Concerning Fun: Politicizing Ludonarrative Dissonance

Max José Dreysse Passos de Carvalho

Concerning Fun: Politicizing Ludonarrative Dissonance

This piece will tackle a notion that is arguably among game studies’ most prolific terms: ludonarrative dissonance. As is often the case when it comes to theoretical discussions, here too it is useful to begin with some tentative definitions. Arreola-Jones characterizes ludonarrative dissonance as “the phenomenological experience triggered when a video game’s story and its ludic structure are disharmonious … [it] 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”. Makedonski puts it in similar terms, stating that “when a game tells the player one thing through its story and environment, and then contradicts it though gameplay, the player becomes unimmersed and disconnected from the experience …”. Ludonarrative dissonance, in the glorious diction of James Stephanie Sterling, is “when you’re supposed to feel bad for stabbing one single dog after hours of being conditioned to see … dogs as annoying tripmine fodder” (Sterling). From Youtube comments to steam reviews, video essays, reddit-posts and mainstream journalism: in quantitative terms, ludonarrative dissonance is arguably the theoretical concept of gaming culture. Personally, I too count several texts dealing with ludonarrative dissonance among my absolute favorite pieces of writing on video games period. The concept has, unquestionably, helped gaming culture identify and articulate a range of grievances concerning popular game design norms that were and continue to be deeply problematic. I am, by and large, happy it exists. But, and that’s unsurprisingly what this piece will be about, I also have some issues with ludonarrative dissonance. I do not intend to trash the concept or any of its advocates, however. Instead, my hope is that by naming and discussing these issues, we can improve our grasp on ludonarrative dissonance and by extension sharpen the ways in which we make qualitative judgements about games.

Put in the shortest possible terms, my discomfort with ludonarrative dissonance reads something like this: there exists a disconnect between what I think the concept effectively does (i.e. the phenomena it is used to refer to), and what its semantics imply. In case you are now sceptically eyeing the microscopic size of the scrollbar elevator, worried that this pedantic a concern could never justify a wall of text of this magnitude, please hear me out. I promise not to bury you in pages of arguments as to why we should all cancel ludonarrative dissonance, or on how the world would be a better place if we replaced the concept with a different expression. Semantics, in this case, merely serve as a hook. I tend to believe that concepts catch on when they succeed in arranging existing expressions/morphemes into an immediately comprehensible and therefore precise and accurate nametag for an hitherto unnamable phenomenon. Given its tremendous popularity, I think it’s fair to assume that ludonarrative dissonance succeeded in doing just that: this particular constellation of morphemes, “ludo-“, “-narrative”, and “dissonance”, manages to articulate something about the way many people think and talk about games. But the way the concept gets thrown around more often than not clashes with the way I think and talk about games. I am convinced that there is something to be gleaned from this confusion, and that if framed correctly it can point us toward an underlying tension worth talking about. This tension, I think, pertains to what we think the nature of games is, where their purpose lies, how we consume them, and what the goals of our conversations about them should be. Ultimately, I will argue that the question of ludonarrative dissonance is political. To make my case, I want to explicate some of the argumentative positions that I think are presupposed when the concept is evoked so I can juxtapose them with my own. With some luck (on my part) and patience (on yours), this might just lead to productive debate.

