What computer games can and can't do

Jesper Juul
Soup.dk, Denmark
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Abstract: The story so far: A lesson learned from the interactive movie-craze of the mid-1990's was that stories and computer games don't mix well for a variety of reasons, one of them being that stories are compressed pieces of time, referring to something that happened another time, whereas computer games happen in the now of the playing.

Unfortunately, this realisation doesn't make the idea of combining the immediacy of games with the depth of narratives any less compelling. So many games today will claim not to be interactive stories, but to be open worlds, living, breathing cities and so on: The alternative version of the story-and-game combination is to try making computer games that share the themes of narratives; human relationships, personal ambition, intrigue, but not the temporal structure of narratives - these games have to happen now, and cannot just be simple choices at the end of video clips.

This paper is an exploration of the possibilities and problems in adding more interesting themes to computer games, without hurting the interactivity or gaming qualities. The question is this: What is the range of themes that can be satisfyingly handled by the computer game, and how are we to do it? Is this harder or easier in multi player games?

To examine this, the paper picks up a central difference between a game and a piece of fiction; that a game is a set of rules for development, whereas a piece of fiction isn't implemented. Fictions do not contain the formulae or machinery to simulate why the plot develops the way it does. In fiction, causality always remains a postulate - of physical, psychological or metaphysical laws. Simple action-based games often last because the content of the game fits what the computer can actually calculate. On this level the problem of content-heavy computer games is the often glaring discrepancies between what the game claims to be about, and the extremely simple play mechanics.

The computer game is not a wildly new form that only has appeared with new technology. It rather borrows and develops on all non-electronic game forms; board games, sport, etc. From a research point of view, the problem then is that at least the human sciences previously have only examined games on the most superficial level - not because games are a new invention, but probably because games traditionally have had even lower status than the other popular cultural phenomena accepted as worthy of study in the 1970's.

At the very least, a game can be described as a formal and pre-defined set of rules for the progression of a game session, with built-in and usually quantitative definitions of success and failure. The hard work is in singling out what thematic structures from stories can be satisfyingly transferred to a computer game formalisation, and how this is to be done.

The paper examines several attempts in this direction and tries to describe a set of story components that can actually work as good (multi player) games.

About the Presenter: Game designer and programmer at Soup.dk. M.A. in literature from the University of Copenhagen, dissertation on interactive fiction. Jesper Juul has produced and programmed various chat systems and computer games such as Højhuset and Flag Rally. He currently teaches Digital Aesthetics at the IT University in Copenhagen. Research interests: Computer games and narratives. Practical interests: Chat systems, multi player games, installations.