In Too Deep

In Too Deep
Immersion Unexplained

Allen Varney | 8 Aug 2006 08:03
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"I describe in detail ways to think about the term narrative as descriptive of specific types of experience, as narrative 'operators' that function at different levels to support gameplay," Pearce wrote. "Frasca asserts that I 'claim chess is a narrative.' In fact, I do no such thing. Rather, I use the thought exercise of comparing the 'plots' of chess and Macbeth to make a point about the differences in the way narrative operates in both. I specifically use the word 'plot' because it has particular implications, and represents a higher level of specificity. To savor this point, I thought we might wish to take a moment to meditate on the various common meanings of the word 'plot.'"

It's hard to read all this airy palaver, this buffleheaded pedantry, without shouting, "Get a job." Can these detached structuralist and post-structuralist critics help us understand immersion? Could they ever, ever admit becoming immersed themselves, in anything?

The teapot-tempest debate of narrativism versus ludology may well be promoted as long as the wind blows, the sun shines and academic conferences seek papers. Yet, there was a voice of reason (or something approximately like it, depending on semantics) at DiGRA 2005.

The keynote speaker was Harvard literature and media professor Janet H. Murray, whose Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace was a seminal text in game narratology. In her speech, optimistically titled "The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology" (.PDF), Murray said, "No one has been interested in making the argument that there is no difference between games and stories or that games are merely a subset of stories. Those interested in both games and stories see game elements in stories and story elements in games: interpenetrating sibling categories, neither of which completely subsumes the other. The ludology vs. narratology argument can never be resolved because one group of people is defining both sides of it. The 'ludologists' are debating a phantom of their own creation.

"No one group can define what is appropriate for the study of games. Game studies, like any organized pursuit of knowledge, is not a zero-sum team contest, but a multi-dimensional, open-ended puzzle that we all are engaged in cooperatively solving."

Well said, Dr. Murray. Of course, her address up to that point included a few snipes at the ludologists - she accused them of opposing narratology out of anxiety, so they could "reorder the academy" - so in all likelihood, the academic spat will continue. Meanwhile, working game designers must still struggle to make their games immersive the old-fashioned way: by playing them.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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