In this interview, Simon Dawes speaks to Souvik Mukherjee about videogame narratives, Gilles Deleuze and the history of the TCS Website
Read more to find out why only people who play computer games should write about them, and why Souvik thinks game theory is growing up
Image: Souvik Mukherjee
Simon Dawes: Could you start by telling us about your recently completed PhD (entitled, 'The Zone of Becoming': Game, Text and Technicity in the Videogame Narrative), your research interests and how you apply Deleuze to computer games?
Souvik Mukherjee: I had my first brush with digital games when I was doing my Masters in English Literature in 2001. As I was discovering the fluidity of texts and the role of the reader, I was also playing Age of Empires where I was retelling the history of the Hittites and the ancient Greeks, every time I saved and reloaded the game. So not only was the game telling a story, but also it was telling a multiplicity of stories. In a time when there was a debate raging amongst scholars about whether games could tell stories at all, my attempts to answer my initial questions posed to myself developed into an MPhil and then a full-blown doctoral thesis.
In my PhD, I developed my initial arguments towards analysing the digital game narrative as one where the game’s narrative is simultaneously read, played and written by the player. At the same time, however, there are added levels of complexity in this reading (some commentators describe it using the portmanteau word, wreading) because of the involvement of the designer, the game’s rule-base and the machine code. Further complexity also results from the fact that the digital game’s narrative is characterised by multiplicity. Even if one ‘plays out’ the same narrative, the iterations are very individual and different. The telos of the game-narrative is therefore difficult to understand or describe. However, contrary to positions that claim that this complexity is unique to so-called ‘new media’, my thesis observes parallels with more traditional forms of narrative.
To elaborate on this, perhaps Gilles Deleuze’s concept of ‘minor literature’ might prove an apt entry-point. Deleuze speaks of multiplicity as a key characteristic of minoritarian literature, particularly in his analysis of Kafka’s stories. Multiplicity and assemblage, both key Deleuzian concepts, are very germane to understanding the ways in which digital game narratives work. The game-narrative ‘plugs in’, as it were, to various different assemblages - those of other game narratives, traditional narratives, politics, violence, science fiction and so on - forming a complex narrative mesh that is beyond the analytical framework of traditional Narratology and similar techniques. Further, Deleuzian multiplicity also helps the understanding of the seemingly paradoxical different yet similar stories that the game-narrative represents. I’ve found Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition particularly useful for building my framework for this aspect of the game-narrative. As I have expanded at length elsewhere, Deleuzian multiplicity, therefore, provides us with a more robust framework for reading the telos in the game-narrative.
Deleuze, as far as I know, does not refer to videogames; the examples that he uses for his concept of minor literature, however, reflect and point towards the complexity of the digital game narrative. Following this, I also view a wide range of older texts such as the Alice books, Cortazar’s Hopscotch, the Sherlock Holmes stories among others as proto-videogames.
Although, I focus mainly on Deleuze here, my thesis also makes substantive links with the (non)philosophy of Jacques Derrida - especially the concept of the supplement, whereby I analyse the originary and interoperable relationship between games, narratives and machine code in digital games. To summarise, my thesis and indeed most of my research so far is about how we read games and play books and also the fact that although this might not have been obvious to us, we have always been doing so.
SD: What are you working on at the moment?
SM: Right now, I’m preparing for a conference presentation on the use of blogs, wikis and other web 2.0 tools as a means of recording played instances of digital game narratives. Digital game narratives, as I said before, are the product of the joint efforts of the player, the system and the designer and, especially in expansive ‘sandbox’ type narrative environments, the story in the game becomes an ephemeral phenomenon - it is a story that is forgotten once it is written. Players, however, often record their instances of ‘gameplay’ - sometimes as a guide for future players and sometimes as a log of achievements. In my forthcoming presentation, I intend to analyse these paratexts that have grown around the digital game narrative as a means of better understanding the game narrative itself. To do so, I will be falling back on Deleuze’s concept of minoritarian literature.
SD: The idea of sandbox narratives reminds me of 'McGuffins' - Hitchcock's and other film directors’ use of a plot device (secret plans etc) to drive linear narratives, while being fairly inconsequential, and even forgotten (as in Psycho with the original storyline being replaced by a new one once the heroine is killed).
