Theoretical Framework Part 1: Narratology & Ludology

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This is part IX of my article series on video game sound. If you haven’t already, I recommend you start with Part I: Video Game Audio 101. Fiction or Interface. An Introduction.

Up until now, I’ve focused on the history of video game technology and sound.

Now, I’ll focus on creating a theoretical framework and terminology we can use for analyzing video game sound.

To establish this framework, it’s necessary first to look critically at already-established theoretical tools and discourses which have been used to describe video games and sound.

My overall argument is that it isn’t beneficial to dig ourselves into a specific theoretical trench if we want to understand video game sound.

Instead, I suggest a hybrid approach that includes narratology, ludology, film studios, multimedia studies, cultural studies, musicology, and more.

So let’s begin by taking a quick look at the historical study of video games: the dichotomy between narratology and ludology.

I’ll show how this dichotomy has carried over into later studies of video game sound and why we need both.

Narratology

Most video games are multimedia that includes text, sound, and images as the basis for creating fictional worlds.

Viewed as such, it isn’t strange that early studies of video games sprung from already-established academic disciplines of narratology and film theory.

The roots of narratology go back to ancient Greece. In Poetics from around 335 BC, Aristotle established a basis for Greek dramatic and literary theories.

In this work, Aristotle writes about well-known central elements in poetry, such as plot and character.

Aristotle and Plato also discussed the distinction between mimesis (art imitating life by showing, not telling) and diegesis (a narrator telling a story rather than reenacting it).

I’ll get back to these concepts later.

Today narratology encompasses much more than poetry.

A narrative can be understood as the structural element in everything from text, theater, movies, songs, video games, and life.

As such, narratology has often been criticized for being too inclusive and thus not usable as a theoretical tool.

As video game researcher Jesper Juul points out in his excellent book Half-Real (link to Amazon), it’s important to be specific when defining narrative (2005:16, 156).

Two branches of narratology dominate the study of video games

The study of video games within narratology can be divided into two branches: narrative-semiotic and media-oriented.

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I won’t go into the history of these here since it’s beyond the scope of this blog post.

But in short, the narrative-semiotic branch looks at aspects such as deep narratological structures, plot analysis, symbolic meanings, and models such as branching trees.

The media-oriented branch seeks to understand how video games can be understood as narratives and what they have in common with other storytelling media such as movies, books, comics, and so on.

So the media-oriented branch is less concerned with how video games fit theoretical and structural narrative elements and more interested in a broader narratological context.

Ludology

Ludology means the study of games.

The field of ludology seeks to understand aspects of video gaming, such as the underlying structures created by the rules, the gaming situation, interactivity, and more.

The origin of the term

It’s a compound of the Latin word Ludo, which means I play (a game), and the Greek suffix –logy (logia), which means the study of a particular subject.

It is unclear who invented the term ludology, but we know that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi used it in 1982 in “Does Being Human Matter – On Some Interpretive Problems of Comparative Ludology.”

Csikszentmihalyi is the positive psychologist who defined the concept of “flow” – a state of mind where your abilities live up to the challenges of a task, and you get immersed in what you’re doing.

Another way of describing this is to be “in the zone,” which many gamers will recognize. The concept of flow is useful when describing other aspects of video games, such as gameplay and immersion.

The great divide between narratology and ludology

The neologism ludology became more widespread within video game research with the article Ludology meets narratology: similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative (1999) by Gonzalo Frasca.

In this article, Frasca seeks to establish a new approach to the study of video games, which distanced itself from existing academic fields – especially narratology.

In other words, Frasca wanted to establish the study of video games as an academic field of its own.

This helped create a divide in the study of video games, with the most radical proponents of ludology arguing that there’s no common ground between narratology and ludology.

In Closing. Why narratology and ludology are both important

If we need to understand video games and video game sound, we need both narratology and ludology, as well as other academic fields, to create a theoretical framework.

Including narratology forms the basis of understanding video games as fiction.

Including ludology forms the basis of understanding video games as rule-based systems.

Including both fields helps us better understand the basis for other video game researchers’ arguments, i.e., what school of thought are they adhering to?

In the next article, I will examine video games as rules, fiction, and (trans-)media.

Until then, happy gaming!


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jan has played video games since the early 1980s. He loves getting immersed in video games as a way to take his mind off stuff when the outside world gets too scary. A lifelong gamer, the big interest led to a job as a lecturer on game sound at the University of Copenhagen and several written articles on video games for magazines.

Read more on the About Page.