What do you like better, narratology or ludology?

Excerpt from Espen Aarseth's "Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation" in the 2004 MIT publication First Person edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan...

Underlying the drive to reform games as "interactive narratives," as they are sometimes called, lies a complex web of motives, from economic ("games need narratives to become better products"), elitist and eschatological ("games are a base, low-cultural form; let's try to escape the humble origins and achieve `literary' qualities"), to academic colonialism ("computer games are narratives, we only need to redefine narratives in such a way that these new narrative forms are included"). At a recent game conference, it was stated that the difference between films and games was simply the "interactivity" of the games.

This latter motive, the only one of the three mentioned before to concern us here, seems to me to spring out of a certain ideology, much practiced by humanists, and also well beyond our ivory towers; an ideology that we might call "narrativism." This is the notion that everything is a story, and that story-telling is our primary, perhaps only, mode of understanding, our cognitive perspective on the world. Life is a story, this discussion is a story, and the building that I work in is also a story, or better, an architectural narrative. Ironically, most proper narratologists, who actually have to think about and define narratives in a scholarly, responsible, and accurate way, are not guilty of this overgeneralization.

Yet among anthropologists, business people, technologists, visual artists, media theorists, and other laypersons, this ideology -- or what Alan Rauch once fittingly called story fetishism -- is strong and uncontested. And to us humanists, the (let's face it) lowest caste of the academic world, it is nice to feel important again, for once. Finally, our expertise matters! We don't know much about technology, or biology, but we do know stories and storytelling. So why be critical when we can be important instead?

- sally mckay 2-22-2007 10:44 pm

And then there's us timbre-ologists, who don't care about the stories or the rules but just like certain games' textures (sounds, graphics, their "vibe"). We are a very small group within media studies. OK. it's just me.
- tom moody 2-22-2007 11:18 pm

Speaking of timbre, I've been trying to find info on audio-rewards in computer games, ie: what's the neuroscience behind their success? Jewel Quest, for example (in my opinion), has awful graphics , passable gameplay, and totally addictive sound. What is it that makes certain audio blings and bleeps so satisfying and others just ho-hum?
- sally mckay 2-23-2007 1:02 am

It's an art. Snaps, pops and whips, and a pitch shift on v/o's. Works like a charm, that's why I have a lot of five year old fans.
- L.M. 2-23-2007 1:10 am

Seems like there should be fans of the better game music makers. Somehow I get the feeling they are all anonymous company hacks but I could be wrong. A friend was telling me about a guy who put together a company that hooked up musicians with advertisers looking for "edgy" sounds, so some of his friends could get paid. I wonder if there are some similar distributive arrangements for game music.
- tom moody 2-23-2007 1:10 am

My comment was written before I learned of L.M.'s game sound fan base.
- tom moody 2-23-2007 1:11 am

They generally abandon me by the time they turn six.
- L.M. 2-23-2007 1:17 am

Hm...what does that say about me? There's a lot of us in the two-digit age bracket who go for those snaps and whips too.
- sally mckay 2-23-2007 7:59 am

The only video parlour video game I ever played was Donkey Kong, and it was the little tune that lured me in, every time. (I also liked the way he went walloping around with his hammer, too, but that was after I'd committed my quarters.)
- M.Jean 2-23-2007 3:39 pm

The best game I can think of that can't be shoehorned into a narative is Tetris. It's simple human play at it's most basic level: get good at something, then do it over and over and over and over, just for the fun of it, like whacking a tennis ball against the door of your garage for an entire day. Just like whacking a tennis ball is fun because it exploits things our eyes and muscles are good at, Tetris is fun because it exploit things our eyes and brains are good at- detecting edges, and mentally rotating shapes. It's very low-level stuff, and that's why it succeeds like crack. (and yes, those little sounds the bricks make when they fall into place go right to the brains pleasure centre) An attempt to graft a narative onto Tetris results in something like Tetris Worlds for the PS2- which is awful. As one reviewer wrote, "They did the impossible-they broke Tetris".
- rob (guest) 2-23-2007 4:32 pm

- rev. earl chunx (guest) 2-23-2007 4:34 pm

I remember the Tetris Effect very well, but I didn't know they had a name for it. (thanks Joester)
- sally mckay 2-23-2007 4:50 pm

nice quote from doom remix site: "so he [Prince] and John Romero sat down and chewed out a mix of rock covers and some of Prince's own unique style of creepy music which we would now recognise as "DooM style."
- sally mckay 2-23-2007 4:59 pm

