Markku Eskelinen: 500 Words on ”Game Design as Narrative Architecture” by Henry Jenkins


[In Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (Eds.) First Person. Cambridge: MIT Press, forthcoming]


For some reason Henry Jenkins doesn’t define the contested concepts (narratives, stories, and games) so central to his argumentation. That’s certainly an effective way of building a middle ground (or a periphery), but perhaps not the most convincing one.


Jenkins follows the familiar strategy of comparative media studies in reducing all media to story-telling (and story-selling) channels. He assumes computer games to be a story-telling medium among many others. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least because stories and games are equally media-independent modes. They have also co-existed for millennia without being reduced to each other.


Jenkins also misrepresents a dispute (on the usefulness of narratology) important parts of which he seems to be unaware of. It has its roots both in Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext (1997), which deals extensively with the relationship between stories and games, showing elementary differences in communicative structures of narratives and adventure games and Gonzalo Frasca’s introduction of ludology to computer game studies at the first Digital Arts and Culture conference in 1998. A discussion of the present topic, which ignores these works, cannot hope to break new ground. A few facts of cultural history wouldn’t hurt either: as the oldest astragals (forerunners of dice) date back to prehistory I’m not so sure “games fit within a much older tradition of spatial stories”.


From the highly variable viewpoints of formal narratology (Genette, Prince, Chatman), deconstruction and experimental fiction Jenkins’ “spatial story” is a bit naive thematic construct; from the ludological perspective it is simply useless. Spatiality is an important factor in computer games, but that very fact makes architecture, choreography, sculpture or even orienteering far more important to game scholars and designers than any travelogue or myth.      


Jenkins limits his search to locating superficial similarities in content between games and narratives, while choosing to ignore crucial and incontestable formal differences between them. To the detriment of his approach there are no specific narrative contents, only contents. Consequently, only some combinations and arrangements of events and existents become game elements; others become stories or performance art. 


If we study games and narratives as bodies of information, elementary differences multiply again. According to the well-known phrase of David Bordwell narration is “the process whereby the film’s sjuzet and style interact in the course of cueing and constraining the spectator’s construction of the fabula”. In games there are other kinds of dominant cues and constraints: rules, goals, the necessary manipulation of an equipment, and the affect of possible other players for starters. This means that information is distributed differently (invested in formal rules for example), it is to be obtained differently (by manipulating the equipment) and it is to be used differently (in moving towards the goal). 


By systematically ignoring and downplaying the importance of these and other formal differences between games and narratives as well as the resulting cognitive differences, Jenkins runs the risk of reducing his comparative media studies into repetitive media studies seeing, seeking and finding stories, and nothing but stories, everywhere. Such pannarrativism could hardly serve any useful ludological or narratological purpose.


Jenkins’ text is entertaining, but his criteria would turn Zelda into a musical instrument, gardening into a spatial narrative, Picasso’s Guernica into a bombing, and every novel and film describing games into a game. Players, readers and spectators usually need prior knowledge, but there’s no reason to privilege any particular source for that information.