Defragging the Divide: panel at DiGRA 2013

Is Narrative an integral part of computer games, or is it just an accident?
The Games and Narrative group is happy to announce a panel at the DiGRA 2013 Conference in Atlanta, titled Defragging the Divide: narrative practices in current videogames (and how to understand them). Join un on Thursday 29 August at 11.45am for a discussion also featuring Janet Murray and Espen Aarseth.

A decade ago, the new discipline of games studies/ludology vigorously denied any connection between games and narrative (Aarseth 2001, Eskelinen 2001, Juul 2001, Frasca 2003). For example, Markku Eskelinen wrote that since a well accepted descriptive methodology for traditional games – he references The Study of Games (1971) – does not consider narrative as part of the ludic field, computer games should follow the same route. If they do not, as he implicitly suggests, it is more because of marketing strategies than of intrinsic characteristics.

Indeed, game companies are recently boasting narrative as a key selling point for their products. Steve Papoutsis of Visceral Games, best known for their “Dead Space” franchise, stated “Our goal […] is to apply our key design principles – immersive, challenging gameplay, intense narrative and focus on quality”. Rockstar Games recently announced Grand Theft Auto 5 defining it “a bold new direction in open-world freedom, storytelling, mission-based gameplay and online multiplayer”. Dan Connors of Telltale Games, underlined the “narrative design” in The Walking Dead games as a feature that appeals equally to hardcore gamers and to more casual gamers who are fans of the franchise.

To interpret these industry perspectives solely as marketing ploys seems unconvincing. Consequently, what we are faced with is a curious disconnect between theory and practice. Whatever the academic argument regarding narrativity in videogames, the industry clearly believes they are using narrative in some capacity. While industry did not concern itself with the outcome of the ludology-narratology debate, the game studies community should, as it concerns the understanding and expressivity of games as a creative medium. We are not satisfied with the outcome of the ludology-narratology debate from last decade, as specific theories for understanding narrative elements in computer games have not yet emerged. Perhaps the best openings into this puzzling situation is provided by Gonzalo Frasca’s perspective that the debate on narrative in video games never took place (vs. the debate of whether games should be understood as yet another text and be analyzed with the toolbox of narratology) (Frasca 2003a) and Marie-Laure Ryan’s identification of a pragmatic position regarding the application of narrative in video games (Ryan 2006).

From these vantage points we want to re-open the debate on games and narrative in a panel that includes academics on both sides of the debate, as well as industry insiders. Has radical ludology been refuted, not by narratologists but by game producers themselves? Or are new technological possibilities making narrative features emerge more prominently?
We will ask participants how their positions have developed, where they see narrative in games in 2013 and in what directions they see academia and industry heading.