Henry Jenkins responds in turn

Henry Jenkins responds in turn


Casting the ludology vs. narratology debate as a game in itself, Henry Jenkins brings Bible gardens and the duck-billed platypus into this defense of hybridity.

Markku Eskelinen argues that any discussion of ludology must deal with Gonzalo Frasca’s 1998 address to the Digital Arts and Culture conference, so let me begin with a quotation from that address:

Literary theory and narratology have been helpful to understand cybertexts and videogames…. The fact is that these computer programs share many elements with stories: characters, chained actions, endings, settings…. In this paper, we propose to explore videogames and cybertexts as games. Our intention is not to replace the narratologic approach, but to complement it. We want to better understand what is the relationship with narrative and videogames; their similarities and differences. [Frasca]

Or, to refer to another of the texts Eskelinen urges us to consider, Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: “To claim that there is no difference between games and narrative is to ignore essential qualities of both categories. And yet, as this study tries to show, the difference is not clear-cut, and there is significant overlap between the two.” [Aarseth] Both of these “ur-texts” for ludology, then, adapt a position not radically different from the one which I took in my essay - claiming that both narratology and ludology are required if we are going to adequately understand the hybrid quality of contemporary computer and videogames; that games can not be reduced to stories but that we also need to hold onto the tools of narratology if we want to understand the “similarities and differences” or points of “overlap” between games and stories.

Now, by contrast, let’s consider the opening of Eskelinen’s First Person essay:

So if there already is or soon will be a legitimate field for computer game studies, this field is also very open to intrusions and colonizations from the already organized scholarly tribes. Resisting and beating them is the goal of our first survival game in this paper, as what these emerging studies need is independence, or at least relative independence.

One can’t help but note that Eskelinen’s position is significantly more rigid than the one adopted by Frasca and Aarseth. Far from seeing ludology as a “complement” to narratology, Eskelinen wants to barricade the gates against any foreign “intrusions and colonizations” and throw away the key. Eskelinen’s contributions depict him as someone defending his turf against the aggressive assault of narratologists who are “seeking and finding stories, and nothing but stories, everywhere.” What I want to suggest is that Eskelinen is expending a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy combating phantoms of his own imagination.

I feel a bit like Travis Bickle when I ask Eskelinen, “Are you talking to me?” For starters, I don’t consider myself to be a narratologist at all. I certainly draw on narrative theory as one conceptual model among many for understanding computer and video games; I have written other essays which make little or no use of narrative theory, focusing on the fit between game play and more traditional backyard play cultures. See, for example, Henry Jenkins, “Complete Freedom of Movement: Video Games As Gendered Playspaces,” in Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins (Ed.), From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998). When I first introduced my concept of “spatial stories,” I was arguing against film theorists simply cookie-cutting their models onto games without regard to the centrality of spatial aesthetics to games. [Jenkins 1993] I have written elsewhere about the ways that performance and spectacle in early sound comedy take precedence over narrative and characterization. [Jenkins 1992] Ultimately, my interest is in mapping the aesthetic norms that constitute different forms of popular culture and in almost every case, narrative exists alongside, competes against, struggles with, and is often subordinate to alternative aesthetic logics that are fundamentally anti- or non-narrative in character. Eskelinen is correct to note that games have a long history, so does magic, dance, architecture, ars erotica, and so forth, which exist alongside storytelling as important cultural activities. These various alternative traditions are never completely autonomous from each other, but come together and move apart in different ways, at different times, in different cultures. My goal is not to reduce games to narrative but to explore the unstable relationship between a range of different transmedia logics - narrative, games, spectacle, performance, spatiality, affect, etc.

In that sense, I would see Jon McKenzie’s concept of games as “experience design” to be an equally appropriate framework for thinking about the medium as my conception of “narrative architecture.” Both would need to be understood as provisional terms which clarify certain aspects of the phenomenon while masking others; none are fully adequate for the object of study, but they will do as starting points around which further refinements will need to be made. First Person takes as a central theme the question of games and stories, and so for this essay I have used narrative as a point of entry. There is no question in my mind that current narrative theory would need to be significantly rethought before it can be applied to computer and videogames.

Eskelinen asks for a definition of terms. For the record, I do offer a definition of story: “Russian formalist critics make a useful distinction between plot (or syuzhet) which refers to, in Kristen Thompson’s terms, `the structured set of all causal events as we see and hear them presented in the film itself,’ and story (or fabula), which refers to the viewer’s mental construction of the chronology of those events.” Seeing story as a mental construct, one that may exist in the head of the artist at the beginning of the creative process or the consumer at the end, enables us to imagine situations where stories are evoked and not told and to see at least some games as involved in a narrative economy even if they are not structured as traditional narratives. Story is not “content,” according to this model, but the end point of a process through which readers encounter, work upon, and work through various textual cues. I would thus agree that the narrational process of computer games is significantly different from the process by which we consume books, films, theatrical plays, or comic strips (but then, there are significant differences in the way narration works in each of these other media as well). Yet, I would still argue that many games draw on player’s existing familiarity with stories and encourage them to reshape their experience of play into stories at the end of the process. My essay is talking about computer and videogames as they are constituted within the current marketplace. I am making no claims about dodgeball, tiddlywinks, checkers, Legos, or golf. I am quite prepared to accept that these traditional forms of games and play have little or nothing to do with narrative at all and I would be very surprised if my essay contributed much to our understanding of them. The market category of “games,” in fact, covers an enormous ground, including activities that traditional ludologists would classify as play, sports, simulations, and toys, as well as traditional games. Some, but certainly not all, of these products also make bids on telling stories; storytelling is part of what they are marketing and part of what consumers think they are buying when they invest in this software.

