N&L: I Can’t Take it Anymore!

At the DIGRA 2005 in Vancouver:

A meme at the conference is the idea that there actually is no discussion called, you know, that N&L thing, and that we were all agreeing all along.

I think that we are all weary of the discussion, we all want to get it over with, and yet everybody wants the last word. And we can’t really let it go, because it is part of what keeps us all together, like a couple always arguing about the same thing yet secretly cherishing the returning disagreement.

According to my scribbled notes, Janet Murray said that the ludologists are really battling the father figure of narratology which constitutes our background. Hmm.

Celia Pearce was also referring to it as a non-discussion, and … I really have to say that I disagree.

Especially a few years ago there was a real need to take on the automatic narrativism that was floating around. I think we have wasted perhaps 25% of our research and made impossible perhaps 50% of the student projects the last 5 years due to an unhealthy obsession with narratives. If we had just talked about “player experiences” rather than trying to square the circle, we would have been much better off.

N&L: I can’t take it anymore, and it may have been a lot of shadow boxing, but there are also really serious issues that we have had to take on, head on.

8 thoughts on “N&L: I Can’t Take it Anymore!”

  1. “If we had just talked about ?player experiences? rather than trying to square the circle, we would have been much better off.”

    Well put. I think everyone gets that there’s a variable limit to how useful conventional literature, or cinematography is for games as a medium. My fear is, although discussion is useful, sometimes we need to cut to the chase. By sturgeon’s law, 90% of the discussion around N&L is a waste of time (either ignorance of new blood to previous discussion, spawned by partizan opinion or simply repetition). We’re starting to see excellent stabs at IS, for example, which are very often not gaining anything by the naysaying they may recieve. I mean, there’s a million and one ways to approach the problems – everyone’s individual approach should be spawning ideas in other people’s minds, rather than being shot down for not being part of someone else’s world view.

    It’s not a young field by now, but the amount of possibilities are still so wide that, well, I guess I just get irritated at the great things we’re missing while we’re telling each other that our reasoning or approaches are flawed.

    I guess I’m just feeling frustrated that although we’re starting to see excellent, solid results come out of these discussions, we haven’t half laboured over the arguements in the past! I suppose it’s true that we can’t be 100% efficient. Debate is quite an organic process as ideas bounce back and forth, being kicked into coherent shape. But rather than labour on the diminishing returns from discussion, lets just start to see some fruit. Put ideas into practice.

    All of us need to DO SOMETHING with this privelidge knowledge, rather than stockpile it and wait around to bitchslap the first poor luddite who has a different take. Academics: get your students working on prototype games. Developers: submit your design documents with working proofs, and pimp them thoroughly throughout your office. A game design does not get made on its own merits. You have to push these things!

  2. “a few years ago there was a real need to take on the automatic narrativism that was floating around.”

    I remember you saying this to Celia at the conference. I don’t disagree, but I find this confusing… probably because my primary reference of game theory comes from commercial gaming culture and not academia. I wasn’t going to conferences 5 years ago, so I have no idea who these “automatic narrativism” people were. When we think about this now, people like Janet, Michael and Henry tend to get mentioned. But is that who you felt were indulging to much in “knee jerk” narrativist approach? Or was it other people who have faded away in the meantime? Can you mention specific papers, specific people, and specific conferences?

    I’m just curious about this, but it’s beginning to seem to me like the “ludology as ideology” position is a reaction to something that many who encounter the debate now are completely unaware of.

  3. Around my neck of the woods, literary studies, just about every single person I spoke to around 1998 assumed that we should just apply narrative theory to games and everything would be fine.
    Hamlet on the Holodeck is a bit like that as well IMO.
    I recently overheard a guy explaining that Frequency was great because it has a special narrative – he looked very serious.

