Espen Aarseth responds

Espen Aarseth responds

2004-05-01

Espen Aarseth foresees the quick end of Murray’s “story-game hybrid” and suggests instead a “critical theory of games.”

“Games are always stories,” Janet Murray claims. If this really were true, perhaps professional baseball and football teams would do well to hire narratologists as coaches. And does she also mean that stories are always games, or are games simply a subcategory of stories? There were games long before stories (among animals, long before human verbal culture), so to privilege stories over games as a “core human activity,” as Murray does, may not be a good strategy if we want to understand games and make them better. I won’t discuss professor Murray’s narrativist position at length here, since that would just result in a summary of my own essay in First Person. Perhaps it is time for the proponents of narrativism to acknowledge or at least address some of the criticisms that have for years been raised against this position [e.g. Aarseth 1995], and defend their views with a more precise narratological terminology, so that the debate can advance.

Instead, I will comment on the related claim that the computer is a “single new medium,” which also would imply that we are witnessing a convergence of entertainment forms into one unified genre. Does this mean that a Tamagotchi and Unreal Tournament are the same medium? I would argue that physically, technologically, socially and economically, not to mention aesthetically, computer technology affords a very wide (and widening!) variety of games and media, and that to treat them as one unified medium, as Murray does, blinds us to their real potential.

That the problematic, largely un-replayable, story-game hybrid will dominate the future of digital entertainment seems no more likely than a future with only one kind of sport. While there might be a future for narrative and new forms of storytelling in this cornucopia of new digital and cultural formats, the largest potential seems to be in new types of games, forms that blend the social and the aesthetic in creative ways and on an unprecedented scale. As a new generation of gamers grows up, the word “game” will no longer be as tainted as it is today. Then euphemisms such as “story-puzzles” and “interactors” will no longer be necessary. Games will be games and gamers will be gamers. Storytelling, on the other hand, still seems eminently suited to sequential formats such as books, films and e-mails, and might not be in need of structural rejuvenation after all. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

The role of the academic in the evolution of new entertainment genres is at least twofold. I wholeheartedly agree with professor Murray that digital media scholars should engage in constructive criticism and active exploration of the new genres. But I think our best contribution as scholars would be to provide a critical theory of games, with a discerning and analytical vocabulary. Such a theory would help both game designers and ourselves understand and respect the unique potential of the rich and diverse field of gaming.

Bryan Loyall responds

Janet Murray responds