SM: Some commentators (Alex Galloway of Protocol fame - he's written for TCS in our Problematising Global Knowledge issue) also talk about McGuffins in a similar context as yours, I think. In the 'sandbox', however, the alternate story possibilities are not inconsequential - in-game actions are 'non-trivial' as game studies theorists describe it and although some do not think this should apply to the narrative in the game (the so-called ludology-narratology debate is about this), I think they are getting it wrong. In fact, even the mcguffin, although seemingly inconsequential, isn't actually so, come to think of it. In terms of literary texts that do this, one could think of The French Lieutenant's Woman's double ending and B.S Johnson's The Unfortunates to name just a couple.
SD: You've mentioned before that computer game theory is growing up. What do you mean by that?
SM: Game Studies, as an academic discipline, has started developing since the late nineties with the publication of Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature and Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck. To simplify their respective arguments, they put forward different positions relating to whether games do or do not tell stories. These positions in turn resulted in what was called the Ludology-Narratology debate in Game Studies. The Ludologists claimed that games should be seen as game per se and the narrative in games was a non-intrinsic imposition. The so-called ‘Narratologists’ (the term is a misnomer as these theorists do not necessarily follow Genettian Narratological principles) claimed the videogame as a primal storytelling machine. Both of the arguments made claims for extreme positions whether for the primacy of the story or the game.
In recent years, however, there has been a clear shift towards recognising the fact that games can tell stories but that all games necessarily do not do so in the same degree. Further, with the rising narrative complexity in recent roleplaying games (RPGs), with their sandbox-type multiplicity and the introduction of morality as well as complex choice structures, a vast range of issues have emerged in game studies. These have been further augmented by the genres of ‘serious games’ and ‘persuasive games’ that are more geared towards addressing social issues through ludic media. To engage with these issues, current theoretical positions from disciplines such as philosophy, sociology and literary studies have been constantly contributing to game studies. It is this development of a robust theoretical position that I view as a ‘growing up’ process - or the shift away from the incunabular stage.
SD: You’ve also previously mentioned that only people who play computer games should write about them. Could you elaborate on that claim?
SM: Yes, this is something that I have felt strongly for a while. To use a comparison, perhaps a simplistic one, we do not expect a literary studies scholar to write a critical commentary without having read a single book or a film studies scholar to do the same without having seen a film. Game Studies, however, seems to be considered a fair playing field for a few commentators from various disciplines to put forward their views without having played a single game. I consider this rather strange - the digital game narrative (which is what interests me most) is, for the reasons described above, a rather uniquely complex phenomenon in terms of its narrative structure and telos. I believe that a vicarious commentary of the game misses the intense involvement that is also an intrinsic part of the narrative structure. Without the numerous failures, deaths and dead-ends, the narrative experience of digital games is not half as palpable because it misses the element of the interaction of human and game (involving the rules and the machine code) that makes the game narrative so complex and multiple. Shorn of the gameplay experience, it is not surprising that there might be a trend to categorise digital game narratives in existing watertight categories and structures. To do so, of course, is to miss a very big point about game narratives - multiplicity. Which is why you will hear me saying always that game studies should concentrate on videogames rather than the videogame.
SD: You make a convincing argument, but we don't expect social theory commentators on the economy or climate change to have economics or biology backgrounds (but social theory ones), or for commentators on North Korea's place in international relations to have lived in North Korea - though such backgrounds and experiences obviously help. Isn't it sometimes sufficient to just review the literature on such things and apply them to wider or alternative contexts; a problem with interdisciplinarity and triangulatory approaches is that one specialism will inevitably dominate or be weaker. Perhaps two separate fields of 'the videogame' and 'videogames' should be pursued as distinct enquiries?
SM: That's a good point, certainly. However, my interest in game studies (which, as you indicate, is a wide area of interdisciplinary research) focuses on the videogame as a narrative text. Unfamiliarity with the medium and the assumption that there is no need to engage with the medium before commenting might be disadvantageous in the long run because the experiential aspect of the game-text is often ignored. Ignoring this makes it possible to make a medium hugely characterised by multiplicity seem like a univocal one. That is my problem with such positions.
To add to your analogies, not all football commentators have to have played football (although most of them have) but they need to know the rules, the history and read up first-hand accounts and so on very well indeed. Without the play experience, however, the commentary arguably suffers ... some of the reportage depends on personal identification. While the latter point is contestable, the very awareness of the rules, the field conditions, the types of shots and how the ball behaves in different conditions already provides a deeper engagement with the medium. In case of videogames, the elements of immersion / involvement, of agency and the experience of a multiple narrative (for those games that tell stories), provides this necessary heightened knowledge of the text.
