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Jan 03, 2012



So... can you express the idea behind this story you've just written, up above here, in a non-story form? I'm game for trying it out if you actually can.


Yes. It's called "Diplomacy." Let's play some time. A quicker alternative would be Dixit.


I don't know whether you had it in mind, Ted, but there's a timeliness about your post as a sandbox Star Wars MMO is switched on and a massively single player story driven game replaces it.


*switched off


Way to go, Ted. I like stories and I know you do too, but I feel your pain. I think I arrive at a similar place from a very different angle -- the real or imagined crises in the movie industry don't worry me so much. I'm more worried about a society where people are more engaged with various screens than they are with each other. And you're right that games often cut through a lot of carefully artifice quickly. I suppose that's why when we're trying to get people to know each other, we use ice-breaking games rather than have them all watch movies together.


Movies stink? Seriously?


Here here. Unfortunately I can count the number of games players that I know on one hand. Consumption, it appears, is far less taxing than creation.


Wow .. just wow. I feel validated as I look back over the past 2 years of fiction that I start and just can't seem to finish, inevitably losing interest in favor of PBEM boardgaming.

A very inspiring piece!


@Greg - A lot of this is motivated by a renewed interest in board games over the past 4 years. They are such good teaching tools, really good for teaching systems in ways that no narrative form can match. As I became more and more convinced of the power and elegance of the face-to-face game format, it started to grate on me that so much FtF time is spent chatting.

Of course my wife the therapist says that chatting is a game. OK. Then my point is, why are we playing one game over and over, when there are so many others? I'm beginning to see this as a crisis of game literacy. We only know one way of interacting. We don't play music together any more, we don't dance, we don't perform rituals. Bleh. I'm just harping on Huizenga now. You get the drift.


@Emma: Movies are fine, all stories are fine. I laugh and I cry; it's better than Cats. But look around and count how much time you spend with the narrative form of art as opposed to sculptural forms, or musical, or liturgical, or my favorite, games. We're a cultural of tales. Too many tales, and too many of them are too tall.

Susan Blackmore argues in The Meme Machine that we do all this chatting because our brains are well-adapted to copying and propagating memes. Given that cultural jungle, being a good meme-propagator is culturally adaptive. So cultural evolution is pushing us into being better and better chatters, which is fine I suppose, so long as it doesn't exclude other things.


Speaking of adaptation: Games are great for teaching systems. Systems might be more important than stories. How about this possibility? What if the critical adaptation for homo sapiens was not sharp teeth or a long neck, but a cognitive apparatus that could understand the ecosystem as a system. System mastery is our gig. Well, stories are one way of teaching others about system mastery, warning us about edge cases and establishing norms. But play and simulation are far better. Don't tell people anything. Just put the person in the problem.

Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Put a man in the strategic position of the fish and he becomes an aquaculturist who feeds thousands.


I've got to say, I just don't see a natural opposition between stories and games. Not only are there important roles for both stories and games as unique artifacts in society, but the two aren't even mutually exclusive categories. The card game Once Upon a Time, while moderately flawed, is a story driven game that invokes classic fairy tale elements to create a competitive highly social play experience. The card games Gloom and Munchkin are deliberately set in familiar narrative settings, and the former includes a recommendation for players to tend to the narrative as they play their cards (an experience which I find greatly enhances both games and increases social interaction). Then of course there's the entire form of IF which provides the opportunity to engage with narrative as a system...I could go on, but you get the idea.

This isn't to say I don't sympathize with the frustrations you've expressed in this post Ted. The issue around social pressure and narrative artifacts you've experienced are obviously legitimate, and there're reasons for us to reevaluate the role and significance of these particular forms, especially when they function in ways that diminish social interaction. I'm not convinced that they generally do, but that's a somewhat different topic. I also think the idea of gaming with a prospective colleague is one of the coolest things I've heard in a very long time, and it sits comfortably alongside the idea of accepting games and simulations as meaningful contributions/representations of knowledge instead of just privileging journal articles and other academic publications.

