Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Limits of Postmodern Theory (from a gaming perspective)

From time to time, we receive an interesting mail in our mailbox. Michael McKenny's mail is one of those, so we will post it integrally, below. Michael analysed the limits of postmodern theory. He argues that postmodern theory is not sufficient for a proper understanding of the gaming experience. The following is an excerpt from his BA Thesis, aptly titled "Paradigm shifts" (2009). If you also have an insightful contribution to make to our blog in particular and our research program in general, send an email to: Meanwhile, enjoy the following post - the editors.

In this early part of the twenty first century, the medium of videogames appears to be growing into a level of maturity, as it moves out of the fringes of society and into the realms of popular culture. The evolution of new such forms of communicating a narrative to the masses has profound implications for society, as Marshall McLuhan speculates: “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men [and women] communicate than by the content of the communication” (McLuhan and Fiore 1996: 8).

I would like to point out how it is tempting to look to the theories laid down through the postmodern discourse in order to conduct this analysis, yet I would also like to highlight the problems with this approach and why established modern theory cannot be rejected; that videogame analysis must be quintessentially metamodern.

Jean Baudrillard’s definition of simulation lends itself to the study of a medium whose very existence lies within digitally created renditions of fictional worlds. Yet the most important point to take from Baudrillard’s contribution to the discourse – from a videogame studies perspective – is the breakdown of established subject-object positions and, subsequently, the individual’s freedom to play with and to freely construct their identity. This in turn invokes Jean-Francois Lyotard’s championing of the rise of the individual’s little narratives, in opposition to society’s metanarratives dictating what its subject should believe.

Videogame players should be understood in terms of an evolution of the active spectator; not only do they negotiate the meaning, they also interact with the narrative, controlling the pacing and the editing. At times they even dictate the order in which the story is told, what dialogue is spoken and the gender and race of the protagonist(s). Despite all of these elements, which would point toward the liberating fervour of postmodernism’s little narratives along with the emergence of bottom up meaning creation, there still exists extensive sets of rules that are dictated by the writers and programmers involved in the game’s production.

This appears to be where the split in this emerging academic area arises: The study of videogames has been largely dominated by a debate between narratology and ludology; that is the debate surrounding whether videogames are an evolution of established narrative forms, or if they are a revolutionary rupture that demand an entirely new analytical model.

Ganzala Frasca epitomises the ludologist’s approach: “Video games imply an enormous paradigm shift for our culture because they represent the first complex simulational media for the masses” (2003: 224); whereas the approach taken by Jan Simons scrutinises the ‘freedom’ that the ludologists’ ‘simulation’ brings, proposing that narrative stories are confined by the author, only “as much as computer-generated simulations are constrained by the algorithms written by the designer of the model” (2007).

It is this space between the two that videogames currently occupy: testing existing notions of fixed narrative production along with the fixed subject-object positions prevalent throughout modernity, yet in many ways, not able to completely break away from them. Rather, these new forms of interactive narratives allow a certain amount of negotiated meaning creation through play and ludic experimentation, yet within a predefined set of rules. Videogames can therefore be viewed as part of a wider movement prevalent in new media, slowly wearing down the old top-down monocratic systems of meaning production, yet from a familiar position that is easy to engage with.

Frasca, G (2003) ‘Simulation versus narrative: Introduction to ludology’ in Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (eds)
The Video Game Theory Reader. London: Routledge pp 221 - 236
McLuhan, M and Fiore, Q (1996) The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (Digitalized edition. 1st edition 1967). San Francisco: Hardwired
Simons, J (2007) ‘Narrative, games, and theory’ in Vol. 7 No. 1 (August) [online] available at accessed on 01.05.2009

Michael's biography:
"I Graduated from the University of Bolton in 2009 with a first class BA(hons) degree, joint between Film Studies and Business Studies. I am due to begin an MA in Film Studies at the University of Bradford, but have to wait until September 2011 for personal and financial circumstances to allow. I currently write for Film&Festivals Magazine, providing feature articles and film festival coverage. My particular areas of interest concern contemporary popular mythology; particularly how new technologies and accompanying cultural paradigm shifts are forcing us to revise (though not reject) previous interpretations of myth in popular culture."

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