Cross posted from my blog, The Semionaut's Notebook.
I'm no longer happy with my old definition for story (a shared exploration of a relationship over time). It serves okay, but it misses something important. I'm still pleased with my definitions for play and game, however. If you're new to this conversation, or have forgotten what they were:
Play: any pastime with a primary goal of self-guided exploration of possibility within a bounded space
Game: a set of rules and/or conditions established by a community that serve as a bounded space for play
Side Note: I know these definitions don't mention goals or conflict and that this bothers a great many people. However, I'm never going to include those things in my definitions, as I consider them completely extraneous to play. So while I respect that you may find other definitions more useful, I don't and won't, so you can save yourself a few key strokes. You can see the conversations we've already had regarding these definitions by browsing the Defintion tag archive on the Semionaut's Notebook.
Interestingly, my decision to change my working defintion for Story came about as a result of thinking about Play. I believe, as suggest by Johan Huizinga, that Play is foundational to the human existence. But I have come to believe it runs even deeper and that Play is foundational to all creatures with sufficiently complex brains. Cats and dogs play, young ravens play, dolphins play, and arguably even small mammals such as squirrels exhibit behavior that can be interpreted as pure play.
If this is true, then it means play happens in the "mammal brain," the same region where we store long term memories and where we experience emotion. It is certainly true that play require us to draw upon memories as we identify patterns in order to replicate success (or demonstrate mastery). Play produces heightened emotions as a reult of layering the emotions attached to memories with newly generated emotions as we store new memories. This would mean play, from an evolutionary standpoint, is the mechanism by which we ensure strong emotions are generated and attached to key memories. Since the earliest games we know of are all survival-skill games, this makes perfect sense.
So what does this have to do with Story?
I believe that Story is a form of Play that happens in the "human" portions of the brain. This is the portion of the brain that identifies patterns, creates language, etc. I'm almost inclined to say Story happens in the language centers of the brain, but I'm not sure that's accurate. As I've demonstrated throughout my improvisational performance career, Story can be strictly visual. I've considered defining story as a semiotic form of play, or perhaps a semantic form of play. I hesitate to call it an "intellectual" form of play because I feel intelligence is a widely misunderstood and highly problematic term that's often used to elevate the rational over the compassionate (as if an actual dichotomy existed between the two).
The primary thrust of this line of thought, however, is that Story is abstract because it is divorced from the physicality of Play, and it is easily manipulated and controlled in order to produce a desired emotion, rather than opening yourself up emotions produced organically as a result of Play. So, perhaps the definition will need to include references to manipulation (but carefully, as that's a charged word) and control (again, only with careful framing).
Storytelling then becomes a form of Game with language, grammar, cultural frames, media tropes, etc, acting as the set of rules and/or conditions.
What I find most interesting about this line of thought is that this would mean the natural progression from Play to Story to Storytelling leads directly to the creation of many games. Aboriginal games such as Kalq and Wana (link) are clearly Play analogs of real-world skill sets. Chaturanga (Chess's early ancestor), Mancala, Go, and Tablut are abstracted and have more formally defined rules, yet still relate to complex cultural survival skills.
I have long contended that the rigid insistence that Story inherently linear and therefore antithetical to Games to be a preposterous and poorly supported position. Story for the agent is only linear once it has been experienced. During the act of Storytelling, the agent's mind is actively in the process of narrowing their experience of the story (their fabula) to match each revealed plot point. And if we are relating Story via a linear Storytelling medium, then certainly Story is presented in a linear fashion. But even then, prior to the act of Storytelling, Story is a maleable and holographic tapestry in the agency director's mind, from which threads of linear Story are teased.
Put children in a sandbox with a limited set of toys that are suggestive of a particular type of storytelling and suddenly the agenecy director is participating in a form of storytelling that places the burden of interpreting the directive in a unique and ever shifting fashion. Only once the agents have left the sandbox is the Story itself linear. The act of Storytelling in this case was less so.
What I find compelling about this line of reasoning is that it no longer artificially divides the notions of Play and Story, while recognizing they primarily occur at different levels of experiences. The correctly presented definition would also go some way to resolve the dissonance people feel when contemplating the structural differences between storytelling and games by separating the psychological origins from the methods of cultural construction.