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Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds

Author: Jesper Juul
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Curt Carbonell
 REVIEW 2: Randy Nichols

What we need is a theoretical apparatus sophisticated enough to interrogate the nascent discipline of video game studies. In Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Jesper Juul, an assistant professor in the Center for Computer Games Research at IT University of Copenhagen, attempts to provide such an assemblage of tools, yet does so by focusing on a narrow portion of the problem instead of illuminating many of the wider cultural implications of the digital medium. His book is concise and direct; its language is accessible and instructive. What we get is an argument that video games are a combination of rules and fictions. What we don't get are vital explorations along avenues in need of further theorizing.

The title of his book, though, intimates that the project might explore many of the cultural as well as theoretical implications of the new discipline. Half-Real is a pun on the titles of two first-person-shooters: Half-Life and Unreal. From a marketing perspective, such a choice is clever; it caught my eye and intrigued me enough to review this book. To my delight, Juul explains his choice in the first line of the Introduction: "In the title, Half-Real refers to the fact that video games are two different things at the same time" (1). He explains how they are real games with real rules and real players. But, often video games allow us to imagine fictional worlds in which to enact the rules. Thus, he bases the fundamental principle of his book on a revised ontological category of the simulated, the virtual, the liminal, the Real (or is it the Hyperreal?) -- those half-real, half-artificial places that mediate experience for much of post-industrial techno-capitalist society.

We are on familiar turf here. The theoretical models for an argument that hopes to present a category of the half-real or unreal owes much to the Piped Piper of speculative French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard, who is famous for confusing issues that need clarification. Case in point, in Simulations: "The very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction ... at the limits of this process of reproducibility, the real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is already reproduced. The hyperreal" (146). This sort of statement does little for us. Juul, though, does not fall into the trap of speculating about the Real. He takes it for granted that for many thinkers it is still a highly problematic category. Yet, his title suggests such a consideration will be offered in his book. Instead, the book logically (and, I must admit, refreshingly) presents its argument and intent without equivocation: "to integrate these disparate perspectives into a coherent theory of video games" (3). Simply stated and simply executed, Juul is successful in his approach, and a reader will walk away from his book with several helpful concepts unsullied by the excesses of critical theory.

Furthermore, what the book does, it does well. It offers four full chapters that present tools toward building such a coherent theory. Following chapter one, in which he provides a general overview that briefly touches on the history of games, in chapter two, Juul offers a primary definition he deftly calls the Classical Game Model. He wants to determine what elements comprise a traditional game so that he can better categorize borderline cases like the Sims (47). He tells us "Let us consider what the classic game model does: It provides a barebones description of the field of games" and then lets us peak at his theoretical assumptions: "Games do have something in common; we can talk about the borders between games and what is not a game -- video games are the latest development in a history of games that span millennia" (54). Here we see an interesting theoretical concept (borders) in need of careful theorization that gets little attention. Instead of departing from his Classical Game Model to explore what makes video games unique from other games, Juul situates them comfortably in a long continuum of human game playing. This is certainly fair, if less ambitious.

Juul's remaining chapters focus on how rules and fictional worlds blend together to make gameplay a dynamic activity. In chapter three, we see one of his most important contributions -- the focus on how rules lead to two types of game structures: those of emergence and those of progression (more on that below). In chapter four, he focuses on the insight that "while all games have
rules, most video games project a fictional world" (121). Juul presents different types of scenarios found in both traditional games and video games. He draws a nice distinction in that "fiction is commonly confused with story-telling. I am using fiction to mean any kind of imagined world" (122). This distinction is important because he wants to show how a video game like Half-life is not simply a story. It is not fixed. There is an openness to it. This diegetic quality suggests the idea of "possible worlds" (122), an area of the new industry that begs for more theorization. Moreover, this openness could be a key defining aspect of what differentiates video games from other art forms. Chapter five, though, continues his narrow examination by focusing on how rules play "an important role in making the player understand the rules of the game" (163). The rules of the game mediate the experience of the game. Players enter the fictional world and encounter rules; from this interaction the game arises. Juul concludes his book by recounting his intention: "Video games are a combination of rules
and fictions" (197).

