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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}

Raven Daegmorgan

(no subject)

from: greyorm
date: Apr. 5th, 2007 09:03 am (UTC)
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You might want to take the time to carefully read something over and think about the details presented before getting all het-up and explode your head all over someone's LJ in an otherwise polite discussion you either haven't read thoroughly or haven't grasped the actualities of.

I say that because you argue a major flaw in my reasoning is that "...you have to explain away the very large number of successful authors who used to play RPGs you don't approve of", as though I did not do so or that such was not considered or taken into account.

As you'll see if you reread the statements made, the argument already accounts for proficient writer-gamers who don't display (or never displayed) the particular pattern discussed, via use of the group identifier NOVICE writer-gamers (not ALL writer-gamers) and in the use of the statement AS A GENERAL GROUP (not ALL GAMERS).

Those are very important details you have glossed over in writing up your personal attack critque, resulting in your having attempted to discredit a non-existant assertion, and to discuss an idea completely outside of any I have put forward (as well as one I agree would be thoughtlessly and uselessly generalized).

There is also the claim on your part that my idea has something to do with "RPGs I don't approve of." I don't know what RPGs those might be, as I never stated that I disapproved of any specific RPGs, or indicated the merits of such were nonexistant. Again, you are arguing against an assertion and attendant ideas that do not exist in the argument presented here, except by your own inference and desire.

I have a suspicion your reaction has nothing to do with the idea presented, however, given these above strawmen. From my outside perspective, the content of your arguments and choice of responses seems to indicate more simply unleashing verbal and emotional bile in public, perhaps as a defense of some sort of personal "holy ground" (or so to speak) you feel has been violated by a suggestion there could be a potential "negative" associated with gaming.

(If one were going to be snarky, one might even argue your interpretation and choice of readings was "self-servingly dishonest" and such behavior was "lacking in intellectual scruples", but then we're just name-calling and pretending it has any real intellectual merit or nets productive communication in a discussion.)

Regardless of the source, if it makes you feel better to ignore pertinent details and insert strawmen so you can rage against what you think you see -- and flame like you're about to be banned from RPG.net -- please do it somewhere not around me.

I am simply not interested in watching anyone defend emotional territory, or in discussion or communication based on knee-jerk reactions to uncarefully read material, or in being trolled as you have chosen to do here, and I will not have any further time to respond to that sort of behavior. (I also doubt Chris cares for such in his journal.)

Thanks.

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M

(no subject)

from: eyebeams
date: Apr. 6th, 2007 02:10 am (UTC)
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I treat you like a shitheel because in all of our exchanges, you have behaved like a shitheel. You have even acted like a shitheel towards me when I haven't even been around, like when you called me a sociopath over at Fang Langford's and expressed horror at the thought I might participate in a community he was only *thinking* of forming.

You have behaved like a shitheel to such an extent that other Forge folks have apologized for your shitheeltastic participation. I suppose my main mistake was interfering when you were determined to be a shitheel to someone else, as well.

See the difference between you and Ron is that when I do interact with him directly, he is formally polite -- such as on the occasion when he apologized for you being a shitheel over on the Forge. You don't seem to be able to extend courtesy to anyone you disagree with and thus, you choose my response.

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Raven Daegmorgan

(no subject)

from: greyorm
date: Apr. 6th, 2007 04:52 am (UTC)
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I was not aware I was insulting someone I disagreed with here. Who, specifically? Chris? Tal? Did you feel attacked? Was I a "shitheel"? If I was, let me know.

If I am never be polite to someone I disagree with, I'm not sure how I explain my response to you above, then, or this thread.

I will agree that you and I don't much like each other based on our history and mutually negative view of one another, but when you come in here with guns blazing invective, purportedly in order to defend someone from my vicious and discourteous responses, you might want to think how poorly that reflects on you and how much of your statement above applies to yourself as well.

And no, I absolutely do not take responsibility for your choice of behavior: I don't choose your response for you, you do. Especially when your own behavior has resulted in you being banned from places it used to be pretty hard to get banned from -- I just wouldn't go around throwing stones while living in that glass house.

Ultimately, if you have a problem with me personally, take it to e-mail. I'm perfectly willing to either work it out or curse and swear at one another some more (well, no, not really the latter one).

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clehrich

(no subject)

from: clehrich
date: Apr. 6th, 2007 03:17 pm (UTC)
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Everyone cool it, okay? If you must do this, do it in email or something, as Raven suggests. Eyebeams says he's done with the conversation, so I hope this is the end of it.

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Raven Daegmorgan

(no subject)

from: greyorm
date: Apr. 6th, 2007 06:28 pm (UTC)
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Sorry. I replied via the e-mail notice on the comment, so I didn't see your note below.

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