Does gameplay have politics?

Article posted on on April 13, 2004

Much attention has been devoted to the scholarly issue of whether games should be thought of as rule based systems (ludology) or stories (narratology). Real games, however, obviously occupy both camps; some are more linear than others. Thus, two aesthetics compete for the players’ attention. On one side we find simulation-type games in which a limited number of variables create an open unpredictable world and on the other we find narratively oriented games in which the direction of the plot is given overriding importance. These two aesthetics are often seen as favouring different political world views. This article examines the claim that game design ideals can or should be seen as political statements.

A recent article in Reason (a magazine devoted to “Free Minds and Free Markets”) claims that “Video games are evolving into a grand anti-authoritarian laboratory”. The reason for this is the shift from “pre-rendered animation and simple behaviour to physical modelling and advanced artificial intelligence…”, a shift that “takes power from authors” (Parker, 2004 22). The author airs his dislike of storytelling games and goes on to claim that games in fact “as a class… appear to favour civil and economic liberty.” (26).

The author, then, clearly sees a connection between games which provide open worlds, freedom and libertarian ideals. This more than indicates that he considers more rigid, story-based games as somehow connected with anti-liberalist ideals: socialism, in so many words.

In this article I examine the connections between general design ideals and political ideologies.

Games are clearly…

During the last few years a debate has raged (or at least been claimed to rage) within game studies. In this debate the perspective of ludology has been contrasted to that of narratology. The term ludology was introduced into computer game studies by game theorist Gonzalo Frasca who early on suggested that ludology be thought of as simply the “discipline that studies game and play activities” (Frasca, 1999). Expanding on this however, Frasca on his popular webpage has specified that a ludological stance implies that “games cannot be understood through theories derived from narrative” (Frasca, 2001).

Over the years, the ludology label has been associated with notions of a radical anti-narratologist stance. This is hardly justified by Frasca’s mostly non-confrontational formulations (see also Frasca, 2003). Others, however have been more direct. For instance, Jesper Juul, in a 1998 paper stressed how “Computer games and narratives are very different phenomena. Two phenomena that fight each other. Two phenomena that you basically cannot have at the same time.” (Juul, 1998). Juul has later softened his position (Juul, 2003) and any truly radical ludology is now mostly associated with Finnish theorist Markku Eskelinen (e.g. Eskelinen, 2001).

Although examples can be found it is a widespread observation that the alleged opposition, the narratologists who hold that computer games can and/or should be understood as stories only exist in highly limited quantities. However, it may also be the case that the games-as-narratives perspective can be thought of as a sort of folk theory. While not many scholars may have held this belief a large number of non-involved (or only casually involved) people may well have considered this common sense. For instance the Danish Broadcasting Association in 2001 aimed to raise some €12,5 million for a project with the working title Metropol Scandia. Described as a “storytelling game” the product would see real actors interacting based on user decisions in a “virtual landscape” based on “Flash technology”. According to one account the project leader saw this as a promising alternative to computer games, which supposedly are “so simple that you can easily guess that you have to go through a specific door, collect a specific item and so on…” (Thorhauge, 2001) .

In 2004 nothing has yet come of this ambitious project. Arguably, it was a manifestation of a (to some) intuitive idea that for games to be better they must tell better stories. The ideology here is mostly conservatism; a belief that for “new media” to be worthwhile they must mostly mimic the old. More importantly, however, it may be a consequence of a pervasive predilection for ‘narrative’. Briefly, postmodern philosophy (and theorists within cultural studies) in the 1980s tied the concept of narrative to the idea of social constructionism. Most radically, scientific conclusions (or “truths”) were considered mere narratives, and thus everything was political. Such thoughts – of which many, of course, were more tempered – found an odd bedfellow in the idea inspired by various concepts from cognitive science, that people understand their world in a cognitive format which looks much like classical conceptions of narrative (i.e. is temporal, has clear causality). Within film theory such notions were advocated most forcefully by David Bordwell (1985) and Edward Branigan (1992). Branigan was specific that “Making narratives is a strategy for making our world of experiences and desires intelligible. It is a fundamental way of organizing data.” (1992 1).

It is not entirely obvious how to travel from the understanding that people understand in terms of narrative to the normative ideal that media producers (and indeed companies and products) should tell stories. Nevertheless, marketing disciplines working with branding and storytelling have made this leap often claiming that consumers (or perhaps mostly modern consumers) react favourably to “good stories” and are less concerned with facts.

I shall return below to the question of whether ludology can reasonably be tied to a full-scale political ideology. For now, however, we can note that ludologists do actually see themselves as something more than merely “students of games”.

