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Mar. 31st, 2007 | 12:00 pm

jeffwik pointed me to this Forge thread on storytelling games, brain-damage, and whatnot. How very odd. I kept reading, because that's the kind of freak I am, and I just kept thinking that the whole thing was pointless for reasons other than the ones constantly stated. I mean, the whole brain damage thing was nonsense, and I have no brief for sociobiology in any of its ridiculous forms (not that it can't be well done, but it's certainly rare and this isn't a good example). But the whole thing starts with a false premise.

Here's Ron near the opening:
I'm going to start with a claim that a human being can routinely understand, enjoy, and (with some practice) create stories. I think most postmodernism is arrant garbage, so I'll say that a story is a fictional series of events which present a conflict and a resolution, with the emergent/resulting audience experience of "theme." I also think that stories concern a fairly limited range of possible conflicts, but the angles one might use for presentation, and the interactions among the range, make for quite a stunning array of individual examples or expressions of them.

Again, my claim is that this is a human capacity which is swiftly learned and shaped into a personal characteristic ("what stories I like") as a basic feature of the human experience, used as a constant means of touchpoints during communication, along the whole spectrum of polite conversation to icebreaking all the way to the most intimate or critical of conversations. I am completely unconvinced by the suggestion that what we call a "story" today is a local historical artifact, or that people in past epochs or in different cultures had or have utterly different fundamentals for stories.

(Related point: as far as I can tell, there is no meaningful "cultural gap" regarding stories. Differences in content and presentation which seem jarring at first contact are swiftly overcome with further contact. This is common. People refuse to do this, when they do, not because the foreign story makes no sense, but because they are invested in not paying attention for any number of reasons.)
A little later he makes a very funny (unintentionally) remark about how he likes deconstruction as an activity, blah blah, because he doesn't believe in authorial intent. Very nice. He thinks, of course, that this makes him radical but not someone who "buys in" on his postmodern academic models, and so on. But in fact, what shows here is not only misunderstanding of deconstruction -- a very minor point, although I wish people wouldn't pronounce gleefully and glibly about things they know nothing about -- but also his misunderstanding of what "postmodern" or whatever is all about. And that is, perhaps surprisingly, relevant here.

Based on Ron's statements here (the long block-quote, I mean), he thinks that it is relatively obvious what a "story" is, as a cross-cultural an in fact human-universal phenomenon. Furthermore, he thinks that the people who don't agree with him within the academy are a bunch of postmodern idiotic navel-gazers, presenting "arrant garbage." Based on other remarks here and elsewhere, the point seems relatively clear: in the heavy theoretical-turn postmodern whatnot movements of the 70s and 80s, the whole concept of "story" got undermined by people who mostly wanted to yap. At base, a story is a story, and throwing jargon at it doesn't make it not a story, or doesn't make us not know what a story is.

I'll set aside this blanket rejection of things like narratology. I will only note in passing that there is a blanket assumption that nothing that has been done by all those scholars interested in such subjects for the last 35 years or so has been of any value. How one could know that without very extensive critical reading and analysis is beyond me, but I'll let it go.

What's interesting, though, is that the undermining of "story" as a straightforward and relatively obvious human behavior and genre was not undermined by a bunch of pomo theory-heads. It was undermined in the first flushes of structural and morphological critique, going back to people like Vladimir Propp. Actually, when it gets down to it, the recognition that there are fundamental problems with the category "story" as a cultural universal predates Propp quite a bit: it is because the problem was recognized that Propp et al. started working on it.

The problem first cropped up with serious engagement with mythology, and attempts to define myth as a cross-cultural phenomenon. And that takes us back to, wait for it, the 19th century. Andrew Lang would be one of the biggest names here, but in fact Sir James Frazer and Edward Tylor and those guys all got into this problem.

