Starting a Ludic History

This blog is called Ludic Historian. But what does that actually mean? Great question! In this first post, let me break that title down a little bit and give a feel for what the blog will be all about.

Starting a Ludic History requires me to consider both “ludic” and “history.” In short, Ludic Historian is going to be about looking at the history of games and, within that broad context, a focus on computer games in particular and, even more particularly, on video games. That’s simple enough but let’s dig down a little deeper.

The Focus on Ludic

The term ludic derives from ludus, meaning “play.” This is a term that’s useful in connection with games and, more broadly, rules of play.

  • ludic
      of, relating to, or characterized by play.
  • ludically
      in a ludic or playful manner.

What the term “ludic” does is take us into so-called “game studies.” There are two broad approaches taken to analyzing video games in this context, which are ludology and narratology.

  • Ludology focuses on the ludic structure of games, by which is meant the design of a game, the mechanics, and the dynamics. Essentially how the game plays as a game and how that gameplay influences players.
  • Narratology is concerned with narrative structures of some experience, like films and video games, and understanding how those structures influence the intended audience.

There’s an interesting intersection of how narrative became ever more sophisticated in the context of ludic experiences and my plan is to cover that history here as and when appropriate.

Ludic Experiences Pull Us In

Beyond those concepts, this blog will be a game historian’s view of what I’m calling ambient heuristics. What does that mean? Well, consider the terms:

  • Ambient: an aspect of the environment that completely surrounds you
  • Heuristic: enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves

This framing device is interesting to me. By way of context, in the book In the Blink of An Eye, Walter Murch, a sound-designer and editor for films, stated his view that the act of engaging with cinema was, in essence, passing through a sort of window:

With a theatrical film, particularly one in which the audience is fully engaged, the screen is not a surface, it is a magic window, sort of a looking glass through which your whole body passes and becomes engaged in the action with the characters on the screen. If you really like a film, you’re not aware that you are sitting in a cinema watching a movie. Your responses are very different than they would be with television. Television is a ‘look-at’ medium, while cinema is a ‘look-into’ medium.

I feel the exact same sentiment can apply to games. Colin McGinn, a professor of philosophy, wrote a book called The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. McGinn agrees with Murch that there is a fundamental distinction between “watching a movie” and “watching a TV.”

There remains a significant point of difference between the two types of screen [cinema and TV], arising simply from the physical nature of the TV screen. For the TV itself — a piece of rectangular glass sitting in front of the viewer — is an object that can all too easily become a visual surface in its own right, as when light from the window or a lamp falls across its glassy face . . . We can never quite make a TV screen go away. We are always looking at a bulky piece of hardware that is on the brink of gaining our attention. The TV set is uncomfortably close to being a piece of furniture — not an impalpable window onto another world.

McGinn’s point, like that of Murch, was that television cannot match the immersive power of cinema. In terms of physical dimensions, even the largest television is generally dwarfed in size and scope by the cinema screen.

The large-sized cinematic “window” in effect consumes our immediate physical environment, essentially consuming us. The scope and scale can literally pull us into another world. Once the experience is finished — once the movie ends — then the real world floods back into our senses.

Cinema, at least to a degree not equally possible with television, seems capable of detaching from us from our physical environment. Equally, at least in part, cinema is able to usurp our mental environment.

I personally think this is even more true of games and has little to do with the size and scope of our devices — tablets, phones, monitors — and instead has to do with the quality of varied experience. Not only do you have textual, auditory and graphical elements that can be interleaved but all of that is backed up by a form of interactivity that is lacking in relatively passive media like television or cinema.

There is a spectrum where ludic and narrative elements work together and where a given experience is on that spectrum is how much games move from Murch’s “look-at” to “look-into.” This, to my way of thinking, is how games act with ambient heuristics. It’s in the context of those heuristics that ludology and narratology can be looked at.

A Focus on History

The nature of gaming experiences, and how those experiences have evolved, is a way of looking a particular slice of history. This came to be late in my life as a gamer, but there’s a history to all of this that’s quite fascinating in its own right.

I found an interesting parallel on this path to history in Matt Nicholson’s When Computing Got Personal:

The machines themselves may be logical — even maddeningly literal at times — but the way they work is a function of their design, and they were designed by human beings who made decisions that were not always rational, that may have reflected compromises made years earlier and no longer relevant, or were attempts to standardise or improve on what went before. In short, if I was to really understand not only how computers work, but why they work the way they do, I would have to understand their history.

I feel the same way about games and ludic experiences overall. I have to understand their history in order to make sense of them.

Video games and the importance of their history and the people who created them will never go away. If anything, it’s all just beginning.
Patrick Hickey, Jr.
The Minds Behind Adventure Games

Moving Past Chronicles

In his book They Create Worlds, Alexander Smith says:

In 2005, Erkki Huhtamo lamented that video game scholarship was stuck in what he called the “chronicle era,” in which authors were more concerned with amassing data than analyzing it.

Smith is referring here to the paper “Slots of Fun, Slots of Trouble: An Archaeology of Arcade Gaming” and, sure enough, there Huhtamo says:

The current state of writing on game history could be called its “chronicle era” . . . None of the histories published so far develops a critical and analytic attitude towards its subject.

Huhtamo also wrote a paper called “Resurrecting the Technological Past: An Introduction to the Archeology of Media Art” and his focus there was on excavation. I think that’s an interesting approach. Huhtamo states it as such:

The strategies adopted by media archeological artists have parallels with those adopted by archeologically oriented researchers. Media archeological artworks could be even seen as a form of spatialized, conversational “historical writing”, as a way of maintaining a dialogue with the technological past.

I very much feel that those who want to move beyond the so-called chronicle era do have to have some of the sensibilities of the archaeologist and the historian. That’s a topic I’ll likely explore a bit in this series when I talk about my methodology.

Speaking of methodology, let’s talk about that a little bit.

Avoiding a Chronology

While I do plan to look at history, and have a historiographical focus, I do not plan on sticking to a chronology. The challenge with a chronology on a topic like this is that you constantly learn more or find side paths of interest.

As such, this would mean either the chronological accounting would constantly be disrupted or, worse, I would simply avoid talking about something I’ve discovered because my chronological telling has “moved past” that point.

So If Not Chronology, What?

I will essentially be dipping into history here and there and presenting findings on various ludic experiences. It’s very likely that a given set of posts will be thematically related and thus at any given time, I’ll likely be focusing on specific areas of history that are close together.

At some point I will definitely have to provide a way to compose the content of the blog in a more strict chronological fashion. But I would rather let whatever approach I take emerge rather than be applied at the outset.

So the history of this history starts right here. Like any such endeavor, the future is entirely uncertain but what I can say for certain is that the past has many delights in store.


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