Ludology has been framed in emancipatory terms, claiming to oppose theoretical imperialism or colonialism (humorously commented upon by Jesper Juul’s Game Liberation, a small game in which you as the player have “to defend games (and yourself) from the imperialism of a thousand theories.” –

Game Lib illustration missing

More clearly, ludologists have essentialist tendencies. Espen Aarseth, whose seminal Cybertext (1997) is the explicit foundation of much ludology, held that “To claim that there is no difference between games and narratives is to ignore essential qualities of both categories” (5). This is a nebulous statement. To see why, let us turn to a discipline which has struggled with the idea of similarities and differences for centuries. In biology, various systems have been constructed to tell organisms apart. In some regard, Aarseth’s statement would be comparable to the proclamation that “to claim that there is no difference between human beings and animals is to ignore essential qualities of both categories.” To a biologist, of course, that is not immediately obvious. But more importantly, the “no difference” part is very vague. While no-one would disagree that we can point to various differences between humans and other animals we have no general way of deciding whether the two categories are mostly different or mostly similar. And we certainly have no way of deciding which differences are “essential”. We could stress that humans live in cities but we could just as well stress that dolphins communicate by sonar and display certain behaviour patterns inviting the conclusion that dolphins are essentially different from all other organisms. This is not to say that Aarseth’s statement is not meaningful (surely we can follow his larger argument that games have interesting characteristics not shared by, say, novels) but referring to “essential qualities” is not a strictly academic practise. Academically, categories are arbitrary and to claim that they are not is to engage in politics. The politics here, however, are those which come wholesale with the establishment of research programs. Although this may be done with varying degrees of modesty (and initial modesty is likely to be beneficial at later stages) such programs, if not framed in purely local terms, will always be arguing that one method, perspective or basic set of assumptions is superior to others.

In terms of games, ludologists can easily be seen as advocating a certain aesthetics. Significantly, most ludologists are not arguing against narrative in games. However, by stressing their scepticism towards some kinds of narrative (e.g. games that seem to mindlessly translate storytelling conventions from older media) they can be said to support game designs which take a simulationist approach. This, however, is merely one of several possible approaches to game design. In the following, I will present the two main approaches; the simulationist and the story-telling aesthetics.

Open worlds, closed stories

One way to distinguish between games is to look at their degree of openness. This can be thought of in a number of ways. For instance, we can understand games as being world-centred as opposed to protagonist-centred. In the former case the game is a world with physics in which processes take place without the protagonist necessarily being involved. In protagonist-centred games, however, the entire game system revolves around the protagonist and nothing noteworthy takes place outside the action radius of the protagonist. In her humorous account, game journalist J. C. Herz (1997) referred to the former approach as the “Old Testament approach to game design” stressing that the designer here creates the basic material and the basic rules (analogous to the laws of nature). This, she contrasted with the “‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ syndrome, where you feel like you’re on some kind of monorail through the game.” (154). These two approaches were addressed further in my article ‘The Road not Taken’ (Smith, 2000).

Another, and more precise, distinction was made by Jesper Juul who described games as being on a continuum between two basic game structures: ‘emergence’ and ‘progression’ (Juul, 2002). Emergence, to Juul, is “the primordial game structure, where a game is specified as a small number of rules that combine and yield large numbers of game variations…” (324). An example is chess, in which quite simple rules combine to enable an enormous (if technically finite) number of individual chess matches.

In progression games, on the other hand, “the player has to perform a predefined set of actions to complete the game.” (324). Juul stresses how this game form is practically unique to computer games. Clear-cut specimens include adventure games such as Myst (Cyan, 1994) and Gabriel Knight III (Sierra, 1999).