It's just that I think there's plenty of room for both games and stories. I don't think we should be asking why people are concerned about addiction in relation to games and not stories, so much as we should make sure to frame the conversation about our engagement with all artifacts in ways that move away from the addiction or compulsion narrative outside of the relatively small number of instances when it's clinically appropriate. So yes, let's work to reframe what media are relevant where and how. Part of this undoubtedly involves emphasizing games as systems a little more and our familiar story vehicles a little less. However, I don't think there's ultimately much to be gained by setting up games and stories as exclusive ways of knowing and privileging one over the other.


Just want to say I'm in basically in agreement with Moses, though I do think the way we engage with games (well, most games) strikes me as more constructive, socially and politically, than the way we engage with dominant forms of conventional narrative media (books, movies and television). So while I don't want to banish narrative in favor of games (even if that we possible, which it isn't), I am still sympathetic to what's driving Ted's rant here.

Also, I'm reading the rant as a rant, a tirade, a polemic -- deliberately bent on significantly overstating the case. So taken as a rant, I appreciate it.

(Also, just wanted to say I'm a fan of Once Upon a Time and Munchkin.)


Movies do generally stink; I sympathize with your frustration. "Tell me something I don't know, Please!" I ask. Silence.

Learn a foreign language and the narratives come alive. It's fascinating.

Really watch a Fellini, or many in a row. What narrative? Let's talk about it.

Narrative as a device, in a device-centric culture might be the problem.


Go to a B&N, spend 30 minutes only to purchase a book you've already read. Not the forumla, you forgot you read it. You forgot more things you've read than most people ever do.

No different with Systems. The most promising in the list of sequels this year is Twisted Metal with no number? Pathetic. You didn't do anything with the technology of the last decade, there.

The marketeers figured out what works a long time ago, but methinks they forgot a few tidbits from the dustbin. The dustbin had no marketeers at the time.


First of all of course I agree with the sentiment of the article. I'm thinking no one who disagrees would even read TN, so it's pretty obvious we're preaching to the converted here.

That said, I have felt that predilection (for games over, say, TV or even books) for a number of years, and I disagree with your specific conclusion, namely that narratives are lies and games/simulations are somehow more "true".

For one thing I work with simulations professionally and I can tell you that it is _VERY_ easy to come up with artifacts/unrealistic solutions in a simulation. Most of the time, this is caused by innocent mistakes from a broad range of possibilities. The most obvious culprit would be unrealistic source functions (say, the average accuracy of a sniper is overestimated, note it's usually hard to find good data). However, the problem may also stem from
weak physics engines or discretization artifacts. Or the user interface is inappropriate, as the user has more/less information or control than he would have in real life. The result is that when you develop a simulation, the majority of your time is spent checking/comparing the simulation to real the playout in order to validate the simulation. But even if you do all that, there is no guarantee that it is essentially "correct".

I therefore tend to think that to the naked eye, simulations (and games/boardgames fall in this category) _LOOK_ very convincing, but you should still be wary. The effect is simular to Twain's: "There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics." I hate to burst your bubble, but the fact is, _EVERYTHING_ in this world is filled with lies, games are sadly no exception.

(BTW, I haven't actually played "The War on Terror" but would be very interested whether you think it models the actual situation well, whether it allows any "winning" strategies etc. Seems to me the actual situation is characterized by a lack of winning strategies or even of a freedom of choice of strategies, for that matter.)

Ten years ago I heard people say (with confidence) that they "knew" people they chatted with on the Internet a lot better than those they chat with IRL (with arguments such as not being distracted by looks or facial expressions designed to "lie" to you, as well as the generally higher bandwidth of information transferred in a purely textual medium). Nowadays, no one would say that anymore, as everyone knows about the many different personas everyone wears and the many tragic cases of complete fakes in Internet acquaintances. _I_ think that one of the major reasons why that idea worked 10 years ago and no longer now is the niche-effect. Basically, by finding someone to chat with you on the Internet (10 years ago, when it wasn't common), you already found someone who was probably culturally compatible with you, with similar background/habits/likes. Nowadays, everyone uses the Internet and it is no more probable to find someone you might enjoy to meet on the Internet than it is by randomly grabbing someone off the street.