Perhaps there is a difference between the literary analysis of texts and the historian's / sociologist’s analysis of an issue or an event. These approaches might overlap and complement each other as well - wherein the sociological and philosophical positions on videogames affect my textual analysis of games. Nevertheless, think of the historian who writes about Ancient Greece - while he/she cannot travel back in time (except in a simulation videogame!), he/she has the benefit of archaeology, textual analysis and other elements provided by modern technology for a 'first-hand' experience. As videogames are such a young medium, I believe the experience of the text is still very necessary - essentially because just talking about them vicariously from already well established points of view of various disciplines has the effect of turning them into second cousins of one discipline or the other. I'm not saying that every commentator needs to have played every game they discuss and that secondary sources are not good enough - I do not practise this myself. What I am saying, however, is that the assumption that a total non-engagement with the medium will still be analytically adequate is problematic, in the very least.
This is, I believe, applicable to all media - not just videogames. I could write a paper on the novel without having read a single novel and from having read only critical commentaries, but what kind of paper, I wonder?
If I'm writing a paper, I will play a bit of the game if not the whole thing just to experience the mechanics, rules and involvement. There are certain less interactive games where I would be okay just to see a video or, in other cases, I would use a video for reference when I was unable to get a first-hand experience. The latter would, however, be informed by my prior experience on other games.
What I am curious about is how a critic (and I know some) who only reads what I or someone else writes or reports about these very varied and ephemeral experiences reads the game after watching a video or reading a walkthrough but not actually engaging with the system.
Furthermore, the experience of controls in videogames is important in reading the game-text. Manoeuvring the controls might not lead to the result that one expects and the misplaced motion creates a different event in the text. At the same time, how one handles the controls varies from person to person and this is all very palpable from the experience of the game.
SD: What conferences/activities are on the agenda for you and computer game theory?
SM: I am presenting a paper at the CEDAR workshop hosted by the University of Bangor on 17th September. CEDAR is a workshop for postgraduate researchers to share their experience of web 2.0 technologies. I have attended other CEDAR sessions before and been much benefited. My presentation will look at how paratexts of digital games such as fan-fiction and records of gameplay utilise other digital media, characterised by multiplicity, such as blogs and wikis. While the story(ies) from a videogame can never be captured in a linear text, digital media such as blogs and wikis are more appropriate repositories for the many ended and shape-shifting stories because they themselves have such a metamorphic structure.
In the coming months, I am expecting to see some of my work published as book chapters and to write more for journals and edited collections. I am also writing an encyclopaedia article on videogames in India this month. I am also planning a monograph on temporality in digital games.
SD: One final question. You're also the manager of the TCS Website. Could you tell us a little about your involvement with TCS and the history of the site?
SM: I first met Couze Venn in 2006 when I was in the second year of my PhD and looking for part-time work. Couze asked me if I could help with the general maintenance of the TCS website and I was more than happy to accept. Little did I think then that the TCS website was so important in the agenda of the TCS community. A few conversations with Mike Featherstone told me that this was more than a project - it was like a shared dream. After a few initial setbacks, the website design was planned out and with Mike’s support, I started designing the present TCS website. I must also thank Robert Rojek and Naomi Blumsom of SAGE for their support and indeed everyone else who contributed towards building the site with me at various stages. The website has now finally evolved into a promising platform for hosting the supplements of TCS and Body & Society as well as for enhancing TCS’s online presence. The best part is that the material on the TCS website is available for free.
The TCS website, the new blog, Facebook group and twitter feeds together form the TCS webs project. The project is still young and much more needs to be done. The more people tell us what they want from the resources and the more they use the existing resources, there will be greater chances of improving TCS webs in its next phase of development. The TCS blog carries regular updates about current issues in theory and more participation from our readers will provide more direction to the debates and discussions. Quite a few new features are also in the offing: access to rare archival material from TCS and an increased online presence for the New Encyclopedia Project (NEP) are a few examples.
As I said, some of the aims that we had for the TCS webs project were part of a dream but this is a dream that is being swiftly realised. Obviously, I am very happy to be part of the TCS Community. With your involvement, Simon, and that of TCS’s new website researcher, Jennifer Barth, I’m hoping that we will have more interesting developments on the website and the blog. We will also be very happy to respond to suggestions by the readers of this blog - after all this space is theirs, entirely. As for me, working with a journal which has published so many eminent theorists and on such a promising project has been a thrilling experience and I am sure it will continue to be so.
Souvik Mukherjee is Manager of the TCS Website.
Simon Dawes is Editor of the TCS Website, and Editorial Assistant to Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society
TCS and B & S are published by SAGE.