Category: rants

The Last Word on the Last Word on the Ludology/Narratology Debate Debate

While I was glad that it was by no means the central issue of DiGRA, the Ludology vs. Narratology debate was still going on. As the title of my blog post attempts to suggest, we have already had more than one paper or presentation that attempted to be the “Last Word” on the debate, which of course signals that despite the best intentions, we haven’t reached the last word on narratology vs. ludology yet. As such, I thought it might be good for me, if no one else, to lay out my own journey through games studies and how I got to be where I am today.

LIke most people who study videogames, I have played them more or less all my life — we had a Pong machine when I was a very young kid (actually, I’m fairly certain it was one of a million knock-offs and not an official Pong machine) and I’ve played games ever since. WHile the first console may be different for other people, I’m sure the majority of us have similar journeys, so I won’t bore anyone with that. What I’ve learned from talking to people at DiGRA, was that out academic journey to games studies is unique for each person, and that is what I’m going to talk about.

As an undergrad at Ball State University, I was an English major and a Math minor and while I liked reading the classics and found pleasure in the problem solving of Math, I was a fairly unremarkable student. I was much more interested in genre fiction such as sci-fi, sword and sorcery, and pulps as well as comic books. The point of this is to say that I’ve read many of the classics, and I’ve got a better than average math background. I’m no expert on narratology, but I’ve got a shelf full of Norton anthologies that are gathering dust.

In one class, we read White Noise by Don Delillo which was inspired by Bowling Green’s Department of Popular Culture. While the book kind of satirized the department, it sounded really fun, so when I realized that I didn’t want to be a high school teacher, I applied to that program and got in.

At Bowling Green, I spent the first semester kind of trying to keep my head above water while I took the mandatory 6 credit hour theory class that threw me head first into cultural studies stuff. I had originally thought I was going to do my Master’s thesis on comic books, but I was a bit dissatisfied with that. I finally figured out that I wanted to write about videogames and began to look around for anything written about them. That’s when I ran into the Ludology vs. Narratology thing.

At first I was really attracted to Ludology simply because my English background had totally burned me out on narrative. I still often say, only partially in jest, that plot is for losers. I’m all about spectacle. Give me kicking, shooting, lasers or zombies over some deep story any day of the week. So I knew I wasn’t a narratologist, so I thought I was a ludologist. Now I’m not so sure. I don’t think I’m either…

In the Department of Popular Culture, one of the other requirements was a Folklore class. While I found the old — mostly narrative centered and thinking about origins of folk tales and such — to be very boring, the more modern incarnations of folklore such as that practiced by Greertz and Turner to be really interesting. That’s when I realized that I was really interested in people a lot more than I was in videogames. Here at IU, I’m in the Department of Communication and Culture and there is a Performance and Ethnography component and that has only reinforced my opinion that people is where it is at. Which is why I am not totally satisfied with ludology.

Unlike any other medium, videogames are really only complete when the consumer is engaged in them. Film and Books and Movies are technically the same for every person, even if we the consumer always consume them differently, but videogames aren’t. So if we don’t talk about the player, then how can we be talking about videogames? This is why I am becoming more and more tired of the ludology vs. narratology debate. In doing a quick search through some of the papers in this debate, the word “player” is conspicuously rare. You can talk about stories and game structures all you want, but maybe I’m just crazy, but when I’m playing I’m not worrying about the story. I’m enjoying the experience. While thinking about stories in games and structures of games certainly is important, centering on it to the exclusion of the player seems overly narrow to me.

I think the main frustration that I have with this debate is that, like many debates, it tends to act as if these two approaches are the only game in town. Those of us that are advocating other approaches don’t seem to have a place in the debate. I’m not a narratologist, and I’m fairly certain I’m not a ludologist. I’m an ethnographer and a student of popular culture and youth culture. Perhaps if we really could get to the last word in the debate then those of us that aren’t interested in EITHER option wouldn’t have to nod politely whenever it comes up.