Transferring that idea to the case you put forth, perhaps there is already a correlation between someone who agrees to meet you by playing a boardgame with you for a couple of hours (only a small percentage of the population would agree to this) and with someone you might click with. Perhaps that is why you feel you "know" people better that you meet by playing games.

Anyhow, that still leaves us to explain why we like games better than narratives. I think Suzanne has a point, this may have more to do with Hollywood and the main-stream phenomenon (risk-averseness etc.) than with a general limitation. In particular, I did see Tin Tin and I can't even remember the narrative clearly now (but lot's of action). Then again, it's a movie for children and if you want to see something that challenges you perhaps you should turn to something more grown-up in general and non-Hollywood in particular.

Another possibility is that games are in general just a LOT deeper. Even a simple store-bought game (say, a board-game) carries 10x more information (in the form of possible situations) than any book. Games/simulations/systems are way more complicated than simple narratives and therefore are more interesting to anyone who likes to think a lot. For the same reasons, many games are less interesting to those who don't like to think a lot in their free time (not saying there's anything wrong with that, just pointing out that not everybody feels the same about intellectual challenges). Also for the same reasons, games take a lot longer to "complete" (I need at least 20 or 30 hours before I really understand the better boardgames, and I particularly remember some games completely changing when played with someone new, there was a whole DIFFERENT game inside the "known" game). Again, this is both good (just feels more complete to spend enough time with a single thing and thoroughly understand it) and bad (limited lifetime means limited amount of free time and therefore limited amount of games I can play). Also, I can go to a party and say "So I recently saw Tin Tin and it did stay surprisingly true to Herge." But I would be kicked out if I started to talk about my latest unrealistic winning strategy (hint: Take all of Africa early) in Axis&Allies.

Oh and @Greg, yes, I know it's a rant and shouldn't be overanalyzed, I hope I didn't blow up the comment system with my ramblings.

tl;dr: Games are definitely cooler than narratives, and I would _REALLY_ like to know why. I don't think they are less fake.


@inklink: Labyrinth the game is interesting precisely because of what you note: There are no winning strategies, for either side. The game is an exercise in frustration. There are "victory conditions" but no sense whatever that you have imposed your will on a situation or left the situation better off. Is it "real"? No, of course not. But it is a far more accurate encounter with the actual state of affairs in the Middle East than any story I've read, news or otherwise.

As for the ability to manipulate simulations: Yes, that's true. Economists build models and then torture them to get the results they want. So let's say - it's not impossible to lie with a system, it's just a lot harder.

Think of it this way: Because a model or simulation of a system has to work, it has to meet a certain level of internal consistency. The requirement of functioning forces your assumptions to work together. Now, you can indeed put a bunch of assumptions together to produce something odd. BUt that's hard to do than simply writing down a tale in which odd things happen. Think about it: Isn't it a rather common trick among writers to let a miraculous unknown factor suddenly shift a narrative? We often grumble about that; we often say the narrative would be better if the surprise came from the removal of our own prejudices or the like; sometimes we really like it, we really like seeing God or the Devil step in and do their thing. My point is that, getting a miracle into a story is a lot easier than building a machine that does miraculous things.

tl;dr - it's because systems are more engaging than stories.


This article is exactly what I've been thinking over the past few years. I don't read books anymore and rarely go to the movies because I'm so sick and tired of "The Story". I feel like our lives as human beings has become nothing more than moving from one fantasy to the next, either on our tvs, computers, ipads, iphones, movie theaters, books, magazines, politics, etc.

We are a society that has become addicted to being "touched" in one way or another. It's all become very unsatisfying. Even gaming itself is simply another story being told to us through a bunch of rules and the dice.

I think it's time we put our time into getting out more, hiking, biking, jogging, etc.


Maybe I'll go for the opposite argument: Games aren't necessarily better, but stories are worse.