These computer games, then, are a strange, still unstable, and still undertheorized hybrid between games and narratives. They are a border case for any study of narrative, but they are also a border case for any study of games. Computer games are a bit like duck-billed platypuses, a species which, as Harriet Ritvo has documented, confounded early naturalists; some of them denied that such a creature could exist and denounced early reports as fraud, while others sought to erase all ambiguities about its status, trivializing any problems in classifying this species - which has a duck bill, web feet, and lays eggs - as mammals. Jon McKenzie accurately summarizes my position: “games are indeed not narratives, not films, not plays - but they’re also not-not-narratives, not-not-films, not-not-plays.” In the end, the zoological discipline has decided that platypuses are not birds; yet, we will not really get why platypuses are such strange mammals if we don’t know what a bird is.

For that reason, the analogies I draw in the essay are between games and other kinds of works - amusement park rides, musicals, commedia dell’arte, travel narratives, world-making in fantasy and science fiction, hero myths - which have fit uncomfortably within the narratological tradition, suggesting that if we look at how narrative theory has struggled with the ambiguities of these other border cases, it may tell us something about the ways that narrative theory may and may not contribute to an understanding of computer and video games. Drawing on these analogies to narrative border cases, I try to describe some of the ways that games relate to larger story traditions in our culture - suggesting that they may evoke atmospheres or content from stories; that they may contribute something to a larger story system; that they may have narrative information buried within them; that they may create an environment ripe with narrative possibilities; that they may enact micronarratives or borrow certain structures from the larger spatial storytelling tradition; and so forth. At no point in the essay do I ever suggest that games can be reduced to story and nothing but story. All I am rejecting is the desire of certain ludologists to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Near the end of his comments, Eskelinen proposes a range of examples that he takes to be a reductio ad absurdum of my essay’s arguments. It might be helpful to take one of his cases and break it down. Are gardens spatial stories? We can agree that they are not. Most gardens are spaces - with little or no narrative interest at all. Some of those spaces may be designed in such a way as to enable certain life events to unfold - such as hidden nooks where lovers may meet - and thus gardens have been the settings for many stories. There is a tradition of using gardens to recreate spaces from fictional stories; I am thinking about the Bible gardens which dot the roadside of my native south or the fairy gardens that are popular throughout Europe. Here, we would say that those gardens operate in relation to a larger narrative economy. In most cases, however, these gardens are simply recreating spaces or vignettes from stories. They evoke stories, but they are not stories. In the case of some Bible gardens, these vignettes are arranged in a narrative sequence designed to unfold the story of Christ’s martyrdom. As they do so, they start to move towards the borders of our current understanding of narrative. I would argue that such gardens could be an interesting limit case for narrative theory, even if we would not be able to fully account for them without also drawing insights from landscape architecture. Similarly, to draw on another of his examples, there are some books which do not simply recount the playing of games, but use things, like chess moves, to structure their plot progression, and while we would not want to call such works games, we might argue that ludology could contribute something to our understanding of such texts. In both cases, though, Bible gardens and game books are minor strands within their larger tradition and you can discuss gardens and novels without referring to them at all. Yet, in the case of computer games, a high percentage of what is currently in the market are the digital equivalent of those Bible gardens and therefore, we need to have some way of discussing those forms of hybridity.

Eskelinen’s solution involves an act of purification - strip away everything that doesn’t look like a game and discuss these works purely from a ludological framework; he assumes I am following a similar logic, stripping aside everything that doesn’t look like a narrative, but I am not. I am searching for a theory nuanced enough to explain why platypuses are and are not like mammals and why games (and Bible gardens) are and are not stories. Eskelinen is involved in a particular kind of “game” - defining and defending the borders of an emerging academic discipline - and he is doing so according to some traditional rules: define terms, lay down axioms, cite core theorists, and then engage in debate around those various abstractions. We might call this game “my paradigm is bigger than your paradigm,” or “my theorist can beat up your theorist.” In the terms around which he describes it, it is a zero-sum game, where one model will ultimately win the disputed space and he’s rooting for the Ludology Vikings over the Narratology Eagles. Within academia, he may be correct to perceive his side as badly outnumbered: there has been a great deal more academic writing about narrative than about games and there’s an urgent need to develop new tools for thinking about games and play. I simply question whether it makes sense to think of knowledge production as a zero-sum game.

I see myself involved in a rather different exercise, attempting not to construct an academic discipline around games, but to intervene in a public debate among game designers, game critics, and game players - as well as policy makers and other media producers and consumers - about the current state and future development of an emergent and hybrid form of “interactive entertainment.” As we do so, I think we need to start with specific examples, rather than broad abstractions; we need to recognize the impurity and instability of the current forms and respond to them by drawing on the broadest possible range of theoretical tools and historical analogies. None of those theories are going to be ready to wear off the shelf, none of the analogies are fully functional, and each will require a good deal of retrofitting to be adequate to the task of understanding our object of study. In such a situation, there are no clear boundaries, no pure theories and traditions, and no stable formulations. What is needed, as McKenzie suggests, is a more exploratory, less bookish - dare I say, more ludic - spirit. Most game designers know a great deal more about the theory of play and games than they know about narrative. Most of the game design books currently on the market tell little or nothing about character and plot. Yet, these practitioners consistently express a hunger to know more about traditional storytelling; sessions on games and narrative have been among the most highly attended at industry conferences. My essay’s arguments came out of that dialogue with the game design community rather than within a more academic context.


Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997)

Frasca, Gonzala. “Ludology Meets Narratology: Similitude and Differences between (Video) Games and Narrative,” http://www.jacaranda.org/frasca/ludology.htm

Jenkins, Henry. “x Logic: Placing Nintendo in Children’s Lives,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video (August 1993).

—. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).

—. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).

Ritvo, Harriet. The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

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