Narratives: Performers and Players

on 29 January 2009 at about 22:12

Notes from the fourth keynote in the Narratives series. This lecture is a game. Previous lectures: Introduction, then Stories and Structures followed by Familiarity and Strangeness. Whoah... TL;DR?


We concluded the last lecture thinking about the estranging qualities of puzzles, and this lecture explores some of these ideas: when is a narrative also a puzzle? What are the differences between games and narratives? Are interactive narratives actually narratives? And what exactly are games, anyway?

Aporia is the hardness of the puzzle, the danger one may fail, the difficulty of the game. It is not limited to games, though. Look for Holbein's painting The Ambassadors, and you'll find yourself trying to solve the riddle.

Rear Window

We began with a clip from Rear Window. Hitchcock's Rear Window has been much discussed by academics and critics, and it has provided material for writers like Laura Mulvey and Tanya Modleski and others to offer feminist critiques of, variously, the film itself, Hitchcock, the cinema experience, the cinematic apparatus, the film and media industry, patriarchal systems of organisation, etc.

Geoff, the character played by Jimmy Stewart is immobilised, and watches the occupants of the apartments opposite his own through their windows. It is quickly obvious that this provides an analogy for media forms (TV, film, etc). Each window contains a diegesis, as though it were a screen with stories projected within its frames.

Geoff has a camera which seems to grow longer, extending itself through various ever-extending zoom lens attachments. It has been suggested that the camera represents the erectile and erotic nature of the male gaze, reproduced nightly in cinemas where men look at objectified women on the fantastical cinema screen. Geoff thinks he has uncovered a murder perpetrated by one of the occupants of the flats across the way (Thorwald). He watches, ever more obsessively, as he tries to uncover the details of the murder.

For our purposes, I merely wish to draw attention to the strange way in which Geoff not only seems to stand for both the film-maker (the operator of the camera) and of the viewer (he can, at least at first, only watch), but he also illustrates some aspects of interaction. Geoff is sucked ever further in to the diegesis unfolding before him, until he finds himself involved in it, such that his housekeeper and his girlfriend Lisa become involved in the action. It has been noted that Geoff seems uninterested in Lisa when she is with him, but as soon as she becomes involved in the action in the screens opposite, he becomes very interested in her, very agitated - aroused, even. Psychoanalysts, go mad.

And there is a wonderfully estranging moment when Thorwald eventually discovers that he is being watched, and looks out of the window and meets the gaze of the camera: the hermetic seal of the diegesis has escaped its framing and leaked into the world of the viewer. For Geoff and for us it's a spine-tingling moment. Maybe he should have just stuck to spectating, and not gotten involved?

Brecht and interaction

As well as Brecht's innovations in estrangement (which we note have been used in Rear Window as a clever device to create suspense and tension) his ideas help us to think about performance and interactivity. We've already seen that Brecht's theatre was directed at political action and social change. In his early period Brecht wrote plays which "were to serve for the instruction of the participants alone. 'They need no audience'" (Esslin, 1969).

So we must imagine a theatre whose value is not in the performance before an audience, but in the acting itself: the rehearsal, the improvisation, the performance, the thought that must go into understanding the story to be enacted. This is exactly the sort of drama which antecedes subsequent forms of drama workshop as community-building, therapeutic situations.

And conversely, before we start to wonder if contemporary media forms which could be thought of as participatory performance, like videogames and interactive media forms such as the web, might be similar to the sorts of performances that Brecht was writing for his actors, we might just recall that his advocation of estrangement and alienation was quite opposite to the sorts of immersive and absorbing spectacles that we encounter in Halo and Facebook.

Greg Costikyan offers a imaginative case study of a role-playing game - Bestial Acts in Second Person (MIT Press, 2007) - in which he proposes a game in which the only 'honest' solution to intolerable moral dilemmas is to 'act in vicious, brutal ways'. Instead of role-playing games as entertaining diversion, he proposes a role-playing game which is an emotionally harrowing ordeal. Imagine if your first person shooter, instead of rewarding you with progress every time you kill a non-player-character, instead stopped the gameplay and demanded to know why you had committed the awful act of murder against someone with a family? This, Costikyan suggests, is the Brechtian drama which is absent from the performances we engage in today. Maybe current examples of 'persuasive games' are the works mining this vein.

