Monday, June 30, 2008

Was I wrong to praise mainstream, console games? (In response to comments on my post “On the profundity of Halo and Bioshock” (1))

You can find the comments appended here. It seems like a good idea to attempt to summarize individually and then respond individually to what I see as the central points made by those who have my gratitude for taking the time to read my own arguments with attention, however harshly they chose to respond. I think I have good reason to hope that my interlocutors will correct with some rigor any misrepresentation on my part. The nature of the blog form (which I happen to think is in no way inferior to the scholarly-article form or even the scholarly-monograph form, forms that tend towards the insufferably self-indulgent) leads me to divide my response across a few different posts, of which this is the first. I invite my interlocutors to engage me on each heading separately, in the interest of clarity of discussion.


Since I’m just getting back into the swing of things, I’ll start with a couple to which I really have no response other than “Guilty as charged.”

1. The charge of praising unworthy examples of the art of video game, by calling Halo and Bioshock profound.

2. The charge of praising console gaming.

As I’ve said in my preliminary responses, I think a fair reading of my post demonstrates that I’m not claiming that the terrible twosome of Halo and Bioshock are more profound than anything else, including a restaurant menu, if that menu happens to be read in the right context. As several commenters noted, the Iliad (along with a great many classic works which were originally popular entertainment) tends to be mistaken for being something that it’s not, with respect to profundity.

I think the combination of readers’ split-second reactions to the juxtaposition of the word “profundity” and the work Iliad, and the works Halo and Bioshock, may explain how they responded to the post. However that may be, I stand by my basic point, that these games, despite their flaws, including any flaw inherent to their platform, have what I would describe as profound moments. The definition of “profound” is however, finally, very hard to agree upon, and it may be that you’ll in the end simply have to criticize my taste, if not dispute it. (I’m going to handle the matter of how I think that profundity comes about under a different heading.)

The sub-charge of illiteracy, made explicitly by at least one commenter, and a subtext of several others’ remarks, follows nicely here. I would seek to challenge the notion that I have not played a lot of very good games, several of which struck me as more profound, in their ways, than Halo and Bioshock. I cannot claim to have played all the games brought up by commenters, but for every phenomenon inherent to the art of video games that they describe in relation to a game I haven’t played, I have been able to associate a version of the phenomenon in a game I have played; that is, I know what they’re talking about.

But in the the end, characterizing me as illiterate seems to me simply an ad hominem pseudo-argument to justify a failure to engage my claims. If I say something true about video games, why does it matter whether I’ve played Pong? We all know the feeling of having a professor tell us we’re not worthy of talking about work X because we haven’t read work Y or critic Z. Sometimes it’s absolutely true that the point we’re trying to make is vitiated by information we haven’t considered. More frequently, though, the professor is doing that because he doesn’t think it’s worth his time to consider the matter from a new perspective. I try not to do things that way.

Commenters have brought in examples from several different games, in particular Fallout and Shadow of the Colossus, but to my mind these examples, while they lead to fascinating further discussion, aren’t precisely on point with respect to my post, since my post is about a particular aspect of games that connects them to ancient epic, and is not in any way exclusive—that is, I’m not saying that anyone else is wrong about what’s profound because I’m right about it; I think there’s a whole bunch of room for profundity all over the place.

On the other hand, as I continue with the response, I’ll be venturing into territory that wasn’t really covered in my original post, and where I think these examples will be very relevant indeed. There, I’ll come up against the arguments of commenters and in a few cases submit that they’re not looking at the matter in the most helpful possible way. Here are the other responses to my post that I plan to handle in the coming few days.

3. The charge of comparing video games to non-interactive media: here.

4. The matter of choice vs. interactivity: here.

5. The problem of the identity of the artist: player or developer?: here.

Thanks again for this great discussion.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The profundity of Halo and Bioshock (and the Iliad)

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 in the “Living Epic: The Main Quest” post, linked 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 print my posts out and give them to their non-gaming parents, teachers, and spouses.


