Understanding Ludonarrative Dissonance as an Artistic Tool

Off Site Project
13 min readJun 26, 2023

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Coined in 2007 by game developer Clint Hocking, the term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ describes the phenomenological experience triggered when a video game’s story and its ludic structure are disharmonious. Growing from its initial application to the first-person-shooter Bioshock, the term gained popularity as a critical tool for evaluating video games in a holistic manner. Reasoning that each side (the narrative and the ludic) should correspond and enhance the other. Accordingly, ludonarrative dissonance warns game developers against placing the player in a contradictory condition, arguing that if the actions a game compels us to make are ideologically mismatched to the unfolding story, then immersion is interrupted. The magic circle is ruptured.

What this formation of ludonarrative dissonance discards, or fails to incorporate, is the potential of intentionally creating a rupture. Playing against the game has been a hallmark of gaming communities for many years — inventive re-ruling can extend the shelf life of a given title, online communities can role-play alternative games within games, and speedrunning requires mechanics to be exploited and broken. However, my interest rests in a community of practice even further from the cultural core of gaming. Viewed not as a tool for video game criticism but as an artistic technique, ludonarrative dissonance can be used as a framework for retrospectively classifying a number of artworks created from the mid-1990s onwards. Moreover, many of these artworks can themselves be understood as interventionist forms of critique, questioning the underlying principles of certain video game genres and conventions at a broader systemic level — what we may call the meta narrative.

This paper acts to parse a range of artistic engagements with- and interventions into video games, to establish sub-genres of ludonarratively dissonant practice, and to identify those artworks that sit most proximately to the heart of ludonarrative dissonance.

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A few notes before beginning: Foremost, it is important to explain that the artistic period being covered spans two-and-a-half-decades and includes works from the Net Art and Post-Internet Art genres. Approximately speaking Net Art concerns artworks made on and for the internet; whilst Post-Internet Art refers to artistic production informed by the internet as a hyperobject reality. Second, excluded from this survey are works that we might call art-machinima or machinima-art (AM / MA). As accessible tools for worldbuilding, animation and filming, the art world has seen an exponential growth of artworks crafted using game engines. Digital asset libraries streamline the process even further. However, understood as machinima the results are rarely games and when they are the ludic component is often underdeveloped. Though they may share similar critical concerns, these artworks can be cut from the ludonarrative pool. Third and finally, this paper marks the beginning of an ongoing research project, it is my intention that in the immediate future it will be embellished with interviews of key artists.

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Genre type #1 and #2. The artistic operation & the artistically operational.

Entering into a game, we typically accept the logic of its magic circle, obeying codes and conventions established over a history of iterative development. Stepping into the magic circle with alternative intentions subverts this implied order and re-rules the game along lines of thought unique to the player. For artists this has been a tantalising opportunity, a space to be subverted. Though often these subversions follow the rules of the artist’s habitat, performing conventions of making art. Our first genre (#1) of ludonarratively dissonant artwork might be called the ‘artistic operation’.

Joan Pamboukes (2006 — ongoing) ‘Videogame Color Fields’ (left and centre); and Mark Rothko (1950) ‘White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)’ (right).
Justin Berry (2018) ‘Road Trip [Ocoro]’ (left); and Ansel Adams (1942) ‘The Tetons and the Snake River’ (right).

In Videogame Color Fields (2006 — ongoing) Joan Pamboukes photographs programmed moments of sublimity from Grand Theft Auto, Ace Combat and Kill Zone. In Road Trip (2018) Justin Berry turns avatar eyes into a photographic tool to produce a sequence of American landscape vistas. Drawing upon 20th century artistic traditions, these works suspend both ludic and narrative components of their games and rephrase the player as a painter or photographer. No longer is the objective to kill your way through a facility or race to the finish line, it is to be Ansel Adams, be Mark Rothko.

A step further, through custom modification artists can more literally role-play as seminal figures from the canon. Founded in 2012, COLL.EO is a collective composed of artists Colleen Flaherty and Matteo Bittanti. Beginning with troubling American performance art icon Vito Acconci in 2013, they have inhabited the skins of artists and re-enacted famous works around the city streets of Grand Theft Auto 4’s Liberty City, aka New York. Playing as Samo, the graffiti moniker of Jean-Michel Basquiat, they sprayed faithful recreations of the artist’s tags. Taking on the mantle of David Wojnarowicz, Adrian Piper and William Pope.L, they have re-enacted performance pieces and photographic projects that are cemented within New York’s artistic legacy.

COLL.EO (2014) ‘Grand Theft Vito’ (left); and Vito Acconci (1969) ‘Following Piece’ (centre and right).

Collectively these digital performance pieces transpose Situationist logics and can be read as a meta-commentary about the artworld, reducing it to a game and identifying the east coast city as its optimal sandbox environment. Read in relation to Pamboukes and Berry, we might understand these artistic operations as signalling the rising importance of virtual landscapes and as a means of contesting the aggressive behaviours normative to them.

Akin to the artistic operation, the ‘artistically operational’ (#2) equally seeks to turn the game into a means of generating art, though it opts for aesthetics over performance. Possibly the first example of this is Miltos Manetas’s ABSTRACT SUPERMARIO (1997), which channelled the Nintendo 64 classic through a special effects console resulting in a heavily pixelated plumber running and jumping through pointillist or neo-plactistism renditions of the Mushroom Kingdom. First shown at Alleged Gallery in New York City, the work was subsequently presented in Seoul, Milan, Basel and London, with visitors able to play it live.

Miltos Manetas (1997) ‘ABSTRACT SUPERMARIO’ [Media City, Seoul. 2002] (left); Piet Mondrian (1942–1943) ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ (centre); and Georges Seurat (1884) ‘Bathers at Asnières’ (right).
JODI (1998–2001) ‘Untitled Game [ ctrl-space ]’ (left); and Bridget Riley (1963) ‘Fall’ (right).

Whilst Manetas’s piece altered the aesthetics of the game, it cannot be called a truly operational or interventionist approach, having used a special effects system to amend the signal from the N64 console. It is an after-effect. This deeper interruption — what has been called “parasitic interventions” — would be achieved a year later by Belgium software artist duo JODI. Hacking Quake and Wolfenstein 3D respectively, JODI’s Untitled Game (1998–2001) series and SOD (1999) reduced the game environments into minimalist optics that are reminiscent of Bridget Riley or even the textural compositions of early computational artists such as Manfred Mohr or Frieder Nake. Available to download and patch into the original games, JODI’s interventions made play by conventional logic almost impossible. Attempting to ‘complete’ Quake under these optical conditions is masochistic, it might even be supposed that the impenetrability of the modified game was a witty parallel to the artworlds own obscure nature. Forgivingly their version of Wolfenstein 3D is far easier, though still a disorientating nightmare.

It is of course important to note that patching, modding, wadding etc, are not tools devised by artists. They emerged from dedicated communities of gamers and were adopted by artists who intersected within these circles. Though the rationale switches from extending and therefore perpetuating the ludonarrative convention of the game, to positing an alternative.

Editing the code to extract purpose, Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds (2002) and F1 Race Mod (aka Japanese Driving Game) (2004) directly modified cartridge copies of games to remove all but a few essential elements, turning their game worlds into pure image environments. These unplayable infinite durational landscapes are often presented together as Super Landscape #1 (2005), using a combination of CRT TVs, projectors and NESs. Similarly Sarah Friend’s Never Ending Snake (2018) is a browser based version of the classic game, de-ruled to remove death triggers, trapping the player in a slowly elongating pixelated Franz Kline purgatory.

Cory Arcangel (2002) ‘Super Mario Clouds’ (left); and Sarah Friend (2018) ‘Never Ending Snake’ (right).

