have a tendency to twist the existing terms to their breaking points.

Oddly enough however, what we think of as some of the most basic and elementary (in the sense of sort of juvenile, in addition to simple) categories of literary point of view hold true in games, and do so in ways that provide an interesting visualization for how we think of the literary equivalents.

First-person games present a camera situated "behind the eyes" of the PC. Only the hands and perhaps some of the arms can be seen of the character being played. We see of the character and of the world only what we would see of ourselves if we were in the same situation, thus helping to increase our sense of being the character in question, the limited "I" perspective.

Third-Person Limited
Third-person games such as RPGs have a camera situated behind and usually slightly above the main character. We see the figure of the character from the outside, and a portion of the surrounding environment. This gives us a sense of greater grasp over the world/map, perhaps seeing some things that the character himself might not be able to. Thus we increase the scope of our viewpoint while limiting our identification with the character.

Third-Person Omniscient
Common to RTS and other God games, this perspective puts the camera high above the ground, allowing the player to see large portions of the world at once, and to move back and forth across the world independent of any particular character. This is also the only viewpoint where the player is not specifically relating to a single character in the game. In this perspective, we lose almost all empathy with individual characters - more often than not, characters are resources rather than individuals, and the player is an invisible god-force that controls their actions. With our view at its fullest availability, we sacrifice the most player/character empathy with any single character.

It would be very interesting to me to see these perspectives related, in turn, back to the literary medium, but I do feel that this is somewhat outside the scope of this project.

In conclusion, go read Booth. It will quite likely be less tiring than what you have just finished.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why I Hate Edutainment and MMOs

I suppose this title is a bit harsh. Actually, I don't really hate edutainment OR MMOs. I have no gripe against the games themselves (any genre that can produce a game like The Typing of the Dead is alright by me), nor against the people who make them. My gripe is really with the way they're studied, particularly in the larger context of game studies.

If you're unfamiliar with either of the two genres, allow me to explain. "Edutainment" is the term used to refer to games that teach a subject. This could be old-school games like Number Munchers or more complex games that happen to have an educational element, like Civilization. Because of the immersive and interactive nature of video games, many have found that games are a good way of teaching people facts and skills. The fun and playful nature of games keeps people coming back, and helps them to absorb the information. It's no secret that games and play are a great way of learning - people have used games to learn and teach since long before the video game.

MMOs are Massively Multiplayer Online games, games which include communities of sometimes millions of players, all interacting and playing with each other online. World of Warcraft is usually the first game to come to peoples' minds when discussing the subject. MMOs can provide a very interesting forum for the study of virtual worlds, and various sociology/social dynamics/anthropology studies.

As interesting as games in either of these genres can be, more and more I have found the way they are studied to be somewhat degrading to video games as a medium. Both genres deflect attention away from the medium, forcing it to be little more than a vehicle for something "more interesting."

When people look at the potential of video games to teach, particularly people outside the Game Studies community, their enthusiasm seems to contain the implicit criticism, "Well, games are pretty useless by themselves, but look, we can use them to teach people things of real value." It's as though the medium is only valuable to the extent that it can teach us history, or a foreign language, or typing skills. You know, useful information.

To me, this is like someone saying that only non-fiction books have any value. While I know a lot of people prefer to read exclusively non-fiction, I think most of them would agree that some fiction, particularly the classics (Shakespeare, anyone?), have at least some intrinsic value as works of art. Even if they would argue otherwise, I think they might have a difficult time supporting their points while running from the angry mob of literary critics at their heels with torches and pitchforks.

It's the same thing with MMOs - games are looked at not for their worth as games, but for how they can illustrate interesting social phenomena and, more often than not, are lumped in with non-game virtual worlds like Second Life. The sort of studies people usually talk about when they discuss MMOs seem to belong more in the field of sociology than in Game Studies. The game itself is largely ignored in favor of the players. And while it is certainly interesting to see what this new medium can tell us about ourselves, it seems terribly rude to that medium to ignore so much of it. Studies of MMOs often seem to largely ignore the existance of single-player games, as though multiplayer games were all that the medium consisted of, or at least all of any importance. In fact, MMOs and single-player games are vastly different from each other, and should not be lumped together.

Games can be art. I firmly believe this. I want to study them for what they are, and what they can give us as a medium, not how they can be exploited for the purposes of other schools. I wouldn't study filmmaking for what it might teach me about how to make educational science videos. I would study it as an artform and as a medium. This is how I think we need to look at games as well.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

So, What Is This Project Of Yours?

The following is a brief (well, perhaps not so brief...) summary of my current work. It began Fall semester, and will conclude when I give a public presentation on the subject at Hamilton College on April 17th.

What is a Senior Fellowship?
The Senior Fellowship program is offered every year at Hamilton College to members of the senior class who wish to pursue an in-depth personal project. At the end of their junior year, interested students submit a 10-page proposal outlining their academic studies to date and the project they would like to pursue the following year. A committee of faculty members read these proposals, and select up to seven that they feel have academic merit.

The selected students are exempt from all classes their senior year, and all other requirements for graduation, including major and number of credits (although students may still choose to fulfill any of these requirements). Instead they spend the entire year working on their project of choice under the supervision of one or more faculty advisors. At the end of the year, they must give a presentation (open to the campus) to a board consisting of their advisor(s), two Hamilton faculty members, and a member of the student's chosen field from outside the college. This board determines whether the student fulfilled his or her obligations as defined by the original parameters of the proposal and, therefore, whether the student graduates.

The Senior Fellowship program is designed for independent, self-motivated students who have a very strong desire to pursue a project that is too large and/or too interdisciplinary to qualify for a senior thesis in the student's department. Projects vary from creative works, such as writing novels or creating comic books, to research projects, including scientific and social. Almost any topic is game as long as the committee determines that a) it has academic merit and b) is large/in-depth enough to merit a full year's worth of intensive work by the student.

What is your project about?
The subject of my paper (book, really) is narrative in video games. Tentatively, I have decided to title it either "Hands-On Narrative" or "Playing Stories" (with the subtitle "Video Games as a Narrative Medium"). For research, I have been playing video games and reading books on both narrative theory and game studies. The major final product for the project is going to be my paper, but there will also be a preliminary outline/design for a video game of my own that exemplifies some of the techniques I have been studying for game narrative. (The game tentatively titled "The Legend of Acornus.") This latter connects my project to my chosen career field - video game (story) design.

What has your research encompassed?
My research currently covers 43 games and 54 other sources (with 6 or 7 sources still pending in the latter category). The other sources include academic works such as texts on narrative theory and game studies, popular culture sources such as podcasts and video reviews by gamers and game critics, and other sources such as films. The current bibliography for my paper is as follows (I apologize for reproducing the entire thing here, but a) perhaps it will be useful for those researching on the same subject and b) I plan to use this page for a presentation in which I will need to display my bibliography. So, sorry.):

2K Boston. 2007. Bioshock. Windows. 2K Games.

Arc System Works. 1998. Guilty Gear. Playstation. Atlus.

Black Isle Studios. 1999. Planescape: Torment. Windows. Interplay.

Blizzard Entertainment. 1998. StarCraft. Windows. Blizzard Entertainment.

Bullfrog Productions. 1997. Dungeon Keeper. Windows. Electronic Arts.

Capcom Production Studio 4. 1996. Resident Evil. Playstation. Capcom.

Cyan Worlds. 1993. Myst. Windows. Broderbund, Midway Games, Mean Hamster Software, Sunsoft.

Double Fine Productions, Budcat Creations. 2005. Psychonauts. Playstation 2. Majesco Entertainment.

Game Freak. 1998. Pokemon. Game Boy. Nintendo.

HAL Laboratory. 1999. Super Smash Bros. Nintendo 64. Nintendo.

Hudson Soft. 1999 – present. Mario Party series. Various platforms. Nintendo.

Infinity Ward. 2007. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Windows. Activision.

Ion Storm Inc. 2000. Deus Ex. Windows. Eidos Interactive.

Konami Computer Entertainment. 2006. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Subsistence). Playstation 2. Konami.

Level-5. 2008. Professor Layton and the Curious Village. Nintendo DS. Nintendo.

Lionhead Studios. 2001. Black & White. Windows. EA Games and Feral Interactive.

Lionhead Studios. 2005. Fable: The Lost Chapters. Windows. Microsoft Game Studios.

Maxis. 2000 – present. The Sims series. Windows. Electronic Arts.

Maxis. 2008. Spore. Windows. Electronic Arts.

Media Molecule. 2008. LittleBigPlanet. Playstation 3. Sony Computer Entertainment.

Namco. 1999. Soul Caliber. Dreamcast. Namco.

Namco. 2004. Katamari Damacy. Playstation 2. Namco.

Nintendo EAD. 1985. Super Mario Bros. Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. 1992 – present. Mario Kart series. Various platforms. Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. 1993. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. Game Boy. Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. 2006. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Wii. Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. 2007. Super Mario Galaxy. Wii. Nintendo.

Nintendo EAD. 2008. Wii Fit. Wii. Nintendo.

Nintendo R&D4. 1987. The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo.

Pajitnov, Alexey, and Vadim Gerasimov. 1985. Tetris. Various platforms. Various publishers.

Ready at Dawn. 2008. Okami. Wii. Capcom. (Originally developed by Clover Studio and released for Playstation 2 in 2006.)