This moment, right after I’ve just put the work of Ken Levine and the work of the Homeric tradition alongside each other (in the previous post in the series), actually makes an ideal place to throw out an answer to a question that’s been bubbling under the surface of this blog from the very beginning, and is now ripe for a little more attention. Am I saying, a critic of video games might ask, that Halo and Bioshock are capable of the depth of artistic-philosophical expression reached by the Iliad in the Choice of Achilles? After all, when the Homeric bard has Achilles say that maybe the undying glory isn’t really worth it if you lose your life, he’s doing an artistic thing that we’re not used to thinking video games can do.

Here’s the answer: Yes, I am saying that. I’m also saying, though, that Halo and Bioshock and the other wonderful, thought-provoking games we’ve seen lately haven’t yet done that. They’ve come close, as I talked about in that previous post about the non-Choice of Achilles and the non-Choice of Killing Andrew Ryan, but, at least in my view, no artistic-philosophical cigar yet. (Tim Rogers’ eloquent way of putting it, that the artistry of Bioshock is the “very least we should expect from now on,” seems to me to be a slightly different way to say the same thing.)

The Iliad’s artistic-philosophical cigar, to refer back to our main point of discussion, has been awarded by generations of readers, for that moment when Achilles questions everything. That moment, with all its profundity, came into existence originally as an improvisation on—an interaction with—the pre-existing traditional story. That’s where we’re headed next, because in the moment before the player of Bioshock kills Andrew Ryan, he or she has an infinite number of tiny variations available within th game, despite the truth that until he or she goes ahead and kills Andrew Ryan, the game as we think of it—the story of the game—won’t proceed.

The profundity of that moment, or of corresponding moments in Halo when you absolutely must do something or the game won’t proceed, comes from the interaction of the necessity of doing that thing with the meaning of the thing you must do. The most obvious example in Halo is I think the end of the game, when the player must drive a jeep through a hostile landscape in a short enough time that the Master Chief can make it off Halo (the ring in space) before it explodes.

Even Ken Levine, the developer of Bioshock, hasn’t found a way to get to the depth of the way that interaction works in the ninth book of the Iliad, where the bard finds something for Achilles to say in relation to his necessity that’s so achingly sad as to make us better people for having read it. But we’re getting there.

The fact that we’re getting there along this particular road of exploring the power of interactivity means that we should spend some time looking at how it worked in ancient epic. The first thing we should talk about is probably the extent of the interactivity that was possible, to see what resemblance that interactivity bears to the interactivity of video games. The exact degree of interactive change that would have been allowable in the Homeric tradition is a subject of hot debate among the professionals who study this stuff (and probably always will be), but Book 9 of the Iliad actually presents us with a really interesting bit of evidence, which is so fascinating that I’m going to risk boring you, and give you the Ancient Greek tools you need in order really to understand it.

Next time: more than you ever wanted to know about the dual number.

(Note: I'm away next week, so I'm afraid you'll just have to wait to learn all about the dual.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Blog Banter: Digital Distribution

This post is my first contribution to the “Blog Banter” initiative! You can find more information about this cool project here.

It’s a little hard to find a specifically classical connection with regard to the question of the pros and cons of digital distribution, but it might be worth mentioning the way that in the early years of written culture, in 5th Century BCE Athens, people seemed to pay a lot of attention to what it meant to write things down. It was in those years that the texts of Homeric epic as we know it probably came together, and it would have been a very new thing to be able to hold a story in your hand in the form of a papyrus roll (what we think of as the book, which is properly called a codex, wasn’t invented until hundreds of years later).

The Athenian historian Thucydides bases a lot of his historiographical philosophy on the idea that he is writing for a reader who has a thing in his hands—a thing that contains the words Thucydides wrote. Above all, Thucydides hopes that the “thingness” of his history will mean that it will be a “possession forever,” a truer and better possession even than the city, Athens, that he loved and of which mourned the decline.

Are our games still possessions if we download them instead of carefully removing them from their boxes and putting them in our consoles or disc-drives? Well, yes—but only to the extent that they were ever possessions in the first place. I think we probably should try to get past the idea of possessing art, and it may be that digital distribution is an even greater help to that than we can see right now.

The act of downloading a game seems to me to make very real the idea that we’re experiencing the same work of art as all our gamer peers who are downloading the same thing. For me, art is always really about the communities it’s made for and that it makes. Maybe it’s just me, but digital distribution seems to me to make the community of gamers a little more real.

