Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Living Epic: What about Game Studies? Didn't Janet Murray already do this bard stuff?

This is a post in a series expressing the essence of my argument about how video games are actually ancient, how they reawaken the anicent oral epic tradition represented above all by the epics of the Homeric tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The earlier posts can be found through the “Living Epic—the Main Quest” link on the right. Note that this blog is aimed at an audience that includes non-gamers; I apologize for boring the gamers in my audience by going over such things as the basics of game genres, but I hope they might want to see that as an opportunity to share my posts with non-gaming parents, teachers, and spouses.

On the other hand, I also need to be honest here at the start, and say a couple important things about the relationship between this blog and the books and articles written by the professors in the field of Game Studies (or, as it’s increasingly being called these days, Digital Media Studies). First, I think that using my ancient material the way I use it here, to enrich gamers’ lives and to tell them and their friends that gaming is much more interesting and valuable than it might seem, is revolutionary. I don’t think it can be called Game Studies (and I’m sure all the Game Studies professors would agree with that), but I believe it has interesting things to say to the people who do Game Studies, even though I doubt they’ll listen.

Second, however, and most importantly, the basic application of this ancient material to the study of gaming is not new. Cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die I came up with it on my own, but as so often happens in the academic world, some of the ideas I came up with on my own turned out to have been thought of already.

Thankfully, though, as is almost always the case, I disagree strongly with the way those ideas have been used before, and in fact my treatment of those ideas in this blog owes nothing to previous treatments. Because I’m a professor, though, and professors do these things, I’m honor-bound to say that Janet Murray’s book Hamlet on the Holodeck contains a brief comparison of interactive narrative to oral epic, and that Marie-Laure Ryan’s book Narrative as Virtual Reality analyzes immersion in gaming as a species of the immersion to be found in narratives of all kinds, and that there are many articles that talk about the kinds of stories to be found in video games. That is, there are already works, directed mainly at scholars in the field of Game Studies, that look at the same issues of the relationship between gaming and older forms, including epic itself, I look at in this blog.

Like I said, I hope some of those folks read this blog and profit by it. But I’m not a Game Studies professor, and truth to tell I’m unhappy with the Game Studies professors for not talking to gamers. I don’t think it’s really because they look down on gamers that they don’t talk to us, but it sure comes across that way sometimes. The fact that the overwhelming majority of gamers don’t know that there’s a field called Game Studies is the most revealing symptom of the disease, but the disease is different—it’s called theory, and it means that what the Game Studies professors are doing doesn’t actually have anything to offer people who like “Halo,” because “Halo” is just a shooter, and shooters are theoretically uninteresting, since they look to Game Studies like they’re all the same.

I could go on for a long time, but I think you get the picture: I’ve directed this blog at video gamers, and at others interested in video gaming, who want to think about video gaming in a new (old) way. For the benefit of that audience, I’m going to show that only a deeper—an older—understanding of the nature of video games as storytelling than most people have yet been willing to acquire will help us enjoy them as fully as they should be enjoyed, and help us move them along to the heights and depths of artistic expression of which I think they are capable.

Next: Part 3