I played tetris non-stop on JAL flight from Tokyo until we reached the west coast of North America. That was a great night.
- nanmac66 (guest) 2-23-2007 6:49 pm

Although i think games can contain elements of both narration and simulation, i guess i fall on the side of ludology. When i play a new game, i try to find a corresponding game/activity in the non-cyber world. Will Wright, the creator of the Sim series has compared playing Sim City to gardening. a friend once compared playing Diablo to bodybuilding and i've always seen FPS deathmatches as an ultraviolent game of tag. Action puzzlers like Tetris are a bit trickier because there's more than one challenge. Tetris is umm....whacking a tennis ball + doing a jigsaw puzzle. (?)
- rev. earl chunx (guest) 2-23-2007 9:29 pm

Arseth's point about the "skin" of chess being irrelevant to the game play reminds me of one of my favorite games, Smess. Parker Brothers sold an almost identical game with a "serious" theme, as All the King's Men. I don't want to know the person who'd choose the King, Knights, and Archers over The Brain, Ninnies, and Numbskulls.
My ninnies still have burn marks from when our baby-sitter would roast captured pieces with his cigarette lighter.

- rob (guest) 2-23-2007 11:24 pm

my babysitter used to roast my ninnies until my parents found out and called the cops
- R.E.C. (guest) 2-23-2007 11:40 pm

I have been playing Morrowind since September. I have also played Link, Final Fantasy, Draken, Darkcloud, and Baldur's gate. I have a large SF and F collection. Morrowind is a brilliant interactive whatsit, but I would see it as different to Ursula K Leguin, whose work seems brilliant to me also. I think 'story' is only a small part of what games are so far. I guess for me, games, even top quality games, are for pleasure, for having fun, but Leguin makes me think and learn.... er an have fun too. Art is allowed to be fun right?
Tetris I think may have been a microsoft environment thing, I ran into it late, and any time I tried it, I panicked as things were falling wrong, turning the wrong way. I tried many times and never got past the first level. On the other hand, using Mac since '84, I got addicted to Barrack, also geometrical, isolating little bouncing balls, great sounds stolen from pop culture, ie 'wonder twins power activate!'. Still play it. Before that, Loderunner, a platformer, with similarites to DonkeyKong, MJean, from the 80's.
Games and SF and F remain places where my son and I have animated conversations. David's line on Barrack, while I was playing for the tenth year.' Haven't you beat that game yet? you know the secret to Barrack? 'what David?' 'Stop sucking' He introduced me to Oblivion and Morrowind but on pc. Man, using asdw with one hand and mousing with the other was like rubbing my head and patting my belly, much prefer xbox, though I hate the evil empire.
At this point we have em all except PS3 which we think is a betamax, probably going down the tubes. Jim is loving the Wii, jumping and sword fighting all over the room. The xbox 360 is marking time until it I am ready to start Oblivion, but it scares me, it knows what I have been playing and beams the info into the MSky. This and Vista which will remove programs from your computer it does not think are good without asking. Back in the day, we worried about Big Brother. That sibling had fewer tools. A preponderance of the Xbox 360 games appear to be first person shooters. I find that a little freaky.
- galenagalaxian 2-24-2007 7:31 am

'Murray puts video games in the context of the Holodeck, a fictional piece of technology from Star Trek, arguing for the video game as a medium in which we get to become another person, and to act out in another world.'
wikipedia ludology and narratology
ohnononono. Somebody else has written the story in video games, arranged the interactivity. I want a holodeck, on the holodeck you can imagine anything, you are the engine. John Varley came at this another way with symbionts. Together a human and a symbiont could live in space, with the symbiont both surrounding and lining the human, and using the same central nervous system. This meant the symbiont could create any experience for the human, and it would not be detectively different than if it actually happened. The symbiont was also a photosynthesizer that drew energy from the universe.
I guess I am a ludoist (from ludo? the original Sorry?) Get me a good holodeck, or even better a symbiont, narraotlogy, here I come.
- galenagalaxian 2-24-2007 8:19 am

video games have forced us to think about gaming as a cultural phenomenon. But the truth is we've been gaming as a species for years. We are (or I am) always quick to point out the Tetris effect, but any chess player or rubics cube addicts will tell you itís nothing new.
Sally, thereís a axiom in game creation about cause and effect. Little action for big payoff. This is mostly though about in visuals, but when itís used right in audio it can be equally effective. Iím playing ping-pong on the 360 and the audio is the only thing I like so far. When you make a game you have to think about this, sometimes subverting this axiom is more fun, but you have to respect it too.
Galenagalaxian, be afraid of oblivion. Any game with a readable 100 page novel left on some characterís desk that has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE GAME, needs to be approached with caution. Oblivion is the pot that leads to WOW and people disappear in there.
- joester 2-24-2007 8:49 am

