There's a surprising abundance of theory connected to game design. Since games generally combine both a regular system of event resolution and a progression of events leading towards a goal, academics focusing on both games as systems -- "ludology" -- and academics focusing on games as stories -- "narratology" -- can have a field day. As in any arena where there are multiple competing perspectives on how to understand a process, there is an ongoing tension between ludologists and narratologists. What stands out for me, however, is the degree to which both camps miss a third model for understanding games: games as ways of understanding the world, or (my coinage) paradigmology.
Greg Costikyan is generally considered one of the best game designers in the business. His Paranoia series of role-playing games are, in a word, brilliant, pulling together twisted pop culture references, obsidian-dark humor, and a play style that encourages -- even demands -- both suicidal decisions and relentless back-stabbing. Costikyan writes the Games*Design*Art*Culture weblog, which combines lengthy dissertations on the nature of game design with pithy comments on the game industry.
Last month, Costikyan provided an overview of the "Narratology/Ludology War," complete with links to key figures on both sides of the debate and his own perspective on the question. If you've never considered how academics might grapple with games, the piece will be eye-opening; if you have your own pet theories about gaming, the essay will likely provide evidence both challenging and supporting them.
The ludologist approach to gaming essentially focuses on the nature of the interactive system, the rules and the game process. Nearly every game can be described as a set of rules for determining the outcome of events: draw a card; roll a 20-sided die; move a pawn one square forward; modify the result of a random number generation and compare to target; and so forth. Narratologists, conversely, while acknowledging that games have structural elements, claim that games can best be understood by the stories they describe, with story understood as meaning something more akin to "mimesis" than "drama." The story may be a tattered remnant, as with the use of cards displaying figures of royalty in poker, or a fundamental part of the game's structure, as with role-playing games.
The debate about the role of story in games predates the existence of game studies; in my experience, in face, it first arose in the mid-70s in the hobby games industry, when those who liked wargames wanted to brand the hobby games industry as "simulation games," while those who liked RPGs wanted to brand it as "adventure games"--both trying to find a way to distinguish it from the conventional boardgame industry, but placing emphasis on very different aspects of a diverse field: one on simulation and the other on story. And the debate has certainly existed in digital games almost from their inception--I suspect you can look at the topic list from GDC (and before it CGDC) from the very first conference through the present, and find talks by people talking about the primacy of story, and contrariwise talks by people challenging it.
The academic debate, therefore, merely recapitulates a debate game developers themselves have been having essentially forever--but in the context of the academy, it gains an ideological hue it lacks among game developers. That is, at its most extreme, the stereotype is that it's a struggle between those who view games simply as an alternative form of story-telling media [...], and those who maintain that "narratologists" are essentially scholars from other media attempting a colonial grab, wishing to annex game studies to their own discipline, and that the brave, few ludologists who understand games as formal systems must fight to the death to insist on the primacy of rules, structure, and interaction.
Costikyan admits that this is something of a caricature, and that most ludologists and game narratologists are happy to admit that the other side has some good points. But what struck me was that these two approaches are particular versions of a larger cognitive struggle -- that of process versus goal-seeking. Put crudely, goal-seekers are less concerned with the particulars of how the goal is achieved, while the process-focused are more intent on understanding how something is accomplished rather than on the achievement of the goal. Both approaches can be readily identified in almost any community or movement, and each is subject to derision -- "getting bogged down in minutiae" versus "the ends justify the means."
The ludology/narratology split also misses an important element, in my view: the role that games play in providing a perceived model for reality. I will admit at the outset that the paradigmological approach to gaming isn't as complete as the ludological or narratological concepts, but its inclusion adds a flow missing from the other two. If ludology and narratology are concerned with how social rules and stories are integrated into games, paradigmology is concerned with how games become integrated into our social rules and stories.
This is most obvious when the games in question describe themselves as simulations. We've talked before about the drawbacks and benefits of using SimCity as a learning tool for urban planning; more common, perhaps, are the simulations and "wargames" undertaken by military and political planners as a way of crafting battle scenarios. But we can see examples even with games that have a far less simulationist approach: consider how memes closely associated with poker -- such as "bluffing," "folding" and "high stakes" competition -- are woven into our language around political struggles. These are metaphors, of course, but metaphors are powerful because they carry an abundance of meaning.
The question that the paradigmological approach poses is "what is the model/metaphor missing?" If SimCity provides no way to build mixed-use neighborhoods, the lessons it teaches about urban planning will be missing an important element; similarly, if a military wargame disallows unconventional tactics, the generals hoping to learn something about their operations end up with a dangerous hole in their plans.
Ultimately, ludology, narratology and paradigmology are mutually-reinforcing approaches to understanding the development of games and their role in our culture. Ludology gives consistency to story; narratology gives meaning to structure; paradigmology gives context to the behavior. A game designer -- or, more broadly considered, anyone crafting a model or scenario -- needs to take all three aspects into account in order to build something lasting and powerful.
I highly recommend Costikyan's new rant about the state of the computer game industry:
Did you hang out on rec.games.frp.advocacy in years past? Your proposed extra view is precisely parallel to their theoretical triangle of Gamist, Dramatist and Simulationist. Although they recognised that mechanics are more often associated with the Gamist or Simulationist schools, they decided that it was ultimately independent. You could have hard-core Dramatists who forced themselves to roleplay to the roll of the die, or hard-core Simulationists who built their simulated world entirely from their understanding in their head.
rgfa was a strange forum, once described as unique on Usenet, as it was a place designed for flamewars taken over by an outbreak of reasoned discussion.
I didn't hang out often on rgfa, but did scan it occasionally; my Usenet period more-or-less overlapped with being away from gaming.
You're right, of course -- there is a strong parallel between Ludology/Narratology/Paradigmology and Gamist/Dramatist/Simultationist, with the main difference being the latter is far simpler to pronounce and comprehend.
Both L/N/P and G/D/S are depictions of three-force systems, and in (arguably) no case do you have a pure version of any single force unsullied by the other two. Good game design (or good scenario design; they're far closer than many people realize) is figuring out the right balance of the three for the intended audience.
I took a course on game design where we looked at games as play. The term ludology means the study of play and any good game, whether it be system or story oriented, has to have room for play.
Our assignments were always about dissecting existing games, and games we designed in terms of "games as play", "games as rules" and "games as culture". The best games I found where the ones that provided a good amount to write about for all three sections without having to BS our way to the grade.
So I thought it was a really good question that you brought up about what the model/metaphor is missing. Some of the most popular games don't have a lot of room to explore or to take alternatives to the beaten path.
As an amatuer racer, I hate games like EA's Need for Speed Underground series because the choices are to continue racing illegally or quit playing the game.