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Interpreting the narratives within video games

CMU professor says games like World of Warcraft and Sim City communicate, tell stories


​Video games tell stories – both through narratives created by game designers and by the collective behavior of the gamers themselves, according to Joseph Packer, a communication faculty member at Central Michigan University.

He said the actions of people who play shape the meaning of games, sometimes differently than what was intended by the game designers.

“Games get narrative meaning through the collective behavior of the players,” he said. “World of Warcraft has its Tolkein-esque races, like orcs and elves. You can ask, ‘What does the game designer think an orc is? What does a player think an orc is?’”

Packer recently studied the racial narratives present in massive multiplayer games — specifically World of Warcraft, a role-playing game created in 2004. Through his research, he sought to understand what an orc — a goblin-like creature — is in the game by looking at the collective behavior of the hundreds of thousands of players who choose to play World of Warcraft as an orc. 

“Orcs in the game are portrayed as backward and monstrous at times,” Packer said. “That’s a designer perspective.”

An orc is a humanoid creature. Packer said the presentation of orcs by the game designer can be interpreted as a racist caricature, but the actions of the players show something else.

“The collective behavior of orc players eclipses stereotypes,” he said. “Instead of primitive and disorganized, orcs embody skill, experience, and dedication because statistically the gamers who choose to play as orcs demonstrate these characteristics.”

Packer said the narratives in video games can be interpreted in many other ways and can even make arguments about societal issues. One example he cited was a game called September 12th.

“It is a game where you are launching missiles at terrorists,” he said. “It’s kind of an unwinnable game. Inevitably there is collateral damage. That creates more terrorists. It doesn’t say that this kind of warfare is bad, but it communicates that through the mechanics of the game.”

Sim City, a popular game first published in 1989, also has various interpretations.

“Sim City shows how you can raise and lower taxes,” Packer said. “Liberals were angry at the game because if you raised the tax rate too high, your city would implode. Conservatives worried because mass transit was really great in the game. They argued that mass transit was actually not that good. Both liberals and conservatives said the game was making arguments, even though it wasn’t explicitly saying those things. The mechanics and the unseen processes of the game made the arguments.”


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