Response to Julian Kucklich


It’s very hard to figure out in what way Julian Kucklich’s remarks could constitute a relevant response to my essay. He says next to nothing about what I argue in my paper and doesn’t provide specific counter-arguments to my treatment of ludology and narratology. In short, as Kucklich doesn’t debate in a reasonable academic manner, he wouldn’t even deserve a proper reply.


Kucklich spends the first half of his “response” in attacking his own fabrications and choosing to pretend that ludologists are against interdisciplinarity and don’t define their concepts except tautologically. These claims are both absurd and unfounded and in their ignorance more suitable to be published in the continuous amateur hour of Kucklich’s blog than in any serious scholarly context.  


Let me try to explain this like I would to a child. The ludological slogan “games should be studied as games” is based on game definitions, and means (among other things) that games have primary characteristics such as rules, goals, and the necessity of more than interpretative player effort. They are primary because without them there would be no games, and however hard and disappointing it may be to some scholars, these primary features can’t be adequately explained, theorised and analyzed by theories uncritically imported from other fields (including literary and film studies). This uncritical tendency of ignoring and downplaying dominant game-specific features, and not interdisciplinarity, was what the ludologists opposed and did so rather fiercely in 2001 when I wrote my First Person essay as a response to the first wave of narrativist nonsense.


It was and it is clear to me that also the premises and presuppositions of reception studies and “generations of audience research” should be modified before they could be used in computer game research. This is based on three modest observations: first, by definition the audience members are not supposed to play against each other; second, games don’t require an audience as a necessary part of their communication structure, and third, gameplay can’t be reduced to reception.  


In other words, “it should be self-evident we can’t apply print narratology, hypertext theory, film, or theatre and drama studies directly to computer games”. Kucklich says this claim makes me a colonist, but I fail to see and Kucklich certainly fails to show how and why this common sense claim is unreasonable or could be seriously contested.    


In retrospect, I think that the early ludological research and the debates around it, even the most misinformed ones, have been constitutional to the field of game studies or at least have helped it to take shape and mature. I believe there are less and less scholars in 2004 than there were in 2001 believing they can just take their favourite readymade theories off the shelf and project them blindly to computer games. In fact, without the counter-examples of Julian Kucklich and his response I would have thought this type of scholarship was already a thing of the past.  


Markku Eskelinen   


PLEASE NOTE: You can find Kucklich’s EBR comments below as they were on September 5, 2004 at

I’m sure the journal will sooner or later understand the embarrassingly poor quality of Kucklich’s comments and either withdraw or modify his so-called edited response you’re about to read. In the meantime I’m happy to archive Kucklich’s non-sense.     



Markku Eskelinen's essay begins with an introduction to ludology and narratology that follows Espen Aarseth's line of reasoning in representing it as a "colonization" of the virgin territory of computer game studies by the invading force of narrative theory. I have frequently taken issue with this framing of the debate, since it implicitly asserts ludology's 'natural right' to the area of digital games.

The 'othering' of narratology by ludologist scholars has been brilliantly analysed by Marinka Copier in her article "The Other Game Researcher" (in: Level Up. ed. Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens, pp. 404-419), in which she argues that “by using the negative spatial metaphor of colonizing a boundary between ludology and other disciplines is constructed” (407), which leads her to the conclusion that "the construction of boundaries between game studies and other disciplines/fields combine two sets of arguments: content and definition of the object (games are games) [and] institutional (wanting to have a discipline of one’s own and resistance to other disciplines […])" (408).

When we take a closer look at these two arguments, problematic issues begin to arise:

1) The definition of games ‘as games’ is not only tautological and simplistic, it is also surprisingly naïve. Research as a cultural practice has always relied on regarding its objects of study as something else. Regarding matter as an accumulation of atoms, or organisms as an accumulation of cells are, after all, only metaphors that allow us to understand complex structures such as hydrochloric acid or octopi. In the humanities, the application of one set of metaphors to a related, but different, field, has led to fascinating insights into previously marginalized cultural practices.

For example, the application of models developed in film studies to television, and their subsequent modification, have led to the establishment of television studies as a distinct (but by no means ‘independent’) discipline. The simplistic assumption that television is just film on a small screen is simply not viable in the long run, so existing paradigms had to be adapted to the 'new' field of study, leading to the establishment of a whole new set of metaphors.

The problematic assumption underlying this 'naïve' approach is the implicit claim that this strategy allows ludology to speak from a position within the area of games, rather than a position external to it (which is then ascribed to other disciplines). However, this is simply not the case. Ludology is in the same position as any other discipline in regard to digital games, and their attempts to claim a 'natural right' to this territory can be regarded as equally imperialist as other disciplines’ forays into this area.

2) Ludology’s (admittedly understandable) wish to establish a 'discipline of one’s own,' is, from my point of view, remarkably out of touch with the reality of academic politics today. In an age of disciplinary convergence, in which the setup of multidisciplinary teams and interdisciplinary research projects is one of the highest priorities on the academic agenda, ludology’s separatist tendencies may be actually harmful to the long-term existence of digital game studies.

Only if ludology decides to overcome its reluctance to interdisciplinary cooperation – and opens its eyes to the fact that they are in no better position to approach computer games than an other discipline or school – can I see game studies establish itself as a discipline in the near future.

After this long tangent, let us return to Markku’s essay. Not only does Markku frame his presentation of the ludology-narratology debate as a narrative of colonization and resistance, he goes one step further by stating: "resisting and beating [the already organized scholarly tribes] is the goal of our first survival game in this paper" (36).

Speaking from the perspective of a literary scholar, I can only say that the immigration of terminology and theoretical concepts from other disciplines is the best thing that ever happened to literary studies. Where would we be, after all, without the models of sociology, psychoanalysis, various schools of philosophical thought from Marxism to deconstructivism, not to mention communication and media studies, semiotics, gender studies, cognitive science, postcolonial studies etc. etc.?

The field of game studies is now large enough to welcome these migrants from other theoretical discourses to its own area. Clearly, this process of integration will not be an easy one; it will require tolerance, diplomacy and patience. However, Markku’s attempt to "use the theories of colonizers against themselves" (36) runs counter to such an integrative strategy as it pours gasoline into the embers of the fiery debate between narratologists and ludologists. Not that we need less debate, we need more of it. But we need to cool down and start debating in a reasonable manner.

The irony of Markku’s article lies the fact that in his zeal to rid himself of imaginary colonizers, he has become a colonizer himself. This becomes obvious when he claims that it "should be self-evident that we can’t apply print narratology […] directly to computer games” (36) or when he brushes aside decades of audience research by stating that we can "distinguish the static user positions of literature, film and average drama from the dynamic one of games […]" (38).

If game studies is to become dominated by a sectarian tribe of ludologists for whom everything is "self-evident", and in which the words of Espen Aarseth (“the current massively multiplayer online game may very well be the most significant change in audience structure since the invention of the choir”, quoted in Eskelinen, 38) weighs more than that of generations of audience researchers, I certainly don’t want any part of it. But I think there is still hope for a constructive debate between the formalists of the Copenhagen school and the non-conformists from the "already organized scholarly tribes"

[this is an edited version of a response originally published on on June 3, 2004]

back to "Towards Computer Game Studies"