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.

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