Thursday, September 4, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Rebutting a "Professional" Video Game Scholar's Attack on Narrative

For any readers who think studying video games in college sounds cool--well; maybe it is.  I haven't had a very wide exposure to the subject.  Still, I would advise people who love games to avoid UC Santa Cruz at least, based on my experiences of how they approached, and I will postulate that, because this is a fairly new area of studies, quality-control could be in short supply everywhere.  Perhaps any person who can boast that they majored in video games; there not being many of them, can write just about anything and have it be treated as serious scholarly analysis.  The ivory tower seems to have miscalculated, however, that while there may be only a few people who went and studied video games deliberately for two-to-four years, there's by contrast a large amount of us who have essentially studied them for decades, because we played them our whole life.  This contrast leads to inevitable conflicts between us, the fans, and the occasional academic who dissects things with a cynical outsider's mind--or attempts to, because as you will see, it's often very easy to debunk these "scholars". 

Here is one particularly poignant example of professional fallacy: Back in 2001, Jesper Juul wrote an essay explaining why video games are not narratives.  I had a field day smashing it to bits a decade later (but it should have been booed into oblivion the moment it was released):

          I pride myself on my intellectual capacities, and as such, I often seek to display them by not falling to the level of rash speech, regardless of whether or not I am rebutting it.  However, this essay by Jesper Juul has proved so foolhardy that I cannot help but say, “What biased shit!”  With that exclamation out of the way, Juul pretentiously wrote a large, multifaceted essay on the issue of whether games are narratives that goes through the motions of entertaining opposing viewpoints, and hence, I will write my own essay in rebuttal, sparing harsh insults in favor of pointing out key holes in Juul’s logic.
            First of all, I am unfamiliar with what Juul’s experience of video games is, but he gives the impression that he might be ignorant of a few rather basic issues—Juul describes Mortal Kombat as “a fighting game (beat’em’up) where different opponents (human or computer players) battle in an arena.”  Not only does Juul misuse a term from gaming lexicon, but he also draws attention to his misuse by providing a description of the term afterward.  “Beat’em’up” does not refer to the style of fighting games featuring symmetrical battles between opponents in arenas; it refers to the sort in which the protagonist moves through a scrolling level fighting multiple opponents on the way to the end.  
This may seem like an arbitrary bit of snobbishness coming from an obsessive, nitpicky gamer, but I maintain that it is not: By demonstrating ignorance of the subject at hand, Juul decreases the sense of validity in any argument he attempts to make about it, implying he is an observer (perhaps even a hostile one) rather than a participant; more learned about the subject than average scholars from past generations, but probably not the ideal person to write essays attacking games.  The real reason that point is not arbitrary, however, is because throughout the whole article, Juul only reinforces the notion that his indifference to the subject mars his ability to produce a solid point about it, and in fact, seems like he is selectively perceiving and disregarding factors as suits his own, preconceived opinion. 
For example, Juul attempts to consider whether games feature a narrative by looking at game-movie adaptations, undoubtedly a relevant factor, but not the only ones to be considered to answer this question, and in fact, probably not the primary one.  Further problematic are the specific games he has chosen to examine, in attempting to validate his claim that games do not actually further the narrative of the movies they are based upon: The first one, a simple, pseudo-3-D arcade game based on Star Wars with vector graphics, is based entirely around the events leading up to, and during, the destruction of the Death Star; Juul also points out how in the game, unlike in the movie, a new Death Star spawns to allow players to keep playing until they die and their scores are tallied.  The problem here is that Juul is picking on a specific and not necessarily typical game to make his point; this is a very old-fashioned game, produced in an era where games often had no ending because they were not long enough to make them seem meaningful, and lacked the technological capacity to duplicate the narrative of a whole movie.  Juul totally ignores the presence of trilogies of games produced by Lucasarts, both on the NES and the SNES, which mirror the Star Wars movie trilogy, with multiple gameplay styles being used to recreate multiple scenes.
            He continues his unfair picking on the game by writing,
“The primary thing that encourages the player to connect game and movie is the title ‘Star Wars’ on the machine and on the screen. If we imagine the title removed from the game, the connection would not be at all obvious. It would be a game where one should hit an ‘exhaust port’ (or simply a square), and the player could note a similarity with a scene in Star Wars, but you would not be able to reconstruct the events in the movie from the game.”
