Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Barry Atkins’ More than a Game

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

Reviewed by: Julian Kuecklich

Atkins

Anybody who has ever roamed through the marshes and forests of Britannia or prowled the streets of Liberty City knows that computer games create fictional worlds. Barry Atkins’ book More Than A Game is an attempt to understand computer games as fictional forms, and to analyze the means by which they create and sustain these fictional worlds. In order to do so, the author studies four “game-fictions”, each of which foregrounds one aspect of this specific form of fictionality. These examples are: the adventure game Tomb-Raider, the action game Half-Life, the simulation game SimCity and the strategy game Close Combat. A whole chapter is dedicated to each of these examples.

What is remarkable about this choice of samples is the absence of role-playing games. This is unfortunate, since the new-generation on-line role-playing games create fictional worlds which enable their players to participate in this process of creation: this form of participatory fictionality would have been well worth a closer look. Atkins’ negligence of other genres, such as the beat-’em-up or the classic, non-narrative shooter, is motivated by the scope of his study, since the fictional world is a much less important factor in these games.

However, Atkins’ choice of games seems somewhat arbitrary due to his rather narrow historical scope, spanning the years from 1989 (SimCity) to 2001 (Half-Life: Blue Shift); earlier games are not even mentioned in his study. This seems peculiar, since the late 1980s would have been a particularly fertile ground for analysis. The foundation of Lucasfilm Games (now LucasArts) and Infocom’s bankruptcy were important milestones, after all, in the development from text-based computer games to games with a graphic, and subsequently cinematographic, interface. There is no doubt that this was also a formative period for the means employed to create fictional world within computer games.

Atkins justifies his choice by pointing out that it is primarily his concern to offer “suggestions, through example, of a practice of reading computer games that in no way constitutes a rigid methodology, but might be among the first faltering steps towards such a critical undertaking” (8). However, this rationale is questionable, since it disregards all the attempts undertaken so far to approach computer games theoretically. By feigning ignorance of all the literature published over the last decade on the subject of computer games, the author exhibits a carelessness that might be refreshing to some readers, but which tends to be tedious when he becomes caught up in questions that others have already discussed in detail. The evocation of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, for example, which informs a large part of chapter 2, bespeaks an utter lack of originality. To my knowledge, David Myers was the first to use the Proppian model in the analysis of computer games in 1991, and it has repeatedly resurfaced in the research literature since then.

Yet, in the actual analysis of the examples, Atkins exercises restraint in using literary models and terminology. Although he concedes that his readings draw on “narratological and structuralist thinking and criticism” (10), this does not play a predominant role in the analytic chapters. This makes the book readable even for people from outside of literary studies, especially since Atkins is making an effort to consciously resisting what he terms the “postmodern temptation”. As he points out by comparing the term “simulation” (in Baudrillard’s sense) to “simulation” in the “truncated” form used in the title of SimCity, the critical idiom of postmodern theory cannot be transferred to the analysis of computer games without losing its analytic power. In general, Atkins must be credited with not trying to pass off computer games as a “revolutionary” form of fiction. Instead, he is taking care at all times to demonstrate their continuity in reference to other media: “There is something new here, […] but it is not a new phenomenon that is ahistorical in its form or its reference” (19).

This continuity is also the basis for Atkins’ “close readings” of the examples mentioned above – his attempt, in other words, to approach these games as texts that have the potential to become a dominant cultural form of fiction. Despite all the problems that might ensue from this premise, it is to the author’s credit that he does indeed regard games as games, rather than a “symptom” of a changing notion of fictionality. Atkins’ lets the games speak for themselves, and this is what constitutes the book’s originality.

In the chapter dedicated to the Tomb Raider series, Atkins begins by trying to develop a concept of realism which is appropriate to characterize the game-world’s reference to the real world. The author suggests to use the term “fantastic realism”, which is meant to signify the game-world’s internal coherence as the crucial factor in the player’s suspension of disbelief. While this concept of realism is sufficient for an analysis of Tomb Raider, the other games demand a higher level of sophistication. Thus, it becomes the author’s central task throughout the book to develop a terminology of realism that allows for the variety in which computer games refer to the real world.

In comparison, the chapter on Tomb Raider is a rather disappointing part of More Than A Game. The author’s analysis of the game as “self-conscious fiction”, including an enumeration of various intertexts, remains at the text’s surface and is all too often dependent on anecdotal evidence. The study of the interplay between the constraints of the game’s rules and the player’s freedom is hindered by the author’s indifference toward developing his own concept of interactivity, or taking terminological alternatives (such as Aarseth’s cybertext) into account. Atkins’ characterization of Tomb Raider as a “quest narrative” is, ultimately, nothing but a label that stifles further analysis rather than encourage it. Only at the very end of the chapter does Atkins begin discussing a truly innovative point: the possibility of “subversive readings” of Tomb Raider. The chapter would have benefited from abridging the rather tedious first part to allow for a more detailed discussion of the interesting points the author raises in the last section of the chapter.