Homo Ludens is a great book to look at. Plus it was written before video games existed.

- joester 2-24-2007 8:59 am

What always puzzled me about the holodeck was that there were how many people on the Enterprise? (~1016, thank you wikipedia!) and there was *never* a line-up for the holodeck! Either everone had to work brutal hours, and just wanted to go back to their cabin at the end of their watch, or the gameplay actually sucked.
- rob (guest) 2-24-2007 7:30 pm

thanks (i think) for mentioning loderunner. i just 'loded' up the remake, 'loderunner online -mad monks revenge' and played it for 8 straight hours. if you thought the tetris effect was unpleasant, imagine hypnagogic visions of being pursued by evil red caped priests.
- r.E.C. (guest) 2-25-2007 8:33 pm

Just got back from a weekend away from computer land - interesting thread, folks! The bit that struck me in the Tetris Effect link was this: "Stickgold et al. (2000) have proposed that the Tetris effect is a separate form of memory, likely related to procedural memory. This is from their research in which they showed that people with anterograde amnesia, unable to form new declarative memories, reported dreaming of falling shapes after playing Tetris during the day, despite not being able to remember playing the game at all." I find it interesting that this 'low-level' brain activity, as Rob calls it, seems to be so compulsive, it's like cats chasing strings.

Good point about the lack of line up for the holodeck. I always wondered why anybody bothered to leave.

- sally mckay 2-26-2007 2:10 am

I experience that whenever I spend a day at the computer. (especially when I'm testing my games). Whatever repetitive act I've been doing repeats itself in my head for a long time afterwards, not in dreams but when I'm at rest.
- L.M. 2-26-2007 2:54 am

Yes, that happens to me too. Though I must say the worst case of Tetris Effect I ever had did come from Tetris. I was out for dinner with an old friend I hadn't seen in 10 years and the whole time sitting across from her my eyes were just fitting blocks in around her head and shoulders.
- sally mckay 2-26-2007 4:53 pm

When I watch newscasts on tv after playing Collapse! I imagine clicking on the folks' clothes and getting them out of the way so their skin-coloured hands and faces will blob together for a really high score.
- M.Jean 2-26-2007 4:57 pm

Clive Thompson discusses the effects of ODing on Katamari Damacy here:
There's an XKCD comic on the topic here:
On friday, hopped-up on espresso and neo-citran, I tried to move my mouse cursor from a drawing on my computer screen onto a printout of the same drawing which was sitting on the desk, and got momentarily discombobulated when it wouldn't go.
- rob (guest) 2-26-2007 7:42 pm

That's a good thread, I definitely have the command-Z syndrome, can feel my left hand twitching every time I screw up.

Some people are using games therapeutically...(don't try this at home)

"I couldn't remember where I put stuff and now I can. I remember school stuff and people's names..."
Also, apparently your vision can improve if you play certain kinds of games.
After just 30 hours, players showed a substantial increase in the spatial resolution of their vision, meaning they could see figures like those on an eye chart more clearly, even when other symbols crowded in.""
I'm just waiting for the searchable brain implant so I can access my own data without all that blurry confabulation and narrative impositioning.
- sally mckay 2-27-2007 12:05 am

When my family exploded and I lived alone for three years, I started to live online. Every hour I could find, often lacking sleep. My social world was text only. I got very good at assessing age and gender by sentence structure and word choice. I started dreaming regularly in text, and would wake with my fingers typing away. Sounds similar to the tetris effect
- galenagalaxian 2-27-2007 6:48 am

Robert Frost, "After apple-picking":


Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.

- M.Jean 2-27-2007 5:35 pm

That is lovely M.Jean
- galenagalaxian 2-28-2007 5:20 am

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