The Narratology vs Ludology Question 

There seem to be multiple threads of questions within game studies, including the use of games in the classroom. However, I decided to focus on the question of are games rules or narrative? The question has seemed to consistently come up in game studies, starting near the beginning of the development of defining “Game Studies” with a formal name. Even after scholars have said that the debate is over, it continues to reappear in blog posts,
in the teaching of games studies, and in scholarship which makes it all the more fascinating. The question arose out a much simpler question, “What is a game?”  

Timeline of Scholars Discussing the Issue

Some of the first scholars that begin talking about narratology and ludology are Espen Aarseth, in 1997, in his book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, and  Gonzalo Frasca in his 1999 article, LUDOLOGY MEETS NARRATOLOGY: Similitude and differences between (video)games and narrative.” However, the debate that begin to rise out of these discussions, was, as Ian Bogost describes, “Gonzalo Frasca tried to remind us at the very first DiGRA conference six years ago…these two concepts were never intended to be opponents in the way a Las Vegas marquis-worthy label like “Ludology vs. Narratology” suggests.” Rather, the scholars didn’t want to reduce video game discussions to only being about narratives, as they saw games in more nuanced, complicated ways.

Bogost argues that the entire debate originally was to set up a movement from viewing games through a functionalist approach to a formal approach. Setting up ludology and narrative meant that either choice would be a formalist approach.

In other words: Formalism vs. Formalism = Formalism wins

However, Bogost discusses that these pieces, as well as work from other scholars on narratology vs ludology caused some confusion and that the debate ensued from there.

From Ian Bogost's blog post, "Video Games are a Mess."
From Ian Bogost’s blog post, “Video Games are a Mess.”

Based on other pieces that I’ve read and my understanding of the threads I’ve been digging through, this also seems to be a push from Game Studies scholars to establish Game Studies as  legitimate and separate discipline from other areas of study. I want to return briefly to the Games Studies Journal Year One issue editorial written by Espen Aarseth. He writes, just before he heads into the next section about creating a new discipline

In this issue, the debate about narratives’ and narratology’s relevance to game studies is clearly visible. This is a debate that shows the very early stage we are still in, where the struggle of controlling and shaping the theoretical paradigms has just started.

He discusses narrative very closely in relation to what he contends are problems with the current state of Game Studies. “Games are not a kind of cinema, or literature, but colonising attempts from both these fields have already happened, and no doubt will happen again.” It seems as though scholars are equating the discussion of narratology with the colonization of other disciplines, which they see as a problem to situating Game Studies as its own field. So, it seems that the question is largely about epistemology about what Game Studies is, but also in where people align themselves on the issue of discipline and where Game Studies belongs within the departmental framework.

Aarseth directly addresses pieces within this first issue of the journal, which includes, Jesper Juul‘s article, Games Telling Tories? A Brief Note on Games and Narratives that I used for my PAB post.  In the 2001 article, Juul seems tentative on where he sees narrative playing out in games studies but he does acknowledge, relating back even to his own work, that ” Games and narratives can on some points be said to have similar traits. This does mean that the strong position of claiming games and narratives to be completely unrelated (my own text, Juul 1999 is a good example) is untenable.”

Juul’s work seems to evolve over time though, along with this debate. By 2005, Juul has reevaluated his views again in his book, Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds. Discussed by both Colby & Colby from my other PAB post last week and Ian Bogost, Bogost explains that, “Games, argues Juul, can be both ludic and fictive, without giving up either their systemic nature or their fictional one.”

Ian Bogost goes on to talk more about Juul, explaining that, “More recently, Juul has offered another take on the current state of game scholarship. The old problem of ludology and narratology has passed, he argues, and in its place we find a new one, which he calls the Game/Player Problem.”

Before I address this supposed “shift” in debate, I’m going to provide a succinct infographic to simplify some of this a bit.


Is the Debate Really Over?

I was curious if this debate actually seems to over as Juul implies, or it still something very much anarratology-and-ludology-10-728live in Game Studies. Based on what I found, I think that while there seems to be less focus on complete dismissal of narratives or gameplay rules, this is still a debate or at least a topic of interest in game scholars.

First, I looked into classes teaching Game Studies. I found some slides that point to this discussion happenarratology-interactive-fiction-by-sherry-jones-april-5-2015-37-638ning in classrooms where video games are being studied. The slides featured here are from Slideshare and were published in 2012 and 2015 on the site. These two slides in particular show that attention is still be paid to the debate in discussions among gamers and in game studies classrooms.

Also, the debate is still being discussed in journals, such as reconstruction: studies in contemporary culture. One of the most recent calls for papers from managing editor Marc Outlette reads in part:

Even though it might be considered a relatively new discipline, Game Studies has galvanized around a readily recognizable set of determinisms. Indeed, the necessity of differentiating between video and computer games instantiates highlights an important pair. Conversely, it might be argued that a set of determinisms have galvanized around Game Studies, not least of which is the ongoing duel of the ludology and narratology dichotomies.

Players or Games?

Maybe I’m rushing into saying this, but why is this a “this or that” question? It seems much more likely to me that a complete picture of study involves the study of both–not necessarily that everyone needs to look at both in every study, but that a solid understanding of video games involves work on both players and games, as well as the intersections or convergences of players and games seem inseparable. My own interests are particularly within the MMO communities, like World of Warcraft. These are highly social games, even if players choose to play solo (which begs the question, why?!), but at the same time, the game itself is also very important in studying this space.

Perhaps Game Studies could benefit from attempting a more nuanced look at the dichotomies that continuously seem to be set up whether that is in narratology vs. ludology, players vs. games, or as Marc Oulette discussed, relying on the male vs. female dichotomy sex role theory used by many scholars studying games and gender. Why are we setting up these dichotomies? What purpose does it serve? How is it limiting the potential that our work has?

Aarseth, Espen. “Computer Game Studies, Year One.” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 1.1 (2001): n. pag. Web. 19 Sept. 2015. <

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. Print.

Bogost, Ian. “Videogames Are a Mess My DiGRA 2009 Keynote, on Videogames and Ontology.” Ian Bogost. Ian Bogost, 3 Sept. 2009. Web. 30 Sept. 2015. <;.

Creber, Chris. “Narratology and Ludology.” Narratology and Ludology. SlideShare, 27 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2015. <;.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “LUDOLOGY MEETS NARRATOLOGY: Similitude and Differences between (video)games and Narrative.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 29 Sept. 2015. <;.

Jones, Sherry. “Narratology vs Ludology.” SlideShare. SlideShare, 14 July 2014. Web. 02 Oct. 2015. <;.

Juul, Jesper.  “Games Telling Stories? A Brief Note on Games and Narratives” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 1.1 (2001): n. pag. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

Oulette, Marc. “Reconstruction 16.3: Game Studies and Determinism.” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. N.p., 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2015. <;.