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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

It is an interesting, if impractical, view that not all technologies are created equal and as such should not treated equally. Video games offer one sterling example of this. Though they have a history as long or longer than many other currently popular technologies such as the Web and blogs, video games are rarely afforded the same respect as these other technologies. For this reason, it is almost a prerequisite that any study of video games -- whether it sees games as artifacts or as sites of play and resistance -- at some point must not only offer a justification of their worthiness of study in spite of their popular appeal and emphasis on entertainment but also a polite jockeying for space in an already existing discipline. To be certain, the variety of forms video games can take combined with the wide array of contexts they can be found in only adds to the controversy and confusion surrounding them.

It is impressive, then, that even as he is staking a claim for the study of video games in a variety of disciplines -- communication, economics, literary and film studies, ludology, and history among them -- that Jesper Juul never comes across as an apologist for his subject of study. Moreover, he takes on one of the major debates surrounding the study of games: Whether they are to be studied in terms of how players interact with games and are affected by them or how they are constructed and convey meaning. In response, he offers a meaningful alternative: That video games must be understood as having fundamentally altered the interplay between player and played, between design and effect. Imagine for a moment that video games are treated not simply as toys but, to borrow from Vincent Mosco's (1988) discussion of new technologies, as "opening up a number of social potentialities" (3). Video games are complex devices that communicate as they entertain. Taking such a view requires video games to be understood via a different set of questions than whether they cause violence or have any redeeming social value. Juul provides a starting point for these questions, focusing the reader on the interplay between rules and fiction, placing video games at the nexus rather than on one particular side or the other. Along the way, he offers examples from more than fifty video games across a variety of platforms, considering not only how they relate to existing schools of thought but also how they push the boundaries. Moreover, Juul offers useful considerations for designers and critics of video games even as he provides a challenging notion to how we theorize games and their significance.

Early on, Juul sets us up for an engaging premise, when, drawing on Saussure's take on chess, he writes: "It has often been noted that in a board game the actual shape of a piece appears unimportant in relation to the rules ... The division is, however, contradicted by most modern board games and video games" (12). Such a rhetorical move distances video games from much of the existing work in game studies by insisting that form and function are inherently intertwined in video games. For video games, form may not equal function, but it is the strongest determinant. Design and gameplay -- the primary ways the fiction and effect of games are transmitted -- cannot be separated from any other area of inquiry. The implications for game studies, though not always taken as far as they could be in the book, are profound. Areas such as genre studies, which borrows heavily on literary and film theory, must be rethought for video games to better explain how the technology itself is a clue to genre: The various technologies carry expectations to the player even as they are supposed to fade into the background, trumped by the immersive experience promised by the game's story. Such a McCluhan-esque notion may be enough to make your head spin or to give new justification to the idea that the medium may well be the message.

At the heart of this notion is the idea that even while video games tell us stories which are clearly not real, there can be real consequences. By virtue of having rules enforced externally to themselves, players participate in a different experience than other media allow at the same time that the rules themselves become the basis of the story. Video games, we are reminded, are the interplay of imagination and real world consequence. In this, Juul may have understated the reach of video games. We are left to wonder whether the fictions and rules we find in video games can tell us anything about the fictions and rules we find in the real world. Video games, after all, aren't always sword and sorcery fantasies or sci-fi thrillers: sometimes they say something about the world we live in (or at least the world we think we live in). And the stories of video games are encroaching the non-game world in increasingly bizarre ways, including, as Edward Castranova (2002) has demonstrated, significant economies generated entirely within a game which frequently does not follow real world rules. These questions and discontinuities between the fiction of video games and their rules and those of the outside world lurk in the background of the new model of games Juul offers.

Moreover, video games, like other games, often work to express political ideas. Juul points out that such views may not be intentional or even actively sought out by players, even as they represent significant moments of real world representation (193). Increasingly, video games have been creating their fictional worlds based on real world scenarios; one excellent example of this is the video game America's Army, which is based on extraordinary amounts of real world detail while working to draw together potential recruits for the military. While Juul prefers to focus on the affinity between games and computers, one interesting iteration is to consider whether there is a particular affinity between computer games and political and ideologocal considerations.

If there is a weakness to Juul's argument it is that it doesn't go far enough. While he draws on a wide variety of theories to help contextualize video games, he doesn't offer us a means of making the theories work together. His use of economic game theory, for example, is intriguing for how video games expand and confound game theory's view of rules. And yet, the economics of video games themselves is, at best, an aside. Juul justly treats video games as artistic and political artifacts but never as economic ones. To be fair, this is not necessarily an oversight on Juul's part. After all, the attempt to situate video games in the world of artistic consideration and pragmatic thought may not leave much room -- or indeed, desire -- for the ugly reality that most video games are first and foremost designed to earn a profit. However innovative, however artistic, that video games emerge as commodities not only impacts both the rules and the fiction Juul is seeking to examine, it may well limit the potential for how far video games will go. Because so many of the moments of connection between the half-real world of video games and the real world of our everyday lives are economic, some attention to this level is in order.

But such a complaint is a minor one, particularly because the field of game studies is still taking shape. And the trouble of such an interdisciplinary endeavor is that no one can address all the possible considerations. Juul does an admirable job raising questions and pointing out the significant implications of a medium too long relegated to the sidelines by virtue of being entertaining. If anything, video games are becoming more real every day and Half-Real does an excellent job of provoking thought about where that progression will take us.

Castranova, Edward (2002). "On Virtual Economies." CESifo Working Paper No. 752, Center for Economic Studies & IFO Institute for Economic Research: Munich, Germany.

Mosco, Vincent (1988). "Introduction: Information in the Pay-Per Society," in V. Mosco and J. Wasko (eds) The Political Economy of Information. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI, pp. 3-26.

Randy Nichols:
Randy Nichols is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Niagara University. His work has focused on the production of video games and the use of games by other cultural industries. He has published articles on economic history of the SimCity franchise and on the interplay between Hollywood and the video game industry. He is currently working on a book describing the production and labor practices in the video game industry.  <rnichols@niagara.edu>

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