Let’s begin by returning to ludonarrative dissonance’s morphological and etymological structure. “Dissonance”, here, means that two things, i.e. “ludo” and “narrative”, don’t mix. In most other contexts, dissonance refers to a disharmony readily perceived by anyone: we are at a concert, the string player misses a note, the whole audience gasps. It needn’t be deduced intellectually: dissonance immediately disrupts, it often strikes us as ugly, inappropriate, or straight up false. It occurs, to invoke a loaded metaphor, on the text’s surface. Fittingly, the Arreola-Jones passage cited above speaks of a “phenomenological” notion, one that refers to a specific kind of “experience”. Dissonance is ideological, of course, but superficially so: it speaks to a disruption of audience expectations, often entailing a subversion of hegemonial, thoroughly internalized aesthetic norms (or failure to execute them, as in the case of the violinist). For this reason, it is felt by everyone, not just the critic or intellectual. Which is why the way it is commonly used in games discourse strikes me as misleading. Unlike Arreola-Jones, and against the associations produced by the term “dissonance”, I am convinced that ludonarrative dissonance is in fact not a phenomenological notion: most of the games called out for ostensibly being ludonarratively dissonant are enthusiastically received by mainstream audiences and journalists alike (compare Bioshock, The Last of Us or Uncharted). On the other hand, ludonarrative dissonance is seldom used to critique games that do offend popular sensibilities: Anthem, Gollum, Diablo Immortal or Overwatch 2 are accused of many things, but ludonarrative dissonance as far as I can tell is not (prominently) among them. Consider also the avant-gardist tone of the usual opinion piece containing the notion: “here is why this popular game is really bad if you think about it.” Such papers draw much of their rhetorical force from a flattering distinction between a cultivated authorial I (and their privy reader), and the playing habits of an imputed “uncritical” consumer, who does not seem to notice or care about the ominous thing to which ludonarrative dissonance seeks to refer. As evidenced by review-scores and sales numbers, ostensibly ludonarratively dissonant games do not lack immersiveness, nor are they unenjoyable or perceived as disruptively incoherent. All of which makes “dissonance” something of an inappropriately chosen word: it evokes immediate aesthetic experience while actually appealing to a hidden truth underlying the text, one that is accessible only to a select intellectual elite.

Before discussing what’s at stake in these considerations, I would like to make a brief detour and revisit ludonarrative dissonance’s 2007 urtext Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock. In it, game designer and critic Clint Hocking notes that the iconic shooter suffers from “a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story” (my emphasis). Hocking’s phrasing is instructive because it reveals that the dissonance he is talking about is not in the strictest sense “internal” to the game: rather than between game and story, Hocking uses ludonarrative dissonance to refer to a tension between what both of them are about. He is talking, and this is crucial, about the game’s meaning. Bioshock, according to him, is a text that wants to critique something (Randian Objectivism) but ultimately fails to do so. Its incoherence lies in failing to realize the intention Hocking ascribes to it. Narratively, the protagonist’s objectivist treatment of the Little Sister conundrum as part of their quest to save Atlas may be controversial, but it is utterly plausible and certainly not contradictory. What is contradicted, however, is the message Hocking assumes the game wants to purvey, namely that Randian objectivism is bad. His phrasing and his choice of words end up implying this tension occurs openly visible on the surface of the game. This is true not just for the notion of “dissonance”: for instance, Hocking writes that “the leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either.” As any reference to its critical as well as commercial success establishes beyond a sliver of doubt, Bioshock does not destroy “the player’s ability to feel connected” to its world – unless, and that is the crux of the matter, by “player” we mean Hocking himself, or an abstract player-subject modeled after him.

Here, then, lies the problem. Hocking’s method is interpretation: he ascribes intentionality, and only from there does he uncover a dysfunctional allegorical operation in Bioshock. Only if we assume the game wants to make a case against Randian objectivism does its decision to reward the employment of that philosophy with a happy end become self-defeating. Via a subtle interpretative gesture, Hocking judges the game against that which he (compellingly!) argues seeks expression in it, but which isn’t positively manifest in the game. Complicatedly, however, in as much as the act of interpreting something entails occupying a position external to it, interpretation and immersion are mutually exclusive modes of engaging with media/art. To note a tension between game and something outside of it (i.e. by thinking about its meaning, the way it refers to something else, in this case Ayn Rand), presupposes an experiential distance that by all accounts forecloses immersion anyhow. Put differently, aslong as the player experiences immersion, they couldn’t care less about whether the game’s politics are incoherent: they are here to save Atlas and if it takes the killing of some creepy girls then so be it! Going by commercial success, accepting such premises did not seem to pose much of a problem for most players of Bioshock. That Hocking felt otherwise is a consequence of his engagement with the game being subtly, and perhaps unconsciously, interpretative from the get-go. His failure to feel immersed thus follows not from the game’s “dissonance,” but from his interpretative posture, which has him abandon immersion in favor of a search for meaning. His claim that what disrupted his experience was the thing he found (“ludonarrative dissonance”) rather than the act of searching, is a retroactive rationalization that stands in to translate the findings of a marginalized form of critical thought (interpretation) into the more permissible language of personal taste. Ludonarrative dissonance is an interpretative notion posing as a phenomenological one. The statistical unconventionality of Hocking’s reading of Bioshock indeed forces into view the fact that not every aesthetic experience is interpretative: it is fully feasible to play through Bioshock while feeling utterly “connected” to it.

Hocking’s argument relies on a series of references to the subjective (Bioshock “destroys the player’s ability to feel connected” to its world), but it has an invariably objective scope (“Bioshock is not our Citizen Kane”). Clearly, Hocking assumes that his view is more valid than that of the fully immersed Bioshock player – the player, in other words, who feels connected to Bioshock’s world. This implicit claim is ultimately what marks his approach as an interpretative one. Quote Fredric Jameson: “Interpretation is not an isolated act, but takes place within a Homeric battlefield, on which a host of interpretative options are either openly or implicitly in conflict” (xiii). Experience is subjective, meaning is not: Lord of the Rings is objectively less about a sinking ocean cruiser than Titanic is. “I had a good/bad time with [insert entertainment product]” is not an interpretative statement, whereas “[Insert entertainment product] is racist” is. The treacherousness of ludonarrative dissonance as a concept, I think, is that Hocking unwittingly oscillates between these two semiotic layers, and that this ambivalence is largely inherited by most critics who have employed the notion since.

The average consumer does not share Hocking’s interpretative reflex; hence, they tend to care little about what critics dub ludonarrative dissonance. Since what we are really talking about is “meaning”, the problem with the ostensibly “dissonant” game really transcends the frame of the game: it has to do with how the game relates to our world and, consequently, with politics. To note this kind of dissonance demands a complete and utter refusal of the idea that “it’s just a game”, that all it ought to achieve is be fun to “you”, be immersive, i.e. conducive to your private flow experience. Take another often discussed example of ludonarrative dissonance: Uncharted’s Nathan Drake being a lovable guy during cutscenes and a genocidal mass murderer during gameplay is a contradiction only if we as society agree it is (Goodall, “Player Disconnected?”). Uncharted’s commercial success, which suggests that no dissonance seems to impair the flow experience of its average consumer, is exposing. Within our ideological framework, lovable white guys who murder POC by the hundreds are apparently not an oxymoron. Or, as Mark Fisher would put it and more accurately: they are, but we act/police/vote/consume and in this case play as if they were not (12-3). The ethical hypocrisy of bourgeois life is narratively enabled by a cultural industry that eagerly simulates conditions wherein real-world contradictions are symbolically resolved: the evil guys in Uncharted always shoot first, are impossible to negotiate with, will inevitably cast the world into disaster – if Nathan does not kill them first. Real violence always produces contradictions. War is dirty: it does not deal in heroes but in villains. Nathan Drake, on the other hand, is a hero. Where dissonance would reveal contradiction, what Uncharted does is conceal it: in its story world, Drake’s violence is without alternative and always leads to good consequences. Problematically, rather than disrupting immersion, most of the phenomena referred to under the header of ludonarrative dissonance are really among the formal-rhetorical devices games employ to enable it. Players perceive the act of killing in Uncharted as unproblematic not despite, but because of the reassuring cutscenes. These establish Nathan as a good guy with family values, friends, etc., and thereby frame him as a legitimate purveyor of deadly force.

And this, I believe, is what it all comes down to. The legitimacy of Nathan Drake’s violence is ultimately established in much the same way as that of a John Wick or a John McLane: Whether it’s via a classical “kick the dog”-moment or through a horrific hostage situation, what all these characters have in common is that their narratives conjure circumstances wherein their violent exploits appear as inevitable or at the very least justified. And in as much as narrative is a lens through which we view the world, these propagandistic qualities of the media we consume must strike us as problematic: the same subjects who are on a daily basis conditioned to view certain kinds of violence as legitimate are then asked to vote on issues like border security or the policing of marginalized populations. From this angle, another problematic surrounding the field of ludonarrative dissonance begins to take shape, namely the question in how far these phenomena are specific to “ludo-”narratives to begin with. My tentative position is that what we are looking at is a particular, specific-to-games manifestation of a more fundamental and nigh universal feature of cultural production under late capitalism. For that reason, I also do not think that AAA game developers in general are looking for better ways of telling stories (as Hocking muses toward the end of his 2007 essay), because quite frankly I do not believe the phenomena discussed are viewed as problems to begin with. Telling stories wherein certain power fantasies and forms of violence are legitimized or even celebrated are stables of commercial cultural production – why should “ludo-“narratives be any different? When reading Hocking, one gets the sense that the videogame industry is collectively trying their hardest to best some as of yet unmastered formal test posed by the ‘new’ medium. This “we as an industry""-rhetoric entails an epistemically fraud universalization of AAA game production with a blind eye turned to everything happening in the indie space. It may be a cheap shot, but this seems like as good a place as any to point out that Hocking spent most of his professional life before and after Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock working for some of the most powerful videogame corporations on the planet. I do not think AAA-games end up aesthetically primitive, apolitical, or reactionary because of the intricacies of games as a “new” form of storytelling. By 2007, independent game developers had already produced incredibly expressive works of art: if anything, it was game production on a corporate scale, on Hocking’s scale, that hadn’t caught up and didn’t plan to. More plausibly, therefor, the problems of games like Bioshock can be attributed to market forces. As pointed out above, allegedly ludonarratively dissonant games have seldom struggled to find an audience, at least not on account of being dissonant. What makes “dissonance” a poorly chosen word, then, is also what ensures such games aren’t going anywhere. I am talking about the fact, of course, that the paying customer either does not notice or does not care about any of it.

My concerns with ludonarrative dissonance would amount to little more than semantic nitpicking if they didn’t relate to a broader problem in gaming culture generally, and game studies more specifically. That problem, borrowing Hocking’s diction one more time, is a lack of “critique”. Critique, in my view, names an inquisitive stance that has the critic introduce a methodical distance between themselves and their object of inquiry. That object tends to be an ordinary part of life – an advertisement, a ritual, the speech of some politician, a work of art, anything at all really ­– with the caveat that it is usually, under ordinary circumstances, experienced rather intuitively and therefor passively. We might say, for instance, that critique lies in thinking about eating, as opposed to engaging in the act of eating itself. Immediate experience is subjective, private, and impossible to convey in all its complexity – it is therefore an essentially apolitical category. Critique, on the other hand, seeks to translate experience into objective categories, i.e. perform the movement from the private to the public. The knowledge it aims to produce is anything but subjective: its claim is that there is an objective core to the thing discussed, one that persists across all the incommensurably distinct individual modes of reception. Whatever you may feel about Lord of the Rings, it is still about Hobbits trying to destroy a Ring and not about a replicant-retiring Blade Runner. The possibility of democratic politics is predicated on our capacity to produce such knowledge and to collectively accept it as objective (e.g. man-made climate change exists, nobody gets to dismiss it on account of not feeling it). Part of the problem we face, and here we have to make a quick detour into Marxist terminology, is that the commodity-form opposes precisely that kind of knowledge: it encourages “private attachments rather than public judgments” (Brown 7). In a thoroughly commodified world, debates of meaning naturally come to be frowned upon: the market could not care less about what the consumer does with/thinks about a product, as long as they purchase it. The commodified society’s ethics are shaped by a radically consumerist ideology: your private enjoyment of Call of Duty is valid, the commodity-form says, anyone arguing the game is imperialist propaganda is a moralizing elitist. Unless, of course, you are the one who feels the game is imperialist propaganda. In that case, openly acknowledge the game’s problematic politics and consume away. Any mode of reception at all is justified, really. There is no objective truth about the commodity, only an endless series of dispersed, but equally valid subjective moments of consumption.

In as much as the market therefore undermines objectivity, critique adapts by shifting form: it becomes review. Unlike the critic, the reviewer makes few objective claims, instead listing arguments for why they liked or disliked a given product. Their job is to help the game commodity reach its target audience: the consumer knows which reviewer shares their taste and goes to them for shopping recommendations. What remains of objectivity is condensed in the review’s characteristic numeric score. Good graphics are always the graphics that sell new hardware, good gameplay is always addictive, flow-conducive and immersive. Where a critic might ask what values a work of art conveys and how these values relate to a socio-political moment, the reviewer cares about fun. Critique is complicated, it often raises more questions than it answers. In a commodified society that has us identify with the things we consume, it may even offend. But it is precisely the way critique complicates things that makes it so indispensable to a democratic society. Mark Fisher: “The best gifts are those we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves – not because we would have overlooked or rejected them, but because we simply wouldn’t have thought of them.” The market and its limited offering of “choices” allows us to “select amongst minimally different versions” of what we have already chosen – if society is misogynist, misogynist games can be fun.

The purpose of the game commodity is precisely to be sold to individuals looking for distraction from society and politics, and the review helps it do just that. But what if we wagered on a different, perhaps a more political and therefor more democratic individual? What if the games we produced and the texts we wrote about them were not geared towards players as they are, but as we know they could be? Surely, we would have to begin by acknowledging that the qualities of a game transcend the scope of what a one-dimensional numerical scale from “boring” to “fun” can tell us about it. The realization that a game is “fun” would not in itself constitute a conclusion, but be part of the data flowing into our analysis: what, for instance, does it mean for a game to allow us to have fun while engaging with this or that subject matter? Since the question of whether a game is “good” can only be answered in relation to a goal, the denaturalization of “fun” as a universal ludic purpose would invariably guide us toward political debate. If Bioshock is about Ayn Rand, which I agree with Hocking it is, then we have to acknowledge what it has to say about her: given the right circumstances, Randian Objectivism works. Immediately we find that Hocking’s aesthetic judgement is powered by a more subtle political one, which is that Randian Objectivism is a dangerous philosophy that ought to be critiqued. Hocking’s disagreement with Bioshock is thus political in nature: Bioshock condoning Ayn Rand is a problem only if you disagree with her. “Ludonarrative dissonance” is part of a rhetoric developed to disarticulate the political from critique and rephrase the latter in the diction of taste. Regardless of Hocking’s private motivations, the concept’s proliferation across games discourse speaks to the consumer ideology sketched above. It is expressive of a laissez-faire attitude towards the distinction between experience and interpretation, which translates to a laissez-faire attitude toward the distinction between their respective yields: subjective account and objective claim. The underlying and deeply problematic assumption is that the critic is a subject like any other, and that for this reason their interpretation is identical in value, merit and function to that experientially “produced” by any other consumer during their exposure to the text in question. Critique, in this limited view, is simply the subjective experience of a person we call critic. This understanding, of course, has it upside down: critique is not derived from the person who performs it, but rather the method that the critic is named after. Because critique is a method, it can also be misapplied, which means that its findings are falsifiable: if the text does not refer to a giant ocean cruiser, it is not about a giant ocean cruiser – even if, for whatever biographical reason, it makes me think of one. Unlike my private enjoyment of a game, my interpretation of it has to be justified in reference to the text. Where experience is always valid, scientific arguments remain true only until a better one comes along. Conflating the two amounts to epistemic solipsism, since the skepticism toward objectivity ultimately leads to a skepticism toward the possibility of coming to a shared agreement about texts, and by extension the world.

Of course, when pressed, most game scholars and journalists would agree that it is possible to make “wrong” statements about games (“Call of Duty? Is that the one with the plumber?”). The reason I get hung up on this, then, is that looking at the language we use, one might not be able to tell. And that is a problem. We live in a time when scientific knowledge is increasingly under siege, an age of alternate facts and open hostility towards most academic fields, but particularly toward the humanities. I simply do not believe that we can afford a rhetoric that equates our methodologies with non-methodical modes of consumption. By associating the problems of games like Bioshock with missed musical notes, “ludonarrative dissonance” entails the implicit assumption that we stumble over both in more or less the same way. It thereby obfuscates the fact that we do not need critique to spot missed notes, but that in order to uncover Bioshock’s political unconscious, we do. Some people, indeed, are better at understanding games than others. There is nothing elitist about this sentiment. Instead, it names a logical consequence of the undemocratic ways in which we distribute intellectual resources. Rather than romanticizing non-critical perspectives, then, our struggle should be for a world in which we can all be critics. One final related Fisher quote:

“It’s worth reminding ourselves of the peculiar logic that neoliberalism has successfully imposed. Treating people as if they were intelligent is, we have been led to believe, “elitist”, whereas treating them as if they are stupid is “democratic”. It should go without saying that the assault on cultural elitism has gone alongside the aggressive restoration of a material elite.” (K-Punk)

Before closing, I’d like to mention a context in which the notion of ludonarrative dissonance actually works for me. Somewhere above I said that dissonance means two things don’t mix. I’d hold onto that definition, and suggest that “not mixing”, i.e. maintaining and highlighting difference and contradiction, is something games, like any other artform, frequently do – deliberately, and to great effect. I am of course not the first to notice this: since the 2010s, ludonarrative dissonance has often been used approvingly to refer to games that deliberately produce a tension between form and content to aesthetic ends (including Arreola-Jones). Spec Ops: The Line is a neat example. It employs shooter design norms, but in a context where they immediately strike the player as disgusting. It’s a wargame that actually takes war seriously and as a consequence is not fun at all. It disrupts, intervenes, and strikes us as uncomfortable – it is, in other words, deeply dissonant. Dissonance, to me, calls attention to itself. It’s a stylistic device that is meant to catch the eye by breaking with cultivated audience expectations to critique them in one and the same gesture. The dissonance Spec Ops forces into clear sight is the one we should have felt playing shooters all along: that “having fun” by “symbolically killing people” is effing weird.

Works Cited

Arreola-Burns, Pita. “Understanding Ludonarrative Dissonance as an Artistic Tool.” Medium, 26 June 2023,,The%20magic%20circle%20is%20ruptured. Accessed 9 February 2024.

Brown, Nicholas. Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism. Duke University Press, 2019.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2019.

Fisher, Mark. K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher. Edited by Ambrose, Darren and Reynolds, Simon. Repeater, 2018.

Goodall, Reece. “Player disconnected? A look at ludonarrative dissonance in gaming.” The Boar, 15 Nov. 2018, Accessed 9 July 2020.

Hocking, Clint. „Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock: The Problem of what the Game is about.” Clicknothing, 7 Oct. 2007, Accessed 9 July 2023.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Routledge, 2002.

Makedonski, Brett. “Ludonarrative dissonance: The roadblock to realism.” Destructoid, 26 September 2012, Accessed 9 February 2024.

Sterling, James Stephanie. “The Last Of Us Part II Remastered – Revving The ViolenCycle! (Review).” The Jimquisition, 27 Jan 2024, Accessed 11 April 2024.