Still ashamed to be a gamer…

Unfortunately, little seems to have changed since I first announced that I was ashamed to be a gamer. While I haven’t seen any magazines as gratuitous as those, the spectacle of E3 has brought it’s fiar share of shame.

Over at they had a link posted to’s column on their 2005 E3 Hall of Shame in which the have pictures of a few of the “Both Babes” they found most offensive (The also have a rundown of their Historic Hall of Shame features “Booth Babes” of years goine by).

I’m not so ashamed by having “Booth Babes” pimping the games, as I am by the negative reaction to the article that many of the posters on Slashdot had to the idea that there *might* be something wrong with having “Booth Babes” to sell your product and how hard people try to justify it. It is funny to see shuch a gorup of people that are so quick to judge others as sheep refuse to stip and think that maybe there might be another way to get people interested in your games…

..of course that is only once you get past the lengthy discussion on how much money strippers make…

Oh goody…

Watching the Jane Pauly show on “videogame addiction” and, oh joy, they have David Walsh on. Guess what, he says that playing online is a new thing! I guess I was halucinating back in 1992 when Doom came out and I thought I was playing online… (and before anyone says it, I know Doom wasn’t the first game to have online multiplayer, but it was the first game I played online)

60 minutes …for me to poop on!

Oh you just know I got something to say about our friend Jack Thompson’s appearance on 60 Minutes last week in a story about how evil Grand Theft Auto is. Although Cathode Tan has done a far more complete job of dissection the (il)logic of Jack Thompson Postmodern Attorney.

I just expect Jack Thompson to say that videogames are evil. What I don’t expect is for 60 Minutes, allegedly one of the most respected new programs on the American airwaves, to do a story on videogame violence without any real opposing side being presented or without seeming to stop and question the legitimacy of Thompson who has had a long history of harassing Janet Reno as well as a Miami DJ who finally had to take out a restraining order against him. If only 60 Minutes could have spent some time doing research. I know that typing lawyer “Jack Thompson” into google is really tough, but I’m sure they could get an intern to do it or something.

Then there is also the fact that Ed Bradley, he with the hip earring, didn’t seem to bother playing Grand Theft Auto, but just watched someone play it. So does that mean I can just read the screenplay of a film and say that is the same as having seen the film? Once again, if only 60 Minutes could get some interns to take an hour or so to teach Ed Bradley how to play a game.

Now I don’t want to say that 60 Minutes is for old people who like to say things like, “Those damn kids these days!” but it certainly seems like the only purpose of this story is just to scare people. No fact checking seems to have been done. No verification of the authority of the accusations. The only person they talked to was from the ESA and didn’t do much to defend himself.

If 60 Minutes is one of the most respected television news programs, then television news is nothing more than a bunch of sloppy fear mongers who are out of touch with reality. Maybe that’s the real story 60 Minutes was running last week…

I Hate Social Scientists

My research involves ethnography and my PhD minor is Anthropology. As such, I’ve sent a lot of time in classes talking about the role of the researcher and how the researcher brings biases and assumptions to the study. Apparently, this type of self searching and introspection doesn’t seem as evident for many people doing social science “experiments” especially our friends who seem convinced that videogames are bad. Even if the evidence doesn’t support their hypothesis, it doesn’t seem to stop them from finding a reason why even not finding anything wrong is a problem. The most recent case in point comes from a Washington Post article Students See Video Games As Harmless, Study Finds (registration required, but the story has since been picked up by other papers). Now, certainly, I can’t be too hasty in condemning the research because after all, this is being filtered through the newspaper writer’s writing and, therefore, might not accurately represent the findings or beliefs of the researcher. Additionally, I have my own agenda. I think I have made that clear. All that being said, the article paints a picture that is not very rosy.

The article talks about a research study conducted by University of Maryland professor Melanie Killen in which:

Researchers showed them images from a pair of over-the-top video games, one an “extreme” golf outing with strippers as caddies, the other a blood-and-entrails affair. Then, they were asked if what they had seen could be harmful.

