Myth of the talking ball – a brief history of ludology

Although the modern video game is a digital entertainment medium that is in some ways comparable to other entertainment media, it was long before that (and remains today) a modern sub-stratum of imaginative ‘play’ as well as of technology and story-telling. This play is unique to games as a medium and is an aspect often neglected by those seeking to compare it to other media or situate it in a cultural context.

This is one of the ideas underpinning the research I’m currently involved in. While I’m busy procrastinating from that research by blogging, and while I already have all the reference materials spread out on my desk, I thought I might take an abridged look at the development of ludology – the study of play.

As long as there have been games there have obviously been those who seek to understand them. In the case of video games, the two main camps of academics are narratologists – who study games in much the same way as one studies other media, by the themes and narratives it conveys to the user – and ludologists – who think the heart of the game and therefore the rightful thrust of the study is the play, not the narrative.

One of the first ludologists (and still probably the most prevalant), Espen Aarseth, wrote a book in 1997 called Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. The book rejected the notion that ‘interactivity’ was sufficient to describe the dissimilarity of video games to other media. He thought interactivity actually deprives us of any handle on games’ specificity, as it aligns them with anything in the world that responds or changes with human input. After all, a book is interactive in that each person processes it in an individual and interactive way. A tree is interactive. At the time, Aarseth described games as “ergodic literature”, in which nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. Turning a page =trivial. Planning a path = nontrivial.

While it could be argued that ‘interactive’ has become a more applicable term since 1997, and while Aarseth seems to have since dropped the term “ergodic”, his distinction is still an important one as it highlights the commitment required from a human subject traversing a game-as-text. Readers of books and films are ‘safe’, their responses limited to moving their eyes or turning pages, whereas reading a video game involves a risk of rejection by the text – you can die in games. Or fail.  It also presupposes a human agent who wants to use the object in an expressive way, to say something about themselves. It presupposes a person who wants to play.

To my mind this is the key to why game players seem to favour ludology while old-school academics don’t. As players we know the difference between a narrative and a game. Game stories can suck, or be about something we care very little about, and the game can still be very worthwhile to us. The same can generally not be said of books. It goes back to gaming’s roots in non-electronic games. Think about cowboys and indians. It’s fun to play, but if you studied the narrative (natives and colonials chase each other until one of them gets shot), you kind of miss the point.

In 2001, Aarseth wrote the editorial in the first issue of the very first peer-reviewed video game studies journal.  Apart from situating 2001 as the first year of serious game analysis, the year of the first game-focused international scholarly conference and the first year of regular graduate programs for games at universities, Aarseth used the editorial to warn against what he viewed as the ‘colonising’ of video games by narratological academics.

Making room for a new field usually means reducing the resources of the existing ones, and the existing fields will also often respond by trying to contain the new area as a subfield. Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonising attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again. And again, until computer game studies emerges as a clearly self-sustained academic field. To make things more confusing, the current pseudo-field of “new media” (primarily a strategy to claim computer-based communication for visual media studies), wants to subsume computer games as one of its objects.

Even today games courses in virtually every university are offered primarily as technical programming or design courses. Analysis is shoehorned largely into animation or film studies.

Ludologists continue to make their case. In 2004 Eskelinen rejected game narratology absolutely and gave us the metaphor: “If I throw a ball at you I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories”. The implication is that a person should not lose sight of the fact that a game is meant for playing, which the narratologist often does. He goes on to say that games and the act of playing long predate digital media and even print media, so analysis through media studies techniques developed for traditional media will not be fruitful when applied to video games.

One may argue that there is obviously an aspect of narrative in games – and that’s true. Consider Mass Effect, an RPG with just as much of its roots in the literary works of Lovecraft and Asimov, in the Star War films and countless other instances of science fiction, as it has in the tradition of play. However a key point in Aarseth’s rejection of games-as-narratives lies in the differentiation of mainstream ‘hollywood’ games and the alternative – open source games, independent games etc. Compared to the mainstream, many of these alternative games consciously reject the influences of other media, and it’s very easy to apply Eskelinen’s criticism of traditional analysis to them. The games play with core gameplay concepts (for example running and jumping, inverting gravity, building structures, connecting three of the same colour) rather than progressing a story or providing visual and aural spectacle.

When you were a kid, did you ever go see a movie (say Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and then invent games and scenarios for yourself to play out based on that experience? Could Mass Effect and other narrative heavy games not be thought of the same way? Play is still very much at the center.

There’s a lot more I wanted to explore here, particularly about the path narratology often takes to ‘games a dangerous’ and why lugology might point to that being bogus, but I set a procrastination limit of 1000 words. Hit the comments below if you want to continue the discussion.

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