“Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline” – Eric Zimmerman

In “Narrative, interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline,” Eric Zimmerman discusses the concepts, and the terms we use to discuss them, that need refining in the field of game studies and which he goes on to develop further in his book Rules of Play. Zimmerman states that some concept and terms we must agree on if we are to make progress as developers and scholars of games.


Zimmerman begins with the discussion of narrative. Here, Zimmerman is partial to an understanding of narrative that is broader and helps us think beyond its traditional limits. Using J. Hillis Miller as inspiration, Zimmerman defines narrative in three parts: 1) a narrative contains an initial state, a change state, and insight brought about by that change 2) a narrative is not merely a series of events, but a personification of events through a medium such as language; it is representation in nature 3) a narrative’s representational nature is constituted by patterning and repetition (156-57). The benefit of this three part definition, states Zimmerman, is its inclusivity. It can be applied to books, games, ceremonies, conversations, etc. Another benefit, he argues, is that rather than condensing the focus of narrative to questions that ask “is this narrative?” it broadens the question to “in what ways is this narrative?” (157).


In its broadest sense, interactivity is something that is “reciprocally active” or which allows “two-way flow of information between a device and a user” (158). Zimmerman however, goes on to examine 4 modes of interactivity that are more relevant to games and stories: 1) Cognitive Interactivity – the psychological, emotions, hermeneutic, semiotic, reader-response 2) Functional Interactivity – functional, structural interactions with the material textual apparatus 3) Explicit Interactivity – overt participation like clicking links, following rules, rearranging clothes, etc. 4)Meta-interactivity – cultural participation that happens outside the experience of a single text.


Given how broadly the term “play” is used, in this case, Zimmerman seeks to limit understandings of play rather than expand them. In reference to narrative and interactivity, Zimmerman first separates the concept of play into four categories: 1) Game Play/Formal Play 2) Ludic Activities/Informal Play 3) Being Playful/Play as a State of Mind. With these categories in mind, Zimmerman defines play as “the free space of movement within a more rigid structure. Play exists both because of and also despite the more rigid structures of a system” (159).


Zimmerman’s definition of games is the most focused of the four, as he argues that it’s the hardest to pinpoint. His interest, then, is to narrow it down, “so that we can understand what separate the play of games from other kinds of ludic activities” (160). His definition for “games” is: a voluntary interactivity activity, in which one or more players follow rules that constrain their behavior, enacting an artificial conflict that ends in a quantifiable outcome (160). Within this definition, Zimmerman notes that he is using the third mode of interactivity (explicit participation).

With these four definitions in mind, Zimmer goes on to argue that the ludology/narratoloy debate is moot. He states that “games are always already narrative systems” but that they signify in unique ways to other mediums through their status as “interactive narrative systems of formal play” (162 -163).



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