Can Video Games Tell Stories? – Taboo Debates in Critical Game Studies

In doing research for my thesis (finished now, woohoo!), I stumbled upon something I probably should have a long time ago – the critical field of video game studies. Considering how often I write about video games from this perspective, I’m a little surprised I hadn’t heard of the field prior to this. The field is called Ludology, borrowing the Latin word for play, ludere. Names and terms are of prime importance to ludologists. The ludologists are a small community of academics, professors, authors, game devs, and people at the intersections. The Latin root is where where ludology distinguishes itself from other fields that might study video games. Theorists in the field study video games for their qualities of “play”. Where a literary critic might look at a video game for how it acts like literature– in its story, use of literary devices, structure, etc.– ludologists instead study video games as complex systems first.

Games aren’t just written; they’re coded, designed, drawn, and written. All at once. Games also don’t exist independently. They require the player. A game needs its player to actively engage and push through content. And in the late 90s, when academics began to turn to video games to analyze these complexities, they found established critical theories lacking. Thus, ludology was born.

But it wasn’t all digital sunshine and code rainbows. The field got its name in the 90’s, but the definition of the common interests and beliefs of those involved proved a much more daunting task. This struggle in the early days of ludology led to a debate that is now strangely taboo among ludologists. The early writers of critical video game studies debated over not how video games told stories, but whether they could tell stories. Or, maybe they didn’t argue at all, depending on which ludologist you ask. The debate is colloquially referred to as the “Ludology vs. Narratology” debate.

The point of contention: the storytelling capacity of video games. And not to what degree they tell stories. The question was whether or not they can tell stories at all. It seems like this discussion is old hat among contemporary game critics, but I find the whole thing too interesting and strange to turn away from. How could video games not tell stories? They’ve told me stories all of my life.

Do these things belong together?

The debates began in a historical moment when literary theory provided the dominant language for talking critically about video games. Ludologists believed that something beyond the literary approach was necessary to understand the formal complexities video games present. Not to replace literary theory altogether, but to refocus the study of video games so they could be understood on their own terms, instead of on the terms of literature. Jesper Juul, an associate professor at the Danish School of Design and prominent figure in ludology said in his master’s thesis that “…the computer game for all practicality can not tell stories – the computer game is simply not a narrative medium. In actuality we are facing a conflict between game and narrative: They are two separate phenomena that in many cases rule each other out.”

This was jarring to read- of course video games tell stories! If they don’t, what have I been writing about all this time? Digging deeper, I found a divide among ludologists. Some believed the same thing that Juul did: Video games were explicitly not a narrative medium and didn’t have the capacity for story telling. While another group, the “narratologists” (what the ludologists called theorists who felt that the application of literary theory was sufficient on its own to effectively analyze video games) like Gary Crawford and Victoria Gosling (Professors of Sociology at the University of Salford), believe in “a narrative or narratological approach to games studies tends to focus primarily on analyzing games as a text, which can be understood using theoretical tools borrowed from literary and media studies”. The narratological approach seemed more aligned with how I thought about how video games worked, but as I learned more I began to consider the other side.

Two pieces of writing began to sway my opinion on the narrative qualities of video games. The first comes from an exchange of letters between Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari on Paste Magazine. Bissell’s book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter is a huge inspiration to me. It’s one of the reasons why I began to look at video games at more than a simple hobby. Ferrari is a current member of the advisory board at the NYU Game Center Incubator. In their series of letters, both argued their point of view on the “video games as storytelling” dichotomy. Something Ferrari said really stuck with me though. In response to Bissell asking about whether video game storytelling interested Ferrari at all, he responded with this:

An image from Bioshock, one of the most emotionally-charged video games ever made. Credit: BagoGames

Some prominent games designers, including Eric Zimmerman, argue that we’re now entering into a “ludic century.” By this they simply mean that game play and design will be the foremost cultural and artistic practices of the coming years—they don’t exclude narrative-heavy games from this zeitgeist. But it’s my contention that games are systems of rules and artificial spaces before they’re stories. And if we want to foster creativity, depth, and breadth in the design of future games, then we need to begin by teaching the reading, writing, and critique of rule systems at an early age. Ian Bogost calls this “procedural literacy,” which is distinct from but related to computational literacy (the ability to program).

This doesn’t mean that I think we should stop teaching literature classes in early education, but I, for one, am more than a little disgruntled that I was required to take so many without any opportunity to study film, television, or games instead. One of the reasons that many of us are so enthralled by visual and procedural (game-based) rhetorics is that few have been taught how to analyze them.

This really resonated with me, despite my trepidation about the ludological approach. Especially the second bit, about choice in educational opportunities. Most of my academic work has been me talking about video games that I’ve played in relation to the literature being taught in the classroom. I’ve never had a video game mentioned as a source material in a classroom. Ludology then becomes an avenue for the video game to enter discussions in the classroom as source material. But still, the claim that video games can’t tell stories doesn’t sit right with me. From this letter though, it doesn’t seem that Ferrari is denying the capacity for games to tell stories outright. He seems to be arguing that there is a dearth in education surrounding video games as games and not digital-books. That I can get behind.

I took for granted my years of experience playing games and the innate knowledge of game systems that I’ve gathered over the decades of playing when I began analyzing games more closely. To properly analyze a game, you need some knowledge about how input systems work, common design decisions, how different game genres differ, and more. Not from the level of code as Bogost points out, but merely understanding how these things exist as features within games, like how literature students are taught literary devices like personification, allegory, etc. This distinction is important, and I think highlights just how odd this “debate” is in the first place – the ludologists never wanted to take our stories away. They just saw that knowledge of the underlying systems of video games are necessary to understanding them fully.

The second piece came form the aforementioned Ian Bogost, current Distinguished Chair in Media Studies at the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at at Georgia Tech. He is also a contributing editor at the Atlantic, where he penned the article “Video Games are Better Without Stories”. He begins the article by gesturing to a common utopic view of the future of video games: the Star Trek holodeck. In this science fiction form of video games, players would be afforded 100% interaction with a digital world that reacts to them in real time. Current computing capabilities makes this impossible, but Bogost believes this is a pipe dream for a different reason: stories aren’t what video games are good for. He asks:

What are games good for, then? Players and creators have been mistaken in merely hoping that they might someday share the stage with books, films, and television, let alone to unseat them. To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose, but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects. Of ordinary life. Take a ball and a field: you get soccer. Take property-based wealth and the Depression: you get Monopoly. Take patterns of four contiguous squares and gravity: you get Tetris. Take ray tracing and reverse it to track projectiles: you get Doom. Games show players the unseen uses of ordinary materials…

To dream of the Holodeck is just to dream a complicated dream of the novel. If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.

The Star Trek Holodeck (ironically remade in the video game Second Life) Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is a really compelling way to look at video games. My favorite games are the ones that create real emotional investment through the combination of system and story. Ludology’s focus on games as systems and rules and artificial spaces took some of the heart out of games. Until I read Bogost’s piece. It combines so much of the aesthetic beauty of games and the mechanics of the medium. I’ve believed for a long time that video games will be the defining medium of our era. I used to think it would be through narrative, but maybe it won’t be just through narrative.

I think in writing this I’ve figured out why this debate is taboo – it seems arbitrary. There’s no dividing line between games and narratives. Games inevitably tell stories, but they don’t just tell stories. Maybe we need a new category or a new term to describe video games’ relationship with the literary and narrative. Maybe video games are extraliterary, or maybe they aren’t literary at all. The distinctions don’t matter – understanding the medium does.