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A multimodal discourse analysis of video games: a ludonarrative model DiGRA 2015

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A multimodal discourse analysis of video games: a ludonarrative model DiGRA 2015

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This is the extended abstract presentation for the DiGRA 2015 conference at Leuphana University in Luneburg on 14 May 2015.

This is the extended abstract presentation for the DiGRA 2015 conference at Leuphana University in Luneburg on 14 May 2015.


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A multimodal discourse analysis of video games: a ludonarrative model DiGRA 2015

  1. 1. A Multimodal Discourse Analysis of Video Games: A Ludonarrative Model Weimin Toh National University of Singapore
  2. 2. Aim of Study Propose an integrated framework to analyse video games from a multimodal discourse analysis perspective. Objective – investigate players’ understanding of how the different modes (narrative and gameplay) of video games combine in video games.
  3. 3. Definition of terms – Multimodality  Multimodality – “inter-disciplinary approach that understands communication and representation to be more than language” (Bezemer, 2012).  Three theoretical assumptions Representation and communication always draw on a variety of modes, all of which contribute to meaning (Jewitt, 2013). Resources are socially shaped over time to become meaning making resources (Jewitt, 2013). People orchestrate meaning through their selection and configuration of modes (Jewitt, 2013).
  4. 4. Definition of terms – Discourse Analysis  Discourse – language used in context (Glapka, 2014).  “A complex bundle of simultaneous and sequential interrelated linguistic acts, which manifest themselves within and across the social fields of action as thematically interrelated semiotic, oral or written tokens, very often as ‘texts’, that belong to specific semiotic types, i.e. genres.” (Wodak, 2001a: 66).  “Semiotic elements of social practices. Discourse therefore includes language (written and spoken and in combination with other semiotics, for example, with music in singing), nonverbal communication (facial expressions, body movements, gestures, etc.) and visual images.” (Chouliaraki & Fairclough, 1999:38).  The notion of discourse analysis that this study adopts is in the analysis of the semiotic resources (e.g. narrative and gameplay) in the video game as understood by the:  (1) analyst, which is negotiated with  (2) the other players’ understanding/interpretation.
  5. 5. Definition of terms – “Ludo”  “Ludo” originate from Latin in the 19th century which means “I play”.  In this study, “Ludo” is taken to refer to the gameplay in video games.  No universally accepted definition of gameplay.  Some gameplay definitions:  “The formalised, focused interaction that occurs when players follow the rules of a game in order to play it.” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004: 311).  “The set of activities that can be performed by the player during the ludic experience, and by other entities belonging to the virtual world, as a response to player’s actions/or as autonomous courses of action that contribute to the liveliness of the virtual world.” (Fabricatore, 2007).  “The challenges that a player has to face to arrive at the object of the game and the actions that the player is permitted to address those challenges.” (Adams, 2010: 11).  Following Aarseth (2004), the definition of gameplay I propose for this study is “the player’s [ergodic] actions, strategies, and motives” to manipulate the constituents of the gameworld during their interaction with the video game to overcome the gameplay challenges which are restricted by rules.
  6. 6. Definitions of terms – “Narrative”  Various definitions  Broadly classified into four groups. 1. Traditional narrative 2. Classical narrative Narratology 3. New theories (Ryan, 2001) 4. Psychoanalytical theories  Following Ryan (2001), the definition of video game narrative in this study is: “the cognitive interpretation of the player’s ergodic interaction and/or interpretation of the gameworld in both the scripted (cutscenes) and non-scripted sequences (narrative revealed via the player’s interactions in the game world).”  The players’ interpretations of the narratives are elicited via the interviews conducted for the game study.
  7. 7. Definition of terms – “Ludonarrative” Refers to an imagined “whole”, of which every video game is comprised. This study focuses on the negotiation of both the analyst’s and players’ interpretation of the relationship between gameplay and story. Builds on Dena’s (2010) preliminary model to describe the meaning-making processes of polymorphic fiction.