Thucydides wrote in a world he thought was continually falling apart, and in which he thought he wouldn’t find many receptive readers, because it must have seemed to him that so few people besides himself understood what had really happened to Athens (indeed, because so few people could even read at the time). He inaugurates writing-as-writing with the idea that community is doomed, as Athens was doomed.

I have a suspicion we can prove him wrong.

Check out the other Blog Banter articles below!

Silvercublogger, Mahogany Finish, Video Game Sandwich, thoughts and rants,, XboxOZ360, Zath!, Delayed Responsibility, Gamer Unit, Hawty McBloggy

Monday, June 16, 2008

The (non) choice of Achilles, or Not killing Andrew Ryan

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 in the “Living Epic: The Main Quest” list 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 print my posts out and give them to their non-gaming parents, teachers, and spouses.


To understand this next bit you need to know a little about the ninth book of the Iliad, which is one of the most famous and influential passages of all Western literature. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are divided into twenty-four separate books. These books didn’t become formalized into “books” until the epics were written down, probably some time in the 700’s BCE, but there’s reasonably good evidence to suggest that a bard might have sung for an evening’s entertainment just about the same amount of stuff as is in a single book in the epics as we have them. By Book 9 of the Iliad, things have become pretty bad for the Achaeans (those are the guys usually called “the Greeks”—the ones who have come to Troy to get Helen, the wife of one of their number, back): their greatest warrior, Achilles, the son of a goddess, has refused to fight for several days now, and the Achaeans are losing ground very quickly. Agamemnon, the overlord of the Achaeans and the guy at whom Achilles is pissed off, finally gives in, and authorizes an “embassy”—a delegation, basically—to go to Achilles and offer him fabulous wealth if he returns to battle. In the book as we have it, three ambassadors, Ajax, Odysseus, and Phoenix are sent. Achilles, who is (not coincidentally) singing epic to his friend Patroclus when they arrive, responds (long story short) with these immortal lines:

My life is more to me than all the wealth of Troy while it was yet at peace
before the Achaeans went there, or than all the treasure that lies on
the stone floor of Apollo's temple beneath the cliffs of Pytho.
Cattle and sheep are there for the thieving,
and a man can get both tripods and horses if he wants them,
but when his life has once left him it can neither be gotten nor thieved back again.
For my mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways for me to meet my end.
If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but I shall have imperishable glory:
but if I go home my glory will die, but it will be long before death shall take me.
To the rest of you, then, I say, 'Go home, for you will not take Troy.'

So that’s why Book 9 of the Iliad is cool. Now let’s imagine that we’re in a bard’s audience something like twenty-eight hundred years ago. When a Homeric bard went to sing what he might well have called “The Embassy to Achilles” (because obviously there was nothing called the Iliad then—there were just a bunch of different stories you could tell about a place called Ilium [what we call Troy]), he was not singing it exactly as he had sung it before. Instead, he was re-composing it for the immediate performance occasion. He knew the way the story was supposed to go (maybe he had been the one to come up with the particular story he was going to sing), but for several reasons, perhaps most importantly that audiences always like something new, he made it up anew every time he sang it.

Now a bard who was singing a part of the big story called “The Wrath of Achilles” (what we know as the Iliad) couldn’t change the fact that Achilles comes back to battle, eventually to die. But he could most certainly change the way that coming back went down. At some point, one bard did, and came up with the immortal lines I quoted above about what’s been known forever after as the Choice of Achilles.

But that means that the Choice of Achilles actually isn’t a choice at all, because Achilles can’t leave, any more than the main character of Bioshock can leave the underwater city of Rapture before the end of the game. (This is what I meant about sandboxes and rails, by the way.)

I don’t want to spoil Bioshock for anyone, so if you haven’t played it and are planning on playing it, stop reading now, finish the game, and come back. I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back: remember that moment when Andrew Ryan tells you to kill him? Isn’t it strange that you absolutely have to do that, or the game won’t proceed?

