The term ludology etymologically stems from the Latin word ludus, meaning "game". Hence, it denotes the academic theories coined specifically for the purpose of analysing games. Sadly, it has not been taken on as the general term for all game studies, which has been quite a problem in defining the object of inquiry.
At least in the early days of the field, scholars have used the term in order to distinguish themselves from approaches based in narratology, the theories of story and storytelling. Well, maybe "early days" is a bit of an overstatement. The earliest text in game theory that is still widely read and discussed is Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga and was written in the 1930s. But by naming their field in the 90s, ludologists gained a new awareness for their work and video games emancipated themselves as topic of academic study.
The conflict between ludology and narratology really only took off with the advent of 3D-games. (Meaning games operating in virtual 3D-space, not 3D-displays.) With this development, games included a virtual camera and thus the potential for cinematic storytelling. This was the point where open-minded literature and film scholars could dig in with their analytic methods. It opened up digital games for narratologic discussion, because they were suddenly comparable to traditional narrative media.
Literature scholars abusing digital games by bullying them with their old and dusty methods and theories that do not by any stretch consider the unique features the new media offers?
The ludologists were like:
And the narratologists were like:
Which basically led to ludologists repeatedly denying games the ability to tell stories at all. Narratologist, in conclusion, were clearly idiots who didn't understand what they were looking at. They were just looking for a virginal topic to discuss in order to get attention for their pitiful antiquated fields of study. No, really. Just have a look at the following quote by Espen Aarseth. It nicely sums up the tone of the debate:
The great stake-claiming race is on, and academics from neighboring fields, such as literature and film studies, are eagerly grasping "the chance to begin again, in a golden land of opportunity and adventure" (to quote from the ad in Blade Runner). As with any land rush, the respect for local culture and history is minimal, while the belief in one's own tradition, tools, and competence is unfailing. Computer game studies is virgin soil, ready to be plotted and plowed by the machineries of cultural and textual studies. What better way to map the territory than by using the trusty, dominant paradigm of stories and storytelling?
That's right. The big bad colonial narratologists simply seize the native lands of the rightful owners, the ludologists. These, in return, have spared no expenses to define games in such a fashion that they could not in any way include narration. This led to utterly unusable definitions.
But what's past is past. Nowadays, I think we all can agree that digital games do tell stories and some of them aren't half bad at it. The new medium isn't the digital equivalent to analog games. They are more than that, including a level of representation. Games include both play and narration and that's what makes them so interesting.
So, are ludologist theories viable at all? Yes, very much so. Games do include lots of features and mechanics that can't be pinned down by traditional narratologist vocabulary. Ludologic theories mean all analyses and methods that are based on genuinely game and play-related issues that film and literature do not exhibit at all.
For getting a first grasp for ludology, I can recommend the following authors:
- Espen Aarseth
- Jesper Juul
- Katie Salen / Eric Zimmerman (Rules of Play, great fundamentals for game analysis)
- Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken, is more of a cultural approach)
- The videos by Errant Signal are very good and often include ludologic analysis