  8. 8. Previous studies on “Ludonarrative”  Juul’s (2005) discussion of fiction and relationship between fiction and rules.  Aarseth’s (2003) multi-dimensional typology of games.  Ryan’s (2006) proposal of the relationship between narrative and gameplay.  Bryan’s (2013) analysis of players’ decision-making in narrative choices.  Pinchbeck’s (2009) conceptualization of story as a function of gameplay in First Person Shooter games.  Linderoth’s (2013) discussion of suitability of gameplay mechanics for some narrative themes/elements.  Fernandez-Vara’s (2009) research on the integration of story with player’s action in adventure games.  Paucity of research on how players make choices (narrative/gameplay) based on ludonarrative relationships.
  9. 9. Theoretical Approach – Dena’s (2010) Model Diagram illustrating the relations between principles, modes, and media, as espoused by Kress and van Leeuwen (2001) Reproduced from Dena (2010).
  10. 10. Theoretical Approach – The Ludonarrative Model The Proposed Ludonarrative Model for Video Game Analysis.
  11. 11. Theoretical Approach – The Ludonarrative Model  Ludonarrative Dissonance Conflicts and disjunctions between a video game's narrative and its gameplay (Watssman, 2012). The game mechanics directly clash with the narrative and pacing of the title". (Brycer, 2013). Term originates from Hocking (2007) in Bioshock. In The Last of Us’ game study, players interviewed mentioned the constant random ammunition drops from the enemies which conflicted with the setting of the gameworld (scarcity of resources).
  12. 12. Theoretical Approach – The Ludonarrative Model  Ludonarrative Resonance  The gameplay and the narrative fit together extremely well such that they cannot be separated (Watssman, 2012).  Gameplay and story integration in The Walking Dead (killing Lee’s brother), Mass Effect, and The Last of Us.  Ludonarrative Alienation  Narrative and gameplay have a weak relationship with each other, neither conflicting, as in dissonance, nor harmonising, as in resonance.  Narrative and gameplay gain little from the presence of the other (Watssman, 2012) but may also not restrict each other.  For the game study, the Bioshock players focus on the gameplay and do not focus on the micro-plots of the minor characters in the narrative.  Players in the Bioshock’s game study also could not understand the subtle gameplay hints given in the narrative of the audio logs.
  13. 13. Video Games chosen for the Game Study  The following six games were chosen for the game study:  Bioshock,  Mass Effect,  The Walking Dead,  The Witcher 2 (Dropped as there is too much data),  The Last of Us, and  Beyond 2 Souls.  Criteria for the choice of games is their different ludonarrative relationships to test the different ludonarrative categories in the model.
  14. 14. Participants in the Game Study  37 participants were recruited but only 11 subjects completed the game study where they have to finish the entire game.  Subjects were recruited from the National University of Singapore.  Age range from 19 – 33.  Stage 1 – PC game subjects played for 2 – 3 hours in the game lab, followed by an hour of open-ended interview questions prepared beforehand in the game lab.  Stage 2 – PC game subjects finished playing the game at home. They record their audio reflections during and/or after the gameplay.  Stage 3 – PC game subjects undergo the final session’s open ended interview questions prepared beforehand in the game lab.  A few PS3 game participants conducted all three stages in the game lab as they do not have the PS3 or game recorder at home.
  15. 15. Multimodal Discourse Analysis  The second stage after theoretical discussion involves the analyst’s interpretation of the relationship between narrative and gameplay in the video games.  The analyst looks through the video recordings of the participants’ gameplay data.  Interview questions were created to understand the ludonarrative relationships in different games.  An initial model is created based on the analyst’s understanding of the ludonarrative relationships in the video games.  Based on the interviews, the model is modified to take into account the player’s experience after they played the game.  Some findings indicate the disjunction between the analyst and the players’ interpretation.  For instance, the analyst could understand the subtle hints provided by the narrative in Bioshock’s audio logs to overcome the gameplay challenges but the players could not.