First of all, they weren’t really from videogames.

Killen and fellow researchers at the University of Maryland’s Human Development Department interviewed more than 100 college students, whose average age was 19, for 45 minutes each. They showed them images from a series of imaginary video games, each one modeled on a familiar genre in the gaming industry.

Unfortunately, this little detail isn’t mentioned until halfway through the article. Even so, “most subjects understood that the two over-the-top games depicted negative themes and harmful stereotypes.”

One would think, great, this study proves that games know that there are negative stereotypes in games. Wrong. The very next sentence makes this abundantly clear, “But they failed to see how that content could harm them.” The article ends with: “It’s not like they were in denial about stereotypes,” Killen said. “But they for some reason think it’s not going to affect them.” So there it is, the assumption that exposure to stereotypes, even if you know that they are negative stereotypes is harmful. Gamers can’t win. Period. And it isn’t like any other form of media has stereotypes or anything…

Of course, the article in and of itself is horrible and it is entirely possible that the biases that seem to come from Killen’s research are from Daniel de Vise the article’s author. In just one article, in addition to the findings of Killen and her team, de Vise manages to bring up Columbine, make a drive-by swipe at Grand Theft Auto, talk about how “photorealistic” the graphics have become, and quote Craig A. Anderson who has spent much of his academic career rehashing the same arguments that media and videogames in particular are evil and make you go crazy and kill people. Wow! All that is missing is a quote from Grossman and Thompson (either Jack or Robert)!

Real world ethics and gaming?

It is often debated whether videogames are ruining the morals and ethics of youth, however, I have a different dilemma in mind. The question at hand is, “Is it acceptable to buy a game or other form of entertainment if you know that one of the people who created it holds views that you strongly disagree with?”

This is not a hypothetical situation, but rather one based firmly in our modern world for it seems that noted science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, who wrote a column for Compute magazine for many years, has a few things in the works that are of interest to me. He is working on the Advent trilogy of games, the makers of A Tale in the Desert have just just announced a MMORPG based on one of his stories, and he is going to write Ultimate Iron Man for Marvel comics. And he is also an outspoken critic of homosexuality and gay marriage.

I’m not here to debate if he is right or wrong. I can’t change your mind and you can’t change mine. I also think he has every right to say and think whatever he wants. The question is, just because he is involved in something that sounds interesting, should I support him by giving him my money? I don’t think I will, but I’m interested in what others think.

Stupid is as Stupid Does…

I bought myself a settop DVD recorder for Christmas and on my Christmas break I’ve been copying over to DVD all the videogame stuff I’ve recorded on VHS. Yesterday I watched some of the videogames are evil/moral panic stuff including First-Person Shooter (the internet archive has a cached copy of the site which seems to have gone offline, but because it was all fancy flash, not much is left of it) which details the story of the filmmaker and his attempt to understand his son who is obsessed with Counter-Strike. I know when I become a parent my first impulse will be to make a movie about my son rather than to try to actual join in and play the game myself.

I also watched PBS’s The Video Game Revolution which, while a history and not nearly as moral panic-y as First Person Shooter, contains segments with a psychologist who closely monitors his son’s videogame playing. That isn’t a problem, because any responsible parent should do that. However, instead of actually, you know, turning off the game and controlling the situation, the father repeatedly tells the kid to turn it off while the kid whines and moans — but continues to keep playing.

