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Games, Stories and the Creation of Meaning

by Anna Tito on 10/27/10 01:01:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

Stories define, challenge and change us. They define the boundaries of what we know and how we know it. They teach us about the experience of others and how our and their worlds intertwine.
They speak to us of the fantastic; they speak to us of the real. A good story speaks on many levels; it grows with us and redefines itself through our own experience. I am not simply talking here about the grandiose sagas of the ancient mythology or the quests and adventures presented in modern novels, I am more broadly talking about the stories people tell of themselves and their lives.
We each have a personal narrative, we all tell stories, it is how we make sense of our existence and ourselves. However we also must have other stories by which to compare and contract our own. It gives us a comparative framework a way in which we begin to see outside of ourselves and build an empathetic experience of others and the world.

Games have become a highly influential media. They present a unique opportunity to explore the notions of story and narrative and in their creation they also entrust us with a great responsibility.

As people consume less traditional media they turn to the new media for their stories. These stories then become the basis for their narrative reality. In western culture games have largely been seen as a recreational, childlike and somewhat juvenile realm of media.

This dismissal of games as a serious medium, has disguised its power as a creator of meaning, and has meant that their creators have been largely unaware of the social shaping power they wielded.

People will argue that games in an of themselves are not hugely influential in shaping the way people think, I would argue they do but not in the overt way many people think. Games play a pivotal part in the creation of a wider social narrative; they reinforce ideas and social norms.  

The debate between the ethics and aesthetics of narrative has been the cornerstone of narrative debate for centuries, from Plato who deigned that all narrative (in his case theatrical narrative, but also sophistry the art of public speaking and debate) must be aimed at uplifting the spirit and increasing the purity of man, through to those who felt the goal of literature is to entertain any ethical or moral considerations were secondary to this.

I myself come partway in between, I am strongly in favour of the idea that a story is meant to explore ideas, I grew up with a grandparent who stuck by the motto ‘if you don’t have something worthwhile to say, say nothing’ and that has held fast for me. However I also understand the power of entertainment in the raising of issues and discussion of ideas in a less personally confronting context.

For me while entertainment is an important framework and it is the sugar coating, if a story has no depth, doesn’t raise any questions it is simply a placebo. In modern times allot of the popular fiction is aimed at purely entertaining, occasionally with seeds of wisdom, but these are often accidentally included rather than consciously.

Don’t get me wrong I love my fair share of bad and empty action movies or crime thrillers and as sometimes a narrative placebo is as necessary to life as they are in medicine. But I feel that there is a point where the excessive use of the narrative placebo looses its beneficial qualities.

I am not talking here about moralising or imposing some spiritual or ethical framework on a narrative piece, but I am talking about exploring ideas and concepts, asking questions, not necessarily finding answers.  Games are a narrative framework that I feel has not been treated seriously subsequently most of the games available are largely narrative placebos. 

You have genres, which are acknowledged as genres that are ‘allowed’ to have ethical and moral discussions; these are largely the RPG style games or the older point and click narratives. However even those often treat it in a very black an white way, as they use them to shape game play (and it is easier to code) so there must be universal ethical frameworks in which the notions of good an evil in the game are measured.

However even in these accepted mediums of exploration, while they often tell good stories, they don’t often look at their narrative subtext: what defines an action to be good or bad, what question or lack thereof do they pose when they make that judgement.

As the creators of games it is vital that we ask these questions, by asking them we not only develop fuller and more complex games but we can add another level of challenge for the player.

If the player can enter the game and are challenged though all aspects of engagement the likely hood that you have created a game that will stay with them and become part of their own personal narrative is dramatically increased. Not only that but you have also placed your creation within their personal narrative context and become part of their own narrative definition of reality.

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