- Our Bodies, Our Incoherent SelvesGames and Shifting Concepts of Identity and Narrative in Contemporary Storytelling
In the article “Video Games Are Better without Stories,” published in The Atlantic in April 2017, Ian Bogost raises questions about the connection between games and narrative, alluding to Janet H. Murray’s (1997) vision in Hamlet on the Holodeck of the computer as “the most powerful representational medium yet invented,” one that should be placed “as firmly as possible in the hands of the storytellers” (284). Bogost’s article more closely aligns itself with theorists such as Espen J. Aarseth, who argues in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997) that cybertexts such as digital games “must also redefine what is literary, and therefore . . . cannot be measured by an old, unmodified aesthetics” (23); and with Greg Costikyan (2006), who, citing the nonlinear nature of games in contrast to the (supposed) linearity of stories, argues that “gaming is NOT about telling stories” (194). In Bogost’s (2017) view, “players and creators have been mistaken in merely hoping that [End Page 71] [games] might someday share the stage with books, films, and television, let alone unseat them. To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose, but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories.” According to Bogost, approaching games as mechanisms for storytelling obscures the unique potential of games to encourage players to interact with the world in new ways, while drawing attention to the unconventionality of those interactions.
Beyond rehashing the familiar lines of the ludology–narratology debate, Bogost (2017) argues for a recognition of the capacity for digital games to remake and reimagine the world, encouraging players to engage with the familiar in new and unexpected ways. Bogost writes, “If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” In Bogost’s view, the promise of games lies in their unconventionality, in the potential to ask players to reconsider their positions within the world, to see themselves and their surroundings differently. This is not altogether dissimilar from Murray’s (1997) hope in Hamlet on the Holodeck that digital narratives will be uniquely suited “to model the behavior of single individuals within great groups of people, to make up fictional worlds in which we can enact the confusions of membership in a newly visible yet overwhelmingly various worldwide humanity” (282). While Murray and Bogost may disagree with the relationship between digital experiences and storytelling, both seem in agreement that networked, digital experiences offer new and unparalleled opportunities for experiencing the world, and that these experiences highlight a sense of collectivity while prompting players to ask questions about representation and perspective, thus challenging a traditional, individual-centered sense of narrative and viewpoint.
If digital and technological experiences are transformative in the way that Murray and Bogost suggest that they are— in other words, if they encourage a collective, interconnected sense of identity— and if these experiences suggest multiple and varied perspectives happening simultaneously, then not only are digital and online experiences altering [End Page 72] the ways that we think of ourselves, but they are also influencing our ideas of what stories are and how they operate. What’s more, these changes in perception are happening beyond academia, on a broad cultural level. Rather than debate the application of literary approaches to games, perhaps the more interesting question is, what can the study of games reveal to us about contemporary literature? In other words, if our online and digital encounters are changing the ways that we think of ourselves and our expectations for story, then how are more traditional print narratives representing and engaging with these changes? If we accept the idea that games cannot be fully analyzed through the lens of literary studies, instead requiring additional approaches that consider the unique traits and abilities of technology...