Written by Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen
This post argues that the modern video game bears a unique affinity to contemporary convergence culture. Recognizing this affinity will improve our understanding of the video game as well as the media culture framing it. The post opens by discussing Henry Jenkins’ conception of convergence culture and by locating the video game in this dynamic media economy. It moves on to present three arguments supporting the main claims above. First, the video game is a kind of meta-medium comprising other, convergent media. Conceptualizing it as such will help theorists go beyond reductionist perspectives on what the video game is and does. Second, the modern video game allows for an unprecedented degree of transmedia coordination through the implementation of downloadable content. Third, transmedia storytelling is increasingly explored in video games. The medium channels trends in convergence culture whereby audiences traverse storyworlds on multiple platforms.
In his influential book Convergence Culture, media theorist Henry Jenkins argued that we should understand the mediascape of the 21st century as multifariously convergent in ways that span “technological, industrial, cultural, and social changes depending on who’s speaking and what they think they are talking about” (Jenkins 2006, 3). This convergence can be appreciated from at least three perspectives. From a technological perspective, the digitization of media content means that many forms of content are accessible through a range of multipurpose-devices, each potentially adding to the experience (Jenkins 2006, 2011). From a top-down perspective, media conglomerates expand and consolidate their positions through the horizontal integration of media sectors. This allows them to coordinate and integrate content in synergistic ways, and, in the case of the entertainment industry, benefit more fully from fans’ investment in transmedia storyworlds (Jenkins 2006; S. Murray 2008). Finally, from a bottom-up perspective, the same dedication motivates media-agnostic audiences to engage with transmedia franchises on multiple platforms (Bourdaa 2013; Jenkins 2006).
It is in this cultural crucible that I locate the video game. The entertainment platform frames a convergence of old and new media and modes of media use.
As game theorist Jesper Juul explains, the video game is essentially a state machine made of two things: rules and narrative (2005). These two categories, in turn, may subsume the building blocks of other media (Ip 2008). For instance, video games may implement rule-based structures that form the basis of otherwise very different cultural forms, as was the case when Blizzard Entertainment adopted the structure of the card game Magic: The Gathering (Garfield 1993) for its own digital card game, Hearthstone (2014). From the narrative side of the binary, games draw on everything from cinematographic conventions in their cut scenes to basic narratological structures canonized through oral traditions and literature. The video game, then, may channel other media. The converse is often not true. You cannot build a video game into a movie. The traditional novel cannot accommodate reader agency in shaping the plot. This general observation illustrates a unique affinity between today’s convergence culture and the video game as both a cause and an effect of that culture. The medium is best understood as a space in which old and new media collide and interact in new ways. In the remainder of this post, I will present three arguments supporting this contention—one for each of the above-mentioned perspectives on convergence culture.
A Technological Perspective: The Video Game as a Meta-Medium
“The most ambitious promise of the new narrative medium is its potential for telling stories about whole systems.”
- Janet H. Murray (1999, 280)
“[Video games] can’t be read as texts or listened to as music, they must be played.”
- Espen Aarseth (2001)
Conceptualizing the video game as a site of technological convergence may put an end to unproductive debates about video game ontology. I am referring here to the so-called ludology versus narratology debates. Theorists caught in this dispute vie for theoretical privilege in declaring the video game either a vehicle of play or a vehicle of storytelling. Ludologists hold that the video game is not about storytelling (Aarseth 2001; Juul 2001). They point out that you can design a video game that is entirely without narrative ‘overlay.’ Narratologists counter that, even if narrative does not feature as an essential property of the concept ‘video game,’ games are, as a matter of fact, built around stories (Ip 2011; J. Murray 1999). They are therefore open to the narratological organon. The object of this debate seems to be to determine, a priori, which theoretical toolset will let researchers get at what the medium is really about.
When we see the video game as a composite of converging media technologies, the debate seems confused. The individual video game is best understood as a nested hierarchy of other media, with a narrative emerging from the configuration of these other media. For example, the interactive game as a whole tells a story, which may be conveyed partly through filmic prerendered cutscenes, which, in turn, may feature music. If this be admitted—and in a video game series such as Metal Gear Solid (Konami 1998-) it seems a matter of empirical fact—we avoid the fallacy of equating part with whole or whole with part. We also bring some conceptual clarity and productive explanatory pluralism to the field. In his influential book Cybertext (1997), game theorist Espen Aarseth noted the difficulties in matching the medium to any single theoretical framework, but he did not move on to draw the conclusion that I submit here: layered complexity defines the video game as a cultural form.