  16. 16. Implications of Findings  The findings from the game study could highlight aspects of the ludonarrative relationships that are underutilised.  For instance, gameplay hints given in narrative that are too subtle.  Game developers could minimise the interruption/dissonance of the different modes, i.e. gameplay and narrative when designing the games.  Video games with both narrative and gameplay could also benefit from a balancing of both modes through the playtesting using the ludonarrative model.  For instance, when the playtest reveals the dominance of the category of ludonarrative alienation, the developers may redesign the game so that both narrative and gameplay could be more integrated with each other.
  17. 17. References  Aarseth, E. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.  Aarseth, E. (2003). A Multidimensional Typology of Games. In DiGRA 03 – Proceedings of the 2003 DiGRA International Conference: Level Up. Retrieved 25 April 2015 from http://www.digra.org/digital- library/publications/a-multidimensional-typology-of-games/  Aarseth, E. (2004). Playing Research: Methodological approaches to game analysis. Game Approaches - Papers from spilforskning.dk Conference. Aug 28-29, 2003. Spilforskning.dk 2004. Retrieved 25 April 2015 from http://www.cs.uu.nl/docs/vakken/vw/literature/02.GameApproaches2.pdf  Adams, E. (2010). Fundamentals of Game Design. Berkeley: New Riders.  Bezemer, J. (2012). What is Multimodality? Retrieved 25 April 2015 from http://mode.ioe.ac.uk/2012/02/16/what-is-multimodality/  Bryan, J. S. (2013). The Dynamics of the Player Narrative – How Choices Shapes Videogame Literature. Masters Thesis. Georgia Institute of Technology.  Bycer, J. (2013). Narrative Dissonance in Game Storytelling. Gamasutra. Retrieved 25 April 2015 from http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoshBycer/20130628/195316/Narrative_Dissonance_in_Game_Storytellin g.php
  18. 18. References  Chouliaraki, L. and Normal F. (1999). Discourse in late modernity Rethinking critical discourse analysis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.  Dena, C. (2010). Beyond Multimedia, Narrative, and Game - The Contributions of Multimodality and Polymorphic Fictions. In Ruth Page (Eds). New Perspectives on Narrative and Multimodality. Taylor & Francis.  Fabricatore, C. (2007). “Gameplay and game mechanics design: a key to quality in videogames”. In Proceedings of OECD-CERI Expert Meeting on Videogames and Education, Santiago de Chile, Chile, 2007. [online] Retrieved 25 April 2015 from http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/44/17/39414829.pdf  Fernandez-Vara, C. (2009). The tribulations of adventure games: integrating story into simulation through performance. PhD Thesis. Georgia Institute of Technology.  Glapka, E. (2014). Reading Bridal Magazines from a Critical Discursive Perspective. United Kingdoms: Palgrave Macmillan.  Hocking, C. (2007). Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock. - The Problem of what the game is about. Retrieved 25 April 2015 from http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html  Jewitt, C. (2013). Multimodality. Glossary of Multimodal Terms: A MODE Initiative. Retrieved 25 April 2015 from http://multimodalityglossary.wordpress.com/multimodality/  Juul, J. (2005). Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. The MIT Press.  Kress, G.R., and van Leeuwen. T. (2001). Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold.
  19. 19. References  Linderoth, J. (2013). Superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars: Ecological empowerment as a ludonarratological construct. In Mitgutsch, K. Huber, S., Wimmer, J., Wagner, H. G., & Rosenstingl, H. (Eds.). Context Matters! Proceedings of the Vienna Games Conference 2013: Exploring and Reframing Games and Play in Context. Vienna: New academic press, pp. 17 – 30.  Pinchbeck, D. (2009). Story as a function of gameplay in First Person Shooters. PhD Thesis. University of Portsmouth.  Ryan, M-L. (2001). Beyond myth and metaphor - the case of narrative in digital media. Game Studies. Vol. 1, Issue 1, July 2001. Retrieved 25 April 2015 from http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/ryan/  Ryan, M-L. (2006). Avatars of Story. University of Minnesota Press.  Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of Play: game design fundamentals. MIT: Cambridge.  Watssman, J. (2012). Essay: Ludonarrative Dissonance Explained and Expanded. Escapistmagazine. Retrieved 25 April 2015 from http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/9.389092-Essay-Ludonarrative-Dissonance- Explained-and-Expanded  Wodak, R. (2001a). “The discourse-historical approach”, in: Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer (eds), Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Sage, 63-94.

