English News Chronicle: When Playing “Batman: Arkham City,” Are You Batman, or Yourself?

Posted on 3/30/2015 11:09:29 AM

In a continuation of the IUP English Department’s Colloquium Series on video games as literature, Josh Begley held a discussion about Batman: Arkham City on March 18, 2015.

The discussion attracted a dedicated group of gamers and literature enthusiasts from many majors. The guiding question: “When you play video games, especially those in the Batman series, are you Batman, or yourself?”

Josh Begley conducting the discussion of the video game Batman: Arkham City 
Josh Begley conducting the discussion of the video game Batman: Arkham City

Begley, who earned his PhD in IUP’s English graduate program in Literature and Criticism, provided context for this discussion by explaining two potential stances players take when gaming. 

First, Begley analyzed the group known as ludologists, or those who study video games as its own discipline. This perspective primarily subscribes to the thought that narrative “takes a back seat to game mechanics.” These players focus on what needs to be done to move a game’s main character through its challenges (as if through a maze). Ludologists play games to win. 

Narratologists, however, adopt a more dynamic view of gaming, one that allows for more drama and openness, as in reality. Proponents of narratology look at game choices as directly affecting what happens next in the game. This style of gameplay is analogous to the way one might enjoy a novel.
While Begley stands on the side of the narratologists, he sees the appeal of ludology, too.

A major argument by this group is in analyzing the completion of Four Rewards. As Begley enumerated, they are: Glory, which is manifested in trophies, stickers, or achievement buttons; Sustenance, or things to continue gameplay; Access, which opens new areas for gameplay to occur; and Facility, which are mainly character upgrades. Because these rewards exist, gamers often find themselves focusing only on these fake goals, which only serve to prove what ludologists claim. 

Begley concluded his discussion by weighing the merit of each viewpoint in full. Ludologists look at Batman: Arkham City as being heavily directed, with one primary path for gamers to follow. This is supported by the omnipresence of goals and achievements, such as the 282 Riddler’s Trophies and the ultimate conclusion of the game. Narratologists, however, feel that the 12 side missions in the game—which can be played at pretty much any time—change the user’s experience drastically enough so as to alter the flow of gameplay. 

Attendees of the talk came away with a deeper appreciation of Batman: Arkham City as a game full of satisfactions for all kinds of players, ludologists and narratologists alike, and confirmed video games as viable objects of study for anyone fascinated by the interplay of story and imagination.

—By Ursus Fedin

Department of English