Here’s the thing. The relationship of the bard to the (non)-Choice of Achilles is exactly the same as the relationship of the player of Bioshock to killing Andrew Ryan. Ken Levine, author of Bioshock, and the Homerid who came up with the Choice of Achilles were both saying something really, really important about free will, which could only be delivered by exposing the way things that seem like choices really aren’t choices at all, most of all when it matters most.

Next time: Am I actually saying that Bioshock is as profound as the Iliad?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

PPP (2): Intersubjective performance

Here’s the second in the PPP series (the link goes to the first post in the series).

The provisional definition of “performative play practice,” again:

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).
So what do I mean by “intersubjective performance”? Let’s start with a less compressed version: an intersubjective performance is a meaningful act that crosses the boundary between a person’s self and what lies outside the self. As we define the PPP, we’re going to be limiting it to a certain type of such intersubjective performance, but all by itself, you can see that “intersubjective performance” covers everything from playing Halo to playing Boom Blox to reading the newspaper to stopping at a red light: in each of these cases, a person does something meaningful in relation to what we might call a system of meaning that exists outside that person. In the cases of Halo and Boom Blox, those systems of meaning are the games themselves, as written in algorithms, and encoded on the digital media; in the case of the newspaper, the system is contained in the individual stories and their symbolic relationships to the events they record; in the case of the red light, the system is contained in the laws that govern driving, as mediated by the individual traffic controls that monitor the patterns according to which lights change.

The most obvious meaning of “intersubjective,” though, is something like “between two or more people,” and it’s worth spending a little time unpacking why it makes more sense to talk about crossing the boundary of the self instead. Obviously, crossing the boundary of the self is a description that encompasses the kind of intersubjectivity we’re more used to (the thing about being between multiple people), because in order to communicate or even identify with another person, the first person has to make a connection from inside him or herself to outside him or herself, from the self to the other.

It makes all the sense in the world, a great deal of the time, to think of a peformance like a game or a newspaper in terms of communication and identification between two or more people. But it’s truer, I believe, to think of the intermediate step of crossing the self’s boundary as more fundamental. The examples of a (mostly) single-player game like Boom Blox, and of solitaire, and of the red light, are all better understandable this way. We certainly can imagine the “other people” who designed the games, and who set the traffic patterns, but in the moment of the practice, of playing the game or stopping at the light, what really matters for the person enacting the performance is that the game and the red light lie outside the self, as parts of a system of meaning within which the performance (the playing or the stopping) has valid meaning.

As we move deeper into the definition, we’ll be dealing next with the idea of the “cultural zone demarcated for play.” Of the four examples in the last paragraph, only the games fit this criterion.

The series continues in The zone of play.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The interactivity of the Homerids (4): bard and audience


Now, finally, I’m going to tell you more about the Homerids—the Homeric bards (the “singers of tales”). For a very long time, indeed since the days of the ancient Greeks who lived in the civilization that emerged from the Dark Age between about 1200 BCE and about 800 BCE, people thought that there had been a poet named Homer who had personally written down his masterworks, the epics called the Iliad and the Odyssey. (The ancient Greeks also knew several other works that they thought were also by Homer, many of which they were already starting to have arguments about, on the matter of whether they really were actually by him; these works are now almost entirely lost, not least because they were acknowledged from very ancient times not to be very good.)

But, as we’ve known for certain since the 1950’s, thanks above all to the work of the classicists Milman Parry and Albert Lord, this very ancient conventional wisdom was wrong, and ancient Greek epic actually emerged from an oral tradition of recomposition of traditional stories according to a highly-developed system of bardic improvisation. There’s very good reason to doubt that there ever was a single bard named “Homer”: it seems much more likely that we should speak instead of “the Homers,” or perhaps “the Homerids”—that is, the guild of bards who made a living singing these tales to admiring audiences.

There are as many ways to construct the history of how the ancient Greeks got the notion of a blind poet named Homer as there are people who have studied the matter, of course. My own view goes like this. The word homerides in the oldest form of Greek looks awfully like it means “a guy who puts it together.” That word, which is best put into English as “Homerid” would look to later Greeks like it really meant “son of a guy named Homer.” We know that there was some sort of professional group called the Homerids during the classical period, who had some sort of jurisdiction over deciding who was good at reciting Homer. So I’m convinced by the current state of our evidence that the idea of a man named Homer arose from a misinterpretation of the ancient title for a singer-of-tales, Homerid.

