December 6, 2003
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Kirschenbaum Plays Games

Matt Kirschenbaum confesses to having been a teenage gamer.

Wargames fed my interest in narrative, which in turn has something to do with why I eventually went to graduate school in English and not military history. Here, I realize, I’m treading on a raging debate in contemporary game studies (that may or may not have taken place according to the latest accounts), but my wargame experience compels me beyond a shadow of a doubt to believe that games can be, can become, narrative. A key move or assault, a well-played defense, a deft maneuver or a tenacious holding action ... would take on a life of its own as the rest of the game ebbed and flowed around its aura.

Of course, narratives like Kirschenbaum's Squad Leader vignette are precisely what people wish war games did better. I'm playing Europa Universalis II right now. It's reviewed in the upcoming Tekka, I'd abandoned it after a brief look as inept and over-complicated, and now I'm trying to reconcile my impressions. I've nursed Castille through the 15th and 16th centuries, we're all Spanish now, and we've got a nice empire in Africa and a foothold in Northern North America. It's interesting, to be sure, but it's just the bones of history. Without the stories of young Maria and her little hacienda on the prairie, what's the point?

I think, incidentally, that the theorists who are not now (and never have been) debating the question of narrative in games might want to relax some weekend and debate the question of narrative in music.