We have seen too many movies and read too many stories not to be able to see through them _QUICKLY_. I can smell another monomyth by simply looking at the movie poster, for example. I can tell which stage we're in. I count the deus-ex-machinas the movie had to pull to force a happy-end. Btw, kids do not have this problem, they are completely wrapped up and are genuinely surprised by the plot turns. Which is why I think it's our experiences that cause this dissatisfaction with conventional narratives.

While many structures of games are analyzable in a similar manner, there remain unknowns, for example your opponents. Also, even if you know the game extremely well, you still don't know whether you could have won WWII for the Nazis if only you had been in charge.

On the subject of engaging, I had previously failed to comment on an important point you made in your original post. Games feel more interactive. Sure, you're not really talking about deep emotional issues, you are just discussing whether you may roll 3 or 4 dice to squash that enemy squad. Still, you _CAN_ at least talk about more interesting stuff, you do have frequent exchanges, reactions.

Not so with traditional narratives. In many cases, you are not spending time _WITH_ someone, you are in the same (perhaps dark) room with them. When I do watch movies, I am extremely chatty, which for reasons unknown to me gets everyone else upset. _EVEN_, or _ESPECIALLY_, when I use my favorite argument: "Hey, I can just pause the DVD then while we talk about it..." Likewise, it's for some reason considered rude to interrupt people while they present their story. Yes, I know what you're getting at, could we just skip two minutes into the future now so I can give my answer already? I'm already queuing up your possible
moves, er, arguments to my answer and then... Maybe introduce chess clocks for party-talk?

tl;dr: And I thought someone would comment on the irony of a two page answer to a two page post complaining about people talking too much. Doug?


John Carter McKnight replies here:


Augustinian Neoplatonism ftw!!!!


But seriously, he offers a powerful critique. I'd still rather game than chat, though.


That's a part of the civilization. Kids nowadays are wanting to ride what is fresh behind their ears and eyes.
But good for you dude that you are still making a good ideas and preserving the concern in movies.


A game is a system for generating stories. The designer defines the domain of possible stories for the game; the player, through decisions made during play, generates events and experiences. To these events and experiences, the player attaches greater or lesser degrees of meaning; the retelling of these events and experiences are the player's story. The player's evolving decisions are based on both their story up to that point and the ways that the player wishes to see their story unfold.

It's small wonder that people prefer the stories they get from playing games to the stories they get from reading books or watching movies. In a game, you make your own story, personal to you, with a meaning personal to you. With books and movies, you're trying to divine scraps of relevance to your own existence through subjective identification or objective analysis, not through identity and being.



A story on how stories fail to change confirmation bias. That's a lousy argument, cause with this story author confirms his own bias. But it's a good question, worth to ponder. For now? The difference between narrative in games and in literature,movies: In a game you see what the problem is a, in a story you experience the problem through eyes of character who cannot see what the problem is as a result of his own confirmation bias. You lose being actively involved but you gain another man's confirmation bias.


The video game industry sucks. As for movies; stick with a few classics, French New Wave, indies. MMOVWs are the future.


I am not convinced. Ted, by reading this text, I learned a lot about both your thoughts and your way of thinking. How could I have learned exactly this in a game (unless we consider this a game)?

Maybe your point is that interaction is the key, rather than just passive absorption? As long as I think about what I get told (in a book, TV, movie), there's is only technically a monologue - I interact with the content internally.

If I tell someone else a story (or if I get a story told) and pay attention, how could I not learn a lot about the person I am talking to? Whenever we talk to someone, we read the surrounding, the setting, the mood. We put the conversation in this context and learn a lot about our partner. It's real. In contrast, in a game, I will never know whether this individual is daring or shy just because "it is just a game".

I assume that whatever is considered to be "for real" by a person works best for such person: a game, a conversation, a story in a book, a movie, yoga, sports, dreams, whatever. Saying "games are better" or "doing things is the only real thing" is pointless, because it ignores that there is no objective truth. It's how I see things which works best for me (approaching Schopenhauer here).


Some of the best conversations with people you don't know start exactly with a movie question.

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