Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation” – Espen Aarseth

In “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation” Espen Aarseth tries to show that a new field of study, one of simulation and hermeneutic discourse, is needed for the study of games. He argues his case by claiming other fields are colonializing games or co-oping them in desperate grabs to maintain relevance but that these fields (specifically that of narrative, but also of film) are actually ill-suited to discourse of games. Additionally he argues that the danger of relegating the study of games to a narrativist understanding is to reduce their aesthetic value in such a way that we limit the kinds of investigations, research, theory, and learning that could otherwise come from a more hermeneutic study. Beyond this overarching concern, Aarseth exposes narratology as an ill-suited lens for the understanding of games by pointing out several theoretical or methodological flaws to such an approach: he argues that games are not a consistent genre, but rather contain a multitude of forms and variations; he argues that games are older than stories and of narrative and pre-date humans and thus should not be forced to fit in a theoretical box which postdates their origin and complexity; he argues that while games can be story-like, performance-like, sport-like, etc. that these likenesses are “merely supports for…’the gaming situation'”; he argues that games are no more text-based nor are they inter-textual; they are self-contained – “the value system of a game is strictly internal, determined unambivalently by the rules;” he argues that “interactivity” is not the distinguishing feature of games, but rather that interactivity is an overused word that should be replaced by the more apt “simulation”; he contends that while stories are about the other, games are about the self; finally he argues that although adventure games could be considered a narrative genre of games, they are a weak form of game due to boring, derivative, and linear structures with frequently unbelievable characters.

Unfortunately, many of Aaseth’s fair and noteworthy points are lost or diminished by his patronizing tone. While I agree that “when you put a story on top of a simulation, the simulation (or the player) will always have the last word,” and the a games deserve a unique field of study and theory separate from that of narrative, he oversimplifies several of his arguments in such a way that ignores (or perhaps could not account for the evolution of games that took place after the piece was published) a great deal of complexity found in the study of games that is – at time – difficult to remove from our understanding of narrative, literacy, and literacy culture. For instance, Aarseth biggest mistake is that he neglects to account for player perception, high-level though processes, and self-reflection as central to any game experience. He casually remarks that when playing Tetris, he does not stop to wonder what the bricks are made of just as in Doom he does not worry about killing innocent monsters. Aarseth neglects to consider whether he should or if such self-reflexivity might make the game experience richer. Similarly, he argues that stories that contain games are not games in and of themselves because the story remains the same whether the reader engages with the game or not; but he neglects to consider that by engaging or not engaging the player’s experience and perception of the story – and of the game within it- is inherently changed. He also oversimplifies games into a first-person experience, an “I” experience where stories are “they” experiences. Conversely, Matea’s argues that agency stems from first-person, but that the transformative aspects of play require the type of self-reflexivity and self-reflection that Aarseth seems to want to exclude from the theories of games. Disturbingly, he also asserts that the adventure game survives only because of increase in graphic quality, yet there are certainly rich adventure days created recently that highlight the narrative by decreasing graphic elements intentionally. I’m also bothered by Aarseth’s attempt to reduce adventure games to a trope. He suggests that all adventure games are one in the same; but if he makes such a reduction to games with stories, could not such a reduction be made of all stories too? Such oversimplifications of both mediums make Aarseth’s stronger points (and he does make some) that much harder to consider with earnest. Fortunately, Aarseth’s text “Quest Games as Post-Narrative Discourse” engages this issue with a more balanced tone and critically engaged lens.

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