Ludology vs Narratology Revisited

My previous post on the Ludology vs Narratology debate is one of my most visited, and I note that that the term frequently appears in searches that bring people to this site. So, in the spirit of “give the people what they want”, let me offer up this morsel.

I’ve been reading Espen Aarseth’s paper, A Narrative Theory of Games, and he both offers insight into the debate (as, it seems, a pretty early participant), and, more importantly, does a reasonable job of debunking the whole thing. Along the way, he demonstrates a masterclass in academic rhetoric, but you can’t help but feel its personal too.

In reality this is not one, but two debates conflated: one is the design-oriented discussion of the potential and failings of game-based narratives, and another is the discussion of whether games can be said to be stories.

Aarseth points the finger at Henry Jenkins’ Game Design as Narrative Architecture, for setting up the two sides of Ludologists and Narratologists. (Though in that paper, Jenkins appears to point the finger back at Aarseth for coining the word ludology in the first place.) Aarseth argues that pitting one side against the other was “unfortunate, because it obscured the fact that all the so-called “ludologists” were trained in narratology and used narratology in their studies of games.”

Aarseth argues:

The “ludologist” position was not, as has been claimed, “to see the focus shift onto the mechanics of game play” (Jenkins 2001) but to emphasize the crucial importance of combining the  mechanical and the semiotic aspects and to caution against and criticize the uncritical and unqualified application of terms such as “narrative” and “story” to games. In other words, the ludologists’ critique was a reaction to sloppy scholarship (in which key terms are not defined), one-sided focus and poor theorizing, and not a
ban against the application of narrative theory to games as such

(This next bit, I love)

That this challenge has been mistaken for a ban on the use of narrative theory in game studies is nothing less than amazing, and perhaps goes to show that humanist academics are often less astute readers, scholars and interpreters than their training gives them occasion to presume.

Oh, but what’s this?

Anyone who echoes Jenkins’ misleading nomenclature of “ludologists” vs “narratologists” simply has not read the literature itself.

That’s me well and truly told.

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