Our game

But hey, this lecture was delivered at 10am on a Monday morning in January at the start of the university term, and we didn't want to dwell on depressing things like moral dilemmas, political apathy and the futility of existence. So, this lecture took the form of a game. It was pretty simple: BATV vs BAIMP vs BASW. There were four groups of theoretical ideas to choose from, and these are listed here first. Then there were eight examples of 'media artefacts' out there which are listed below. You had to chose one theory and one example, and the three cohorts then had try to 'say something interesting' - something that might go well in an essay, for instance - about the random combination of theory and example. I awarded points for the most interesting answers, like any good celebrity ballroom dancing contest judge gamesmaster lecturer fascist dictator host. Here's how the final scores worked out.

Universally Challenged


It was a close contest: but BAIMP lost out for falling at the penultimate hurdle, and TV just couldn't quite hurl themselves over the line in front of our winners - the outliers according to cohort size - the Sciptwriters!

So, without further ado, let's have a look at the theories we covered. As we do so, maybe you can think of ways that the theories might give us tools for thinking about how the examples work as texts / games / artefacts / narratives.

Theory One: Synchronic / Diachronic

We've encountered this useful dialectic before - it is one of the key ways to understand the structuralists' methods for analysing relational systems. We can also use it to think about the ways games are constructed.

In videogames, one of the common tasks is to try to 'get to the end'. Chucky Egg, Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog, Pacman - these games all demand that you survive until there is nothing left to survive - the end. Role-playing games have quests which are supposed to be undertaken in order for the player to progress and complete the game. All of these characteristics can be understood as working within the diachronic axis of the game's diegesis.

Many games are designed to 'funnel' you through the diachronic axis - i.e. James Bond must shoot all the bad guys to complete the level, Mario must rescue Yoshi to rescue Princess, etc. There may however be 'freedom to explore' at any time, though - the synchronic axis is where game choices occur, even if those choices have no long-term effect on the game. Even in Chucky Egg, you have the synchronic freedom to commit suicide repeatedly by running into the chickens. If you did this would you be 'playing about'? Would be 'not playing'? What is 'playing', anyway?

Theory Two: Caillois and the different kinds of play

Roger Caillois contributed his influential sociological analysis of play in his work, Man Play and Games in 1958. We can think about his ideas in two ways: the ludus / paidia axis, and the four categories of play and game.

Ludus / Paidia

Caillois argues that all forms of play can be understood by considering opposing tensions in the nature of the activity: between what he calls ludus - the system of rules which proscribe what can and cannot happen, and paidia - the open-ended, freeform, experimental, exploratory joy of being free to do whatever one wants to do. These two oppposing ideas capture in a simple form the tensions in many of the games and play-situations we encounter and participate in.

A fourfold typology of play

... is a posh way of describing Caillois' four categories. All games, all play, can be characterised by four taxonomical definitions: agon, alea, mimicry and ilinx.

Of course, many games and much play may intermingle aspects of any or all of these categories. Chess may by pure agon, while poker mixes agon and mimicry (poker faces and strategy) and alea (the random shuffling of the cards) and maybe even ilinx (the thrill of the gamble).

Theory Three: Narratology vs Ludology

In the blue corner is narratology: games, interactive narratives, playful situations and simulations can all be understood using the familiar concepts from the tradition of narrative theory.

In the red corner is ludology: games, interactive narratives, playful situations and simulations can not be understood as narratives, because they are not narratives, and so narrative theory must be rejected in favour of a new paradigm in theory, which starts from the 'gaming situation' itself.

