book review

Half-Real, a review

Roughly three-quarters of Jesper Juul's new book are reiterations of his previous articles. This should come as no surprise as both Half-Real as those articles are the result of his PhD research. Interestingly, Juul's position has changed over the years: while he once was an outspoken ludogists, he has nuanced his views somewhat. In Half-Real fiction (but not narrative) plays an important role next to a more formal study of game rules. This change of perspective is perhaps the most surprising part of the work, but unfortunately it also falls short of being truly ground-breaking.

Juul departs from the observation that games are essentially transmedial, that is to say games exist independent from the way they are mediated. The video game is only a recent innovation in a long history of games. In order to understand games better, he formulates a classic model of games that does cover all historic games, but which might not necessarily cover all recent developments. The classic model works on three levels. The level of the game itself, the interaction between game and its player, and the relation between the game and the rest of the world. In short, according to Juul: "a game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in the order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable." (p. 36).

The largest chapter (chapter three) discusses games as formal rule systems. A major distinction is made between games of emergence and games of progression. In the former type of games interesting and varied gameplay emerges from a relative simple set of rules. This is traditionally the providence of most strategy and board games that feature a lot of interactions between the various game rules and objects (p. 81-82). Games of progression are the historically newer form that have grown from (text-based) adventure games. Although Juul discusses some of the aesthetics and mechanics involved in a good game of progression (p. 71), he can hardly hide the fact that he favours emergence over progression. What I find most surprising about his stance is that he tries to hide this at all. From the discussion games of pure progression appear poorly designed, finite and ultimately boring. What Juul does like about progression (the player expanding a repertoire of game moves) better serves games that are emergent in their core (where that repertoire comes to its own). Sure, the contrast between emergence and progression is a valid one, but with the poor development of the latter type, such games can hardly compete with games of emergence.

One of the occasions that shows Juul is really on to something but perhaps draws conclusions to quickly is found his statement that "a game of emergence has a broadly defined goal there are many game states that qualify as the goal and a large number of ways to reach states" (p. 75). On a superfluous level this seems to be a logical conclusion from the nature of emergent and progression games: games either progress to a single goal or several different, but linked, end states emerge from it. But this ignores games that can progress in multiple directions (as in the over-used and critically unsuccessful game trees) or that games of emergence might have a strong disposition to develop towards a single conclusion (as Gonzalo Frasca's September 12 aptly illustrates, even if the artefact itself denies being a game). The new game medium of the computer has brought games of progression into sharp focus, but I think there is more substance and history to the relation between progression and emergence. A highly emergent game like the ancient Chinese Chess has some very interesting elements of progression: pawns gain new moves when they cross the middle of the board (a special case rule?), and the strength and value of the 'canons' or 'catapults' depends strongly on the number of pieces on the board (more so than the knight in Chess which value also changes through the course of the game). Not to mention the way classic games like Go and Chess progress through distinct stages, and the progression of the player with every renewed game.

In Half-Real fiction takes centre-stage next to rules as the basic premise of the book that video games exist somewhere between the formal plane of (real) rules and the fictional plane of imagined game worlds. Juul goes through great lengths to distinguish his notion of fictional worlds from narrative (p. 156-160), and this probably for the best. As he points out, narrative has come to mean a lot of different things for various scholars and not all of these are compatible with games. But he also points out that as narrative has been shaped en formed in symbiotic relation with narrative media such as the printed novel and cinema, computers do seem particularly accommodating to games and simulations of fictional worlds (p. 5). This convergence of games and fiction in the computer medium has led to new developments of games that depart from the classic model of games. Arguably, games of progression form one example of new developments in games and one where games and fiction have grown closer. Likewise, Juul discusses in some detail the way game worlds shape both rules and fiction (p. 188-189). Another form can be found in are games that where game goals have been weakened leaving more room for the player to play around (p. 199).

Unfortunately, Juul fails to discuss the relation between the rules and fiction on adequate level. His most important insights seem to be added as an afterthought. His discussion of game space is hardly as detailed as his discussion of game time (which is based on a previous article). When he mentions the subject of how gameplay rules and actions are metaphors for actions in the game fictions, he leaves it at that. A more thorough analyses of these metaphors might have revealed more grounds for association between rules and fictions than mere difficulty of the task (p. 172-173). I am inclined to think that what Juul calls metaphorical in fact refers to a whole set of semiotic, linguistic or rhetorical devices, that could shed some more light on the elusive notion of gameplay. Likewise, his discussion of satire in games (p. 184) falls short of any real relevance and shows little knowledge of this stylistic figure in other media. This leaves the whole enterprise of rather underdeveloped. Half-Real does cover a fair amount of ground, but Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman cover much of the same ground in more detail in Rules of Play. And on those occasions that Juul is on to something different, he hardly follows trough.

Juul, Jesper (2005) Half-Real, Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, The MIT Press.