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.

The Literature of Digital Gaming: Ergodicity as Test and Plot Device

After a lot of difficult internal conflict, I settled on focusing on Gone Home, a brilliant and important work by the independent studio Fullbright Games. For anyone who enjoys narrative digital games, or anyone who is interested in trying a digital game for the first time, I highly recommend Gone Home. Not only is it a viscerally enjoyable experience, but it truly pushes digital gaming in a new direction, one that should be both recognizable and surprisingly familiar to readers of literature.

Importantly, Gone Home is a mechanically simple game. This is not a requirement for a literary video game, but it is helpful for a number of reasons. First of all, by minimizing the mechanics, the game leaves the player free to focus on exploration and experiencing the narrative without worrying about things like score, hit points, or tests of dexterity. Second, it makes the game considerably more accessible to less-experienced gamers, which I’ll touch on in a bit. Finally, it provides evidence that a game is not necessarily defined by its mechanics, an argument frequently encountered in the writings of earlier ludologists. The mechanics of Gone Home serve the sole purpose of supporting the narrative, not the other way around.

The concept of accessibility it an important thing to consider. Aarseth defined ergodic literature, of which digital games are an example, as literature that requires non-trivial effort for engagement. While many of Aarseth’s arguments are problematic, the concept of ergodic literature is helpful in understanding the difference between digital games and more passive forms of narrative, like novels and film. While certainly one must engage in some effort to read a novel (turning pages, deciphering text), that effort is relatively trivial and transparent. Digital games, however, require active participation; this non-trivial effort is part of what defines the digital game. With that as a defining characteristic, many digital games have traditionally focused on the non-trivial aspect. These games place emphasis on pushing the limits of the player to pass the test of non-trivial activity. This might be a challenge of dexterity, or hand-eye coordination, or reflexes, or tactical thinking. Regardless, the player’s ability to pass these tests is usually represented by a numeric score, or some other reward system. As players improve these skills, subsequent games require greater challenges while assuming a basic level of competency. This continuum of increasing difficulty makes gaming more intimidating to new players, and limits the audience for these types of games.

Games like Gone Home, as well as other games I’ve mentioned in previous posts, use the non-trivial activity aspect of digital literature quite differently. Instead of presenting a test for the player to either pass or fail, Gone Home requires non-trivial activity that is easy to pass, but allows the player to more directly experience the exploration, discovery, and decision-making aspects of the narrative. One cannot fail at any task in Gone Home; the game isn’t over until the player decides to turn it off. Instead, the player is invited to engage in behavior that mimics both the journey of discovery of the player’s avatar, as well as that of the protagonist (interestingly, these are not the same character).

This innovative use of the ergodicity inherent in digital games is only part of what makes Gone Home an engaging piece of modern literature. Next time, I’ll explore the narrative of the game directly, and engage in a critical examination of the game itself. There will be spoilers, so if you want to play first, do it before March 28th!

The Literature of Digital Gaming: Playing with Texts

It all started with a conversation between English majors and professors over Chinese food. We were talking about movies, and, being English types, discussing the literary value of various films.

“Frankly,” I said at one point in the discussion, “I think some of the most impressive narrative work being done today is in the field of video games. It’s really the modern emergent literature.”

Now, I meant what I said, but it wasn’t a terribly considered or researched position. It was a visceral response to a medium I have watched evolve from simple, single-screen puzzles to epic, sprawling sixty-hour narratives. But it struck a chord, with some in the group agreeing and others disagreeing, and led to an interesting conversation. Later, Dr. Jane Collins told me that she found the concept fascinating, and asked if I’d like to explore the topic with a bit more academic rigor. It was too good an offer to pass up.

Our ongoing research project, entitled “Gaming as Literature: Assessing the Literary Value of Modern Digital Storytelling,” seeks to examine digital gaming as an emergent literary medium. Given the prevalence of digital gaming in our culture, we feel it is important to understand how digital games construct narratives, how these narratives differ from those of other literary mediums, and how those narratives have evolved over the relatively short history of digital games.

The primary question to address, of course, is this: Do digital game narratives matter? Can a game tell a story as gripping and as nuanced as a novel or a film? Certainly not all video games do. Early video games were limited by technology, and generally presented simple challenges to achieve a high score. Even today, many digital games prioritize mechanics over narrative; while games like Mortal Kombat and Call of Duty are framed by shallow narratives, these narratives serve mostly as scaffolding around which the gameplay is structured. However, the video game landscape is being more heavily defined by narrative every year. Narrative games dominate both sales charts and critical awards. Major developers invest heavily in narrative games like Bioshock, an exploration of the consequences of Randian Objectivism, and The Last of Us, a study of childhood agency framed against an apocalyptic near-future. Meanwhile, independent developers are emerging as narrative powerhouses, exploring profound narratives using simple design and mechanics, as evidenced in games like Cart Life, a study of how class defines the individual in capitalist society, and Gone Home, an epistolary exploration of a teen’s emergent sexuality amid a dysfunctional family life. To dismiss these valuable literary artifacts as “just games” is to ignore some of the most powerful narrative works being produced today.

Our immediate goal for this project is to compile an annotated bibliography for the subject of literary video games. We have been engaging in this research for a few months now, and I have already completed the first paper of the project, which traces the development of the academic conversation from the early ludologists, who focused primarily on game mechanics and design, to the more recent emergence of game narratologists, who privilege the narrative of games as a literary medium. Ultimately, our research already strongly supports the notion of digital games as an emergent narrative form, worthy of analysis via established literary theory as well as systems custom-fit to analyze games. Our work continues, however, as we work through more contemporary academic arguments and conclude our bibliography.

Once this aspect of our research is complete, we plan to put our knowledge to practical use. Dr. Collins is very interested in the notion of digital game literacy – that is, the unique skills necessary to “read” a video game that are learned and mastered, like other forms of literacy, through experimental interactions with the text. Anyone who has ever seen someone pick up a game controller for the first time and ask “What do I do with this?” knows what digital game illiteracy looks like. Dr. Collins wants to study the ways in which game literacy develops and how it changes the way players interact with games.

I want to put some of the analytical work we’ve done to the test through the direct literary analysis of specific digital games. By applying literary theory to games in order to explore and clarify the crafted narratives contained within, I hope to contribute to the field of literary analysis through a unique medium, while also advancing the value of digital games as subjects for academic analysis.

I’ll be using this blog to share some of our discoveries, pose some interesting questions, and report on our progress. If you are interested in digital games and emergent narrative mediums, I encourage you to follow along. It’s a fascinating subject, and I look forward to sharing it with you.