Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Noah Wardrip-Fruin (ed.): First Person (2004)
"[T]he dominant user function in literature, theater, and film is interpretive, but in games it is the configurative one. To generalize: in art we might have to configure in order to be able to interpret, whereas in games we have to interpret in order to be able to configure, and proceed from the beginning to the winning or some other situation. Consequently, gaming is seen here as configurative practice, and the gaming situation as a combination of ends, means, rules, equipment, and manipulative action." The essays collected here all question how new media should be interpreted and designed. Nearly two-thirds of the essays enter into the debate about whether video games and related interactive media should be considered narratives or games. In "Hamlet on the Holodeck," Janet Murray emphasized the narrative approach and coined the term "cyberdrama." To my annoyance, this "narrativist" approach resembles those literary scholars who wish to call everything in reality a narrative so that their literary-critical skills take on a universal applicability and wisdom. Opposing this position are "ludologists" like Espen Aarseth and Markku Eskelinen who argue that there is no reason to believe that new media can be understood in terms of old media, and especially as a form of narrative, and instead promote the study of the unique "gaming situation," or in other words, the study of games as games. The key text for the ludologists is Aarseth's book "Cybertext" and his theory of "ergodic" literature that requires "non-trivial effort" in order to be traversed. This collection doesn't resolve the debate, and because each author feels the need to address it, the essays get a bit repetitive by the mid-point of the book. Although the disagreement initially appears to be over genre - narrative or game? - it often changes into a disagreement over the importance of modernist/avant-garde innovations. Many of the "narrativists" draw from Aristotle and come across as rather traditional and conservative in their understanding of narrative, as if the 20th-century had never happened to literature. Yet even the ludologists can resist modernist concerns with radical form and modes of distancing the reader/user because emphasizing the gaming experience often leads to valuing immersion; so while the ludologists may resist using the framework of the narrativists, they may converge upon the same suggestions for a smoothly flowing entertainment. Most disappointing (and probably a direct result of this ambiguous position of modernism and the avant-garde) is that the collection does not set forward any interesting examples or theories of what a "critical" game might be. Gonzalo Frasca tries, but his "videogames of the oppressed" borders on group thereapy rather than the truly political engagements of the activists he draws from because he fails to take into account the narrowly constrained context of games and the difficulty of creating transformative relays between political events on-line and in reality. Of course many of the writers here simply have no interest in the idea of critical gaming and intend merely to build better and more entertaining games.