Once more, this issue is due to technological limits, and no longer can be claimed of Star Wars games.  So ingrained in the popular imagination is the imagery of Star Wars, that indeed, the connection can be made without the title.  For example, the Turkish B-Movie, The Man Who Saves The World actually has a plot very different from Star Wars, but Westerners almost always refer to it as “Turkish Star Wars” because it utilizes footage stolen from that movie.
In summary of the above points, Juul, despite writing his essay in 2001, chose a specific, badly-outdated example of a game to make a general point addressing modern gaming sensibilities, in the process appearing to be, at best, ignorant, and at worst, conniving.  As to his second example, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer, it is indeed more modern, and quite recent at the time he wrote the essay, but Juul ignores one key point: Unlike the first game he described, this game has a title that makes no possible pretense of being based on the entire plot.  It bills itself as being far more specific than the average Star Wars game, and yet Juul once more chooses it, of all games, to make a generalization.
As to the section, “Time, game, and narrative,” its reasoning seems so contrived and peripheral that I scarcely think it needs rebutting, but I will do it anyway: Juul attempts to relate how games cannot be narratives because narratives, as they are “classically” defined, are understood by the audience as having taken place in the past, whereas games are seen as taking place in the present.  First of all, being classical does not make a theory correct.  The theories of the ancients, though at one point venerated by societies emerging from a dark age that forgot them, were still based on an understanding of the world more limited than that of today, and have often needed amending as new knowledge became available.  Similarly, the ancients would have no strong need for philosophy about whether games were also narratives, because technology was not such as to allow them to emulate other media.  Second, as a testament to the ancient origins of this theory, books, and before them, oral stories are the operating medium for proving (presumably through the past tense) that stories have already happened, that films also convey a sense of past tense is claimed, but not really explained; Juul goes as far as quoting Albert Einstein on the matter, but that still does not make it correct.  I argue that a film definitely portrays itself as though it is happening immediately; even when it claims, through a narrator or a speaking character, that an event happened in the past, it often uses a flashback to show it happening in real time.  For example, Saving Private Ryan, a movie about a war that occurred in the past, begins in with a man reminiscing about the past in Arlington National Cemetery, but then, cuts back to the events of the war as though they are actually occurring; in fact, its flashback begins earlier than the events, building suspense with a relatively calm boat scene, and a gradually-opening hatch on the boat ticking down to the gun fight.  Unsurprisingly, Juul also conveniently ignores the existence of films and books set in the future when making his assessment of narrative.
The section of the essay entitled “The Player and the Game” marks Juul’s return to the same old fallacious logic of using the specific to classify the general.  In an attempt to prove that games have no clear, identifiable protagonist, Juul again chooses to speak of atypical games, Missile Command and Tetris.  Although his claims of no clear (or at least, no well-defined) protagonists are true enough in these games, the problem again lies with the fact that these do not represent nearly all games.  They also are decidedly primitive; existing prior to most of the games that would prompt the question of whether games are stories.  Using these atypical video games to answer that question is hardly fairer than using older abstract games like Poker.
In closing, Juul’s argument feels either foolish or biased, and possibly both.  Though in the language of a scholar, it is in fact very reminiscent of the typical ravings of most bigots, replete with hasty generalizations and strawman versions of issues standing in for the actual ones.

 In case I didn't make it clear enough, or you're not familiar enough with video games to judge who won yourself, refer back to this long-held principle: Selectively interpreting a few bits of data and portraying them as representative of the standard is widely reviled as the epitome of bad, if not outright duplicitous, research.  So why do Jesper Juul and unfortunately, others, get away with doing this to video games?  Because they're (relatively) new, prone to skepticism, and although played by many younger people, still alien to a lot of the old mainstream academia.  If Juul were to make a claim that, say, books don't tell stories, and cite car operations manuals as proof, the whole literary world would have raked it over the coals.  It's up to us real experts on video games to keep fighting in hopes that one day our medium, too, gets that sort of dignity.