Moving briefly to the behavior and motives of video game audiences, a convergence perspective can also help us make sense of usage data. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 155 million people play video games in the US alone (2015). They do this for many different reasons, including games’ engaging storylines, impressive visuals, mechanical challenges, and educational value (see also Rigby & Ryan 2011). Such manifold preferences and modes of use belie the notion that the video game can be adequately understood through a single theoretical lens.
A Top-Down Perspective: The Video Game, Downloadable Content, and Transmedia Coordination
Downloadable content (DLC) has been employed to enhance otherwise finished video games since the 1990s. Early use of such content was rather limited, focusing on expanding existing games from within (Ip 2008; Lizardi 2012). This has started to change. Developers, publishers, and top-level media conglomerates have begun to use DLC to adapt otherwise finished products to the information flow of the surrounding mediascape. As an example of this trend, consider the case of Electronic Arts’ online tactical shooter Star Wars: Battlefront (EA Dice 2015). The game was released shortly before the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams 2015) opened in theaters. Trailers from the movie showed the aftermath of a battle on the desert planet Jakku. Unsurprisingly, fans of the franchise wanted to know more about this stage-setting skirmish. The Battle of Jakku was made available as DLC for Battlefront on December 8, 2016—days before the theatrical release of The Force Awakens. This lockstep co-ordination was no coincidence, of course. In 2013, Electronic Arts, the publisher of Battlefront, signed an exclusive multi-year licensing agreement with Disney to publish Star Wars games (Polygon 2013).
The implementation of video game DLC is today possible on a scale that can genuinely change the original product. Such implementations allow developers to absorb ambient culture and achieve synergy with other releases on a continuous basis, without having to hazard a rushed product. Equally important, they allow audiences to move freely between convergent media platforms in order to explore an evolving transmedia storyworld from different, yet mutually constitutive, perspectives.
A Bottom-Up Perspective: The Video Game and Transmedia Storytelling
“What if we don’t fill in all the blanks? What if we don’t give you a big timeline and say, ‘here are all the important things that happened.’ … We want people to experience these different parts, and to go and solve all these mysteries.”
– Arnold Tsang, assistant art director of Overwatch (GameSpot.com 2016)
Jenkins has argued that the media user of contemporary convergence culture is in many ways technologically empowered—able and motivated to move productively between media platforms (2006; 2011). This competence is reflected in the rise of transmedia storytelling, the process by which “integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience” (Jenkins 2007). Audiences increasingly take pleasure in mastering elaborate storyworlds dispersed between multiple platforms, a pull-factor evident in entertainment output and reflected in the above discussion of transmedia coordination (for a critique, see Ryan 2015).
As a telling example of this trend as it pertains to video games, consider the release of Blizzard Entertainment’s online team-based shooter Overwatch (2016). Historically, developers of games in this genre have slighted narrative texture. With Overwatch, however, Blizzard registered an epistemophilic impulse in their target audience. The developer is in the process of constructing a sprawling storyworld through the coordinated release of animated shorts, webcomics, a graphic novel, and updates on the game’s official website. The informational jugular of the game, however, runs through actual gameplay, but players cannot tap it effortlessly. They must integrate information built into the mise-en-scène, such as on in-game monitors, posters, and elsewhere.
The game world of Overwatch recapitulates, at a less abstract level, trends in transmedia storytelling. At both levels, audiences are being challenged to uncover information hidden from plain sight, and to use such information to fill in the gaps of massive storyworlds. Jenkins has similarly noted the connections between the video game and the world-building of transmedia storytelling in pointing to decentralized storytelling as an increasingly realizable potential of the medium (2004). Overwatch represents a further development in this direction, one very likely to precipitate more.
I have argued that the modern video game is the nec plus ultra of contemporary convergence culture, and that examining the medium from this perspective can help us understand both it and the media culture framing it. The video game is best understood as a meta-medium that can integrate between convergent entertainment platforms and modes of use at levels of technology, production, and consumption. At each level, the video game appears a window on, and a reflection of, convergence culture.
 Although this debate certainly has taken place (Juul 2005), some theorists question whether it was sparked by genuine disagreement or by misunderstanding and caricature (Aarseth 2013; Frasca 2003a, 2003b; Krzywinska 2006).
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