Hinweis der Redaktion

  • Contribute to an understanding of how their understanding of ludonarrative relationships in different games influence their gameplay.
    Secondary objective provides an explanation for the different pathways/choices that players make within the game.
  • Second assumption - Resources are socially shaped over time to become meaning making resources that articulate the (social, individual/affective) meanings required by the needs of different communities (Jewitt, 2013).

    Third assumption - people orchestrate meaning through their selection and configuration of modes, foregrounding the significance of the interaction between modes (Jewitt, 2013).

  • Broadly classified into four groups.
    Traditional narrative
    Aristotle’s theory of drama,
    Vladimir Propp’s study of story functions,
    and Carl Gustav Jung’s archetype theory.
    Classical narrative
    Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories related to sign and language use, and
    Claude Lévi-Strauss's structuralist paradigm in myth research in anthropology
    New theories
    New media forms (Ryan, 2001),
    Ryan (2001) suggests that narrative is a sign with a signifier (discourse) and a signified (story, mental image, semantic representation), although the notion of a sign does not merely refer to narrative but also to quite a number of other entities as well. Since the notion of a sign is not merely restricted to narratives, Ryan (2001) defines narrative to be a matter of degree in the sense that some texts such as postmodern novels are less narrative than simple forms such as fairy tales. More importantly, Ryan (2001) emphasises on the cognitive interpretation of the reader who constructs the narrative on the basis of the text.

    Cognitive psychology, and
    Cognitive science.
    Psychoanalytical theories
    Player’s experience in the interaction with the game world.

  • Juul (2005) discusses fiction and the relationship between fiction and rules. He emphasises on how well-designed games have a smooth relationship between the rules and the fictional world. He also maps out how different definitions of narrative have been applied to video games and how time and narrative progression are represented and experienced.

    Aarseth (2003) proposes a multi-dimensional typology of games for classifying the genre of games in virtual environments. The model consists of a number of basic dimensions that are similar to my model. For instance, environment in gameworlds would be equivalent to the “narrative” aspect of my model while rules would be equivalent to “ludos” in my model.

    Ryan (2006) proposes several relationships between narrative and gameplay. Firstly, she discusses how the fictional world and its objects can be mapped against the rules of the game. Secondly, whether there is an organic, necessary connection between rules and narrative. Thirdly, whether the rules and events they create are consistent with the fictional world. She argues for a more balanced approach to both gameplay and narrative as the ludologists’ approach has so far heavily favoured the hard-core gamers who play with the game rules.

    Previous studies have also analysed how players make narrative choices (Bryan, 2013), how story is conceptualised as a function of gameplay in first person shooter games (Pinchbeck, 2009), how different types of gameplay mechanics are suitable for some narrative themes and narrative elements but not others (Linderoth, 2013), and how adventure games have integrated story with player performance of action in the simulated gameworld (Fernandez-Vara, 2009) to solve its puzzles.

    There are few studies which have been conducted to investigate how players make narrative and/or gameplay choices by taking into account the ludonarrative relationships in games. This study hence aims to fill in the research gap by showing how players make narrative and/or gameplay choices based on the different ludonarrative relationships in video games.
  • The top level in the Figure is the common semiotic principle, such as "action", "emotion", and "framing". Framing principles are present in different forms in different media. For example, in painting, framing principles can be observed as arms; in newspaper as borders; and in speech as pauses. A common semiotic principle is "a multimodal principle, that can be differently realised in different semiotic modes" (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001:3).

    Dena (2010) renames a common semiotic principle to a "transmodal element", and defines it as "elements that can be realised in different modes. Multimodal is defined by Dena (2010) as a "combination of modes".

    In my study, the common semiotic principle is used to refer to the two different modes of video games which are the gameplay and the narrative. For instance, the video game can be realized as narrative or gameplay during the interaction with it by the players.

    The second level in the model consists of modes. Modes are semiotic resources that "can be realised in more than one production medium" (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001:21-22; original emphasis removed). In this study, modes refer to the gameplay and narrative elements from the ludonarrative perspective.

