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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
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}


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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 5th, 2007 12:57 pm (UTC)

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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from: eyebeams
date: Apr. 6th, 2007 02:12 am (UTC)

Well, let me be clear that I think his argument is coherent and worth respecting. There's considerable thinking behind it. I happen to think he's wrong, but that's because I don't think it leads where he wants it to lead, even if you accept the premises.

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 6th, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC)

I guess I should clarify on the whole EP and sociobiology thing.

To my mind, you're quite right that this stuff is unfalsifiable in the formal usage, to say nothing of Ron's unproven claims. But I'd go farther than unfasifiability.

Consider kinship structures, where the whole "selfish gene" thing plays out. Now it does look like the selfish gene principle operates, at least in the sense that every known stable kinship structure -- that is, every kinship structure that doesn't appear and collapse within just a few years or so -- respects this principle. So what we learn, at best, is that the principle is operative. But we learn nothing about human cultures and kinship structures, because every example respects it. All we have gained is a somewhat clearer formulation of a general limitation on kinship elaborations. But we have acquired no explanatory power with respect to actual kinship. There are thousands of different kinship systems, and if every one of them respects a general principle, we haven't gained any means to differentiate and thus explain such systems.

Furthermore, the one thing that is absolutely forbidden under the selfish gene principle is incest in the narrow sense. But we have many cultures in which incest is encouraged under certain circumstances, notably with kings, as in ancient Egypt during some periods. So it seems that even when there is a universal principle, culture trumps nature: a culture can decide, for its own reasons, to discard a natural principle.

So we have a universal principle that explains nothing, and that does not apply if a culture decides to discard it. Consequently we have nothing. Of course it's interesting in its way, but it really gains us no purchase on culture.

What I see with Ron's thing about stories is an elaboration of the same sort of muddle-headed positivistic thinking. Insofar as we can talk about a universal story-telling structure evolved in human minds, it is so general that it explains nothing. When it is narrowed to something definite, as with Ron, we end up having to discard large blocks of data on the ground that this is "arrant garbage," causing us to pretend that the data simply isn't there.

This, to my mind, is EP and sociobiology at their most typical. Invent a universal principle, and if it is universal and explains nothing pat yourself on the back, and if it is not universal discard any data that doesn't suit the theory. This is supposed to be science?

So in essence I don't think the argument is coherent or worth respecting, no matter how much thought went into it. Actually, I have respect for Ron, but I do wish he wouldn't run off like this, and the fact that he's a biologist by training makes me think he should be more cautious about such claims; otherwise the claim is taken as respectable because of the putative science standing behind it.

Anyway, just a clarification.

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Raven Daegmorgan

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from: greyorm
date: Apr. 6th, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)

Hrm. Chris, I think maybe what is happening here is that Ron is a biologist and you are an er, anthropologist(?). So your ways of understanding and processing the data from the world, especially the meaning of that data, are incredibly divergent.

Rather, you're like two different cultures looking at the same idea and seeing it completely differently from what its parent ideas are to what it ultimately says or means.

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