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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}

Talysman the Ur-Beatle

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from: urbeatle
date: Apr. 2nd, 2007 06:21 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for providing that, Raven.

As I said, I don't think style issues are really relevant, because it kind of blows the whole argument, or at least its tone of Great Danger Caused By Gaming. If you're talking about style, you're talking about one group judging another by its own guidelines. Now, I happen to agree that the stylistic elements you list are dangerous to effective stories and prefer stories that do the opposite. However, I've read enough older stuff to know that your aesthetics (and mine) weren't always the case. Except for three specific things you mentioned, the stylistic flaws as a package occur in enormous numbers of older stories. Some of those flaws, like front-loaded equipment descriptions and cataloging irrelevant scene details, were once the norm rather than the exception (I'm thinking of practically every Arthurian romance, especially Gawain and the Green Knight. It was common enough that Chaucer parodied it in "Sir Thopas".)

There are three specific style elements you mentioned that I think can rightly be blamed on gaming: focus on game-related archetypes, artifacts, and the "adventure party". There are possible antecedents for all three outside of gaming, but I can see that you would expect this more from gamers than non-gamers. But I'm not convinced that this is a huge problem. I don't think there are that many bad gamer writers writing thinly-disguised dungeon crawls outside of game-related publications, so I mainly think of this as being a symptom of something else: writers who are unable to stray too far from whatever it is they are emulating. I think *this* occurs outside of gaming, too, in a different form, and it's just more obvious when they are emulating gaming instead of some other entertainment obsession. And I don't think this is really common.

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Raven Daegmorgan

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from: greyorm
date: Apr. 2nd, 2007 08:40 pm (UTC)
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You're welcome, Tal.

Playing Devil's Advocate for a moment: I don't know if I would consider "the Great Danger" any less, if I were making the point Ron is, since we would be talking about damaging a point of collective contact in our modern culture (ie: the concept of "story" and how it works).

Imagine if a group of people in our culture were raised to not simply reject modern concepts of property rights, but to not even be able to think about them as a thing?

That would be damaging to the social fabric, and to those individuals in their efforts to exist in our society, and quite possibly damaging to anyone they come in contact with. Particularly given the inability of the groups to even find a place to meet or understand one another on the issue.

So I could see speaking up about it as a Great Danger. Like importing a bunch of ancient Greeks into the middle of downtown Atlanta.

The problem would be the one Thomas Kuhn pointed out: trying to give Newton a copy of Dirac's work on quantum physics would result in nothing, as Newton would simply be unable to see what he was getting at due to the 'incommensurability of paradigms', excepting that this would be regarding social paradigms rather than scientific.

Ok, I'm done playing DA, as it is completely aside from the point I've been advancing.

Instead, I'm interested in the idea that the pattern I discussed occurs in older literature: I've read the Arthurian romances, and I'm not sure I see the same pattern of what I've identified as game-influence you have in them. Bits and pieces, yes, but not the same underlying thing.

Heck, I can point to Tolkien for some of the stuff in the list I gave, but I don't consider it to be the same thing I see as coming from novice writer-gamers, because the execution -- the underlying assumptions the author appears to be writing from -- "feel" very different.

But as for novice writers not straying too far from what they are emulating, I agree completely. If I'm not misunderstanding you, it's basically the "long-time screenwriter" problem: you write what you know as you know it.

I would only argue in addition that gaming has this effect on the understanding of story -- because gaming is or purports to be about story -- that few others things in our culture do, so the result is more pronounced with it.

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