    The final level is media. They "are the material resources used in the production of semiotic products and events" (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001). Examples of media are paint, cameras, computers, and (human) vocal apparatus. In this study, the media is the way in which the modes are conveyed to the player. For instance, the narrative can be conveyed via the graphics, cutscenes, dialogue, plot and the gameplay can be conveyed via the interaction with the game via the controls, player’s actions, strategies, motives, challenges, feedback, and so on.

  • Dena’s (2010) model is developed to create a ludonarrative model for video game analysis.

    As shown in the figure above, at the top level, there is video game which is a multimodal element consisting of a combination of modes. Video game is also transmodal, with elements, e.g. causal relations that can be realised in different modes. At the middle level, there are the "ludo" and the "narrative" modes. These are the different methods employed that influence the way messages are presented, received and acted upon by the player.

    As defined earlier, the gameplay where the player can carry out actions is restricted by the gameplay rules which determine what the player is allowed to do. Under the first column, for the category of “ludo”, the player might be able to receive a quest from an NPC by clicking on it.

    The quest may or may not allow the player choices such as choosing further dialogue options to find out other information about the game world. The player then utilises the keyboard or mouse control to carry out specifically allowed actions in the game world which involves killing, escorting or gathering resources depending on the genre of the video game. The player's actions then result in consequences for the gameplay. For example, failing in escorting a specific non-player character whom the player has been tasked to protect will result in the failure of the quest.

    As shown in the figure above, choices, control and consequences can also appear under the third column, "narrative". In specific genres of video games such as interactive graphic adventures and some role-playing games, the narrative may provide choices for the players, followed by the players' utilisation of the input controls to select the narrative choice. Depending on different players' narrative choices, the consequences for the narrative may be different resulting in a non-linear narrative.

    Narrative" provides the context and gives the player a motivation when s/he is asked to do something, such as a quest in a role-playing game. Under the third column, for the category of "narrative", clicking on a non-player character or object in the game world might convey narrative information to the player. The narrative information might be presented to the player in the visual mode which consists of graphics and cutscenes, or it can be presented in the form of linguistic mode which consists of dialogue. Although it is argued that narrative provides the context, ludos or the gameplay rules also provide the context to the player by restricting or guiding what s/he is able to do in the gameworld.

    Although there is a distinction made between narrative and gameplay in this study, the separation between narrative and gameplay elements exists on a continuum based on the empirical study of the players. Some players interpret the dialogue choices in The Walking Dead as gameplay choices as they can explain in the interviews that they can actively choose between the dialogue choices. For these participants, gameplay exists when they are able to perform an active role in the video game. For the other participants, some of the dialogue choices are narrative choices to them when the narrative changes based on the dialogue choices they made. In specific instances, choices in the game are both narrative and gameplay when they cannot be separated. This occurs in instances in the game where the participant has to choose between saving or killing the NPCs in the gameworld. As the participant saves or kills the NPCs, it will affect the participants' perception of the player character as a morally good or bad character in the narrative. Simultaneously, the participant is able to make an active choice so it is a gameplay option to them.

    What is missing from Dena's (2010) model as shown in the figure is the relationship or interaction between the modes in the middle row. The figure proposes the addition of the ludonarrative relationship in the second column to build on Dena's (2010) model. The ludonarrative relationships include ludonarrative dissonance, ludonarrative resonance and ludonarrative alienation.
  • The term originates from Hocking (2007), a former creative director at LucasArts who wrote about it in his blog. Citing the example from the game Bioshock (2K Boston, 2007), Hocking argues that the gameplay in Bioshock (2K Boston, 2007) encourages the player to adopt an Objectivist approach. The player is encouraged to take care of his self-interests by becoming more powerful in order to progress the game. For example, the player is enticed to make the choice in the gameplay to extract more Adam from non-player characters in the game world which results in their death, instead of saving them, to gain direct power.

    However, in the narrative, the player is encouraged to be selfless. The player is tasked to help save the non-player characters, such as the Little Sisters and oppose Ryan, the antagonist in the narrative. With this disjunction between the gameplay and the narrative focus, a violation of aesthetic distance results which often pulls the player out of the game.
  • Players used trial and error to overcome the gameplay challenges. They could not focus on both the gameplay and narrative at the same time. Sometimes, the audio logs were interrupted by the gameplay.