Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Performative play practices (1): are stories and games really the same thing?

This post is the first in the PPP series. Links to subsequent posts in the series may be found at the bottom of this post.

The battle between the ludologists and the narratologists has ended in a rather amicable truce, which has permitted both sides to continue on with what they were doing, with an occasional nod to what the other side is doing. Those who want to study stories as games’ primary function have proceeded to do so, while those who emphasize the importance of rules, or of play, have proceeded to do that. Everyone has recognized that gaming is a multifaceted practice, and that games not only need but even demand study from as many different perspectives as we can bring to bear.

The making of this truce, though, has seemed to me to mean that we’ve come to a lull in the investigation of the relationship between games and stories. Those who study video games as stories have become content to leave it a mystery why it shoud be that although games may fruitfully be analyzed as if they were a variation on the sort of traditional narratives to be found in films, gamers really aren’t paying much attention to the stories.

At the same time the more play-centered scholars seem uninterested in asking why it should be that nevertheless the most popular games, with the most stunning advances in gameplay, have a very strong narrative element—a phenomenon that just doesn’t seem like it’s going to go away. Most people are now taking it for granted, which is at the very least a definite advance on our previous position.

Why is it that games can’t quit stories, and stories don’t quite fit games? The answer I want to explore in this post-series is that games and stories are actually two kinds of the same thing, a thing that doesn’t really have a name, although “game” is actually closer than “story.” That is, I think that if we have to keep using only those terms, “game” and “story,” we’ll have to say that stories are a kind of game, rather than that games are a kind of story. But I’d rather suggest a more precise term, and then say that one kind of that thing is games, and another kind is stories.

The term is “performative play practice” (PPP). I should say that what I’m trying to do here with this idea of the PPP is not entirely unlike what Ian Bogost does with a great deal of success in his book Unit Operations. In that book, Ian argues that you might analyze anything procedural, whether a game, a story, or a piece of business software, as an operation of units. The difference between that mode of analysis and what I’m trying to do with the idea of the PPP is that I’m focusing on the actual cultural experience of playing games and telling and listening to stories, and only on those two practices, whereas Ian’s focus is on the symbolic procedures that would frame such experiences. To put it another way, while Unit Operations Theory handles anything procedural, the concept of the PPP only handles games and stories. While I’m citing, I should also say that certain components of my definition of the PPP (the demarcated zone and the rules) bear a resemblance to Jesper Juul’s framework in Half-Real.

So I’ll close out this first post with my attempt at a precise definition of “performative play practice,” and what I see as the definition’s most important corollaries: A PPP is an intersubjective performance that takes place in a cultural zone demarcated for play (that is, as not having an effect on material circumstances, although that demarcation does not mean in actual reality that material circumstances are unaffected). Within that zone conventions may be and usually are determined by rules analogous to the rules for the setting up of conventions in the misunderstood-as-unzoned Symbolic Order (you can call that reality; I’ll unpack it much further in subsequent posts).

Corollary: The cultural practice of mimesis can take place only within the context of a PPP. Corollary: PPP’s would appear to be an important natural practice of human subjects; the impetus for them almost certainly arises in the very constitution of the subject in fantasy, since they are clearly by nature mediated realizations of the subject’s truly constitutive fantasy of the attainment of a) the signifier and b) wholeness. The rest of this series will explain the above and work out its implications. The next post will have some examples of PPP’s, both stories and games, along with explanations of how they fit the definition.

The series after this post: