Documentary at Play

Documentary at Play

Inge Ejbye Sørensen (University of Copenhagen, Denmark) and Anne Mette Thorhauge (University of Copenhagen, Denmark)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2663-8.ch020


Docu-games designate a versatile group of games that have in common an attempt to depict and reflect on aspects of reality such as military conflicts, historical periods, or contemporary political and socio-cultural issues. As such, docu-games have become a new communication tool for individuals or organizations. This chapter explores different perspectives on games as documentaries, going beyond the mere subject matter and visualization of docu-games to approach questions about simulations as statements about reality and gameplay as a tool for communicating statements about reality. Combining cognitive documentary and games theory with content analysis, the chapter offers a theoretical framework for understanding how docu-games reference the relationship between reality and game, as well as how they establish credibility in relation to these representations.
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Between Representation And Reality

The emergence of new hybrid and interactive forms of documentary such as newsgames, persuasive games, crowd-sourced documentaries, database documentaries and docu-games has rekindled the debates about the relationship between fact and fiction and representation and reality, debates which have raged since the birth of documentary film. Recently, and in following this tradition, critics have questioned the ways, if at all, docu-games can be seen as being able to refer to—and make credible statements about—reality.

In “Reality Play: Documentary Computer Games Beyond Fact and Fiction,” Joost Raessens held the term “documentary game” up to critical review. Based on analyzing gaming experiences from playing these games and the statements they make about reality, Raessens (2006) concluded that documentary games occupy a space in between objectivity and subjectivity and therefore neither represent reality objectively nor exist as mere subjective renderings of the game designers. Inspired by Michael Renov’s (2004, 2009) writings about the autobiographical documentary, Sanchez-Laws (2010) explored whether the immersive potential of digital storytelling might lead to a new documentary form, albeit one that depicts a first-person perspective on reality and therefore an ultimately subjective version of the truth. Similarly, comparing docu-games to other kinds of real-life simulations (e.g., the forensic modelling that is now accepted in courts in the United States), Fullerton (2008) conceded that documentary as simulation holds the promise of accurate depictions of reality, but is sceptical toward docu-games as sources of information about the real world at this point in time. Again drawing on Renov, Fullerton argued that the involvement of the viewers leads to a subjective point of view, which undermines objectivity and creates an uncertain reference to reality. For these authors, docu-games’ reference to reality is either indeterminate or, at best, subjective. However, Renov (2004, 2009) focused on documentary as the expressive strategies of a subject and to a lesser extent on the ways in which documentary texts position themselves vis-à-vis the reality they describe. Therefore, this chapter will instead combine game studies with the rhetoric and cognitive documentary theories of Carl Plantinga (1997, 2005), Ib Bondebjerg (2002, 2008, forthcoming 2012) and Paul Ward (2005, 2009) and make the case that docu-games provide a credible, useful and effective way of representing and reflecting on reality. From this perspective, docu-games and their relationship to reality can be understood in the same way as the documentary subgenres (the authoritative, the dramatized documentary, observational documentary and poetic reflective documentary) reference reality.

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