    But within literary studies, it’s also a discussion that goes a bit further back. Thomas Pavel rails against excessive use of narrative theory in his book on “Fictional Worlds” (1986) – Pavel calls this “mythocentrism”:

    According to mythocentrism, narrative form constitutes a privileged manifestation of literary meaning; narrative structures are set in the center of literary studies, and stylistic and rhetorical features, referential force, and social relevance are deemed to be more or less accidental.

    What he argues against can be seen as slightly different from the way people discuss “narratives” these days – Pavel refers to structurally/formally oriented narrative theories (Greimas, Propp et.al.) whereas it is often used in a much more vague sense today, but indiscriminate use of the term “narrative” has been an issue for decades.

    I can perfectly understand why it seems a bit mystical if you come from a different field. This is also part of the reason why I have been trying to avoid bringing it up the last few years. Unsuccessfully, though :)

  4. That makes sense. I think some people, specifically gamers, developers, and non-academics who theorize about games outside of academia, react badly to the “ludology as ideology” concept because they lack this literary perspective. All they know is that they like the fictive possibilities of games, and in their world terms like “narrative” and “story” tend to be a vague approximation of that. So it’s easy for these people to misinterpret an argument “against narrativisim” as “against fictive content” and that’s when the real chain reaction begins. Developers/Gamers start making arguments as to why “games can be narrative (adj.)” (which, I’d argue, really just means games can have meaningful fictive content) and academics react to these arguments from an academic context, lumping them in with the greater debate about “mythocentricm” you mentioned.

    For me, the real problem seems to be a “lumping in” of non-academic theoretical stances with ones they are only passingly related to in academia. I, for example, agree with only some of what Janet says in Hamlet on the Holodeck, but my primary interest in videogames is fictive content. I don’t share any of Janet’s lit. crit. utopianism (at least that which she displayed back in 1997–she seems to have mellowed a bit since), but it’s difficult to enter into the academic space and talk about narrative, agency, etc. without getting pulled into orbit around her worldview.

  5. the recent hardcore columns on the digra site — particularly Tanya Krzywinskas and Bob Rehaks — echoed your sentiment Jesper. I think the paternalist model put forward by Janet Murray is essentialising and does a disservice to her own discourse as much as that wihch you have come to represent.

  6. To put the argument another way: should Media Studies be actually called Media and Games Studies? To a media studies person, to be told that games require specific theories independently of “media studies”, must come as a bit of a shock. Kind of like saying to dramatologists that they don’t have decent user-centred theories of actor experience. Perhaps they don’t, unless it is from the Italian Renaissance, improv/theatre sports is often looked down upon :)
    On Janet Murray’s talk did anyone else note that she summarised Wittgenstein as “Wittgenstein: there is no essential game”..
    From the Philosophical Investigations? From my memory of this book, LW is not actually saying precisely that.
    If she also used “meta-mimetics” (don’t recall that) I really have to question whether there can be such a term.
    There is also an evolutionary argument problem in her talk but I think I have written enough :)

  7. I’m a masters student at the University of Bergen and I was priveledged enough to attend an amazing class on ‘Gaming and Gaming Culture’, run by Jan Klabbers.
    UoB has combined Informations sciences and Media Studies, and this was one of the classes that unites the two institutes.
    The discussions were endless, and even though it’s summer vacation, I still meet some fellow students for gaming nights with discussions. The combination of these two disiplines formed such super conversations and debates it overwhelmed me. The Media studies students were perhaps more focused on the narrative of games and the Information Science students, I dare say ludologists (although I’m sure we never used this definition). Working together on group analysis’ of games was torturous, time consuming and oh! so exciting!!! I learned sooooo much from this class.
    Meeting students who came from a completely different discipline and working together was so rewarding and I’m sure that Dr. Klabbers would agree with me on this.
    So I guess what I’m trying to say is; use some fresh minds who haven’t discussed this for eternity, mesh them up a bit and make them work together and see what comes out of it!
    I think absolutely everyone agrees that you can’t look at games from either or perspective!

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