DiGRA 2005 Impressions

With no particular claims for completeness, some impressions from the DiGRA 2005 conference (insert caveats here):

T.L. Taylor‘s opened the conference with a very methodologically oriented keynote arguing that video games should be examined in their situated context (I was taking paper notes at the time, so the phrasing may have been different). As a prime example, trains in Everquest (a player being followed by a large number of monsters) is something that is constantly negotiated – what is a train; what a train means, etc… can only be understood as the meaning the player community assigns to a train.

This was the opening shot in what I think was the main issue of the conference – what are we / should we be studying?

Janet Murray‘s Friday keynote (available here) discussed two different things.
First, she proposed The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology in Game Studies, where she described a “formalist” school of “game essentialism”, of which I seem to play some part:

Because the game essentialists want to privilege formalistic approaches above all others, they are willing to dismiss many salient aspects of the game experience, such as the feeling of immersion, the enactment of violent or sexual events, the performative dimension of game play, and even the personal experience of winning and losing.

A few different things here:
1) It is true that there is a certain school of thought that dismisses all representation in games as irrelevant fluff. I have written a short history that idea in my upcoming book, and I also discussed it in my DiGRA paper this year (see below). I was not the target of this criticism, but I am guilty as charged anyway. I have written much on fiction in games since then though.

2) But Murray is wrong to assume that her position is the only one that discusses the experience of playing games. I have certainly written about the experience of winning and losing in my 2003 DiGRA paper.

3) Interestingly enough, some of the earlier criticism against excessive use of narratology (see Thomas Pavel’s book Fictional Worlds) describes narratology as problematic because it focuses on the alleged formal properties of a text at the expense of referentiality, experience etc… Some historic reversals here.

Celia Pearce
Celia Pearce offered peace. I am for peace. More at Greg Costikyan’s blog.
But I also think I share a basic focus with Celia.

Formalism & essentialism
Thoughout the conference, and during the final discussion, it seemed like quite a few researchers saw themselves as working against the dual enemies of formalism and essentialism (bad). The preferred alternative was looking at games as situated (good).

Now, what does this mean?
Let’s say formalism means looking at the base properties of a medium: Saying that “games have rules” is arguably a formalism, but only on the same level as saying that “music consists of sounds”, “novels consists of words”, or “cinema consists of moving images and sounds”. I am not terribly impressed with any theory that prevents us from making such basic observations.

By any count, Janet Murray is a formalist thinker about media – consider her list of the four properties of digital environments as “procedural, participatory, spatial and encyclopedic”. I have no issue with this – these are not the only things we can say about digital environments, but this list does in no way prevent her from making broader and deeper observations.

If the only thing we could say about games was that they have rules, that wouldn’t work either – but hey, nobody actually said this! The issue here is probably whether we accept that the same thing can be described in several complementary ways, or whether we think there should be one and only one way of describing games.

Essentialism is a bit more tricky, since the term is usually associated with shallow (and politically suspect) assumptions of there being some core idea that constitutes, say, femininity, African-Americanness or the character of the Danish people. OK.

But it just doesn’t work too well when discussing aesthetic phenomena – saying that “action movies center on action”, “love stories focus on love”, or “sashimi is raw fish” are technically also essentialist statements – being afraid of saying such things is not going to get us anywhere.

Why does Mario have Three Lives
My own talk was at an angle of my original abstract, and discussed why and when we accept game incoherent game fictions. The basic question was this: Why does Mario have three lives?
Answered like this: When we experience fictional worlds, we fill out the blanks using what Marie-Laure Ryan calls “The principle of minimal departure”. When something unexplained happens in a fiction, we try to come up with the simplest explanation we can. In Donkey Kong, we could technically argue that Mario has three lives because Donkey Kong is a Hinduist game with reincarnation. But in actuality, players (the ones I have asked) explain the three lives with reference to the rules of the game: “Those are the rules”, “otherwise it would be too hard”. This happens in quite a few games: Many things in games are very hard to understand with reference to the game fiction. In these cases, we explain the game events with reference to the game rules.
The big unanswered question is when and how we accept this, and when it feels like a jarring contradiction.
I think this will become a written paper in the near future.

Aesthetic Thought vs. the Study of Players
Ludology vs. Narratology is only skin deep. The actual conflict is between 1) considering games as an aesthetic art forms that we can design and discuss intersubjectively in first-person perspective and 2) considering games via a third-person perspective, observing people playing games.

I see no reason why we can’t do both, and I am sure that everybody will happily agree on this. At the final discussion, people seemed to agree that we should be methodologically inclusive, but are we?

5 thoughts on “DiGRA 2005 Impressions”

  1. Re: Mario’s three lives, I can’t remember how much of this was taken from your thesis, and how much was from the group chat the “Ludonauts” (plus Chaim Gingold) had about it a while ago, but it seems best to look at multiple lives as an outgrowth/extention of the general repeatability of games, as well as the existence of multiple “tries” in non-videogames, such as baseball (three strikes). In that sense, Mario’s three lives is fairly non-anomalous, while the attempt to make it fictionally coherent (as in PoP: Sands of Time) *is* anomalous.

  2. The “three lives” issue.

    You’re basically talking about how syncronized the rules and fiction are. The more the fiction can explain the rules, the less potential for rule/fiction dissonace. However, there’s also the issue of genre and medium literacy. What causes dissonance for some players may not cause dissoance for others and vice versa. That’s why, for me, the issue of the inclusive “we” becomes central. I don’t think there is a “we” when it comes to how players construct in their own minds the relationship between fiction and rules. There are trends we can identify, and maybe many common elements across different player groups. But in my experience “we” do not experience dissonance in the same way at all. Players literate in a one style of rule/fiction dynamics may find another style incomprehensible, and thus, from their perspective, broken, resulting in dissonance. But others literate in that style may not. This is why you can have some people scream bloody murder about the 4th wall breaking in Metal Gear Solid (“Put down the controller and step away from the console, Snake!”) while others find it even more immersive than so-called “realistic” games… precisely because it is bringing the rules and the fiction together in a very literal way.

  3. Walter, in this paper I answered “Why does Mario have three lives” in a non-historical way (I have discussed the historical question in First Person.) The argument was based on a extension of the book which is an extension of the thesis.

    Matt, I think it’s OK to use an offhand “we” to discuss game conventions – but the talk did discuss player variations. One of the best examples is a game like Age of Empires, where an RTS-savvy player would probably see it as an RTS game, but a gamer new to the genre would pick it up via his/her conception of historical battles. Eh, we agree I guess.

  4. “Mario?s three lives is fairly non-anomalous, while the attempt to make it fictionally coherent (as in PoP: Sands of Time) *is* anomalous.”

    I find it interesting how various fiction/rules configurations are central to our establishing of genre categories, as Jesper also argues in his dissertation. The attempt to ‘fictionalise’ the three lives in Sands of Time (which btw, admittedly, is a bit more than just a straight ‘conversion’ the traditional mechanic) seems to emerge as much from deep-rooted generic constraints as from a designer’s clever and ‘anomalous’ idea of fictional coherence? Should we place SoT in the platformer/Mario genre along with the original PoP, or does it – considered as fiction – have more in common with Gran Turisimo? I think there are good reasons to consider both alternatives. Even if the time-reverse of SoT appears as an anomaly in the context of its direct predecessors, it seems to me that a straightforward three lives solution would significantly weaken the generic coherence of the game.

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