Response to Bogost (Part Two)

On Friday, I began the first of a three part response to Ian Bogost’s thoughtful, engaging, and provocative review of my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Bogost’s discussion of the book at Water Cooler Games allows me to respond to some anticipated challenges to the book’s content and approach. It also seems that many of you are relishing a good debate in the dog days of the summer so far be it for me to deny you your entertainment. All of this will make more sense if you’ve read both the book and the review.

Last time, I mostly addressed some questions Bogost raised about the affective economics chapter of the book. Today, I take up some issues about transmedia storytelling/entertainment and about fan culture more generally.

Keep in mind two things: Bogost’s review was primarily positive and I have enormous respect for Bogost’s contribution to the game studies world. This is an intellectual debate, not a blood feud.

Ludology vs. Narratology

As the sonic boom of the so-called ludology vs. narratology debate dissipates, I find it interesting that Jenkins continues to insist on the terms “narrative” and “storytelling” as the principle units of cultural expression. Even though Jenkins admits that “storytelling has become the art of world building,” where artists create environments and situations for a multitude of consumer intersections, he still does not reimagine such a craft separate from the particularity of narrative. Following Roger Shanck and others, Jenkins argues that “stories are basic to all human cultures, the primary means by which we structure, share, and make sense of our common experiences.” Yet, the examples he cites, from the rich worlds of The Matrix, and Star Wars to transmedial experiments like Dawson’s Desktop, readily elude the narrative frame, offering representations of behaviors, fragments, and environments. Michael Mateas and Gonzalo Frasca have called the privileging of narrative expression narrativism, and I have argued that narrativist gestures like Jenkins’s occlude representational gestures based on logics and behaviors. Convergence Culture continues Jenkins’ narrativist practice.

Given the propensity for such non-narrative interpretations of media properties, it is curious that Jenkins did not choose the more general term transmedia authorship over transmedia storytelling

My first response upon reading this was to gasp, “not again.” The last thing any of us wants is to reopen the trumped up feud between the self-proclaimed ludologists and the so-called narratologists. The argument is, in my opinion, based on a false set of distinctions that are getting imposed on a hybrid medium at a highly transitional moment. (Anytime someone accuses you of “occluding” something, you know you are in trouble.) More seriously, I think the ludology/narratology debate was based on misidentifications across cultural and language differences. When Espen Aarseth and I sat down together a few years ago at the HumLab, we found that there was relatively little to debate. We were involved in disagreements in emphasis but not in a substantive dispute about the future of game studies.

I want to refer here to something I wrote at the heat of the Ludology/Narratology debate in response to Marku Eskelinin. It more or less summarizes my perspective:

Ultimately, my interest is in mapping the aesthetic norms that constitute different forms of popular culture and in almost every case, narrative exists alongside, competes against, struggles with, and is often subordinate to alternative aesthetic logics that are fundamentally anti- or non-narrative in character. Eskelinen is correct to note that games have a long history, so does magic, dance, architecture, ars erotica, and so forth, which exist alongside storytelling as important cultural activities. These various alternative traditions are never completely autonomous from each other, but come together and move apart in different ways, at different times, in different cultures. My goal is not to reduce games to narrative but to explore the unstable relationship between a range of different transmedia logics – narrative, games, spectacle, performance, spatiality, affect, etc….

The market category of “games,” in fact, covers an enormous ground, including activities that ludologists would classify as play, sports, simulations, and toys, as well as traditional games. Some, but certainly not all, of these products also make bids on telling stories; storytelling is part of what they are marketing and part of what consumers think they are buying when they invest in this software.

These computer games, then, are a strange, still unstable, and still undertheorized hybrid between games and narratives. They are a border case for any study of narrative, but they are also a border case for any study of games. Computer games are a bit like duck-billed platypuses, a species which, as Harriet Ritvo has documented, confounded early naturalists; some of them denied that such a creature could exist and denounced early reports as fraud, while others sought to erase all ambiguities about its status, trivializing any problems in classifying this species – which has a duck bill, web feet, and lays eggs – as mammals. Jon McKenzie accurately summarizes my position: “games are indeed not narratives, not films, not plays – but they’re also not-not-narratives, not-not-films, not-not-plays.” In the end, the zoological discipline has decided that platypuses are not birds; yet, we will not really get why platypuses are such strange mammals if we don’t know what a bird is.