Myst illustration missing

Looking at the history of computer games it is obvious that the initial preference was for simple emergence games. Games like Spacewar! (Russel et. al., 1962) and Pong (Atari, 1972) were easy to learn but took practice to play well. With Adventure (Crowther, 1976) and Zork (Infocom, 1979) however, the player was given a series of tasks (or puzzles) to solve in order to progress through what was essentially a linear story. Arguably, the introduction of adventure games mark a politically charged time in game history as adventure game designers (or ‘authors’ as they often called themselves) attempted to distance themselves from the simple teenage-friendly arcade action games of the time. Adventure game designers may well have had lofty goals. It is hard, however, not to acknowledge the strategic side of their project. In this light the attempt to lean heavily on storytelling media (in particular the novel and the film) is reminiscent of earl film makers’ attempt to draw on the prestige of classical theatre by placing a camera in front of actors performing classical plays. Alternatively, the project can be compared to the rhetorical work of the French Nouvelle Vague movement, who in the 1960s strived to promote an idea of the film director as an author (Smith, 2000). Thus, in a sense adventure game developers saw themselves as more sophisticated than their emergence-inspired colleagues. But their project of framing games as literature (and thus art) failed since in terms of popularity and creative potential, progression games were not (or did not become) obvious candidates for the label “real games”. Thus, it may be that ludology should be seen as a counter-reaction to this failed attempt. In positioning games as worthy of recognition ludology are employing the exact opposite strategy, namely arguing that games are different. Considering the popularity of emergence games this argument is likely to have more impact.This brings us back to the actual games since recent developments seem to contradict any claim that game designs subscribing to a “pure” emergent aesthetics are – or will soon become – the norm. Now, as an example of a computer game with highly emergent properties we can choose SimCity (Maxis, 1989). Here, we find no storyline but rather a sort of sandbox – a term sometimes used derogatorily, see for instance Klug (2002). The player is given an interface through which he or she can interact with a system of individually speaking simple components. The results are not prescribed and are infinite in range. Interestingly, many modern games in fact seem to merge the two basic aesthetics in ways that not many might have foreseen a decade ago. Notably, Half-Life (Valve, 1998) was praised for its seamless integration of story and player freedom. Rather than forcefully advancing the plot by stripping away the player’s options while displaying a cut-scene, Half-Life succeeded in supplying pertinent narrative information while remaining inside the system of the game engine.

Half-live illustration missing

Later games with similar ambitions have even revitalized the much-derided cut-scene, introducing brief, cinematic animations functioning more as establishing shots or drama enhancers than scenes conveying complex narrative details. In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Ubisoft, 2003), for instance, dramatic situations are sometimes introduced by a brief swoop of the “camera” showing the layout of the soon-to-be battle field (the game also uses some classical cut-scenes to advance the story).

Prince of Persia illustration missing

The game makes use of modern cinema aesthetics in brief ‘functionalist’ cut-scenes which serve as establishing shots etc.

But the recent game which may have most forcefully demonstrated the potential of merging the two aesthetics is the top-selling video game in the US in 2002: Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City (Rockstar North, 2002). The original Grand Theft Auto III (2002) is in fact one of the game singled out in Kevin Parker’s Reason article for setting the player free (Parker doesn’t fail to note that the player begins the game in the role of a freed prisoner, and comments “Captive audience no longer”). While Vice City has a narrative in the form of a series of tasks which must be completed to advance the underlying plot, the game has been singled out mostly for its advanced physics leading to a world of opportunity. For instance, since Vice City’s vehicles have logical properties and are not just backdrops, the player may use them in highly varied ways. Where, though, does the game belong on Juul’s emergence-progression continuum? While it is certainly true that the game offers more freedom (in any common sense of the word) than classical adventure games, Vice City is actually not emergent in the strict sense of the word. While game objects may become involved in chain-reactions (i.e. large-scale car crashes) the world itself does not actually evolve much in the absence of the player character. Vice City citizens do not live their daily life according to their basic preferences in the parts of the city where the player is not present. Thus, there is no way that the actions of the player will cause large-scale changes in the game world. In fairness, then, Vice City belongs somewhere in the middle of Juul’s continuum and is perhaps not the obvious choice of game for someone arguing that games have reached new stages of ‘freedom’ (MMORPGs, also mentioned by Parker, are more obvious candidates)

Does game design have politics?

Let us now return to our more general question of whether the two aesthetics are tied to political ideologies.

Parker, in his Reason article, doesn’t take it nearly as far, but let us consider an extreme argument: Narrative games are socialist, simulation games are liberalist. With the term ‘socialist’ we shall refer to the idea that central governance is advantageous. ‘Liberalist’ here is the idea that self-governance is advantageous (and morally superior since individuals are or should be free). First of all, the analogy is of course quite obvious. Adventure games (say) have relatively fixed story lines established by an all-powerful author and the freedom of the player is moderate at best. Simulation games have only basic rules (analogous to laws of nature and perhaps basic human rights) and offer much more freedom. In various forms, this analogy is common. Most specifically, interactivity (and the rise of interactive media) has frequently been described in utopian terms (see examples in Aarseth, 1997). But certain forms of texts within non-interactive media have also been described as inherently more free and some of these descriptions have had obvious political components. For instance Umberto Eco wrote of the “open text” which afforded multiple interpretations (Eco, 1989). In media studies John Fiske (1987) called such texts “writerly” and saw them as empowering the interpreter. In film theory, Andre Bazin is often credited (more or less fairly) with the idea that editing had an un-democratic element since the director was assuming too much control. Turning to painting, the “academic” perspective, common since the renaissance has been described as manifesting certain ideologies. And within theatre, Brecht famously advocated the need for new forms of drama not affirming bourgeois values. In other words, the tradition for linking certain media forms (or genres) to specific ideologies is both old and persistent.