Rockstar North (DMA Design), and Tarantula Studios. Grand Theft Auto series. 1998 – present. Playstation 2. Rockstar Games.

Silicon Knights. 2002. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. Nintendo GameCube. Nintendo.

Square. 1987. Final Fantasy. Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo of America.

Square. 2000. Chrono Cross. Playstation. Square Electronic Arts.

Square. 2001. Final Fantasy X. Playstation 2. Square Electronic Arts.

Square. 2002. Kingdom Hearts. Playstation 2. Square Electronic Arts, and Disney Interactive.

Square Enix. 2006. Kingdom Hearts II. Playstation 2. Square Enix and Buena Vista Games.

Square Enix, and Jupiter. 2008. The World Ends With You. Nintendo DS. Square Enix.

Team Ico. 2001. Ico. Playstation 2. Sony Computer Entertainment.

Team Ico. 2005. Shadow of the Colossus. Playstation 2. Sony Computer Entertainment.

TOSE. 2001. Chrono Trigger. Playstation. Square Electronic Arts. (Originally developed by Square, and released for Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1995 by Square Soft, Inc.)

Valve Corporation. 2007. Portal. Windows via Steam. Valve Corporation.

Other References:
Adams, Ernest. “The Designer's Notebook: Difficulty Modes and Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment.” Gamasutra. May 14, 2008.

Adams, Ernest. “The Designer's Notebook: Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers.” Gamasutra. December 29, 1999. October 25, 2008.

Bissell, Tom. “The Grammar of Fun.” The New Yorker. November 3, 2008: 78-84.

Booth, Wayne. “Distance and Point of View: An Essay in Classification.” in Hoffman.

Bradley, Ed. “Can A Video Game Lead to Murder?: Did Grand Theft Auto Cause One Teenager to Kill?” June 19, 2005 (originally filed March 6, 2005):

Carson, Don. “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry.” Gamasutra. March 01, 2000. October 25, 2008.

Carson, Don. “Environmental Storytelling, Part II: Bringing Theme Park Environment Design Techniques to the Virtual World.” Gamasutra. April 05, 2000. October 25, 2008.

Chatman, Seymour. “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories.” In Hoffman.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Consalvo, Mia. “From Dollhouse to Metaverse: What Happened When The Sims Went Online.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 203 – 222.

Coomer, Greg. Portal commentary, Stage 10. Portal. Valve Corporation. 2007.

Costikyan, Greg. “Where Stories End and Games Begin.” Game Developer Magazine. 2000. October 25, 2008.

Doody, Margaret Anne. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press: 1996.

Dunniway, Troy. “Using the Hero's Journey in Games.” Gamasutra. November 27, 2000. October 25, 2008.

Eladhari, Mirjam. “The Player's Journey.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 171 – 187.

Frank, Joseph. “Spatial Form in Modern Literature.” In Hoffman.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place.” Digital Games Research Conference 2003 Proceedings. 2003.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative.” Parnasso #3 (Helsinki – Finnish version). 1999.

Hoffman, Michael J. (ed.) and Patrick D. Murphy (ed.). Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Second Edition. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996

Iron Man. Dir. Jon Favreau. Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges. Paramount Pictures, 2008.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design As Narrative Architecture.” Publications: Henry Jenkins. March 25, 2002. MIT. October 25, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. “Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked.” The Video Game Revolution: Impact of Gaming: Essays. PBS. October 25, 2008.

Keller, Daniel. “Reading and Playing: What Makes Interactive Fiction Unique.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 276 – 297.

Konzack, Lars. “Rhetorics of Computer and Video Game Research.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 110 – 130.

Krahulik, Michael, and Jerry Holkins. “Our Crucial Pamphlet.” Downloadable Content: The Penny Arcade Podcast. Penny Arcade. March 7, 2008. Podcast.

Krahulik, Michael, and Jerry Holkins. Penny Arcade. Nov. 18, 1998 – Present. Retrieved 11/12/08.

Krahulik, Michael, and Jerry Holkins. “The Spore Cult.” Downloadable Content: The Penny Arcade Podcast. Penny Arcade. February 15, 2008. Podcast.

Leaska, Mitchell A. “The Concept of Point of View.” In Hoffman.

Montes, Rafael Miguel. “Ghost Recon: Island Thunder: Cuba in the Virtual Battlescape.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 154 – 170.

Mortensen, Torill Elvira. “Mutual Fantasy Online: Playing with People.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 188 – 202.

Murray, Janet H. “The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology in Game Studies.” Digital Games Research Conference, preface to keynote talk. June 17, 2005.

Palmer, Alan. Fictional Minds. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Phelan, James. Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996.

