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The Gaming Situation

April 7th, 2007

by Markku Eskelinen
1. Introduction

The first point of departure for this article is a kind of paradox or contradiction. Outside academic theory people are usually excellent at making distinctions between narrative, drama and games. If I throw a ball at you I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories. On the other hand, if and when games and especially computer games are studied and theorized they are almost without exception colonised from the fields of literary, theatre, drama and film studies. Games are seen as interactive narratives, procedural stories or remediated cinema (1). On top of everything else, such definitions, despite being successful in terms of influence or funding, are conceptually weak and ill-grounded, as they are usually derived from a very limited knowledge of mere mainstream drama or outdated literary theory, or both. Consequently, the seriously and hilariously obsolete presuppositions of Aristotelian drama, commedia dell’arte, Victorian novels, and Proppian folklore continue to dominate the scene. To put it less nicely, it’s an attempt to skip the 20th century altogether and avoid any intellectual contact with it, a consumerist double assassination of both the avant-garde and advanced theory. The final irony is of course that in the long run such a practice may turn out to be even commercially incorrect.

In any case, in what follows I’ll try to make some sense of what I call the gaming situation by trying to pinpoint or at least locate the most crucial and elementary qualities that set it apart from dramatic and narrative situations, both of the latter being rather well-studied constellations by now, and existing slightly beyond the necessary formalistic phase that computer game studies have to enter in order to gain independence, or at least relative independence. Historically speaking this is a bit like the 1910s in film studies; there were attractions, practices and very little understanding of what was actually going on, not to mention lots of money to be made and lost.
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