The following is an excerpt from Chaucer’s Losers, Nintendo’s Children, and Other Forays in Queer Ludonarratology by Tison Pugh (Nebraska, 2019), the latest book in the Frontiers of Narrative Series.
From Chapter 6: Rules
Pregame: May the Better Player Lose!
To date the longest match played at tennis’s Wimbledon Championship featured John Isner of the United States against Nicolas Mahut of France in a first-round match of the 2010 tournament. This grueling affair, dubbed “the endless match” in the sports pages, lasted eleven hours, five minutes; it began on June 22 but did not end until June 24. Isner won the first and fourth sets, Mahut the second and third, with the fifth set running an incredible 138 games. At the match’s end, Isner had scored 478 points, whereas Mahut outscored his rival to a tally of 502.
But Mahut lost the match.
As tennis fans know, it is not how many points players score, nor how many games they win, but only how many sets they win that determines the victor of a match (either two out of three, or three out of five, depending on the tournament). Some points in a tennis match thus matter more than others—a striking anomaly for a rule system, for imagine if, for example, the basketball team that scored the thirty-third point received a bonus of five points, or if the soccer team that notched the third goal received a half-point addition to its score. Such hypotheticals border on the ludicrous, for they would make a mockery of the idea of a “level playing field” foundational to most sports. More so, tennis’s odd scoring system, in which the better player can lose, is not an odd quirk that only determines the game’s victor under vary rare circumstances. On the contrary, statisticians have determined that it affects the outcome of approximately 7.5 percent of games (Bialik). As the saying goes, such a possibility does not represent a bug in the system; it is instead a feature.
What tennis highlights for ludonarratology is that rules are necessary for identifying a game’s winner but not necessarily for identifying the better player, as Mahut—outscoring Isner by roughly 5 percent—so clearly illustrates. Typically, one would expect the winner and the better player to be the same person, but their correlation in certain games is never guaranteed. Tennis likewise highlights for ludonarratology the appeal of an embedded narrative structure for a sport, for each game in a match contains in miniature form a narrative arc of introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement, with the necessity of winning each game by two points adding to its tension. Despite the inherent unfairness of its rules, tennis would likely be a much less exciting game—both to play and to watch—if players simply raced to a predetermined number of points or played for an allotted amount of time to score as many points as possible. Its rules, though, should upend any presumption that such structures neutrally facilitate the better player’s path to victory.
If rules are sufficiently supple to allow less-skilled players to win, their function in ludonarratology is both clarified (in that their ostensible purpose of neutral arbitration is stripped) and obscured (what then is their purpose?). Ian Bogost proposes that an inherent paradox of play emerges in “the idea that fun arises from limiting freedoms rather than enhancing them” (Play 140), with rules serving as such a structural mechanism to enhance pleasure even if, as the following pages demonstrate, they do so through the inherent unfairness of gendered prosthetics. Within a variety of ludonarrative artifacts, rules erect a facade of fair play while masking their queer potential to favor certain characters/players over others. This caveat is particularly relevant to the construction of fantasy narrative, its rules, and its ludic adaptations, as the following discussion of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter phenomenon examines.
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels, Muggle Quidditch, and Ludonarrativity’s Queer Rules
Anything can happen in fantasy literature—unless, of course, it can’t. For example, readers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series first understand that they are entering the genre of fantasy—if the cover illustration of a young boy flying on a broomstick insufficiently conveyed this fact—when Vernon Dursley espies a cat reading a map. An entrenched un-fantasist, Vernon looks again, with the narrator reporting, “It was now reading the sign that said Privet Drive—no, looking at the sign; cats couldn’t read maps or signs” (SS 3).1 But within Rowling’s fantasy world, this creature is no ordinary cat but talented witch Minerva McGonagall momentarily adopting her feline guise. Fantasy depicts countless such impossible characters and actions, yet at the same time, a core logic must always guide the author’s creation of her magical universe, a logic that she creates yet must remain subject to in order to preserve the suspension of disbelief critical for the genre as a whole. A cat/witch reading a map fits nicely within the parameters of Rowling’s magical world, yet no end of equally fantastic conceptions might derail its whimsical verisimilitude. In effect fantasy’s substructure of rules provides the ballast to keep the story within the realm of the chimerically real, with these rules facilitating the genre’s ludonarrative engagement with its readers. “All new wizards must accept that, in entering our world, they abide by our laws,” Dumbledore admonishes young Tom Riddle as he learns of his place in the wizarding community (H-BP 273), with these words an apropos statement of the necessity for readers to submit themselves to a given fantasy system’s internal logic.
Yet as much as rule systems in such ludonarrative genres as fantasy must appear to establish a uniform set of parameters for all characters, they instead introduce a series of deus ex machina moments that privilege certain characters—typically the protagonist and his allies—over others. In this regard the rules of fantasy are intimately connected to the ways in which both narrative structures and characters function, a dynamic that highlights fantasy’s queer potential to create and curtail gendered agency among the myriad characters of a given text. Under numerous circumstances rules function as a prosthetic appendix enhancing the protagonist’s gender performance, simultaneously enabling his heroism while obfuscating their role in his apotheosis. Thus although Ron Weasley generally matches Harry in their respective magical abilities (except in Defense against the Dark Arts), and although Voldemort and Dumbledore stand unquestionably as Harry’s superiors in their supernatural skills, Rowling’s rules must be scripted to bolster Harry’s portrayal. These rules that ultimately favor Harry thus queerly subvert the very meaning both of rules and of heroism within the series, for heroic masculinity should not, prima facie, require altering the terms of engagement to serve as a prosthetic appendix to the hero’s inviolate gender. In this light the possibility of unique and individualized characters fractures in many fantasy texts, as the protocols underpinning their fantasy world relegate characters to a functionality from which authors might otherwise seek to liberate them.
Although rules undergird both fantasy fictions and their ludic adaptations, they diverge in their narrative and ludic enactments because the former are typically implicit whereas the latter are necessarily explicit. Distinguishing between narrative and ludic rules, Marie-Laure Ryan argues that a game’s rules reflect “constitutive principles,” whereas narratives feature “descriptive conventions”; that “game rules must be followed strictly,” whereas literature “encourages creativity and the transgression of its own conventions”; and that games require players to “learn the rules before stepping onto the playing field,” whereas readers “learn the code [of a text] in the process of playing” (Narrative as Virtual Reality 122–23). Most fantasy novels do not begin with a quasi-legalistic code of what magic can and cannot accomplish within its pages, whereas a game’s rulebook must be available for all players to consult. As successful fantasy novels are increasingly metamorphosed into board games and video games to further exploit their commercial potential, an intriguing ludonarrative paradox emerges, as a ludic adaptation of its source text must make these implicit rules explicit. Pierre Bourdieu, in considering social rules and their implications, points to the contradictions inherent in the word rule: “It’s impossible to tell exactly whether what is understood by rule is a principle of the juridical or quasi-juridical kind, more or less consciously produced and mastered by agents, or a set of objective regularities imposed on all those who join a game” (60).
The ambiguity of rules in their unsteady juxtaposition between narrative and game becomes apparent in the adaptation of Quidditch, Rowling’s famed wizarding sport, into a game for real-life Muggles (i.e., humans). In their transition from fantasy novels to a human sport, Quidditch’s rules structure the game yet also create conditions in which they can be conscripted as prosthetics to enhance one player’s gendered experience at the expense of another’s. As in the Harry Potter novels, the evolution of Muggle Quidditch’s rules illustrates how characters and players become blanched in favor of the narrative or ludic positions that they hold.2 While rules may primarily be envisioned as facilitating conditions for winners to triumph over their adversaries in a zero-sum venue, the inherent queerness of these structures, in numerous instances, underscores instead the inherent ambiguity of the victor’s skills and thus of the queer bravado in any triumphant gender performance predicated on success in the ludic arena.
1. Quotations from the Harry Potter series are taken from Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; and Quidditch through the Ages. Parenthetical citations employ the following abbreviations, aligned with the preceding novels—SS, CS, PA, GF, OP, H-BP, DH, and QA. All italics are Rowling’s own.
2. “Muggle Quidditch,” it must be admitted, is a bit of a misnomer, yet it effectively encapsulates the various forms of Quidditch as a human sport, including U.S. Quidditch, the International Quidditch Association, and miscellaneous unsanctioned groups.