Near the end of his comments, Eskelinen proposes a range of examples that he takes to be a reductio ad absurdum of my essay’s arguments. It might be helpful to take one of his cases and break it down. Are gardens spatial stories? We can agree that they are not. Most gardens are spaces – with little or no narrative interest at all. Some of those spaces may be designed in such a way as to enable certain life events to unfold – such as hidden nooks where lovers may meet – and thus gardens have been the settings for many stories. There is a tradition of using gardens to recreate spaces from fictional stories; I am thinking about the Bible gardens which dot the roadside of my native south or the fairy gardens that are popular throughout Europe. Here, we would say that those gardens operate in relation to a larger narrative economy. In most cases, however, these gardens are simply recreating spaces or vignettes from stories. They evoke stories, but they are not stories. In the case of some Bible gardens, these vignettes are arranged in a narrative sequence designed to unfold the story of Christ’s martyrdom. As they do so, they start to move towards the borders of our current understanding of narrative.

So, on the one hand, I would welcome Bogost’s efforts to broaden my term, “transmedia storytelling” towards something like “transmedia entertainment” or “transmedia authorship.” It is certainly the case, as the passage above suggests, that narrative is simply one of a number of transmedia logics that are all expressive of the human condition. Perhaps I should have been clearer about this point in the book. I’ll take my lumps for that.

That said, I do think there’s an argument to be made for the centrality of narrative for understanding the specific examples used in the book — Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Matrix. Just as one can argue that narrative may take a back seat to play mechanics, say, in our effort to understand how games work, most critics have argued that the American film industry has been driven from day one by the push to tell stories and that narrative imperatives dominate over all other factors in shaping the aesthetics of Hollywood entertainment. I could point you to a large body of literature which has made this point over and over. These particular worlds, then, were created for the purpose of generating stories. They may, as I have suggested, support multiple stories, they may also follow other logics and practices, but they are still part of a storytelling system.

I make clear that I don’t think the games or some of the other materials attached to these franchises are primarily in the business of telling stories: I suggest that they are much more invested in allowing a more immersive experience of the fictional worlds. But there’s no question that many, if not all, players read their experience of the original works onto these worlds and take information learned from these games and apply it back to their understanding of the story of the film. We can understand conflicting responses to Enter the Matrix as suggesting the contrast between people who came there looking for an extension of the story (and thus don’t mind the lengthy cut scenes) and those who came there wanting a game play experience (and thus are angry over the lengthy cut scenes.)

My point is not to suggest that everything that takes place within a transmedia system is a story — and that’s why I am perfectly happy if Bogost wants to expand my concept to talk about entertainment more generally. Music, for example, is profoundly transmedia and yet only occasionally narrative-driven (in the case of ballads, say).

It might be instructive to compare Survivor and American Idol in this regard. Survivor is a game that was constructed to form the basis of a narrative; American Idol is a series of performances that sometimes incorporate stories about the participants in order to shape our emotional response. They thus both mix and match several transmedia logics but it is still possible to identify the dominant aesthetic impulse in each case.

I accept gladly the ludologist point that there are experiences that can not be adequately be described as stories but that are deeply meaningful within our culture. Some of these take the form of games, some rituals, and so forth. I accept gladly the ludologist point that we need to develop a new vocabulary to talk about the play mechanics of games and that we are badly served if they are discussed primarily or exclusively as stories. But I sometimes think that the ludologists give over to a kind of phobia about stories that is also not helpful because it denies the meaningfulness of stories to culture or the relevance of narrative for understanding some aspects of what remain hybrid entertainment experience. Even if they are right that our culture is blinded by its preoccupation with stories, we surely need to understand where that preoccupation comes from, what it means, and what impact it has on how they process the information gathered through these transmedia experiences. I make no apologies for the fact that I like stories, that much of the pleasure I take from popular culture is a narrative pleasure, that I consider stories to be a rewarding aspect of human culture. If that makes me a narrativist in his eyes, so be it. (Frankly, I am thankful that the ludologists have finally figured out that narratology is a specific school of narrative theory that has nothing to do with me and my work or indeed that of most of the other American academics they tried to label with this term.)

More interesting to me though is an implicit question raised in Bogost’s comments: As these transmedia systems take on more and more of what Janet Murray has described as an encyclopedic logic, as they become more about worlds that support multiple stories and less about individual plots, then the centrality of narrative necessarily shifts. Will we reach a point where the stories exist to fit into the concordance rather than the concordance existing to illuminate the story?

Fandom and Other Cultural Traditions

But Jenkins does not adequately answer another objection, namely that a fixation on existing media properties like Harry Potter may reduce a child’s interaction with the cultural, literary, and historical traditions that made such works possible in the first place. The success of Harry Potter and similar books may have duped us into the belief that reading in itself is honorable, no matter the content.