The subsequent study of Half-Life does not add much to the author’s findings from the first chapter. Atkins’ concept of realism gains a further dimension by his discussion of how the game-environment’s “deformability” adds to the internal coherence of the game-world, and thus to the player’s immersion. Here, as elsewhere, his argumentation is weakened by the author’s unwillingness to take other concepts of immersion into account, and to review them critically. The same problem is prevalent in his analysis of the process of narration in Half-Life, since it lacks the background of the narratological studies of “interactive narratives” published since the second half of the 1990s.

The second, and arguably more interesting part of More Than A Game begins with a study of the real-time strategy game Close Combat, which is set in World War II. Here, Atkins’ argument gains momentum by his critical revision of the concept of realism he has developed in the first part of the book. Through its application to Close Combat, this notion of realism is revealed to be no longer sufficient, since the game-world’s internal coherence is threatened by its references to historical reality. As a game set in a historical frame, it has a markedly different relationship to reality than Tomb Raider oder Half-Life. Atkins draws a parallel to what he terms “counterfactual fiction”, such as Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland. The game pretends to be “true to history”, while diverging from it at the same time, and this is indeed a challenge to traditional notions of realism.

According to Atkins, Close Combat can neither be placed within the realm of the factual nor in the domain of fiction. Rather, it takes place in “the space between the entities” (87) that literary theorist Paul de Man has pinpointed as the pivotal point of any differential system. Consequently, the author investigates the relationship of historical game-fictions such as Close Combat to historiography on the one hand and to fictional texts on the other. The game uses the same historical sources as historiography and stresses this detailed historical verisimilitude as a crucial factor in its realism. The game in question is, after all, not a shooter like Castle Wolfenstein that uses the insignia of nazism merely as a prop, but rather a game in which the experience of the tension between historical reality and gameplay is an important part of the player’s pleasure. This enables the player to take part in a thought experiment that is usually restricted to authors: the speculation about the “What if…”, that is a constituting factor in any fictional text.

Eventually, Atkins turns to a true classic in digital game history: SimCity. Initially, the author tries to answer the question whether a game such as this can be regarded as narrative at all. While it is rather obvious that the other games Atkins analyzes do tell a story in one way or another, this is questionable in the case of SimCity. With reference to Roland Barthes, he declares that the simulation game “is so ’scriptable’ […] that it may appear as almost unreadable as text” (112).
Nevertheless, he attempts to read the game and arrives at some remarkable results. In the other chapters, Atkins tends to overemphasize the role of the player in creating the fictional world of the game. Here, however, he differentiates astutely between the apparent openness of the game and the actual possibilieties of the player. Inevitably, this approach leads Atkins to the question of how ideology is inscribed into the game, since the player is unable, after all, to choose a social system other than the default.

Once again, Atkins could strengthen his argument by referring to the existing literature on computer games. The history of SimCity’s reception provides rich material for comparing different readings of the game, as it has been subjected to ideological criticism time and again since Ted Friedman’s seminal article “Making Sense of Software” (1995). Nevertheless, the chapter on SimCity is the most accomplished and the most readable chapter in the whole volume. This is at least partly due to Atkins’ passionate and sometimes even polemic argumentation. When he compares SimCity to an “ant farm” – just to point out in the next sentence that this is “slightly exaggerated for effect” – Atkins demonstrates a level of rhetorical accomplishment that remains unmatched throughout the rest of the book.

Atkins does not conceal his preference for games like SimCity, despite its problematic ideological subtext. It does not come as a surprise, then, that his concluding chapter relies heavily on his findings from the preceding chapter. In this final chapter, the author sums up his quest for a sophisticated concept of realism in the formulaic statement: “Realism is dead, long live realism” (143), before pointing out that game-fictions can still be placed within the tradition of narrative texts. Therefore, according to Atkins, the “willing suspension of disbelief” that Coleridge regarded as the precondition for the reading of fictional texts is a crucial factor in computer games as well. Although in computer games the “contractual agreement” (146) between game and player is supported by the medium’s interactivity, there is a basic similarity between the two modes of reception.

In his conclusion, Atkins discusses the question whether the computer game as fictional form indicates a change in the prevalent cultural notion of the work of art: “The text we read watches us over time, it presents the illusion of ‘knowing’ us as we come to ‘know’ it, of ‘reading’s us as we ‘read’ it” (147). He even goes so far as to suggest that interactivity re-invests the work of art with something that it has lost, according to Walter Benjamin, in the age of its mechanical reproduction: its aura. Since players can change the text through their playing, the game becomes unique for each player and is not reproducible in this form.

With these speculative thoughts, ends this often controversial, but mostly well-argumented and thought-provoking book. Since the author has refused to take this train of thought any further inspires hope that his arguments will start a debate about computer games, their fictionality and their specific form of realism. For all those who want to participate in this debate, More Than A Game is recommended reading.

Barry Atkins: More Than A Game. The Computer Game as Fictional Form. Manchester: Manchester University Press 2003. 170 pp. 11.99 £. ISBN 0 7190 6365.

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