CAP Presentation

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. 118-30.

Overview

Jenkins jumps into the game vs. story debate. He provides some background on the debate and tries to establish a middle ground based on five points. Then, he shifts to a discussion of four ways in which game spaces can affect narrative and concludes, “it makes sense to think of game designers less as storytellers than as narrative architects” (129).

According to Jenkins, both sides of the game vs. story debate can agree that while there are games that don’t tell stories (like Tetris), many games have “narrative aspirations” (119). He says that while it can be helpful for scholars to use narrative theory to analyze games, they should not limit game designers. He also points out that even when games do tell stories, they do so in a different manner than other media. Basically, his point is that critics on both sides of the debate need to learn some new vocabulary: game designers need to learn more about narrative so they can tell better stories, and narratologists need to learn about interface design and game mechanics.

Jenkins pushes both sides to rethink the idea of narrative, especially within the context of the immersive game space. He calls this environmental storytelling. One way games use space to tell story is through evocative spaces, which either “remediate a preexisting story…or draw upon a broadly shared genre tradition” (123). Another technique is the use of enacting stories, which have accumulated micronarratives and episodic stories connected by a map rather than having a tightly controlled, unified, linear plot. Players can explore the map and participate in these mini-stories without “derailing the larger narrative trajectory” (126).

Jenkins also describes how embedded narratives function as environmental storytelling. Embedded narratives allow games to work like detective stories, in which players use clues and exploration to reconstruct the scrambled narrative. Players see a broken door and a crashed vehicle and figure out that there are bad guys hiding nearby--or they don’t, and they must replay the scene in a kind of “rehearsal” (126). So, the game space is more of a “body of information” than a “temporal structure” (126). Finally, in emergent narratives, players can write their own stories within the limitations of the game space (The Sims).

Commentary

Many of the secondary sources we’ve read this semester address the game vs. story debate (Murray, Moulthrop, Montfort). At first, I was surprised at the heated nature of this debate about something that may seem trivial--a label. These writers are really concerned about this issue; Eskelinen’s response accuses Jenkins of misrepresentation, and Jenkins reacts, “Are you talking to me?” (121). When a scholar quotes Robert De Niro, you know he means business. Clearly, a debate about how to label a new genre is not just splitting hairs--it has practical, institutional, even political consequences. For me, this relates to something Jenkins mentions when he describes emergent narratives. He links these game spaces to urban design and celebrates their potential to be poetic, aesthetic, sensuous, symbolic (129). However, spatial design can also be used in more sinister ways, such as the ways in which race has been constructed/reinforced by ghettos, reservations, internment camps, etc. I wonder about the ways in which the constraints of a game environment could consciously or unconsciously perpetuate racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, etc. Something that may seem innocuous (an address, a map, a label) can have ramifications for both reifying and/or subverting existing power relations.

For Discussion

1. Jenkins writes, “virtual playspaces have helped to compensate for the declining place of the traditional backyard in contemporary boy culture” (122). Jenkins argued that video games were a “gendered playspace” in 1998. Are video games still dominated by boy culture in 2012? Is digital literature a gendered space in the same way that video games are/are not?

2. Jenkins focuses on immersive game spaces, but none of his examples are actually physical spaces like Screen, The Cave, Text Rain, See/Saw, etc. Can we apply any of his environmental storytelling techniques (evocative spaces, enacting stories, embedded narratives, emergent narratives) to these hybrid digital/physical texts?