This is a very interesting point and I have struggled to know how to respond to it. I would have said that the book cites a number of examples where popular culture evokes intertexts across larger cultural, literary, and historical traditions — see, for example, my discussion of the role of myth in The Matrix films or the debates about ethics and religion that surround Harry Potter. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the online fan cultures that emerge around such works is the degree to which fans read intertextually and suck more and more cultural materials into their conversations. Fans don’t respect the borders we like to erect around differently modes of cultural experience: everything is connected to everything else. This is part of how collective intelligence works — everyone contributes what they know and as they do so, the conversation expands outward to include much broader traditions. Such works provide a context for kids to become interested in these older materials that are authentic in the sense that these materials help them address questions that matter to them as opposed to the forced march through the western tradition that constitutes school curriculum.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any given reader will move beyond the franchise itself in their search of meaning: these franchises can become a dead end for some people. I would think we should be trying to explore strategies that bridge between these different cultural spheres rather than trying to build walls between them. That’s part of what I hope to be doing in my work around media literacy and it is part of why I am so interested by groups like Wondering Minstrels and what they are doing around poetry.

Lost in Commerce?

Perhaps more concerning than becoming lost in fantasy is becoming lost in commerce. Doesn’t fandom reorient children and adults alike toward the consumption of more and more commercial products from the franchise?

I would have phrased this the other way around — as I suggest in the Star Wars chapter of the book. I see fandom as responding to the commercialization of our culture and pulling us back towards older models of cultural production. Commercial culture has tried very hard throughout the 20th century to totally displace folk culture and it has utterly failed to do so. The desire to participate in the production and circulation of cultural materials on the grassroots or amateur level has remained extremely strong. That said, what has come out of the confrontation between commercial culture and folk culture is anything but pure. Folk culture now builds upon the materials of commercial culture and commercial culture now appropriates freely from grassroots cultural practices. Fandom represents a way of asserting grassroots concerns in the face of the commercialization of our culture. It represents a way of introducing non-market criteria into the production and circulation of media. It transforms commodities into resources for collective elaboration.

There is no evidence that fans consume more media — or more products — than any other segment of the population. Indeed, much evidence suggests that fans spend less hours each day watching television than nonfans. Television simply plays a different role in their lives: it fosters other social and creative activities. So they may spend more time focused thinking about and talking about a particular franchise (though often in relation to a range of other cultural works, as I suggested above) but they may not consume more overall. And much of what fans do consume comes within the context of the gift economy that grows up alongside commercial culture. Reading fanzine stories may intensify their interest in the commercial media content but it may also displace the purchase of ancillary products tied to the series that may less perfectly jell with the fan community’s particular view of the series.

That said, there’s no question that many of the convergence practices the book describes are motivated top down by market logic. I never deny that and indeed, try many times to try to identify what that market logic is. One of my goals for the book was describe fan culture both from the point of view of the commercial sector and from the point of view of the grassroots culture. But I don’t think these practices can be reduced to market motives. These franchises mean something more to the people who work on them (as I suggest in terms of The Matrix) and the people who consume them (as I suggest throughout).

Marketing proves most ineffective at getting people to consume cultural goods. There are so many examples of expensive failures in developing media franchises, of monumental miscalculations. My experience has been that where a media product finds an audience, there is something meaningful going on within the culture and the task of the cultural critic is to try to identify what it means. We may not like what it tells us about our culture, but it’s no fair trying to treat it as if it was mindless or meaningless. That’s sheer laziness on the part of the cultural critic.

In the final installment, I return to issues of commercialization, apologize for some legitimate errors Bogost caught, and take up the relationship between culture and technology. Stay tune, boys and girls. See you tomorrow, same bat time, same bat channel.


  1. Christopher Harwood says:

    How complex does a “story” need to be to be considered a “narrative?” It seems (and I could merely be tired) that memory is understood and expressed in a “narrative” format. It would make sense, then, to be careful when trying to delineate between the narrative that arises within the reader as they read a text, and the “narrative” that arises within a music listener or game player, even when such “narratives” cannot be adequately fitted into a textual transcript, and even when such narratives are purely a series of emotions experienced over time. As with “interactivity,” I am unsure we do not err in clearly defining one media “interactive nonnarrative” and another “noninteractive narrative.” Narration and interaction strike me as interdependant.

    This strikes me as a natural development from Aarseth’s “Cybertext” as well, but you indicate there was some minor remaining disagreement. Am I simply blind to something significant?

  2. ” fixation on existing media properties like Harry Potter may reduce a child’s interaction with the cultural, literary, and historical traditions that made such works possible in the first place.”

    Is there any evidence one way or the other on this point?

    (Intuitively I tend, being British, to an immediate response of “bollocks!”, but I understand that’s not really considered a full-fledged riposte in academic circles…)

    Certainly, anecdotal evidence for me would suggest that immersion in fan culture tends to act as a “gateway drug” to its sources, rather than preventing curiosity in them. A good number of fantasy fans, for example (from a quick poll of the Strange Company offices), have at least a passing knowledge of Beowulf, the Morte D’Arthur, the Norse legends, and so on, because they were curious about the roots of the literature they enjoy.

