Background

Problem Statement:

Gaming (as a hobby, as a study, as an important piece of culture) stands at something of a crossroads. Having largely resolved the debates between so-called narratology and ludology in the early 2000s (for brief summary/introduction of this, see Jenkins or Frasca sources below), the academics and developers have settled on the understanding that games *do* contain some sort of narrative, and that games are meaningful in some sense. However exactly what this narrative looks like or how this meaning is delivered remains amorphous and contentious. Discussion of these topics is too often limited to particular buzzwords, including “interactivity”, “emergent”, or even just general “narrative”. What do these words mean though? If we have this thing called narrative in games, how do we understand its unique qualities in games, and how do we read it?

These are questions at the forefront of the study of narrative in game studies, and they are far from answered. They feature prominently in Tamer Thabet’s recent work Video Game Narrative and Criticism: Playing the Story, where he calls for developing methodologies for analyzing games that take both narrative theory and game theory seriously. Specifically, Thabet suggests that play itself is narrative (loc 97). I suggest that the opposite is also true–narrative always involves some level of play. This idea is not necessarily new, but finds its roots in the work of great structuralists and post-structuralists like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Derrida.

All of that is getting pretty far afield though. Suffice it to say that we need both theory and praxis for dealing with game narrative–one without the other is ineffective. We must understand game narrative and how it works, and also how to utilize its concepts so that we can make better games, better selves, and better cultures.

Sources (for these and others, see bottom of the page too):

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Mark Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” Henry Jenkins Publications. MIT, 2004. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://interactive.usc.edu/blog-old/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Jenkins_Narrative_Architecture.pdf&gt;

Thabet, Tamer. Video Game Narrative and Criticism: Playing the Story. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. Kindle edition.

 

Target Audience:

As the problem statement indicates, the implications of this project are far ranging. However the primary audience for Narrare and its concepts is anyone with some stake in games, the gaming industry, and games studies. In particular the game targets people training to work in these areas through its implementation in coursework. As such, a big part of the target audience is college students in their 20s and 30s. The game is and will remain more widely available however, and as a Twine game that requires only a web browser it remains accessible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

 

Ouroboros Magic Circle of Serious Game Design Diagram:

The image below is the Ouroboros Magic Circle of Serious Game Design. It shows many of the elements used in iterative game design to create a seemless, unified game experience.

Ouroboros for TC830

 

Several of the Ouroboros elements are prominent in Narrare. The Designer’s Serious Goals might be the most prominent–Narrare is built from the ground up for use in teaching narrative concepts. The Formal Constraints elements also show up prominently Narrare, in that players are not allowed to do whatever they want. They are limited by the choices offered, essentially being limited by the Rules and Mechanics of the game. Premise or Story also features strongly in the game–how would one teach narrative without a story to talk about?

Finally, the use of Narrare in a course setting speaks to its reliance on Pre, During, and Post Game Contexts. Students/Players conduct readings on narrative and game studies prior to playing Narrare, and also play the game prior to discussing it in class, creating a type of Pre-Game Context. Playing the game together in class with instructor guidance and discussion forms During Game Context. Then students are asked to reflect on the narrative concepts in the game and use them in papers and projects, creating important Post-Game Context and understanding.

These are just some of the examples of the Ouroboros showing up in Narrare. It is an extremely helpful diagram to use in iterative game design, and should be used by any aspiring game designers and developers!

 

Values:

Several values are present in Narrare, including:

  • Tradition–mythology and fairy stories draw on longstanding tradition, as does narrative structure more generally.
  • Humor–the game is infused with humor to draw attention to the limitations of tradition and game narrative.
  • Understanding–the game and discussion around it encourage questioning and reflection in order to understand theoretical concepts

 

Fun:

Related to values, every game hopefully has something fun or enjoyable about it. Playtesting Narrare has revealed that many players enjoy making choices and being given a voice in the stories they read and interact with. Obviously Narrare allows and encourages these choices–they are what drive the game forward! The choices offered by the game will continue to be expanded upon in future iterations–hopefully you enjoy them!

Narrare also contains a fair bit of sarcasm and humor. The narrator is often ridiculous, and at times the characters seem very much like caricatures. In the future some portions of the game may be narrated with audio–it is a goal. Perhaps the comedy will fall flat too. Who knows? That’s for you to decide!

 

Theory:

Teaching narrative theory and concepts through Narrare is likely to succeed for a number of reasons, several of which I lay out briefly here.

First, teaching game narrative through a game is a hands-on learning experience. It is learning by doing, rather than just learning by listening or observing. The benefits of this are better understanding and greater mastery of concepts. This applies more broadly to game studies as well–simply put, one cannot understand games if one does not play.

Second, using Narrare in conjunction with classroom discussion and instructor guidance is an excellent practical example of an “affinity space”, a term coined by James Paul Gee in 2004. In their book Learning in Video Game Affinity Spaces, Elisabeth Hayes and Sean Duncan describe affinity spaces as “means to address the ways that spaces . . . provide opportunities for individuals to develop affinity for one another . . . for media objects . . . and for practices” (Duncan and Hayes 7). In other words, affinity spaces are spaces separate from a particular object where people interested in that object can gather to share ideas, strategies, and insights with each other. In the case of Narrare, the classroom becomes an affinity space for discussion of the game and the concepts its contains. As an affinity space, the classroom transforms into a place where student players can share information with and learn from each other, in addition to getting guidance from the instructor. This not only taps into the intrinsic motivation that sharing and collaborating can provide, but it also opens the potential for learning to reach beyond the classroom in the same way that narrative concepts reach beyond Narrare (and how Narrare is present both in and outside the classroom). Learning is no longer a sequestered process limited to a particular time and place, but instead reaches beyond those bounds to become a more encompassing experience.

Third, other educators have already used and suggested games that could be used to teach creative writing and narrative. In their essay “Narrative: Let Me Tell You a Story”, Nicola Whitton and Dave White argue that games force players to be aware of narrative structures, player choices, and plot layouts as part of the progression of a game (49). As such, they make excellent tools for enhancing the learning and teaching of such concepts. Similar to asking students to read to improve their writing, using games is asking students to play to improve their writing and thinking–they learn not just by observing, but by doing.

 

Sources/Recommended Reading:

Crawford, Chris. “Interactive Storytelling.” The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Mark Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Duncan, Sean C., and Elisabeth Hayes. “Expanding the Affinity Space: An Introduction.” Learning in Video Game Affinity Spaces. Ed. Sean C. Duncan and Elisabeth R. Hayes. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. 1-22. Print.

Ferretti, Stefano, Marco Roccetti, and Stefano Cacciaguerra. “On Distributing Interactive Storytelling: Issues of Event Synchronization and a Solution.” Technologies for Interactive Digital Storytelling and Entertainment 2004. Ed. Stefan Göbel, Ulrike Spierling, Anja Hoffman, Ido Iurgel, and Oliver Schneider. Berlin: Springer, 2004. 219-31. Print.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Mark Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Gee, James Paul. Good Video Games + Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning and Literacy. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. 129-74. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” Henry Jenkins Publications. MIT, 2004. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://interactive.usc.edu/blog-old/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Jenkins_Narrative_Architecture.pdf&gt;

Krzywinska, Tanya. “Being a determined agent in (the) World of Warcraft: text/play/identity.” Videogame, player, text. Ed. Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska. New York: Manchester University Press, 2007. 101-19. Print.

Krzywinska, Tanya. “World Creation and Lore: World of Warcraft as Rich Text.” Digital Culture, Play, and Identity. Ed. Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill W. Rettberg. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. 123-42. Print.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997. Print.

Prince, Gerald. “Narrativehood, Narrativeness, Narrativity, Narratibility.” Theorizing Narrativity. Ed. John Pier and José Angel García Landa. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Co., 2008. 19-28. Print.

Reynolds, Ren. “Competing Narratives in Virtual Worlds.” Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. 399-406. Print.

Thabet, Tamer. Video Game Narrative and Criticism: Playing the Story. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. Kindle edition.

Walsh, Richard. “Emergent Narrative in Interactive Media.” Narrative 19.1 (2011): 72-85. Print.

Whitton, Nicola, and Dave White. “Narrative: Let Me Tell You a Story.” Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching: A Beginner’s Guide. Ed. Nicola Whitton and Alex Moseley. New York: Routledge, 2012. 45-56. Print.

 

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