Videogames & Narrative: Thoughts on Jenkins

Over the course of the coming week, I'll post my reflections and notes from my literature review in preparation for my upcoming conference. The posts during this week will be focused on how we can understand videogames as stories, how those stories are told, and what value those stories have in the lives of our students. Next week I'll this series up with some discussion and literature on what this change in narrative engagement means for our students and why we should engage with it rather than fight it.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Game Design as Narrative Architecture. In Salen & Zimmerman (Eds..), The Game Design Reader (p. 670-687).

We cannot strictly use film theory to analyze games, since there are differences. But in general there is a lot that can be learned by comparing storytelling in games to other forms of media. Before any comparisons, Jenkins establishes some ground rules for videogames and narrative.

  • Games do not have to tell stories, some try some don’t
  • Games that try to tell stories often depend on traditional narrative experiences
  • How characters react, our understanding of situations, conforming to narrative expectations
  • Games as narrative are not locked into form, stories do not need to come at the cost of gameplay; nor does gameplay come at the cost of stories
  • The narrative is larger than just the formal story, it includes the player’s emotions, decisions, process of playing
  • Games that have stories to tell can do so in various ways

“Game designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces.” p.674

The environment is just as important to the story and the experience. Helps reinforce story’s message and mise-en-scene. Environmental storytelling, spatial stories, allow for exploration over plot development, and broad goals/narrative are constructed by the players actions. Rather than assuming that player freedom takes away from the narrative, spatial stories use the exploration to create the narrative. Jenkins states that the struggle between performance and exposition is not unique to videogames. Action films use a thin narrative as the glue to hold the action set pieces together. But the limited narrative gives the player/viewer an understanding of the context and the meaning behind the action. Action for the sake of action is fun, but shallow. Action within the confines of a story creates tension and excitement.

“Game designers struggle with this same balancing act – trying to determine how much plot will create a compelling framework and how much freedom players can enjoy at a local level without totally derailing the larger narrative trajectory (Jenkins, p.680).”

Pictures by Gameboomers