Symmetrical Juuls

[rules and fiction] are complementary, but not symmetrical.

When you deal with academic writing you’re sometimes left stymied by word choices. It’s one of the reasons the whole affair can feel super arcane, because people spend a month writing a sentence and then another month justifying that sentence to the people overseeing the writing.

This is something I’m finding. Most days I look at a statement and rewrite it, figuring it might look good tomorrow. So far it hasn’t.

This eight word conception comes from Jesper Juul’s Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, 2011, and I feel like I could spend a lot of time – like, say, a whole blog post – picking at those word choices. Why not symmetrical? Why not asymmetrical? Why not ‘they are not symmetrical.‘ It’s easy to conceive that the structure of this one little sentence is that simple.

This is from Chapter 4, which is about Fictions. This chapter is – to summarise roughly – about what we sometimes in games refer to as theme or abstraction, not its narrative. Narrative is a story, and it’s how our brains do things – I’ve long since said that a game is a machine for making stories, and we make stories because it’s a really useful way for our brains to store a linear sequence of cause and effect. Fictions is a good way to establish the idea of the world that the game wants that story to occupy – whether an abstracted world where nothing matters but the order and sequence of a play, or a heavily flavoured world of flavours and sounds and spaces and moistures.

The book itself, I learned about, sadly not from my readings – I mean, I’m working through them at my own rate – but from the Game Study Buddies podcast, which is available here. I’m honestly annoyed because it seems that the people involved are both smart and on similar pages to me, processing text and not necessarily agreeing with or disagreeing with it, playing in the spaces of consideration and being able to vocalise good and useful ideas about how academics can consider games, and they don’t fall down into treating all videogames as alien creatures to tabletop games. Heck, they mention that as something Juuls notices, the way tabletop games break a lot of the rules of what ‘is’ a game and therefore ‘game’ has to keep moving as a definition. I’m annoyed because I was pretty happy not following these people on Twitter and now I wonder if I’m going to have to.

But that word choice, that thing up top, it sits on my head, as a friend mentions she’s dealing with internet that is Very Not Good, which I distinctly and clearly understand as different to Not Very Good. That order of emphasis is a coherent conception, and yet if I tried to feather it out for you I might miss the meaning she’s getting at.

Anyway, these ideas, that fiction and rules are complementary is something I have stumped at hard: If your rules fly in the face of your fiction, you weaken them both. The fiction can encode actions in your mind and make game mechanics coherent where they might otherwise not be. I’ll not go into examples here, but maybe I will another time. This is just a given.

But that last point: They are not symmetrical.

To call them asymmetrical would be to say that they are never symmetrical. To call them non-symmetrical would make their symmetry a function of what they are. Much of game studies want to talk about rules without fiction, to break down Plants vs Zombies into specific, tight details that ignore that this is a game about zombies, and how they vs plants, and how that fiction encodes game rules into player’s minds. Juul forwards the idea in Half-Real that you can discuss rules without fiction, but not the fiction without rules.

And that’s what I’m worrying at right now. Because they aren’t symmetrical. Rules can interleave with one another in places that leave the fiction untouched. Shuffling and stacking a deck in a particular way may have an outcome to the fiction, but the rules of the method are there for the outcome, not for the cause. There are ways the fiction can leave the rules untouched, like decals over a chassis. But I’m not sure I agree with Juuls that fiction depends on rules while rules do not depend on fiction.

But we’ll see. This is the problem with readings.

You’re never sure until you’re done and you’re never done.


This blog post represents notes on my PhD reading of Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, by Jesper Juul (2011), chapter 4.

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