January 8, 2005

“Half-Real:” Finally Fully Read…

by Nick Montfort · , 12:57 am

I finally finished reading Jesper Juul’s dissertation, “Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds.” It’s a great treatise on video games, devoting a lot of discussion to earlier forms of games, from sports to board and card games. While Jesper is a bit apologetic about this in his conclusion, I think it’s quite necessary to attend to the history of games and to games of other, non-computer forms. I’ve mentioned to Espen before that I find his strong focus on video games (to the exclusion of earlier games) a bit problematic, especially when you consider that there are computer chess games and computer simulations of sports games. I think Jesper’s work, along with Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, will begin to address the issue of how computer games fit into the millennia-long tradition of games. Of course, there is plenty more to say about the matter, but it’s good that several scholars have started to pick up on the relationship between computer games and “classical” games.


The real achievement of Jesper’s thesis is uniting the idea of the fictional world with the rule structure of games. By examining how computer games are both fictional worlds (albeit ones that we might choose to ignore as we play) and also rule-structures, as pre-computer games are, Jesper lays out one very interesting formulation of the computer game problem. If you consider it as a book, the dissertation could use another chapter or two to explore this problem in greater depth and though further examples – and, since his dissertation will be reformulated as a book, I’m hopeful that it will get this additional chapter or two – but describing how rules and the fictional world relate to one another, even in a preliminary way, is a great accomplishment for game studies.

I found the weakest discussion in”Half-Life” to be the coverage of the ludology/narratology debate. It’s not that Jesper is really wrong about anything there; I had just hoped that he might see the points of convergence and of useful cross-application, rather than pointing out how ships have crossed in the night. But he seems to have mostly missed those useful intersections. Jesper correctly points out that in many cases, discussants (such as Jesper himself and Henry Jenkins) are talking past one another, using different definitions of narrative. Still, he misses or only glancingly acknowledges those points at which the narratological and ludologocial approaches intersect, and the ways in which the strengths of narratology have been brought to bear usefully on computer games. His six possible formulations of narrative do not include Marie-Laure Ryan’s cognitive model of narrative, a model that seems the most compatible with his own perspective on computer games. He admits that his discussion of “game time” uses concepts analogous to those in narratology, but doesn’t extend his discussion of this to explain how narratological approaches can be adapted (rather than just blindly applied) for use in understanding computer games. I found that Jesper still expressed some fear that narratology (not literary studies, not English departments, but somehow narratology itself) will take over the study of computer games. Yes, I know that crummy literature-based work has been done on computer games, but it’s stilly to blame the true narratologists. The only two people at last year’s Narrative conference who were really talking about computer games were yours truly – and while I’m hardly a true narratologist, my approach to interactive fiction is just as analogous to narratology as is Jesper’s own “game time” approach, and just as sensitive to the nature of computer games – and Marie-Laure Ryan, who hardly appears as a bad guy when she is cited in the dissertation.

At any rate, these are all quibbles — if you know already that you’re going to define yourself as a video game scholar, you should already be pleading with Jesper for a copy of his dissertation, if you haven’t read it. Those who are interested in the field but less directly invested in it can eagerly await his book.