Espen Aarseth responds in turn

Espen Aarseth responds in turn

2004-05-21
Riposte to: 

Espen Aarseth holds that gameplay, not Lara Croft?s physique, should command the attention of an evolving game studies.

The proof will be in the pudding, predicts Chris Crawford: Let’s not dismiss “interactive storytelling” yet. “Give us some time, we can do it.” While I have for years admired and respected Crawford’s devotion and persistence, here I can only give him arguments, not time. If we count Crowther and Woods’ Adventure (1976) as the first attempt, then we have had 25 years already. In another 25, who knows what we will have? It is not my business to argue with time. But I will argue that we already have a kind of “interactive storytelling” that is attractive and fulfilling. Crawford’s best example is oral bedtime stories, mine is Dungeons and Dragons -style gaming, where human Dungeon Masters lead their players through a fantasy landscape.

But how easy is it to emulate human intelligence, as both those examples probably demand? And is emulation of storytellers the only way to create attractive computerized experiences? If we stop trying to simulate an experienced, human, improvising storyteller, then all sorts of rich possibilities will open up. And already have, if we look at the many wonderful digital games made in the last 40 years. The successful machine storyteller, it seems to me, is just another version of the AI pipe dream. Solve the AI problem, and you will have those algorithms that Crawford wants designed. But probably no sooner.

Crawford argues that there are “laws of drama” that, when discovered, will give him the tools he needs. I am less optimistic. Drama theory has been around for as long as physics (i.e. since the Ancient Greeks), but has yet to produce the same sort of mastery over its domain that physics has. There is no evidence that great literature follows laws, and much to suggest that it does not. There are of course conventions to drama, but to be successful, great storytellers must break the conventions, not treat them as algorithms. Games and simulations, on the other hand, absolutely depend on algorithms. This makes them, at heart, different from stories. Stories are top down, simulations are bottom up. Novels must have novelty, but games like chess (and Tetris?) remain mostly unchanged for thousands of years. The conflict between stories and simulation (not “interactivity”) that we find in some games happens because simulations privilege play and user manipulation over storytelling. True, a simulation like The Sims can also produce stories, because it is fun to play with. But stories are not the main product, just like in real life.

Beneath Stuart Moulthrop’s characteristically entertaining and mildly ironic comments there is, as always, a serious and timely warning. Cut off the study of games from the study of their cultural context, he in effect says, and you end up with a sterile, dogmatic discipline. And one would be a fool - or a fundamentalist - to disagree with him.

But fundamentalism has its uses. In academic discourse, a clear, uncompromising, radically different position can be invaluable simply by forcing the rest of the field to do more critical thinking. If we “naturally” assume that games are cultural texts without questioning that assumption, then we will have very little chance of finding out what is unique about them. We might as well be studying the use of computer graphics in advertising, or the latest Star Wars episode. Only by asking ourselves what games are not, or what they need not be, can we find out what they really are.

There are of course reasons why we might not want to do this. Games are increasingly popular, big business, and technologically, they are cutting edge. If we can appropriate them as traditional cultural or literary objects, ready to study with conventional methods, we are home free. And if games are texts, then we’ve got what it takes, oh yeah. So why rock the boat? We all know what killed the cat.

My argument was simply that we should take one step back, and do some background research before we launch the grand cultural and narrative analyses. Brian Sutton-Smith has defined games as “voluntary control systems.” What did he mean by that? Perhaps we don’t care, since we’ve got it all figured out in advance. Cultural theory is good at that. It has also been very good at ignoring (or deploring) games. Is this a coincidence?

In an article on narrativism and games, there is no room for a general discussion of the richness and cultural significance of the genre. Not to mention the paratexts of game products. To paraphrase Moulthrop, the polygonal significance of Lara Croft’s physique goes beyond the gameplay. But that doesn’t mean it tells us much, if anything, about the gameplay, does it? The famous collection of polygons gets analyzed because it is a popular icon, not because it is in a game.

In his comments on chess, Moulthrop insists on the game’s cultural implications, citing its reference to “the logic of territorial domination and unequal privilege.” I certainly agree that chess, like most games, is about conflict, but that is not necessarily a type of phenomenon limited to human culture and history. Territorial domination is a naturally occurring phenomenon, as is unequal privilege. It is a social phenomenon, yes, but not primarily a human one. Neither is gameplay. But we do make “good” use of both. (I would also argue that the human cultural component of chess is not domination or privilege, but sacrifice.)

We still know surprisingly little about what the play-element in games is. If we skirt this issue in favor of the cultural and textual aspects of games, our field will remain hollow. Yes, games and gaming can tell us important things about contemporary culture, but what does contemporary culture tell us about games?

The suggestion that we privilege the ludic elements over the textual and cultural elements of gaming, at least in the growing discipline of game studies, seems to provoke a lot of humanist researchers, including professor Moulthrop. “Alarmingly narrow,” and “hazardous solipsism” are not light words. Moulthrop questions my wisdom in severing the link to cultural criticism. I find it hard to reconstruct this maxim from what I actually wrote. To deprivilege textual and cultural perspectives, by showing that they are not necessarily as essential to gameplay as our humanist ideology would have us believe, is not the same as to ban them, although the shocked reactions seem to indicate that it is. It is tempting to read a “those not with us are against us” rhetoric here; but I am more than willing to postpone that comment until the idea has circulated a bit more.

Finally, I of course agree with Moulthrop that multiplayer games are “the most promising forms of information play,” and in fact make this very claim at the end of my essay. (I also made this point in a games vs. hypertext debate many years ago [Moulthrop 1992].) The reason why I did not focus on this aspect more here is that the narrativist camp deals exclusively with single-player games, so that is where this particular match must be played out. Computer games are possibly the richest cultural genre yet created, and both ludologic, aesthetic and cultural aspects are relevant. But they are not the same. Sensitivity towards the unique but poorly understood aspects of the genre can only strengthen our understanding of the textual and cultural aspects as well.

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