February 09, 2006


Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. By Jesper Juul. MIT Press. $35.

It’s high time for a thorough, unbiased sociological study of video games, the people who create them, the people who play them, the trends they represent, and the future developments toward which they are likely to lead us. Half-Real is not that study, but it is a worthy step in the right direction.

Juul is an assistant professor at the Center for Computer Games Research, IT University of Copenhagen, and thus has an inherent inclination to balance the ivory-tower study of gaming with its everyday elements. His style tries to balance the everyday and the academic, too, and if it does not always succeed, it at least deserves credit for the attempt.

The title of Juul’s book comes from his notion that video games use real-world rules to place players in a fictional world. This is, in fact, nothing new, though Juul seems to think it is: what is, say, “Monopoly,” if not a fictional world in which real-world rules apply? But Juul’s interest is less in the existence of real-world and fictional elements in video games than in the way the real and fictional interact, and the way in which that interaction changes over time.

Juul posits a new definition of games that he calls the classic game model. He says the model explains how games have traditionally been constructed for 5,000 years – but it has reached certain limits because of how video games are, broadly speaking, constructed today (“the classic game model is no longer all there is to games”). The definition and its supporting evidence lead Juul to argue that computers and video games are uniquely suited for each other.

More interesting than this largely academic analysis are Juul’s discussions of rules and his specific looks at individual video games. His explanation of how rules work is lucid and pointed, leading to comments like this one: “Games are learning experiences, where the player improves his or her skills at playing the game. At any given point, the player will have a specific repertoire of skills and methods for overcoming the challenges of the game. Part of the attraction of a good game is that it continually challenges and makes new demands on the player’s repertoire.”

This may be obvious to video gamers but is not necessarily so to others. Juul’s discussions of specific video games show why. For instance, he compares two early video games – Pong (1973) and The Hobbit (1984) – showing through clever analysis that the apparently simple design of Pong gives it attractions that the more complex Tolkien-based game lacks. In discussing more-modern game features, such as the crash mode in Burnout 2, Juul mixes analysis of specific game elements with a real-world overview: “A game is a play with identities, where the player at one moment performs an action considered morally sound, and the next moment tries something he or she considers indefensible.” Ah, but there’s the rub, and there’s the difficulty with Juul’s largely admirable work: there is a significant societal argument today about the extent to which video gamers do or do not recognize the indefensibility of game actions in the real world. Presumably all nonpathological gamers know that deliberately crashing cars is not a good idea. But what about other ways in which gamers gain an edge, especially in role-playing games – by making and breaking alliances, deceiving other players, changing sides, and so on? Is it safe to say that this sort of game-world behavior never translates into the real world?

Juul does not address this issue or others of significant potential interest. And he is a bit too facile in comparing gamers’ reactions to those of movie audiences: the media, even when a movie is game-based or a game movie-based, function very differently (in terms of a film’s linear progression and forced observation from the director’s chosen viewpoint, for example). Still, if Juul does not have the last word on the edgy relationship between real and gaming worlds, he does have a number of interesting points to make; and he makes them, for the most part, very well.

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