We can know almost nothing for sure about these bards, but we do have precious evidence in the epics themselves at least about how they hoped they would be seen. Most importantly, the Homeric Odyssey has two characters who are bards (the Greek word, aoidos, comes from the verb “sing,” and just means “singer”) themselves. These characters are, as one might imagine, very popular with their audiences, although one of them ends up in hot water for pleasing the wrong audience (don’t worry, he gets acquitted on the same grounds we gamers acquit game developers every day, that he was just trying to please his target market).

For now, the most important thing I want to point out about the bards of the Odyssey is that that the (real) bards who sang that epic into the form in which we have it emphatically depict themselves through those (fictional) bards both as singing the song the way they want to sing it and as responding to their audiences’ requests. Here’s a passage about Phemius, the bard who sticks around Odysseus’ palace while Odysseus is away in Troy and on his homeward-bound travels. The speaker is Telemachus, Odysseus’ son; he’s telling his mother Penelope not to criticize Phemius for singing a song that makes her sad:
Why do you begrudge this fine singer, mother, his pleasing himself as his
mind directs? The singers are not responsible—Zeus must be responsible,
giving to mortal men, everyone, in the way that he wants.
There is nothing bad about singing the sad homecoming of the Greeks.
People certainly always give more favor to the song
that goes about most recently among its hearers.
Phemius is singing the song he wants to sing, because he knows his audience will like it; his audience are the suitors who are trying to get Penelope to marry one of them, and it makes the suitors happy to think that Odysseus, like the other Achaeans, is going to have a nasty homecoming. The song, that is, is about them in a very important sense, and, the bard of the Odyssey clearly thinks, that makes them pay Phemius better—or at least makes them keep him around.

But there’s another implication of this passage that follows on from discussing how the bard chose his stories, together with our understanding of bardic improvisation. Because every performance of an epic song was newly improvised, the bard’s re-creation of the epic occurred in an interaction with his audience on the one hand, and the material of the epic tradition on the other: the bard was a sort of interactive conduit between the two. If you remember my story about the herdsman-turned-bard, you can see that that figure—the young man who starts in the audience and then becomes a singer himself—first interacts with the story through the bard, then (when he is the bard) gets to please himself, as long as he keeps his audience happy.

Obviously, I’m saying that that interaction is like the celebrated interactivity of the experience of playing an adventure video game—that the herdsman-turned-bard is like the gamer. We’ll take the ancient material a step farther, though, before we go back to video gaming. Next time: Iliad 9 and the choice of Achilles—a Bioshock moment?

Living Epic--the Main Quest (map of posts)

The post series mapped out below is what I call the "Main Quest" of this blog--my argument that adventure video games are actually ancient.

The Living Epic series:

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

(Gaming) Homer Course-design (3): Units (syllabus, more or less)

This is a post in a series taken from the preliminary version of the course-design document for CAMS 3208. Dig in and see what you think! Please do let me know if you’ve got suggestions for other activities, or if you think anything needs clarification. I really want this course to be something gamers with the slightest interest in the ancient world, and classicists with the slightest interest in gaming, are drooling to take. :D

At some point, probably in January, I'll post the actual syllabus for the course, but the following is pretty close to what it's going to be. If you're feeling really clicky, you can correlate the letters A-E in parentheses with the goals and objectives in the first post in the series, and the readings with the list of activities in the second. Think of it as a game! ;-)

Unit 1. The bardic occasion, then and now (A, B) (3 weeks)

  • Activities: (reading) Iliad 2, Odyssey 8-9, Lord, Singer of Tales; (gaming) Play a level or quest three times, preferably in co-op; (discussion) in-game discussion; develop interview questions for developers.
  • Sub-objectives: 1) describe the bardic occasion; 2) summarize oral formulaic theory; 3) produce a report of a gaming session as a bardic occasion.

