December 11, 2005

Juul’s Half-Real

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 4:49 pm

On the plane ride back from DAC 2005 (the second day of which was certainly one of my favorite conference days ever — the papers were great) I read Jesper Juul’s brand new book Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (GTxA post, Jesper’s post, book site).

I’m too caught up with my own manuscripts at the moment to write a full review, but suffice it to say that I heartily recommend it. I particularly think it should be used for teaching immediately. It’s a short (~200 pages), well informed, and carefully thought out book. For those already involved in the field it provides good grist: strong arguments and an appropriate framework. For new folks it builds things up from the beginning nicely, showing the current state of the field by demonstration and description, while providing the pointers for further research that one would want.

I anticipate that the book will face some criticism for the fact that it doesn’t at any point carefully examine a particular game at length. It doesn’t provide a model for us, or our students, as we seek to write about particular games (or even classes of games) as cultural objects. But this is not among its ambitions — and I, for one, am quite glad that Half-Real does what it sets out to do, does it well, and does it succinctly. Rather than seeing Half-Real as lacking, I see it as an invitation. It provides a thoughtful, useful overview of the field, describing the “classic” game model, the functions of rules, the contributions of fictions, and the interconnections between these. Someone else can now write the companion volume that considers particular games within this framework.

12 Responses to “Juul’s Half-Real

  1. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    I’m hoping the copy I orderd gets to me quickly. Do you think it would be good for a 200-level English course with no prerequisites? My 3-week course on videogames starts in about 3 weeks.

  2. noah Says:

    Dennis, thanks for dropping by.

    Yes, I think it would be good for such a class. While there’s obviously some benefit to knowing something about the field before reading any academic book, Half-Real is written in a way that will allow it to function as an accessible introduction.

    If you do use it in an introductory game studies course you’ll probably be one of the first, so please let us know how it goes!

  3. Jesper Juul Says:

    I would be quite interested to know how that went as well! Mail if you want to discuss it.

  4. noah Says:

    Hey Jesper, thanks for your comment. One quick question, if I might.

    Something I noticed, reading Half-Real, is that some of the field’s arguments in which you used to be a pugilist are now, in the book, viewed from a pace back. That is, rather than falling on one side or another of some of the old debates (like “games and/vs narratives”) the book instead asks what we can learn from the very existence of such debates. Is there anything you’d like to say about how you came to construct the book that way, and what responses there have been?

  5. Jesper Juul Says:


    To those who haven’t read it, I should say that the book is NOT a game/story book, but that the way it came about has something to do with that discussion.

    I guess that several years ago I began asking myself why so many people, academics as well as non-theoretical gamers, weren’t buying all my (so I thought) perfectly crafted anti-narrative arguments. I generally dislike dogma (my own included) and I realized that I could perfectly well understand how it could make sense to disagree with some of my own, eh, pugilist writings. After all, it has been pretty obvious all along that a lot of gamers (myself included) often care deeply about story/fiction in many games.

    So rather than continuing to defend my own well-rehearsed arguments, it seemed more interesting to be a bit Zen about it, step back, and consider why there was a discussion in the first place. That’s why the book is not entrenched in a specific position. I did get the response that someone was surprised of my “weakening of the ludological position”, but that is good news!

    It is no random accident that there has been a “games and stories” discussion, it has also taken place in the game development community many times before. The book’s point about the “half-reality” of video games comes from trying to understand this: People constantly use and perceive games in two parallel ways, as sets of rules, and as fictional (storyish) worlds. Depending on your background and the games you play, it is very easy to focus on one or the other.

    The book tries to see how far each of these two perspectives can be taken, to see where they break, where they conflict, and where they meet. What can we learn about games considering them as rules, as fiction? I think there is a huge uncharted territory where a player picks up a game, tries to understand it from a combination of genre, real-world, and other knowledge, changes his/her perception of the game while playing it, and sometimes, sometimes not, is frustrated by powerups in wooden crates, invisible walls, blue arrows, wild incoherencies in the game world. How do these things happen? When do players accept what? This is that Half-Real aims to describe.

    I am glad you used the word invitation, because it is definitely meant to be “compatible” with more work, more perspectives, other theories, and with new games that challenge everything said so far.

  6. Dennis G. Jerz Says:

    Okay, you’ve convinced me.

    If you’re curious, I’ve posted a bit more about the course on this page

    It’s an online, three-week course in January, and students will each have weblogs. So I hope at least some of them will get involved over here.