Basically the point has been known and accepted in mainstream scholarship, primarily in the cross-cultural study of culture (e.g. sociology, anthropology, religious studies), for more than a century. To put it simply, these basic factors that allow Ron to define and recognize a story as a cross-cultural human universal phenomenon are not present in every case, or indeed perhaps in most. What Ron (and most others not involved in the study of culture, to be fair) takes to be universal is solidly proven not to be so. "Story" in the sense he means it is not, of course, an entirely modern, Western phenomenon; it has parallels in many other cultures and times. But it is not universal, or anything like.

(That's the end of the actual content material here; the rest is analysis of where Ron's argument should actually have led.)

So this whole argument, from my point of view, falls into what Ron likes to call "undergraduate debate." That's exactly what this is: you have a guy who thinks a lot of himself pronouncing glibly on story and brain and whatnot, but who doesn't know what the hell he's talking about in terms of the most basic first principles. If we take his argument seriously, we have to say that many of the cultures of South America, for example, are intrinsically brain-damaged, and not because they played WW games. Of course, from their point of view most of our stories aren't stories, or at the very least aren't any good as stories, for lots of reasons that don't even enter Ron's sphere of definition. The criteria are simply not as straightforward as he thinks, and they do in fact vary.

I suppose this makes me one of those postmodern purveyors of "arrant garbage." Well, so long as "postmodern" dates back to the mid-late 19th century, and so long as pretty much every piece of responsible scholarship on myth, ritual, religion, and culture is accepted as "arrant garbage," yeah, I guess I'll accept that. But it's a sad state of affairs when people take such a claim seriously because the guy touting it is a biologist, for Pete's sake.

Stripped to essentials, the argument is this:
  1. Here is a definition of Story
  2. Some games that claim to emphasize story do not follow this definition
  3. Some gamers who have played the games in question appear to have trouble shifting definitions
  4. Such gamers have been very strongly trained to think about story based on definitions other than the one posed
  5. In some cases, they may actually be unable to change definitions
  6. For this reason, they may well not "get" Story Now games
  7. That's sad
Oh. And? If it weren't for the inflammatory rhetoric and the fact that it's Ron saying this, why would anyone respond? What's to respond to? It's a statement of opinion: Ron thinks this is sad. He calls it brain damage, for whatever weird reason, but what he's talking about is enculturation and training. He thinks that some games, notably WW games, train people to think about stories in a way he doesn't think is helpful, and that (1) makes their games suck and (2) keeps them from playing games that tell stories in a way he does think is helpful.

From this there are two basic responses worth making. On point (1), there are people whose games don't suck, for whom the whole argument is laughable. And for those whose games do suck, the question is simply how to re-train them so they will "get" games like Sorcerer. So we've stripped down to essentials:
There is a group, of unknown size, of gamers who fit the following criteria:
  1. They have played a bunch of WW-type games
  2. They think their games suck
  3. They think they want storytelling
  4. They have trouble with games like Sorcerer
  5. The reason for this trouble is that they think about "story" in a WW-type way
Therefore
We need a training regimen to help these people rethink story and play
Okay. So write a new introduction to Sorcerer entitled "surviving 'storytelling' play," in which you explain how "story" here means something different, and how that means play is going to be different, and how and why you think this will be more satisfactory than WW has been. The assumption is that those people who actually like WW games won't be reading it because they don't have any reason to do so. You have some GM who's trying to help these unhappy players, and that GM encourages them to read this intro before designing a character or starting to play.

Has Ron actually written such a thing? Why not?

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Comments {42}

Blue Gargantua

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from: bluegargantua
date: Mar. 31st, 2007 05:07 pm (UTC)
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Are there any readily-available examples from another culture of a "story" that's not a story the way we think of them? I'm having a bit of trouble imagining what that would look like (unsurprisingly).