Unifying these projects is an obfuscation of purpose, their edits into the game code re-imagine them as aesthetic propositions with art-historical connotations. By turning the ludic component away from violence or competition and towards liberated image play, the narrative arch of these games not only becomes discordant, it is reduced to irrelevant. Moreover, the behavioural conditioning of the game genres — which informs a meta level social narrative — is called into question by these acts of repurposing.

Genre type #3. The politically discordant.

In Hocking’s article a key realisation was the ideological discrepancy between his Randian ludic choices and the scripted events of the overarching narrative. A misalignment of politics. Our third (#3) and possibly the most potent genre of artistic ludonarrative dissonance aligns with this conceptual commentary. The ‘politically discordant’ strategy is characterised by public interventions enacted in online spaces, most commonly first-person-shooters and role-playing-games.

Conceived in response to 9/11 and the fear that the attacks would be used a pretext to initiate illegitimate conflicts in the Middle East, Velvet Strike (2002) is a Counter Strike mod containing a set of thirty-nine protest sprays created by Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandre and Brody Condon. Valve’s game was selected in part due to its binary composition of terrorist and counter terrorist teams, but also in recognition of online games becoming increasingly politicised public forums which often tended towards a conservative or militaristic extreme. In her essay on the piece, Schleiner cites the popularity of Osama Bin Laden skins in Quake, Unreal and the Sims. Acting in opposition to these pro-war mods, artists and players who download the Velvet Strike spray pack would use the game’s existing graffiti function, quickly turning the surfaces of Aztec, Dust II and Train into zones of resistance. The sprays themselves range from messages of peace that are incongruous with Counter Strike’s ludic systems, to directly political messages and imagery intended to counter mainstream media propaganda of the time. Moreover, by discarding the prescribed actions of the game — to shoot, to plant a bomb, to rescue a hostage — in favour of creative play a new ludic structure is inserted into an existing one, interrupting and unbalancing the game. A team that unwittingly incorporates Velvet Strike campaigners is at a significant disadvantage and the careful balancing of the map tilted unfavourably.

Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandre and Brody Condon (2002) ‘Velvet Strike’ .
Joseph DeLappe (2006–2011) ‘dead-in-iraq’.

Three years into the Iraq War, Joseph DeLappe would begin a similar project aimed at disrupting US military recruitment. Launched in 2002 and free to download, America’s Army bears a remarkable resemblance to Counter Strike, pitting two opposing teams against one another in close quarters combat. Explicitly the game sees one side playing as a US fire-squad whilst the other takes on the role of insurgent forces. Game stations were set up in high schools and low income areas; the website contained a direct link to an army recruitment page. Though gamified it has repeatedly been marketed as ‘authentic’ and even used as a training tool.

Reflecting on these factors — as well as the rising civilian and military deaths in Iraq and the open call for 9/11 memorial proposals — DeLappe began dead-in-iraq (2006–2011), in which he would enter a match and using the dialogue system type the name, age, service branch and date of death of every American soldier who had died in the Iraq war. DeLappe has called this work a “memorial”, a “cautionary gesture” and a means of “closing the loop” between the war and the game developed to support it, both nationalistically and in terms of physical capacity. Similarly to Velvet Strike DeLappe’s actions unbalance the calibration of play, though their real potency comes from the intersection of contrary drivers, to memorialise being pitted against to play. At its best the work achieves a type of spatial collapse, disturbing the ludonarrative logic by revealing its wider implications.

Angela Washko (2012–2015) ‘The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft’.

Shifting away from a military context, though still very much alert to notions of machismo, Angela Washko’s The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft (2012–2015) was a long term sociological investigation into feminism and its appreciation by players of the massively multiplayer online role playing game. Inhabiting her avatar Washko abandoned a quest based approach to WoW and opted to embrace a conversational model. She explains her initial intent as being to “change the sexist, racist and homophobic language used casually within WoW,” though for multiple reasons the impulse to ‘change’ was adapted to a more open model of discourse, to become a conversation facilitator developing dialogues on feminism and to understand the common language used between players. One of Washko’s key deductions from the project was WoW operates as a marginalised space where “suppressed ideologies” could be the dominant one. This implies that what is external to the magic circle informs what is internal, by this virtue Washko’s actions internally have the potential for effecting externally.

