Hybrid Moments: Using Ludonarrative Dissonance for Political Critique
AbstractGame criticism, from a historic perspective, traditionally follows an objectively oriented approach. But in recent years a new tide of personally oriented writing has been emerging in online spaces alongside more traditional publishing models. Game scholars, motivated by the large audiences that online pieces can attract, are not only participating in this scene, but also promoting it as the primary source for progressive criticism. While such pronouncements are correct in many cases, the video game blogosphere is also not immune from the cultural privileging of “gamers,” a problem that has been identified by feminist and critical theoretical approaches to the study of gaming culture (Kubic, 2012; Shaw, 2012, 2013; Consalvo, 2012; Vanderhoef, 2013). To better illustrate the aforementioned point, this article will both examine and comment on the recent online debate that arose over use of the term “ludonarrative dissonance” (Hawking, 2007), a critical concept referring to formal, thematic, and ideological disconnects between ludic and narrative meaning. It will begin by contextualizing the ludonarrative dissonance debate within a brief history of methodological approaches to game criticism. The focus will then shift to discussion of the term itself, and how it provides a useful critical framing by treating simulation and representation as interacting components with the capacity to coincide and contradict. Ludonarrative dissonance, understood as a formal problem, has entered the vocabulary of many critics, but the term is also dismissed for a variety of reasons, including the insistence that experienced gamers learn to ignore inconsistencies between story and design (Yang, 2013). Rejecting this argument, this article concludes by drawing upon assemblage approaches to play (Taylor, 2009; Pearce & Artemesia, 2009; Parikka, 2010) to argue that ludonarrative dissonance does exist and that the concept provides a useful starting point for examining the political tensions implicit in many games—tensions that are often acknowledged but frequently downplayed in existing formal and political approaches to criticism. The analysis of ludonarrative dissonance, from this perspective, not only pushes criticism beyond the aesthetic appraisals gamers, it can also provide insight into the nuances of games that reinforce problematic political discourses while simultaneously simulating potential systematic alternatives to neoliberal corporate capitalism.