I seem to recall that in the article one of his main beefs was that people could relate to him what happened in a story but not what the story was *about*. It was all "A then B then C" and not "all of these events really meant X". And I'll allow that some people may simply be wired to see a narrative in more concrete rather than abstract terms -- but I don't think I'd call it brain damage. I'd also argue that most RPGs, true to their wargamming roots, are more interested in A, B, and C and only use X as sort of a thin veneer over the top. There's no deeper question as to why I'm slaying the orc -- he's evil, he's got stuff I want, and it's my go on the Initiative count. Some stories have a deeper meaning, some stories don't and if I prefer one over the other it's not a horrible deficiency on my part.

later
Tom

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Talysman the Ur-Beatle

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from: urbeatle
date: Mar. 31st, 2007 07:21 pm (UTC)
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I seem to recall that in the article one of his main beefs was that people could relate to him what happened in a story but not what the story was *about*. It was all "A then B then C" and not "all of these events really meant X". And I'll allow that some people may simply be wired to see a narrative in more concrete rather than abstract terms -- but I don't think I'd call it brain damage.

Yes, Ron's examples of the "damage" he was complaining about focused mainly on this. He listed a couple other things -- behavioral problems -- but didn't bother to explain why he thought they had anything to do with each other. Since mental health professionals do consider an inability to think abstractly or comprehend why B follows A as a sign of something wrong, I took that to be what Ron's post was really about. Which makes his argument seem a little ridiculous, since, given all the hullabaloo about RPGs encouraging Satanism or escapist thinking, you would think that any verifiable link between RPGs and a symptom commonly associated with schizophrenia and autism would have stirred up some controversy.

Which is why my response to him was that maybe he was seeing more "brain-damaged" people among the WW crowd than among story gamers because people who had problems thinking of story the way he defined it preferred WW to story games.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 1st, 2007 04:09 am (UTC)
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An excellent question. I will transcribe an example or two when I get back to my office (where my relevant books are).

What I think you will see is that it's not really a question of whether these things are or are not stories as such. Sure they are. But they don't look a lot like the stories we tell, or (more to the point) the stories we tend to think of as coherent or good stories. There are wildly different aesthetic and logical principles at work.

The result is that when we compare a large number of such "stories" we do have a kind of family resemblance -- we can certainly call all these things "stories" and have some sense roughly why we did so -- but as soon as we try to be more specific it all starts to break down. That's where the analytical weirdness comes in.

So let me put it like this. If "story" is a large enough category that we can fully accept all these native myths, and even accept them as good stories (as they do), then that category is more than large enough to contain the results of a WW game. If "story" is contracted such that what happens in a WW game is not part of it, which is required for Ron's argument, then a great deal of tribal mythology goes out the window as well.

Anyway, I'll post an example or two in a few days.

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mrteapot

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from: mrteapot
date: Mar. 31st, 2007 05:56 pm (UTC)
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"If it weren't for the inflammatory rhetoric and the fact that it's Ron saying this, why would anyone respond?"

That's my question every time anyone acts like Ron has something relevant to say. So far, I've found no answer that makes me want to listen to Ron.

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Raven Daegmorgan

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from: greyorm
date: Mar. 31st, 2007 08:13 pm (UTC)
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What I took away from Ron's post was something I've seen and been aggravated with for years, and confirmed both by experience and other writing teachers/editors I have spoken with over the years: gamers, in general, make bad fiction writers and require significant retraining (or untraining) -- because they carry around a set of assumptions about what makes a story and use those as a premise to write from, producing very bad fiction.

Notably, the pattern of assumptions/techniques in question are specific to gamers as a group; that is, you might see one or two of them pop up here and there in the general writing population, but the pattern is specific to gamers.

So, for me, based on my experience, Ron was spot-on with his critique about certain traditional forms of gaming causing brain damage/enculturation/whateveryouchoosetocallit regarding the ability to create and tell stories, and even learning how to do so.

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Talysman the Ur-Beatle

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from: urbeatle
date: Mar. 31st, 2007 10:38 pm (UTC)
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See, my response to this (as it was then,) is: how many of these gamers who write bad fiction were good fiction writers prior to gaming? You can't prove that gaming causes brain damage unless you can show the absence of damage prior to gaming.

I argue the opposite of Ron. I think the "damage" existed to begin with. What gaming does to these bad writers is convince them that they can write, making them more obvious than bad writers who never try to write. Ron is looking at all the trees along the roadway and coming to the conclusion that asphalt produces trees, instead of considering that maybe he's driving through a forest.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 1st, 2007 03:55 am (UTC)
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Responding to Raven and Talysman [is that right?]:

I understand Ron to have said something like the following:

1. A lot of gamers with particular gaming training seem to have trouble with proper stories.
2. I (Ron) think this is a causal link.

