Are game scholars dismissing the importance of fiction in games?
Games studies has thus far been ideologically united by commitment to what can be called fiction denial. Fiction (setting, world, representations etc.) is guaged of lesser importance to rules, or of no importance whatsoever. The premise of this is expressed in multiple equivalent ways: that the setting and representations of a game are interchangeable and that only the mechanics are 'eternal' (something akin to what Raph Koster or Dan Cook occasionally suggest); that players initially engage with a game via the fiction but later this becomes unimportant (as Graeme Kirkpatrick and Jesper Juul assert); that the representation has no effect on how the player behaves (as Espen Aarseth claims). Espen gives the paradigmatic example of fiction denial when he says he wouldn't play Tomb Raider any differently if Lara Croft had a different character model. I believe him. But isn't this a fact about Espen Aarseth and not a fact about either Tomb Raider or its players?
The problem goes back to the dawn of game studies – well, the first issue of Game Studies – with Juul's seminal line in the sand between games and stories. Stories, it is claimed by Juul, are already set – they occur in the past, while games happen as you play – they occur in the present. At the time, it was necessary to make this distinction to prevent game studies from being colonists by neighbouring disciplines like narratology that would have silenced the emerging voice of games. But Juul's argument is not as plausible as it first looks. Any stage play that participates with the audience or environment (passion plays, for instance) are as much in the present as games. Furthermore, both games and stories are constructed, scaffolded, or designed before they are experienced – the player of Halo can no more prevent the ringworld from being destroyed than the reader of Ringworld can present the spaceship from crashing. Juul's concerns about the problems entailed in translating books and films to games are mirrored by the problems translating games of one kind into games of another.
What I'll call Juul's Trench is an effective defensive measure, but little more – as by Half-Real, Juul himself seems to recognize. However, the later Juul still asserts that rules are real and fiction is not, and this is precisely the ontological claim that undergirds fiction denial. The idea that rules have reality while fiction is lacking in reality inevitably places the rules into a contrast with fiction where it will always come out on top. In Imaginary Games, I try to unseat this ontology by showing how rules and fiction are different forms of the same thing – different forms of fiction. I effectively support Juul's division while rejecting his ontology. I don't want to suggest that either rules or fiction is 'more real' than the other. To be honest, I don't want to get into an argument over what is real at all if we can avoid it.
At heart, fiction denial wants to make the (ontological) claim that it is the game mechanics, the rules, that are the real part of the game. Graeme Kirkpatrick's observation that players gradually see through the fiction to the rules is meant to support this assertion. While I agree that this does happen, my counter-claim is that this characterizes the experience of a particular kind of player and is not essential to games as such. Furthermore, for players who do engage with the fiction of the game fully, this 'seeing through' to the rules is an aesthetic flaw, not a strength, since it breaks with that nebulous experience we term immersion. From this perspective, it is not that the player 'sees through' the fiction, but the rules 'tear through' the world. Only an ironic ghost train rider wants to see the gears – or perhaps someone who makes ghost trains.
I want to make an additional claim that is more controversial: the causes of fiction denial are ideological commitments to the positivistic sciences. Some phenomena benefit from being studied in a positivist stance – chemistry, for instance. But in game studies Juul's Trench functions to divide art from science, and to put game studies firmly into the latter camp. What a disaster for the aesthetic appreciation of games: art is excluded by the very people who extoll the virtue of games! The strange and wonderful game ontology project epitomizes this assumption – offering dry, 'science-like' terms for game mechanical features, and refusing to allow them representative terms. But it does not even achieve this (thankfully!) – 'shoot', 'teleport', 'inventory', these are not fiction-neutral descriptions of game elements, and hallelujah! We should not want them to be!
What fiction denial hides is the intimate connection between fiction and rules, and particularly the way the content of the fiction implies rules, and thus wedding the wrong kind of rules and fiction together creates an aesthetically displeasing game. If fiction denial were viable beyond the preferences of particular players, an interface designed for a tank could become anything. It cannot – Battlezone controls work for tanks and sci-fi or fantasy variations on the key of tank. Despite the belief that you can reskin a first person shooter to be anything, you are always constrained to worlds in which wielding and firing a gun or a gun-substitute (a magic wand, fire breath) are central experiences.
One way to break through fiction denial is to temporarily forget the idea that game mechanics are eternal ideas, the "laws of physics" for play. Instead, foreground the world, bring the fiction into focus, identify the props (the fictional objects of the game world; those things with imaginative implications) and then see how the rules support or undermine their usage. As a matter of fact, this kind of thinking was already central to the way games are designed, and has been for over a century. The FPS is the game that emerges from the gun and the first-person camera – and always would be thus. The (fictional) qualities of the gun dictates the rules that can work well with it, and thus with the players' imagination. It is not the rules that are eternal but the fiction: no matter what rules you make, you cannot change the nature of a gun without it ceasing to be a gun.
I do not want to deny that game studies has been valuable, insightful or scholarly – it has been all this and more – I only want to deny the ideology that would mistake an individual interest in systems for an important truth about games. It is a fact about games that they attract nerds who think about systems. It is not a fact about games that the fiction is tangential to their play. On the contrary, for many players, for many games, fiction is absolutely central to the experience.