Not only designers and producers face such accusations, of course. An illuminating parallel to the games are political claim, may be the idea that science is political. This idea also comes in many forms, one of the stronger being the claim that theories put forth must be understood as manifestations of certain ideologies. Such an argument has been levelled repeatedly against proponents of the so-called sociobiological perspective (see Segerstråle, 2000). To some critics, when sociobiologists have claimed that animal behaviour should be considered in the light of genetics they were really saying that natural dispositions should be used as guidelines for structuring society etc. While specific sociobiologists may of course have held a broad range of views, in general such an accusation is unfounded (see discussion in Dennett, 1995). The naturalist fallacy is the belief that you can infer from is to ought and these critics were in fact committing an odd naturalist fallacy by proxy as they ascribed the fallacy to their opponents who didn’t (as a rule) commit it themselves. In this indirect fashion the idea of slow gradual evolution highlighted by Richard Dawkins (e.g. Dawkins, 1989) and others has been described as an attempt to naturalize self-organizing, non-revolutionary liberalism. In the other trench Stephen Jay Gould’s declared Marxism has been associated with his predilection for the more revolution-friendly idea of evolution by punctuated equilibrium (Gould, 1995).

The operative noun in all this remains analogy. And analogy, as has been aptly shown by many (e.g. Sokal & Bricmont, 1998), is a highly slippery weapon to wield. Mainly, it does not hold that because a person has a certain position within one domain he or she must necessarily hold it in others. Nor does it hold that if someone displays a certain behaviour in one context he or she will also display it in other contexts. For instance, one may believe that the army should be organized hierarchally while society should be organized democratically. Or one may hold the belief that it’s every man for himself in professional chess while people should display community ethics in political life. As to behaviour, one may attempt to strictly adhere to the scientific method in one’s professional life while enjoying The X-Files or romantic poetry in one’s spare time. More to the point one may play, or design, the most Orwellian nightmare of an adventure game story without endorsing any of its content as a recipe for real world legislation.

As a designer or critic it is possible to subscribe to a certain design aesthetic. Significantly, it is also possible to argue that emergence games most elegantly make use of the capabilities of the digital computer. Indeed one may even point to the statistical connection between certain aesthetics and certain ideologies (i.e. fascist architecture) but one cannot sensibly equate a predilection for a certain aesthetic with a certain world view or political ideology. Doing so means committing a universalistic fallacy, to make the mistake of assuming that all aspects of life can or should be judged using the same measures.

None of this means, of course, that individual games cannot way be said to be politically charged (e.g. Taylor, 2003) or to be expressions of political world-views. We can point to the peculiar rule in SimCity which makes it impossible to have a tax-rate higher than about 20% and we can point to the fact that the game was conceived in a US context (and not, say, a Scandinavian one). But we cannot categorize SimCity as anti-taxation propaganda much as we cannot claim that a novel which describes a certain society is necessarily an homage to the society in question.

Conclusions and other perspectives

The freedom offered by games – the agency brought about by interactivity – is often compared to the concept of freedom in private and political (real) life. This analogy, however, often speaks of a universalistic fallacy; the idea that the same measure may be applied to all aspects of life.

Within game studies the attempts of ludologists to ‘set games free’ (from old paradigms) has been associated with an anti-narratological stance. This association is not entirely justified although at the level of game design some ludologists have expressed scepticism as to the possibilities for reconciling (enjoyable) gameplay and narrative. Thus, the somewhat emancipatory project of ludology lends itself to association with what Jesper Juul has called emergence games. The idea that computer game theory and design should be freed from oppression, if only indirectly, ties into the argument that emergence games are somewhat purer or that games based on strong traditional narratives are somewhat limiting. This is mostly guilt by association, however, as the only true political agenda of (most) ludologists is that of advocating certain perspectives in the ongoing endeavour of constructing a (presently rather non-rigid) research program.

Whereas arguing which game aesthetic is inherently purer is mostly a game of words Parker’s suggestion that multiplayer games be seen as political laboratories is an interesting – and generally under-explored – notion. And there is much to learn. MMORPGs, for instance, are struggling with constructing societies which support such diverse requirements as justice, social order, and fun. In this task, MMORPG designers are experimenting with hosts of non-traditional systems for managing deviance and for ensuring a certain level of equality in worlds easily upset by the concentration of power. It is curious how this topic is intensely discussed while very rarely dealt with in a careful academic fashion. It is rare, at least, that political scientists take a genuine interest, whereas their sociologist and economist colleagues are contributing powerfully to our understanding of topically adjacent multiplayer phenomena. Hopefully, this gap will be filled in the near future. Worlds are being built, and there is much to learn for the curious.


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