  3. Christopher —

    In general, I think it’s fair to say that human memory is understood and expressed as narrative. But, if we’re going to be debating narrative vs. ludology, it can be interesting to go one level deeper (at least for those of us trying to make the case for the potential of educational video games). If we look at the structure of a neuron, it seems that “associations” might be a/the core mechanism by which human memory is understood and expressed. So, if we chain together associations like ‘getting a table’ ‘sitting down’ ‘looking at the menu’ ‘ordering’ ‘paying the bill’, we could say that it is a ‘restaurant narrative’ that links these associations together. Though, you could equally frame these set of associations as built from a set of rules and constraints about what can and can not happen in the restaurant level (“if you forget to pay the bill, you will be chased by the manager”). Hence the popularity of the more ambiguous term ‘schema’

    I think this is what you were getting at in terms of delineating between the narrative that a reader builds from a text with whatever gets formed from the associations that fire when listening to evocative music or exploring the constraints of a game. If we should call the second experience ‘narrative’, in my opinion, depends on what conclusions that’s going to cause us to draw. I.E. It would be wrong to look at the studies about how experience playing chess restructures our memory to allow for more complex chunks and then assume that this is simply because of a narrative about pawns, knights and castles.

    Whether this is wrong because the memory schema of chess has nothing to do with narrative or if because the labels on the pieces used in a chess game is too simplistic a notion of ‘narrative’ is something that many of the people interested in this post have far stronger opinions that I do, so I’m going to leave that alone. But, personally, I find ‘exploring and understanding the associations we have to different things in our mind’ can be a constructive way of thinking about the role of imaginary worlds to human memory (includes things like motor memory).

  4. Nathan Piazza says:

    While I agree that the ludologist vs narratologist debate was not carried out on the grounds of a meaningful set of distinctions, I do think that there exists a significant and important rift between “those who would like to see more narrative elements in games” and those who don’t.

    By invoking the “can’t we all just get along” and “these digital game things are just hybrid cultural artifacts” arguments, one simply agrees to abstain from acknowledging and exploring this rift and it’s cultural and social sources.

    Let me explore just one aspect of those sources here.

    The fact is, two touchstones have driven the style and marketing of games in particular directions, both in terms of style and gameplay. I would propose that those touchstones are Doom and Tomb Raider. Before these two games, especially the former, the American gaming market was much more diverse and was headed in many more eclectic directions than it is now. However, since those two games came out, there have been some notable trends that have touched the majority of games (though of course not all). The first trend is a genre effect: a rise in the prominence of shooters and platformers. The second is stylistic: for a certain “core gamer” demographic, it is clear that many game companies believe they must cater to male power fantasies, regardless of genre (for a detailed treatment of the debilitating economic effects this very same tendency has had on the comics industry over a period of decades, see Scott McCloud’s “Reinventing Comics”). So far, that has meant more “realistic” violence and female characters laden with an overt and degrading sexuality. The final effect is on gameplay: a focus on the representation and refinement of physicalized experiences, not social, emotional, or intellectual ones.

    Now, let me propose an alternative history with two different touchstones, two games that have been touchstones for me: Fallout and Myst. The elements of actions with social consequences in Fallout and the exploration of an “event space” or backstory in Myst. The fact is, the American industry has all but ignored many of the gameplay directions that these two titles suggested, and the European industry, while more successful at bringing “Adventure” titles to market, has done so while managing to innovate in the genre very little.

    I still don’t think the so-called narratologists have articulated very well what they might want or mean by “more narrative elements in games”, but I also think the current industry is far less interested in titles that elaborate the social, emotional, and cultural potentialities latent in interactive entertainment than they should be. And that should concern self-proclaimed “ludologists” as much as anyone.

    We ignore this rift at at our peril, because if we don’t influence the game industry in ways that help them elaborate healthier and more interesting game “subjects”, it’s not likely they ever will do so on their own. All questions of narrative aside, if the future of games is simply escalating levels of T&A, armaments, and explosions, we all lose.

  5. “Folk culture now builds upon the materials of commercial culture and commercial culture now appropriates freely from grassroots cultural practices.”

    It is a given that cultural production relies on appropriation – it always has. What is more interesting to look at, and what seems to drop off the agenda so often, is the analysis of the power involved in these relations of appropriation. As a fan I may appropriate from commercial culture, but often at my peril – who knows when the ‘cease and desist notice’ will be issued on my website. Who knows when the IP lawyers will descend and tell me I have stolen their property? But when commercial corporations appropriate from sub-cultures or from broad cultural traditions, and then claim the IP and make money off other peoples’ work, can anyone stop them? This is what is problematic about the dynamic of appropriation in the current environments. Not having read Henry’s book yet, I’m not sure if this issue is tackled or not, but it seems to be integral to the process to me, and to have a significant impact, so I am hoping it is not glossed over. (I have yet to read Henry’s further posting on commercial practices on the blog, so perhaps he addresses this later – apologies if so).