  7. Jim Whitehead Says:

    I’m going to be using “Half-Real” as the primary text for a course I’m teaching Winter 2006 at UC Santa Cruz. The course is CMPS 80K, Foundations of Interactive Game Design. It’s an introductory course on computer game design, aimed at a general undergraduate audience, with no programming expertise necessary. I’m still working on the syllabus. It looks like we’ll have anywhere from 140-150 students in the course, so that should help boost book sales a bit.

    I had originally thought to use “Rules of Play” by Salen and Zimmermann, but it’s apparently being reprinted, and it seemed like it would be a close call on whether it would be ready for early January. I like “Half-Real” because it’s a little more focused on computer games, and it seems more reasonable to expect my students to read all 202 pages of Half-Real rather than the 605 pages of “Rules of Play”.

    FWIW, I received my copy of Half-Real by asking MIT Press for an examination copy — they seem to be more willing to give out examination copies these days. In the past, they were not very accommodating. I have also recently received, but have not yet read, “The Game Design Reader, A Rules of Play Anthology” edited by Salen and Zimmermann (also MIT Press), which appears to contain much of the source material for Rules of Play. I suspect I’ll use an essay or two from this text to supplement “Half-Real”.

  8. noah Says:

    Jesper, Dennis, and Jim — thanks for your thoughts.

    Jesper, yes, I should perhaps have clarified that the book is not a game/story book. What we might call it, instead, is one of the first mature books to come out of the recent discussions of game studies. Rather than the initial “clearing the ground” of the earliest writings, Half-Real is able to take the position of looking at the field (rather than trying to establish it).

    If you don’t mind another question, I’m struck by one thing that Half-Real assumes (rather than spending much time explicitly arguing) which might still be quite controversial in the field of game studies. That is, Half-Real operates from the assumption that computer games are different from other games, and can be usefully considered as their own area of study. So, for example, as early as page viii you write:

    the object of this book is games played using computer power, where the computer upholds the rules of the game and where the game is played using a video display. I will be using video games as an umbrella term to describe all such PC, console, arcade, and other digital games.

    I believe some have argued that the great accomplishment of the last few years of game studies has been to establish that there’s no important difference between digital and non-digital games. Half-Real certainly connects computer games with non-computer games, but it also asserts (implicitly through its topic, but also explicitly in sections like pages 53-54) that there’s a difference that matters. Have you had resistance from other game scholars on this topic?

    Jim, I’d say Half-Real is trying to do one of the two tasks that Rules of Play sets for itself. Half-Real is trying to provide a useful framework and vocabulary for thinking about computer games, but it’s not trying to give any design advice. So, I think supplementing is a good idea. And I might suggest that you start with some provocative, opinionated advice that your students will find a good starting point for discussion — like Chris Crawford’s Art of Computer Game Design.

  9. Jesper Juul Says:


    I think my basic position is this one (also from the preface):

    Therefore, the question is not whether video games are old or new, but how video games are games, how they borrow from non-electronic games, and how they depart from traditional game forms.

    The primary resistance against seeing video games as connected to a longer history of games seems to come from new media scholars who prefer to view video games as a new media phenomenon. As I recall, Bolter & Grusin Remediation book only mentions video games as remediating cinema, never as remediating games.
    And Lev Manovich commenting on DAC2005: “Game studies people talk as if there are no other cultural artifacts in the world, just games.”

    There is definitely space for a book that deals primarily with placing video games among other game forms!

  10. Walter Says:

    I believe some have argued that the great accomplishment of the last few years of game studies has been to establish that there’s no important difference between digital and non-digital games.

    Whoa! Who’s been saying this? And more importantly, how is “important” defined? I can’t imagine a definition of importance for which that assertion would be true, and not be completely irrelevant.

  11. nick Says:

    I just finished Half-Real and wanted to note that it certainly met my high expectations. Jesper’s Ph.D. thesis was quite good and I have been telling people about it for some time. The book refines and distills that work nicely, brings in some useful commentary on the state of game studies, and adds lots of illustrations. If I am lucky enough to teach a course on video games sometime soon, or at least one that spends a few weeks on the topic, I’d be very likely to assign Half-Real.

  12. Reality Panic Says:

    Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds

    Appropriately enough, I read Jesper Juul’s Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds while on my way to academic/game conference. I quite enjoyed the book. In part because it was nice and short (and not a massive verbose…

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