Now I’m not a parent, and it is certainly easy to gel like an expert when you aren’t one yourself, but it seems odd that these two examples, in which both fathers have some sort of credibility lent to them by their profession, filmmaker and psychologist, both seem so clueless not only about videogames but how to parent. Is it any wonder then that people who seem so clueless about their children also seem so clueless about what they children are doing? I guess that is why we need people like Jack Thompson to try and save us from ourselves…

kids and games and fears

Just before Christmas, on my drive to my parents’ house, I was listening to AM talk radio and ran across a station discussion kids playing poker. There were specifically discussing a 12/20/2004 story by Marco R. della Cava that appeared in USA Today under the title, “Poker at an early age: Not just another teen fad.” According to the article:

Now kids as young as 10 are being dealt hands, often with parents’ approval. Poker paraphernalia is being hawked everywhere from supermarkets to kiddie emporiums such as Toys R Us. All of which rings alarm bells for gambling addiction experts who warn that poker could be a slippery slope into other high-risk activities.

To those of use that play videogames, this sounds awfully familiar. From my experiences with teaching college undergrads, I can attest that among the men Texas Hold ‘Em is very popular, almost as popular as videogames. As someone who worked in a casino for a little over 2 years, I’ve seen first hand the dangers of gambling. (Of course the fact that the article talks about the dangers of gambling doesn’t stop at least the online version from linking to a page on how to play!)

On the radio show almost everyone agreed that there wasn’t much harm in kids playing poker, and I more or less agree. However, it is interesting that there isn’t more of an uproar about the evils of poker. There are a few stories, but I’ve yet to see anything about banning it or anything. It seems odd that a game where losing money is a built in part of the way the game works should raise fewer concerns in parents than a videogame which would have to have negative consequences when you weren’t even playing it to be a danger.

However, if you read the article closely, you will noticed that it places the blame on poker’s popularity squarely on television:

Why now? Flick on your TV. Expanding poker tournament coverage on ESPN, the Travel Channel and Bravo has had two compelling effects.

First, the slickly produced shows (ESPN employs more than 20 cameras, comparable to what’s used on major sporting events) have taught kids the fundamentals of a wildly popular version of the game known as Texas Hold ‘Em, which challenges players to incorporate face-up table cards into their hands.

Second, TV has granted quasi-celebrity status to a hip generation of poker stars who can lose tens of thousands with James Bond-like panache. Hey, why suffer through the indignities of Survivor when you can make a mint with a steely gaze and a bit of luck?

While no one can argue that TV is responsible for the current popularity of poker, it seems that rather than having some inherent appeal to it, poker is attractive because TV has made it that way. Now right or wrong, that is interesting because the subtext here seems to be that, once again, it is the media’s fault! Why else would it matter that the show was “slickly produced?” By including that “fact,” it seems that the author seems to hold an Adorno-esque opinion of television in that kids can be won over by the glitz and glamour of it, rather than having anything to do with the appeals of poker in and of itself.

The reason this is so interesting to me is that by discussing the effect of television, the author of the article, at least in part, makes this no so much that poker is evil, but that television is bad! So once again we have a subtext that implies that if it needs electricity, it is seductive and can manipulate us.

Oops, I did it again…

It seems like my last post has created a tempest in a teapot. Unlike the last time I got into a flamewar, I didn’t think anyone would react so negatively, and I didn’t even imply anyone was an elitist bastard this time!

While some of the comments are reasoned and sound, some sound like they protest too much. Sorry I implied that it was wierd to want to look at half naked videogame characters. And I’m sorry that my parents gave me a name that doesn’t fit in with your normative idea of what a name should be.

I’m glad that Tore over at vesterblog sympathises with me, because from the comments I thought I might be the only one who thinks the whole deal is a little weird.

Seriously though, someone explain the appeal of half naked videogame characters when pictures of real people are so easilly available. Please.

Ashamed to be a Gamer

I was in the local bookstore today looking through the magazines and for the first time in a long while I became ashamed to be a gamer. While looking through the rack of gaming mags I saw the following:

Girls of Gaming Magazines


Now I had heard about the things with videogame characters appearing in Playboy, but a whole magazine devoted to videogame women? That’s just sad. And a gaming mag using a woman to sell their mag? Is the game mag industry that competitive? So is there anyone out there willing to admit they bought either of these without a sense of shame or irony?