I have two basic objections. The first was made repeatedly on the Forge thread, so I'll just mention it here:

A. This evidence is entirely anecdotal. I'm sorry, but "I've played with lots of people and..." or "I've both played with and taught lots of folks and..." is not legitimate evidence.

The thing is, because nobody has done or will do a study of A under proper conditions, the point remains entirely a matter of opinion. I see no point in discussing it.

My feeling is that it's probably true, given a specific definition of "story." If you define "story" in a particular fashion, and you expect that "story" of this kind can and should be produced by specific means (particular types of games such as Sorcerer), then yes, I would guess it's probably true that people who've been playing "storytelling" games of the WW kind may well have difficulty making the transition.

But my objection is:

B. This is an extremely problematic definition of "story," and it presumes from the outset that the procedures in question are a proper and fully-described method of producing "story."

I won't argue the latter; it's not worth it. But the former remains.

Raven has produced quite a different -- and I think more honest -- definition of "story." "Story" is what you produce if you are a good fiction writer. Setting aside the point that not all good fiction has anything to do with a story, I think Raven hits the nail on the head. But it is worth considering that "fiction" of the kind that one evaluates in these terms, i.e. "he is/isn't a good writer of fictional prose" is extremely culturally specific. Ron's notion that anyone who says this is spewing "arrant garbage" of the postmodern kind is simply a demonstration of flat ignorance. This is a well-known issue, and has been so for more than a century. Without this issue, there would be no scholarship on myth, because it all begins by trying to deal with this problem.

In essence, I am saying that a great deal of "story" across the ages, such as that produced as "myth" by nonliterate tribal peoples, does not as a rule conform to the same structures as does modern Western fictional prose. If an inability to understand and produce modern Western fictional prose is proof of brain-damage, then most non-literate tribal peoples have historically been brain-damaged. I don't buy this.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 1st, 2007 04:00 am (UTC)
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Furthermore, the whole thing strikes me as weirdly backwards. In essence, Ron is claiming that Narrativist (I now refuse to call them Story Now, because apparently Story means something silly) games do nothing significant; he thinks they tap into the story circuits in our brains.

Bullshit.

Narrative in any form is an encultured behavior, and it is exceedingly complex in most if not all cultures. WW games may well enculture some sort of narration behavior. But to say that this narration behavior is not legitimate story because it does not match Sorcerer is to define Sorcerer as a passably ideal measure of narration and story pan-culturally. I see nothing whatsoever to justify such a claim other than the wildest egotism.

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Talysman the Ur-Beatle

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from: urbeatle
date: Apr. 2nd, 2007 05:59 pm (UTC)
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I agree that Raven's definition of story is different and probably more honest, although perhaps not relevant, since it seems to depend on the way western writers post-1950 think of story. As you say, that leaves out a lot of stories from nonliterate peoples, as well as a great deal of classical literature and even American pulp literature from the first part of the 20th century. And even a few later examples come to mind: I've been listening to the "Space Patrol" radio series from the '50s, and many of the same errors crop up there. Whether that marks them as irredeemably bad or merely flawed can be debated elsewhere, but the point is: can you seriously blame a common pattern appearing throughout literary and dramatic history on games from the 1970s through the 1990s?

I focused on Raven's comments earlier, because I pretty much agree with your main point. However, I do want to emphasize that Ron made a claim -- that I don't buy, myself -- that gamers not only can't produce a good story, but can't recognize a story. This is why I think of his claim as being clinical rather than aesthetic.

Your criticism is pretty good, too, though.

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badgerbag

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from: badgerbag
date: Apr. 2nd, 2007 05:11 am (UTC)
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It's very sweet that the part that really pisses you off is that he's dismissing people's teachability, so you respond by wanting to teach him (a person we might ourselves dismiss as unteachable) how to teach the people he thinks are unteachably story-damaged. Awwwwwww!





