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Half Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds

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Published in 2005 by Jesper JuulHalf-Real is an exploration of video games as combinations of formal rulesets and informal fiction. The title of the work is derived from the claim that, while the fiction surrounding a game (say, chess) is seemingly arbitrary and matters within an imaginary circle of play, the rules themselves assert power over the player and reality -- any game is "half-real." To Juul, this interplay, moreso than either of the parts, is an intriguing part of video games studies.

In his exploration, Juul lays out a classic game model and seeks to delve deeper into the effects games have on the player and the world in general, leading to interesting discussions on time and space in games.

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By Jesper Juul. MIT Press, 2005

Chapter 1: IntroductionEdit

Juul begins by stating his main idea that games are made up of real rules and fictional worlds, and sets out to "integrate these disparate perspectives into a coherent theory of video games" (3). He then goes on to provide a brief overview of the subjects he will cover in the following chapters: rules (emergence and progression appear here), fiction, and video games' tenous relationship to the classical game model. 

The second part of the introduction is a discussion of the state of video game studies, mainly focusing on the major conflicts of the field. He lists five major debates: study of the game versus studies of players; games as rules versus games as fictions; games versus stories; games in the wider culture; and game ontology (mechanics) versus game aesthetics. These dichotomies seem to be aspects of the ludology versus narratology debate in the field of game studies.

The chapter closes with a brief statement on "fun" ("I believe that there is ultimately no one-sentence description of what makes all games fun," 19) and the cultural staus of games as a whole before launching into the rest of the book.

Chapter 2: Video Games and the Classic Game ModelEdit

In the second chapter, Juul tackles the all important question of "what is a game?" His process is synthesizing the definitions of other theorists and designers into a new six part definition he calls the classic game model. Having established this, he goes on to differentiate games (chess) from non-games (storytelling or free-form play) and borderline cases (gambling, roleplaying games.) He follows this with a discussion on the transmedial nature of games -- chess can be played on a board, on a computer, or even in the minds of two players. This illustrates that "games which are formally equivalent can be experienced completely differently," a premise that complicates the validity of the classic game model (52).

The end of the chapter contains a note of caution about the classic game model as it applies to video games, which are continually pushing boundaries and breaking the mold. However, the model is still useful in that it provides a framework that is common to most games and points to some recent development within games, a phenomenon that has been occuring for millenia.

Chapter 3: RulesEdit

This chapter focuses on what rules are, how they function within games, and how they combine to form challenges which make games interesting and enjoyable. To Juul, rules not only limit player action, but "set up potential actions, actions that are meaningful inside the game but meaningless outside" (58). Rules give games structure, limiting player experience while simultaneously giving meaning to those experiences which may seem arbitrary or benal in the real world. Drawing on economic game theory and Donald Knuth's definition of algorithms, Juul paints rulesets as state machines, where the player provides the input and the system provides an effective, definite output after a finite number of steps (62). While video games have very structured rulesets that are governed by a computer, Juul also briefly discusses the notion of folk games and how rules are changed, made, and argued about as part of the experience (64-67).

Juul then goes on to talk about how rules create challenges through their structures. The most important dichotomy to him is the difference between games of progression (in which each consecutive challenge is set up in the game) and games of emergence (which set up challenges indirectly because the rules interact) (67). Games of progression tend to have lower replayability values as the designer sets up the challenges, but make it easier for the designer to create a coherent narrative (like in the adventure game genre). Emergence, on the other hand, derives from simple rules that may lead to numerous outcomes and ways of self-expression, but are harder to tie down to a specific story or narrative structure. Juul makes it clear that emergence and progression are two ends of a spectrum rather than exclusive labels, as many games (his example is Grand Theft Auto) have elements of both. 

Next, Juul introduces the concept of gameplay, the way the game is actually played, beyond what the rules specifically mention. Juul holds that gameplay arises out of the interaction between the rules of the game, the players' pursuit of the game's goal, and the player's competence in using the strategies they are provided with (91). This definition relies heavily on the player's experience, leading Juul to ponder on what makes quality gameplay. Drawing on game designer Sid Meier and psychologist Marcel Danesi, Juul posits that good gameplay results from interesting, meaningful choices that somehow conceal their solution within themselves.

Juul goes on to explain how this solution becomes easier to find as a player progresses through the a game, adding skills and strategies to their repetoire in a psychological phenomenon called "chunking." Alternatively, challenges may arise "naturally" from the interaction of simple mechanics in an emergent system, which may be overcome with practice and experimentation. Even in emergent games, the rules may be designed such that certain challenges are likely to emerge: Juul uses the examples of "choke points" in multiplayer first person shooters or the triangularity of a system like "Rock-Paper-Scissors," in which each action is dominated by another action.

Towards the end of the chapter, Juul complicates the idea of challenges by questioning whether save features of video games remove dramatic tension and whther great puzzles ought to have a single solution or multiple. He goes on to engage with Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi's theory of flow, the mental state of enjoyment felt by people engaging in challenging tasks (112). In order for flow to be engaged, the level of challenge in a game must match the skill of the player, or else it becomes too easy or too difficult. One way of helping this curve along is being consistent among challenges, not forcing the player to hold too much information in their repetoire and being able to delve deeply into one mechanic or another. 

In conclusion, Juul holds that rules within themselves can be enjoyable, and make games into "formal systems that provide informal experiences" (120).