Unit 2. The Aristeia and levelling (A, B, C, D) (2 weeks)

  • Activities: (reading) comparison of aristeiai, Nagy, Homeric Questions; (playing) level an RPG hero; (discussion) in-game discussion; conduct and analyze interview; proxy visit to MMO developer studio.
  • Sub-objectives: 1) describe the practice of the aristeia, with examples from Homeric epic; 2) produce a report of a videogame aristeia, with reference to ancient material.

    Unit 3. Gear (B, C, D, E) (2 weeks)

    • Activities: (reading) Iliad 18, Selected passages; (gaming) Equip Master Chief correctly for the situation, gain gear for an RPG character; (discussion) in-game discussion.
    • Sub-objectives: 1) describe the function of arms and armor in Homeric epic; 2) produce a report of a videogame despoiling and resulting combat, with reference to ancient material
      sub-obejctive; 3) produce a report of RPG gear aggregation, with reference to ancient material.

    Unit 4. Ethical critique (C, D, E) (2 weeks)

    • Activities: (reading) Iliad 9, 24; Odyssey 11, 22; Nagy; (gaming) play an RPG scenario light and dark; play Halo “save the marines” moment; (discussion) in-game discussion; develop interview questions, conduct and analyze interview.
    • Sub-objectives: 1:) descibe the ethical critiques mounted by the Iliad and the Odyssey; 2) describe a potential affordance of videogames for ethical critique; 3) produce a report on an experience of an ethical videogame situation, with reference to ancient material.

    Unit 5. Minigames (C, D, E) (1 week)

    • Activities: (reading) Iliad 23, Odyssey 8; Nagy; (gaming) Lego Star Wars; (discussion)in-game discussion.
    • Sub-objectives: 1) describe the functioning of embedded harmonizing reprsentations like funeral games in Homeric epic; 2) produce a report on an experience of a harmonizing minigame with reference to ancient material.

    Unit 6. Psychology/Sociology of Epic (C, D, E) (1 week)

    • Activities: (reading) Iliad 20, Odyssey 23; (gaming) Halo 2 Arbiter level; (culture) forum observation; (discussion) forum discussion.
    • Sub-objective: 1) describe the psychological model proposed by the Homeric epics; 2) describe the pscyhological model proposed by an adventure videogame, with reference to ancient material; 3) produce a report on observations of psychology and/or sociology in a gaming community, with reference to ancient material.

    Unit 7. Anti-heroism (C, D, E) (1 week)

    • Activities: (reading) Odyssey 11, Iliad 22; (gaming) Grand Theft Auto series; (culture) forum observation; (discussion) in-game discussion.
    • Sub-objective: 1) describe the figure of the anti-hero in Homeric epic; 2) produce a report on an experience of playing as an anti-hero, with reference to ancient material; 3) produce a report on anti-heroic behavior on a gaming community forum, with reference to ancient material.

    Unit 8. Community and Polis (A, C, D, E) (2 weeks)

    • Activities: (reading) Odyssey 9; Plato Apology and selections from Republic, selections from Herodotus and Thucydides; Nagy; (culture) forum observation; (discussion) in-game discussion; design, conduct, analyze developer-community-manager interview.
    • Sub-objectives: 1) describe the role of Homeric epic in the rise of the Greek polis in the 7th and 6th Centuries BCE; 2) produce a report on findings about the role of community in gaming culture, with reference to ancient material; 3) produce a speculative report on the affordances of adventure videogames for community-building in the modern world, wirh reference to ancient material.

    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:

    Monday, June 2, 2008

    The Alexandrian Mandate

    Leigh Alexander has a great post up at SVGL that will hopefully galvanize the resolve of those who want to follow her call (which fits well, actually with what N'Gai Croal is doing these days).

    As I wrote in Leigh's comments, I think she's a little hard on COD4, which I think deserves a lot of praise for doing what it does. Weird story from left field: Herodotus tells us that a tragedian named Phrynichus was fined by the Athenians for putting on a tragedy about a real disaster (the Capture of Miletus, but that's not important now), because the audience felt that the suffering was too familiar. It seems to me that distance is necessary, and helpful, a lot of the time.

    But the basic drive to which Leigh calls us, to become better gamers, gamers who keep thinking about how our games, despite being played in an imaginary space, have everything to do with what we are and do in the "real world," is something we need to think much more about.