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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}

clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 2nd, 2007 02:51 am (UTC)
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Yeah, sorry, got a little carried away. Let me clarify.

If we exclude Gamist and Simulationist play for a minute, as Ron does, we have Narrativism. Then we say that WW games screw people up: they are unable to really get Nar because their ability to handle stories is screwed up. This is more or less the opening of Ron's essay, right?

Okay, but there is an elision here. We have now said, not that Nar is best understood as a Story Now approach, but as the approach that produces stories. If you cannot get it, it's because you aren't interested in stories (and are more in the Gamist or Simulationist preferences) or you are interested in stories but are screwed up about them (because you've been playing WW games).

In order for this to be true, GNS/Big Model must be a full descriptive account of all possible functional play: we must be able to classify all such play in one of the three categories. Furthermore, the Model must require that each category have essentially sole possession of its core principle, which in the Nar case is Story. With that in hand, we can look at a game, find that it emphasizes Story, and immediately slot it into the Nar camp -- only to find that it is, in the WW case, non-functional Nar. Now we ask why it is non-functional, and we find it is because they are screwed up about Story. Thus brain damage, etc. Right?

But this means that the Model must not only classify all functional play but also all possible forms of non-functional play. That seems unlikely, to say the least, and so far as I know hasn't been claimed. Furthermore, it requires that all non-functional play be grounded in one of three absolutely discrete terms, one being Story.

The only way I can see this making sense is if the Model doesn't work that way at all. By my reading, the Model claims to describe all functional play; any play that does not fit the model is by definition non-functional, and the question becomes how it could be tweaked or corrected to make it functional. With WW dysfunctional play, Ron thinks, the basic problem is quite drastic: this is Story Now without Story. But at that point the model has indeed become prescriptive, not descriptive.

I have said at many points over the years that this was a serious danger, because if the model went entirely prescriptive it would be of little value except to the converted. This was commonly derided, on fairly simple grounds: the only way to talk about gaming is practically, because it's all about making games. I don't agree, of course, for the same reason as I think it's best when analyzing religion not to tell people what they ought to believe, but even beyond this a model of this type tends to become a closed circle. What happens is that innovation at some point starts to push at the edge of the model, and if the model is prescriptive that pushing is interpreted diagnostically: it is a disease. The innovation now moves out, the model breathes a sigh of relief, and those who didn't buy it in the first place hold up the innovations as examples of the dogmatism of the model believers. I always felt that the Forge remained healthy as far as this sort of issue precisely because it allowed a rather incoherent core discourse about theory that had nothing whatever to do with the Big Model, sometimes challenging it, sometimes doing its own thing entirely. And when this closed down, I predicted that we'd end up with a closed circle in short order. What I see with this Brain Damage thing is evidence of the closed circle: Ron now defines his form of Story gaming as health and other forms as sickness, and there is no acceptance of the possibility that there might be other healthy forms.

Anyway, enough. I didn't really mean to re-open this can of worms; I was mostly interested in the strange presuppositions about stories.

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Raven Daegmorgan

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from: greyorm
date: Apr. 2nd, 2007 04:47 am (UTC)
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I'm going to take some time to digest that, because I see your point; however, I'm not certain I agree with all of it, and if I do end up disagreeing I want to have a clear concept why (clarification: when you say "Ron defines...", at the end you mean "other healthy forms of Story", correct?). Thank you for the breakdown, though.

(And thanks for the pointer to the stories in the other post!)

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