Although 2001 is dramatically lauded as “Year One of Computer Game Studies as an emerging, viable, international, academic field” by Espen Arseth, the events leading up to this proclamation were set in motion in 1997, the year in which two influential books that would become symbols of the “first great debate” in Game Studies were published. I am referring to Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, which focuses on the possibilities technology creates for interactive drama and new forms of narrative, and Arseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, which argues that the method through which content is revealed to the audience, and the “non-trivial effort” of interacting with a text (i.e. video games) is more important than the content itself (the narrative). In other words, he argues that the emergent activity of playing the game is more significant to Game Studies than the narrative that game play reveals to the audience.
Historically, the study of games goes back farther than 1997, but Game Studies, which draws from multiple disciplines and transcends the traditional study of games, began to be established as an independent academic discipline during the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The “first great debate” that I alluded to earlier was at the heart of this disciplinary soul searching: the now infamous Ludology vs. Narratology debate.
“Narratologists” is a one-size-fits-most term that refers to researchers who take an interdisciplinary approach to video games and focus on the expressive capacity of the medium.The approach of a “narratologist” can include anything from psychological, cultural, cinematic, or literary interpretation and analysis, but it doesn’t necessarily exclude the study of rules, procedures, and game-play mechanics; however, narratology tends to compare video games to other media, and this hinders the identity and autonomy of Game Studies. Furthermore, these approaches tend to be biased towards the discipline they were derived from. For example, a literary approach would focus on a game’s story while and method appropriated from film studies might privilege visuals. The virtue of narratology, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t divorce video games from society, nor does it ignore their importance as a cultural phenomenon, and it allows researchers from different fields to participate in Game Studies using methods they’re already familiar with; this is particularly important considering that, due to a lack of established Game Studies programs, all Game Studies scholars have backgrounds in different fields. Ultimately, this term is rather ineffective as it refers to anyone who isn’t a ludologist.
Ludology, at its inception, was a mostly reactionary move on the part of scholars who saw that interdisciplinary approaches limited Game Studies in many respects. These scholars also wanted to prevent the misappropriation of video games by other disciplines, such as literary, cultural, or film studies. In an effort to highlight the uniqueness of video games, they generally attempted to remove or ignore the aspects of games that allowed other disciplines to stake a claim in the field; these aspects include narrative and popular reception. In a sense, ludologists wanted to purify Game Studies by focusing their research and discourse on the unique emergent experience and the commonality or essence of games while shunning restrictive comparative practices. These scholars proclaimed that video games should be studied as “a form unto itself,” free from the impurities of authorial intention, superficial narratives, and cultural implications.
In hindsight, this extremist approach attempted to remove the limitations of narratological methods and ended up establishing concepts that are drastically different, yet still limiting. Some particularly zealous and oft quoted comments include Markku Eskelinen reduction of stories as “uninteresting ornaments or gift-wrappings to games, and laying any emphasis on studying these kinds of marketing tools is just a waste of time and energy” and Jesper Juul’s declaration of interactive fiction as a utopia. However, the ludologists had a point; video games are a unique medium that must not be boxed in or adapted to the methods of other disciplines.
In the end, the debate itself helped to clarify
different values and approaches available to scholars while highlighting limitations and flaws. Game Studies as a discipline benefited from the ludologist’s demand for academic autonomy and the recognition of video game’s uniqueness, but their formerly extremist stance has been tempered by an acknowledgment that stories and culture do matter, to what extent, however, depends on the scholar and the game. Although the debate had no clear victor, no determined master approach, I think the field has moved forward with a new-found self-awareness and an acknowledgment of the usefulness of diverse methods. Scholars are now aware of the dangers that Ian Bogost identifies as “functionalist separatism” and are ready to carry out research that Rune Klevjar refers to as “configurative and interpretative, unique and interdisciplinary.”
Fun facts. Curiously enough, most ludologists have backgrounds in literary studies, which helped them discuss the limiting factors of narratological approaches. Also, most ludologist were trained by scholars who are usually labeled as narratologists. The term ludology itself was introduced by Gonzalo Frasca in 1999. Other well known Narratologists, since I only mentioned one, include Henry Jenkins and Barry Atkins.