Narrative, Fiction, and the Cultural Reception of Videogames"

by STUART MOULTHROP (University of Baltimore, School of Information Arts and Technologies)

When even the most perceptive scholars based in traditional, typographic forms of literacy turn their attention to videogames, the results can be disconcerting. Two of the best in this line, Janet Murray and James P. Gee, both falter notably when they ask when, if, or how videogames can have cultural effects equivalent to literature.

These moments do not represent failure so much as catastrophe, a collapse of interpretive method that may provide indications for more viable approaches. I suggest the key to a new agenda lies in the distinction of narrative, a main concern for my generation and our elders, from the sort of fiction Jesper Juul embraces in his theory of games: a form whose clearest illustration is not story or novel, but rather tableau. As Murray herself says: "The more we see life in terms of systems, the more we need a system-modeling medium to represent it." But systematic or procedural systems cannot simply be interpreted or read as if they were conventionally inscribed texts.

As Espen Aarseth argues, they must be played; and I would argue further that critics must also engage in the kind of fictive play from which games emerge. I suggest it is no accident that many of the most interesting new critics of the videogame, figures like Ian Bogost and Mary Flanagan, are active game developers, and argue more generally that videogames and other forms of cybertext require a more engaged, creative commitment from their critics.

Internationally renowned as a media theorist and hypertext writer, STUART MOULTHROP currently works on the design and application of interactive software, including video games and simulations. He is the author of numerous works of electronic literature, including such landmark works as Victory Garden, Hegirascope, Reagan Library, and Pax. He is Professor in the School of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore. Visit his homepage for more information: