115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Imperial Imagination: Adapting The Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena Genre

Steven Holmes, University of Hawai'i, Manoa

Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBA) come from a narrative tradition. This paper explores the connection of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms to the contemporary MOBA genre. This historical survey of influences on the MOBA genre includes The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Dynasty Warriors franchise, the modding community of Starcraft, and the Warcraft modding community, which became the basis for the MOBA genre as we understand it today.

Proposal: 

In the April 2017 issue of The Atlantic, Ian Bogost argues that video games are better without stories. Instead, Bogost argues that games should focus on “taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” Bogost’s argument is part of a longstanding academic squabble that Matthew Kapell characterizes as the conflict between play and story in game studies. The rivalry between ludology and narratology has been a perennial topic in game studies.

 In characterizing the play and story divide, the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre of games is usually characterized as a key example of the “play” side, as computer games that have minimal need of story or storytelling. Yet these games do come from a narrative tradition, one rooted in myth and romance. This paper will explore the connection of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms to the contemporary MOBA genre and focus on the narrative structures that are often ignored in understandings both of literature and gaming.

This paper begins with a historical survey of influences on the MOBA genre, including the movement from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms to the Dynasty Warriors franchise, where the link to historical literature is explicit, to the modding community of Starcraft which adapted many of the precepts of the Dynasty Warriors franchise. From there, it explores the development of the Aeon of Strife mod which served as the biggest influence for Defense of the Ancients, which became the basis for the MOBA genre as we understand it today. The history of gaming innovations and modifications has largely effaced the legacy of historical and military literature, but the precepts and style of this literature continues to have an indirect relationship with the MOBA genre.

While the MOBA genre might seem largely detached from narrative, the facets of historical and military fiction that have persisted are the elements most connected to literary romance, myth, and epic stylings. These epic stylings and mythic structures are tied to the idea of the homogenous nation-state and imperial conquest. In addition, MOBA gameplay today continues to shape player attitudes toward territorial control, and as a result, players’ approaches towards territorial control reflect many of the same ideological precepts of the historical fiction that are the genre’s deep roots. Seeing the MOBA genre’s relationship to historical and military fiction can also help us see the ideology of the imperial imagination in the MOBA genre today. 

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