Essential to the ‘politically discordant’ is the online publicness of the game being played. Unlike the ‘artistic operation’ and the ‘artistically operational’ — which can rely on secondary art-world audiences for their appreciation — these projects necessitate the unwitting audiences upon which ludonarrative disruption is applied. They seek not only to make the game dissonant but to bring that disquiet into the homes of those who play the games, seeding doubt about the worldviews their harmonic ludic and narrative elements convey.

Arguably there is a case to say this is unwarranted, in all cases the artists have reported resistance with cries of ‘THIS IS JUST A GAME’. DeLappe has spoken of being booted as a measure of success and cites only one instance of someone approaching him to explain how the intervention made him question joining the army; Washko has pointed out the colonial impulses of her practice as part of the reasoning for switching tactics and starting a guild. Regardless of direct impact, what these projects do reveal is that contrary to the gamers’ claims that the game is only a game, that the magic circle is absolute, there is a bleed between the ludic stories being told and the wider world.

Genre type #4. Non-playable-dissonance.

Finally we can characterise a fourth genre (#4) as being methodologically tied together by modes of automation, whilst touching upon some of the concerns of the other three categories. ‘Non-playable-dissonance’ is as the name implies a mode of fire-and-forget disruption, created through coded interventions and the utilisation of NPCs.

Bret Watanabe (2015–2016) ‘San Andreas Streaming Deer Cam’.

A fairly innocuous example of this mode is represented by Bret Watanabe’s San Andreas Streaming Deer Cam (2015–2016), saw the artist mod Grand Theft Auto V, relocating the camera from our human protagonists to an NPC animal. Hosted over Twitch.tv, the artwork tracked the deers movements through the 100 square miles of fictional Californian city- and landscape. Visible via a parasocial gamespace, Watanabe’s work suggests a reorganisation of priorities from the human centric to the wider (often ignored) in-game ecology.

More pointedly, we return to Joseph DeLappe and his Elegy, GTA USA Gun Homicides (2018–2019). Another Rockstar mod, this work reenacted daily the total US gun homicides for the year so far. Starting at midnight on July 4th 2018, NPCs would kill one another until a total of 7,293 had been reached. Running with increasing figures everyday for a year. By the end of the year the daily target had grown to 14,730 and on the first day of 2019 the figure reset to 0. Data was drawn from the Gun Violence Archive.

Joseph DeLappe (2018–2019) ‘Elegy: GTA USA Gun Homicides’.

To differing effects these mods subvert and exaggerate the logic of their game. Neither is truly ludonarratively operative, as neither is playable. Yet they still function as perversions of intended play, employing the game as malleable media that becomes critically aware of itself and its participation in events beyond itself. This is not to say GTA legitimises or encourages gun violence, rather it exists within a media sphere where narratives of violence predominate.

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To close, what all these projects share is a collective will to contest the ways we inhabit game space and the narratives that align with these modes of inhabitation. When a video game’s ludic and narrative elements are cohesive to one another, they validate the actions the player is compelled to complete. Mostly and take on a case-by-case basis this should be understood as a positive. Though viewed at a macro level all of this cohesion creates expectation and normalises models of play. Considering ludonarrative dissonance not as a problem, but as a tool, we can see these artworks as a means of exploring the porous membranes of the magic circle, testing the distinction between external and internal.

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Note: this text was originally written and presented for the ICGaN 2023 (International Conference on Games and Narrative), which ran from Monday 15 — Thursday 18 May 2023.

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Off Site Project

Online gallery founded by Pita Arreola-Burns & Elliott Burns. Research blog exploring the ideologies, systems, architecture and design of digital art spaces.