From Katya: I recently saw a TikTok from Dominic Myers (@gamestudies101) that summarizes the narratology v. ludology split in game studies. Check out their summary because it’s a good one but, simply put, ludology argues that games are a unique medium because they include interactive game mechanics that are distinct from other representational forms. Narratology, on the other hand, argues that games are part of the evolution of narrative story telling and is shaped by many of the same rhetorical forces as tv, novels, and other narrative forms. Put another way, ludology emphasizes the rupture between games and other forms while narratology focuses on the medium’s continuity with media history.
Their summary is spot on but, for people outside of the field mostly, there’s some additional context that’s helpful. When I got started in game studies I thought ludology v narratology was a fight; either only mechanics matter or only narrative mattered. The other side be damned! There certainly was a point in the field where this was more true – but that had as much to do with the evolution of the academic field as the medium itself.
In the academy, history is charted by centuries and decades. Games studies is still very much a young field. Defining terms, fields, methods, etc. is part of these early stages: we have to define what we’re talking about and how we talk about it, and why.
Part of that process is to get other fields to take you seriously. This is especially true of studies in popular culture or ‘low culture’ which was not widely considered to be important until movements like cultural studies, Feminist theory, and African American studies, along with other non-canonical studies, took hold in the 60s and 70s. Scholars in emerging fields have to show that their work is A) legitimately rigorous and B) valuable. We do that by defining terms and approaches.
Scholars also need to show that a medium is sufficiently distinct to be its own field. Enter ludology. Ludology demonstrated that games should be studied by focusing on what made games special: interactivity. Focusing on interaction and the mechanics that make it possible, game scholars showed that the experience of a game was sufficiently different from film/tv/books that it merited its own field. (if you’re interested please check out Jesper Juul’s summary of this conversation in Half-Real as he outlines a good overview of the positions and growth of the field through shifts in his own thinking.)
Narratology conflicts with the emphasis on the uniqueness of games. Focusing on games as a platform for story telling invites comparison to other story formats. The perceived backlash in the literature against narratology is, in part, manifesting from the context of a newer field. Pointing out how a medium is similar to others can risk it being folded back into other fields- which comes with practical (and financial) consequences for the scholars in that field. On the other hand, part of demonstrating value over the long run is showing how game studies contributes to a larger academic conversation beyond its borders. In short, it’s complicated!
I have two goals for this upcoming show; one is a continuation of this conversation about how academic culture impacts scholarly work in a way that is not obvious in the literature or to outside audiences.
The second is why the debate between narratology and ludology is simultaneously a very useful tool and a complete misrepresentation of how we experience games. Understanding the two positions helps us talk about games more effectively. At the same time, we don’t experience mechanics separate from narrative context and vice versa. Saying that one or the other fully encapsulates the meaning or experience of a game is missing huge aspects of the medium.
From Hannah: I’m not a games studies scholar, although on occasion I think it’s fair to say I pretend to be — or at least, something adjacent to it. I think this conversation is particularly interesting given how many games have been created based on other media forms, some with highly intricate narratives (everything from adaptations of Jane Austen like Marrying Mr. Darcy to literally every video game that came out with blockbuster movies when I was kid come to mind). A long time ago, back on episode forty-one, we talked about Netflix’s Bandersnatch and interactive fiction … and I think this episode might be a continuation of that conversation. Our recent episode on serialization also opened up questions about the “form” of a piece of media and the affordances provided by it. (Strangely, we didn’t talk about games much on that episode.)
So what does, exactly, make a game different from other mediums? How useful is it to talk about different mediums together? What particular questions are you interested in, related to narratology and ludology?