Chapter 4: FictionEdit

Having examined the abstract, formal rulesets that make game work, Juul continues on to the more extant element of video games -- the fictional worlds they inhabit. As a foundational principle, all fictional worlds are incomplete: given the limits of technology and thematic scope, it is impossible to specify all aspects of a given world. When a player finds an area of incompleteness, they fill in the blanks using their knowledge of the real world, the fictional world, and the conventions of the genre in a process Marie-Laure Ryan calls the principle of minimal departure. Game worlds, like all fictions, are incomplete, though some are more complete than others.

In another sense, many game worlds are incoherent, meaning the game mechanics somehow interfere with the player's ability to imagine a complete fictional world. In the arcade hit Donkey Kong, for example, Mario has three lives, an element that does not seem to integrate itself well with the fiction of the game (123-130). Since the game cannot be fully explained without referring the the mechanics behind it, the world is incoherent

From there, Juul classifies the five main types of games as applied to fictional worlds: abstract games, iconic games, incoherent world games, coherent world games, and staged games. In addition, Juul admits that any game may be taken as an allegory for something else (referring to Janet Murray's reading of Tetris), but that some readings may be better than others.

Juul devotes the next part of his chapter to explaining how video games cue players into their fictional worlds, through graphics, sound, marketing, rules themselves, etc. Even though games invite players to take part in the world, Juul holds that players may "refuse the invitation and still play the game," disregarding fictional elements and focusing instead on the experience the rules have to offer. Juul uses the game Quake III Arena as an example: players do not have to buy into the reality of futuristic gladiatorial combat in order to have fun playing the game; in fact, many of the top competitive players set graphics to a minimum level in favor of faster computer performance (139-141). The fact that fiction is an optional experience in an incoherent world game is part of game conventions, according to Juul.

Following this discussion is a lengthy look at time in games. Juul seems to be occupied with the idea that game time runs very differently from real world time, as it may be faster or slower, interrupted by pauses or cut scenes, jump between future and past events, or even be arbitrarily slowed down or sped up by the player. All this is mapped onto real time in the process of projection, something that is complicated even further by the ability of the player to leave the game and return later, after which (normally) no time has passed within the fictional world. Among the implications this has for Juul is the dramatic experience of subjective time (a frame delay upon killing an enemy so the player can feel a sense of achievement, etc.) and the dilemma of time consuming actions like "grinding" in an online rpg. 

Juul entitles the final section of his chapter "Games and Narrative," which begins with a declaration of frustration with the ambiguous term "narrative."  Juul seems to struggle with the fact that, depending on which of the multiple defintions of narrative one uses, video games are or are not actually narratives. Juul agrees that games are not simply storytelling media and may not be able to accurately portray themes like tragedy, but story still very much matters to the overall presentation of a game (161). 

Chapter 5: Rules and FictionEdit

This chapter is an ambitious synthesis of the preceding chapters, ending with a discussion of a greater meaning of games as a whole. The chapter mainly focuses on the interactions between rules and fictions within video games, and the benefits and detriments of such a system.

Juul begins with an overview of Johan Huizinga's concept of the magic circle, the border between what is in a game world and what lays outside its context, the fictional world and the underlying rules lies apart from, but within the real world. The magic circle of the fictional game world is broken by the existence and explanation of real-world rules. For example, games which explain controls ("Press the A button to jump") often break this unspoken barrier. Such breaks have become conventional within the genre.

Another way in which fiction and rules interact is through the creation of simulations, a popular genre within the game industry. Drawing an analogy with Scott McCloud's explanation of simple iconographic illustrations in Understanding Comics, Juul holds that these simulations are stylized, a rules-heavy way of portraying an aesthetic fictional system. Related to this is the idea of difficulty metaphors. In a game about tennis, the system underlying a perfect serve is hard to complete effectively, simulating the actual difficulty of a tennis serve within the fictional context of the game world. In this way, the rules cue the player into the fiction of the world, and vice versa (176-177). Fiction and rules also compete for attention, as when a limitation of the rules breaks the illusion of coherence in a story by adding an invisible wall or making smaller characters just as strong as larger ones (177-183).

To Juul, "rules and fiction are quite intertwined" (189). This is most obviously in the case of game spaces and level design -- an island provides a good space for a level where the player is confined to a specific place while it adheres to the fictional space of the game. This has led some designers to put a higher value on coherence, especially when it comes to the idea of immersion (popularized by Janet Murray). Others, of course, have seen this as a fallacy in that focusing on storytelling alone is "a misunderstanding of what games are about" (190). 

The final section of the chapter explores what a game means. Juul holds that "it is very hard to create convincing interpretations of the rules in a game themselves," so an analysis requires a step back and a look at other art forms (191). As for the morality question, Juul notes that we do not automatically side with the protagonist in literature or film, and the same goes for characters or actions in a game. We do not necessarily want to perform violent acts in reality just because we relate to a violent game (193). Adding to this idea is the concept that emergence games seem to have a stronger focus on their rules and thus need not be as coherent as a progression game, leading to greater thematic freedom and ambiguity in more emergent games like Grand Theft Auto. 

Chapter 6: ConclusionsEdit

The final chapter reviews his arguments before providing some summarizing statements about games in general. Juul holds that video games are unique in that, even though they project fictional worlds, the player has the option of not engaging with it -- the rules are often enough to keep the player's interest. He also draws the connection between games and literature, saying "Literature can make us focus on the words themselves. In the game, we can seek the beauty of the activity itself" (201). He ends his book on a positive note about the medium, which he believes will continue to develop as designers focus on both the fiction and the rules behind it and how they affect the player's experience.

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