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Raven Daegmorgan

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from: greyorm
date: Apr. 2nd, 2007 08:13 pm (UTC)
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Huh? Who said anything about unteachably story-damaged?

Quotes: "Some of them, presented with alternative...procedures, say "oh!", extract the damaging material, and move on..." and "...nowhere above did I say irreparable brain damage."

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 5th, 2007 01:02 pm (UTC)
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Surprised me, too. It's been almost a year, if memory serves. I was mostly interested in the story part; the sociobiology part strikes me as quite obviously ludicrous, so as a matter of basic hermeneutic charity I decided it must be mostly hyperbolic. And it doesn't affect the claim one way or another, since the fundamental axioms about stories are demonstrably wrong.

I wonder why people care so much. Is it the "brain damage" thing? The sociobiology? The fact that it's Ron on a tear?

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M

(no subject)

from: eyebeams
date: Apr. 5th, 2007 06:31 am (UTC)
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People are exercising both too much and too little charity. Ron is not exercising hyperbole with his choice of the term brain damage. Ron is looking at story from these perspectives:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural_Darwinism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_Psychology

In brief: Ron believes that stories are specific products of minds evolved with storytelling capacity. The traditional story structure he believes in is not (according to him) a matter of culture, but how human beings have evolved to tell stories.

Ron also believes that this evolution occurs in a human lifetime through natural selection in neurodevelopment.

Therefore: If someone's neurodevelopment is altered in such a way that they do not reflexively tell stories according to the structure promoted by human evolution, they are, by his criteria, literally brain damaged; that is, their brains are not organized to support traditional storytelling.

Pretending that this is soft, subjective hyperbole doesn't do anybody favours. He's made it clear that he believes playing Vampire warps neurodevelopment in a specific way.

There are many problems, though:

1) Ron Edwards have yet to provide a shred of proof about the innateness of certain story structures and is probably unable to do so.

2) Ron Edwards does not actually present a moral argument about why a traditional story structure is desirable at all. He indulges in the naturalistic fallacy. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, this is pretty important, since one of the critiques EP responds to is that it can be combined with that fallacy to do things like justify rape.

3) Characterizing a type of neurodevelopment as "brain damage" because it selects something radically different from long-held antecedents has plenty of problems. First of all, it's a moral argument against adaptation, which has all kinds of problems. Secondly preference for continuity from past habits can be used to call all kinds of progressive things "brain damage." By Ron Edwards' standards, the ability to conceive female protagonists in a non-sexist fashion is also "brain damage," since it also represents a break from the bulk of human cultural tradition, which is, according to EP, an artifact of past evolution. In fact, all kinds of, nice progressive attitudes are "brain damage" and furthermore such criteria again point to a naturalistic fallacy by assuming that recent long term trends in neurodevelopment are superior to recent trends. This essentially indicts much of our behaviour as a form of damage.

4) Both EP and Neural Darwinism are unproven and EP is non-falsifiable. So even if we resolve the above, we still don't know whether or not any of it is worth bothering with.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 5th, 2007 12:57 pm (UTC)
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In brief: Ron believes that stories are specific products of minds evolved with storytelling capacity. The traditional story structure he believes in is not (according to him) a matter of culture, but how human beings have evolved to tell stories.

My feeling is that the socio-biology of the post is beside the point. It's an empty claim scientifically, because there is not and never will be sufficient data to establish it, and besides I am rather skeptical of this sort of perspective to begin with, as are you.

What I claim, however, is that human minds probably do all have a capacity for stories, but that "story" is a much wider and less readily-defined structure than many people -- including Ron -- think. Consequently it may well be true that humans have a story capacity, but this has nothing to do with whether they do or do not understand a particular type of storytelling. What I object to, in short, is the notion that all "good" stories have the same sorts of structures, and that therefore storytelling cultures all have some obvious continuity that can be discerned by playing Narrativist RPGs.

And if that isn't true -- and I submit that it isn't -- the whole rest of the claim breaks down to nothing.

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