Jesper Juul's response
Eric Zimmerman's essay skips the grandiose universal claims we have come to expect in this field, and this makes it slightly disorienting and hard to disagree with. So I'll try to attack it sideways in a friendly manner: I agree with the analysis of the current situation as being composed of a lot of people asking the same game-story question but seeing in it entirely different things. Yet I am not entirely sure that it is a harmless question that carries no specific meaning. It seems like the path of least resistance in theory (we know that everything is narrative, so we'll put games under that umbrella) and cultural terms (we all know that storytelling is a good thing). The path of second-least resistance is to completely deny any game-story connection.
But perhaps the problem is that my relation to games is rather unambiguous, and so I fall outside the love/hate relations described in the essay: I am happy about the games I have played in the past 15-20 years, and I am pretty happy about the games I get to play these days. As such I am not especially dissatisfied with the gaming industry, except in the sense that the increasingly large budgets are leaving less room for experimental games. With this perspective, the marriage of storytelling and gaming may be more of a problem than a solution. I can follow Chris Crawford, who has actually attributed what he sees as the sorry state of the industry to the "cinematic game" Wing Commander, blaming it for radically raising the expectations for production value, thereby leading to the death of experiment.
Zimmerman's pragmatic idea of stories as one specific way of framing games is quite liberating, but I want to emphasize that such framings always carry a large amount of ideology and historical baggage. The obvious critique would be that the game-story angle is a lens that emphasizes character, graphical production value, and retrospection - and hides player activity, gameplay, and replayability. As Zimmerman states, games are good at things that other media are bad at - and vice versa. My basic worry is then that the story angle is asking games to focus on their weaknesses rather than their strengths.
And then again I could be paranoid, and this could be a mere labeling problem: since we are low on terms to describe games, why not borrow some from a better-described part of human culture? In fact, I am not sure how seriously we should take language: I appreciate the distinction between play and game, but in French, Spanish, or German such a distinction does not exist. This informs the theories made on some level, but being French doesn't prevent Roger Caillois from making a similar distinction (paida/ludus). My native language (Danish) has the same distinction, but both play (leg) and game (spil) are also verbs (you play play and game games, so to speak), so games are not obviously a subset of play. Perhaps we could expand the pragmatic stance to say that play is also a way of framing games, one that is pretty straightforward in English and unavoidable in French.
I do have some problems with the idea of games as voluntary. For example, the writing of this reply was interrupted by my being coerced into a game of Pétanque during a cold drizzle. Pétanque is still a game, as was that single game session. Social pressure may make you play, and some people even make a living playing games. Perhaps we could see games as structures that can be used for several purposes, such as recreation (games are always supposed to be "for fun") and for betting (their quantifiable outcome makes them a good subject of bets and prizes, hence the possibility of making money).
Finally, there's no reason to be ashamed of being a closet modernist: another description of this kind of thinking is "to discuss a craft"; it is impossible to work in a medium without considering how it works and what it can do. So I would like to see Zimmerman making more (grandiose) claims about the unique qualities of games. What are they? What kind of game stories, to use the term, should we pursue?
P.S. Eric Zimmerman claims to design game-stories but I think he designs beautiful minimalist games.