The Literature of Digital Gaming: Mechanics, Content, and Literary Value

(My apologies. This entry was originally written on November 25th, but I can not find it posted, so I am reposting it.)

Well, our bibliography is just about finished! I have compiled, read, and annotated over 50 journal articles, research papers, and academic books on the topic of digital games, narrative, and literature. It was a lot of work, but I definitely have a better feel for the scope of the academic conversation, and the ways in which the arguments have evolved over time.

I felt it was important to write about my research while it remained fresh in my mind, so I began writing a brief history of the academic discussion about digital games and literature. I had just drafted it when I wrote the last blog entry, but since then I have added to it considerably, and refined the chronology of the conversation, especially in regards to the early tug-of-war between the ludologists and the narratologists. I thought I’d share the first couple paragraphs here; they present an interesting glimpse into the ways in which the conversation began, and how one early narratologist, overlooked in her time, has been vindicated by the trajectory of digital game evolution.

Arguably the first academic to make a resounding impact on the field of digital gaming is Espen Aarseth, whose 1997 book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature set the stage for the first wave of digital gaming publications. In it, Aarseth argues for the need to consider cybertexts, defined as texts focusing “on the mechanical organization of the text, by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange,” while also centering attention on “the consumer, or user, of the text, as a more integrated figure than even reader-response theorists would claim” (1). Aarseth goes on to coin the term ergodic literature, in which “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text” (1). Aarseth’s argument focuses heavily on the ways these ergodic texts, which would necessarily include digital games, differ from standard literary forms. Challenged by literary theorists unfamiliar with the medium, Aarseth maintains “hypertexts, adventure games, and so forth are not texts the way the average literary work is a text” (3). Thus, Aarseth’s argument is made with a bias towards the ways digital games differ from more conventional narrative forms, specifically in the rules and mechanics around which the ergodic elements are designed: “The ergodic work of art is one that in a material sense includes the rules for its own use, a work that has certain requirements built in that automatically distinguishes between successful and unsuccessful users” (179). This focus on success as a defining feature of the ergodic text, and the rules and mechanics by which that success is defined, would be the basis for much of the ludologist’s argument, and it is indeed nearly impossible to find an article on the subject of video games published during the subsequent decade that does not directly reference Aarseth’s work.

Published only one year later but receiving far less attention, Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace is notable for its disagreement with Aarseth regarding the narrative aspects of digital games, its prescience regarding the eventual evolution of the form, and its dismissal by subsequent academic authors. Murray argues that, much as print led the way to the novel and film made possible the motion picture, computers could eventually deliver a powerful new form of narrative medium that borrows and expands upon previous forms, as “a particular technology of communication – the printing press, the movie camera, the radio – may startle us when it first arrives on the scene, but the traditions of storytelling are continuous and feed into one another both in content and in form” (28).  Discussing digital games as uniquely suited to building upon established narrative devices including the multiform story, the active audience, and multidimensional environment, Murray asserts that “while linear formats like novels, plays, and stories are becoming more multiform and participatory, the new electronic environments have been developing narrative formats of their own” (51).  While acknowledging that many games restrict narrative to emphasize mechanics, Murray expresses optimism in regards to the digital game as a narrative form. In examining a particularly dramatic moment from the game Planetfall (Infocom, 1983), Murray writes: “The death of Ffloyd is a minor milestone on the road from puzzle gaming to an expressive narrative art. It demonstrates that the potential for compelling computer stories does not depend on high-tech animation or expensively produced video footage but on the shaping of such dramatic moments” (53). Unfortunately, Murray’s optimism regarding the narrative potential of digital games was not shared by the majority of those who immediately followed her.

Of course, many of Janet Murray’s predictions about narrative digital games have been borne out. Truly dramatic moments, once rare in the realm of digital gaming, are now something sought by players. Modern digital game reviews place considerable importance on the impact of plot, the arc of characters, and the quality of narrative.

My next goal is to focus on one specific narrative digital game. There are a handful of candidates at this point. I really appreciate the way Cart Life invokes Marxist concepts of class-based motivation and limitation. Gone Home is a brilliant game that pushes the boundaries between conventional and digital literature by expecting the player to engage in interpretation that mimics close reading. Papers, Please is fascinating for its ability to convey social and cultural themes, as well as to explore the relationship between choice and consequence, within the scope of a limited imposed narrative. Finally, The Walking Dead, the top rated game of 2014, which demonstrates the ways in which a narrative-heavy, mechanics light digital game can find widespread commercial success.

No matter which game I choose to focus on, however, I’m certain it will prove interesting to hold it up against my research to date and explore the ways it fits into the broader argument.

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