Pirates of the Caribbean. Dir. Gore Verbinski. Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley. Walt Disney Pictures, 2003 – 2007.

Prince, Gerald. “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee.” In Hoffman.

Rabinowitz, Peter J. Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Ratatoille. Dir. Brad Bird. Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano and Peter Sohn. Walt Disney Pictures and PIXAR, 2007.

Rickey, Garret. Portal commentary, Stage 10. Portal. Valve Corporation. 2007.

Sinclair, Brendan. “Q&A: Diving deeper into Bioshock's story.” GameSpot UK. September 20, 2007. Accessed November 6, 2008.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Dir. David Hand. Adriana Caselotti, Lucille La Verne, and Pinto Colvig. Walt Disney, 1937.

Taylor, Laurie N. “Platform Dependent: Console and Computer Cultures.” The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Williams, Patrick J. and Jonas Heide Smith. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007. 223 – 238.

The Emperor's New Groove. Dir. Mark Dindal. David Spade, John Goodman, and Eartha Kitt. Walt Disney Pictures, 2000.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “Reading as Construction.” In Hoffman.

Totilo, Stephen. “Playa Rater: The 10 Most Influential Video Gamers Of All Time.” MTV News. June 21, 2006.

Toy Story. Dir. John Lasseter. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Don Rickles. Walt Disney Pictures and PIXAR, 1995.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. London, Chatto & Windus: 1967.

Williams, Patrick J. (ed.) and Jonas Heide Smith (ed.). The Player's Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Bioshock.” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. September 5, 2007. Video review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Console Rundown.” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. August 29, 2007. Video review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Fable: The Lost Chapters: in retrospect.” A FullyRambloMatic Review. July 29, 2007. Video review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Little Big Planet.” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. February 4, 2009. Video Review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Super Mario Galaxy” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. Jan 2, 2008. Video review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “The World Ends With You.” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. May 28, 2008. Video Review.

Yahtzee, aka Ben Croshaw. “Tomb Raider Anniversary.” Zero Punctuation Reviews. The Escapist Magazine. September 12, 2007. Video Review.

(The pending sources for the paper include 2-3 more books on narrative theory and 4 books on game studies.)

What do you cover in your paper?
Below is the table of contents for my paper, along with a brief summary of what is included in each chapter.

In which I compare the rise of video games to the rise of the novel - both were treated either skeptically as escapes from reality, little more than pop culture fluff, or as potentially dangerous - causing the disconnect of their audiences from reality. I also use the introduction to outline the content of the rest of the paper.

Chapter 1:
Narratology vs. Ludology
In which I address the narratology/ludology argument in the field of game studies, and use this argument to present the framework through which I will analyze narrative in video games - as a relationship between a story and its medium.

Chapter 2:
Anatomy of a Game
In which I outline the basic narrative and structural anatomy of a game, presenting the most common way a game is segmented, and the narrative/gameplay purpose of each segment.

Chapter 3:
Choice and Non-Linearity
In which I discuss the first of two narrative tools unique to video games - non-linear storylines. This chapter details the ways in which games make use of player choice to dynamically adapt the storyline of a game to the individual player.

Chapter 4:
Empathy and Immersion
In which I discuss the second of the two narrative tools - player/character empathy. This tool allows video games to draw in their audiences in a way that more traditional media cannot.

Chapter 5:
Storytelling Techniques and Traditional Narrative Tools
In which I outline certain elements of video game narrative that have interesting parallels with elements of more traditional narrative. Topics in this chapter include point of view, genre, and breaking the fourth wall.

Chapter 6:
Non-Narrative Elements
In which I briefly outline various elements of video games that are not necessarily directly associated with narrative, but which may greatly affect the gameplay experience.

A brief concluding statement regarding the content of the paper.

A glossary of narrative and game-related terms, both those used in the paper, and other terms that might be useful for a discussion of game narrative.

An appendix of game reviews - a bibliographic record, brief summary, and highlighting of interesting elements of many of the games which are referenced in the paper.

Reproduced above.

The total work currently comes to 95 single-spaced pages, but it is only the rough draft.

What about this game you're designing?
The game I am designing will, unfortunately, be forced to remain a briefly-sketched outline. My original intent was to have a full design ready for implementation as part of my work, but time constraints have forced me to cut this segment of the project. However, I will be pursuing a completion of the design after the project has come to an end, so that I might have a full game design to add to my portfolio. I am quite enamored with the concept - it stars a small group of rodents fighting for their independence on the Hamilton campus. Through this work, I hope to use the power of player/character empathy to show how radically different the same story can be when told from multiple points of view.

I hope this helps to illuminate both the direction of my work and the purpose of my blog. If anyone reading this feels that they have something valuable to contribute, please don't hesitate to comment!