His conclusion reminds us that video game studies require the crossing of disciplinary borders to bolster its assemblage of tools used to define the new discipline. His example of wall-climbing in Deus Ex demonstrates how some elements add up to an undesirable emergence because players circumvent the carefully defined pathways toward fulfilling objectives. True, but I felt Juul skirts this notion of undesirable emergence without giving it a more focused look. He does mention that engineers do plan for such unforeseen phenomenon and try to add it into the game design. A cogent argument for what makes video games unique from many other types of media is this very dynamic (some might say undesirable) quality of gameplay. We might theorize they are not just games: they are pathways into the unexpected. The mod-community is a perfect example of such happy-accidents waiting to occur. In fact, the very notion of an undesirable emergent phenomenon reflects more the rigidity of a game instead of the use to which a user might put it.

I felt the weakest part of this book was its under-theorized placement of video games within a larger cultural array of media, like traditional art. Juul argues in the introduction that he does not "see any particular contradiction between enjoying an action game and enjoying the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke." This jarring statement is followed by the curious claim "there is nothing inherent in video games that prevents them from ultimately becoming and being accepted as high art" (21). The opposed categories of high vs. low art have been thoroughly demolished many times over in cultural studies, media studies, literary theory, etc. Contemporary theorists often ignore such categories by looking at cultural artifacts to see how they are situated within cultural matrices. According to a standard general approach to art in cultural studies, we read that "art is an industry with its owners, managers, and workers operating according to the law of profit every much as is popular culture and opular television. Thus, there is little justifiable ground for excluding soap opera from the artistic domain on the grounds that art, i.e., aesthetic quality, is a different kind of activity" (Barker 2000, p. 42). Video games are left out (as expected) of this description, but we can see how the category of art with a capital A has been problematized so that people who study Days of Our Lives need not feel unappreciated. Neither should those who study GTA, or, for the uninitiated, Grand Theft Auto.

Morevoer, in literary studies, simplistic binaries like high/low have even greater import. As any left over Derridean deconstructivist will tell you, the categories of high and low are suspect for a number of reasons -- of primacy is their inherent vertical hierarchy. If we are not talking about physics, then the language of high and low is metaphoric and open to interpretation (and manipulation). And in this process we often demonstrate our logocentricism (Western metaphysics of presence) by privileging one over the other; we also may repeat a series of marginalizations, suppressions, and elisions exemplified (according to Derrida) in the phonocentric privileging of speech over writing (Sarup 1993). For the new discipline of video games studies, the hope that video games will eventually be placed in the category of "high art" is disconcerting. Not only from a theoretical perspective but from an art appreciation perspective. It's as if we had walked into Minton's in the mid-1940s expecting to listen to Charlie Parker play "Ko-Ko" and hearing Chopin. I neither mean to denigrate Chopin nor mean to suggest Charlie Parker did not appreciate Classical music (which he did) (Porter 1993, p. 220). What I am suggesting, however, is that the categories of high and low have been exhaustively theorized in relation to art. Yet Juul seems to want to hearken back to the more rigid definitions instead of allowing the medium to be defined within a fresh field.

Furthermore, to emphasize his desired continuum between high art and video games, Juul ends his book by suggesting that innovative borderline games like the Sims focus on the everyday as did the Realistic novels of the 19th century. These sorts of connections may bear some sort of fruit. But, I fear he wants to build a bridge between computer games and respected art forms like literature and painting instead of venturing into unchartered territory to suggest that video games need be theorized as something altogether different. He does not see video games as wresting representation from traditional art in immersive ways in which even cinema fails. The discipline needs such theorizers. Otherwise, what makes video game studies unique and not just one more male-oriented niche category under cultural studies?

One walks away from Half-Real with the notion that several key tools of interrogation have been successfully described while large areas of interest have been left untouched. I was intrigued in the introduction when Juul mentions Wittgenstein, Saussure, and von Newmann, but I felt this was done simply to offer a cursory glance at the history of games. To his credit, Juul explains that his book "was born from a brief and turbulent history of video games studies" (7). His intentions to create a skeleton upon which to clothe the discipline is admirable. However, many questions for the new discipline need answering. Do we need a new aesthetic category for computer games? How much do they owe to previous traditions? What makes the new medium and experience unique? These new definitions, bravely begun by Juul in Half-Real, need further theorization in order to describe the variety of contemporary digital gaming. His book, though, is a good place to begin.

Barker, C. (2000). Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage Publications.

Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotexte, Inc.

Porter, L., Ullman, M., & Hazell. (1993). Jazz: From its Origins to the Present. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Sarup, M. (1993). An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. (2nd ed.). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Curt Carbonell:
Curt Carbonell is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Program in the Humanities at Florida State University. His focus is Modern and Cultural Studies. He is working on a dissertation in which he analyzes the discourses of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins.  <cdc04e@garnet.acns.fsu.edu>

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