To understand this rather crudely outlined argument, let's step through some thought experiments. Firstly, let's allow that interactivity is not merely a binary opposition (i.e. an artefact is either interactive or not interactive). Maybe we can think of interactivity (the ability for someone to change the outcome of the artefact they are interacting with) as a spectrum.

Interactivity Spectrum

On a scale from 0 to infinity, then, where would we place RL (real life). At infinity? Even our ability to affect outcomes in real life is potentiality limited by design constraints (gravity, entropy, the laws of physics, etc). Where would we place film, TV, phone-in votes, video games, websites, virtual worlds, role-playing games, lectures, etc?

[At this point I should like to point out that I was very worried by the suggestion in this lecture that one student made, which was that video games are more interactive than this lecture. I'd also like to thank the kind person who emailed afterwards to say they disagreed.]

In all of these cases, we might wonder what exactly it is that we are changing when we interact. If we think of narrative as an authored account of events, then perhaps interactivity is anti-narrative, since the 'author' cedes control of the account of events to the audience. Maybe we should think of narrative and game / interactivity as opposing things, pulling in opposite directions, so that we find ourselves looking at another spectrum? A spectrum between narrative and game, between author and audience?

Narrative / Game tension

Another way to think of it is to say that narrative and game are two entirely different things, which rather than offering us a spectrum, tells us that narrative and game are just different things, mutually exclusive.

Narrative vs game

Markku Eskelinen, Towards Computer Games Studies, (2004) puts it thus:

"A sequence of events enacted constitutes a drama, a sequence of events taking place a performance, a sequence of events recounted a narrative, and perhaps a sequence of events produced my manipulating equipment and following formal rules constitutes a game."

On the other hand, we might wonder whether his categorisations here don't circumscribe the definition of narrative a little too much? Is drama not narrative? And, this definition of game (manipulating of equipment, formal rules) could easily describe the process of making a video. Maybe 'making media' is a form of game?

A final model we might use to think about this is to stop looking for 'mutually exclusive' definitions, and instead see narratives and games as categories of things, which like any Venn diagram, sometimes perhaps overlap, and perhaps sometimes don't. You can drag the circles below to depict where you think the extent of the overlap is for any given artefact.

The battle lines between narratology and ludology are explored further in Eskelinen's essay which is reproduced in First Person, (MIT Press, 2004).

Theory Four: Ergodic Literature

Espen Aarseth in his 1997 book Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature, examines the notion of the ergodic text (as it might manifest in any medium - literature, film, electronic texts, etc). He defines a number of key conceptual models for thinking about narrative structure: linear, non-linear, multilinear, multicursal. A key characteristic according to Aarseth is that an ergodic text requires some kind of work: non-trivial effort in order to traverse a text. This work may require varying degrees of aporia.

So, many point and click adventures like Samorost have linear structures (there is only one path through the story) but some investigation must be done with the mouse in order to find out how to proceed to the next page. This use of aporia always brings the danger of failure: that the user will simply give up, and move on. What kinds of temptation must a text provide in order to avoid repelling the user in this way?

Non-linearity, multilinearity and multicursality are not limited to electronic texts, or course. Pulp Fiction is non-linear (chronologically speaking) and arguably multilinear (containing several, separate stories) and, as we've seen, Memento is non-linear, maybe multilinear (hinting at different versions of the same story). Multicursal (i.e. branching) narratives are difficult to pull off cinematically (though it has been tried!), but are easy to find in literature.

A cybertext, meanwhile, is a text which requires some kind of calculation in order to complete the text. Perhaps we might think of a piece of generative work which uses algorithms to produce the text (a burgeoning field of electronic literature explores these very methods of textual production). Or we might consider ways in which the reader performs the calculation (as in the I Ching). In either case, we might think of the text as in some way reflexive - it changes in response to being interacted with, whether that interaction is electronic, improvisational or puzzle-based.


So much for the theories we covered - synchronic, diachronic, ludus, paidia, agon, alea, ilinx, mimicry, ludology, interactivity, ergodic, linearity, non-linearity, multilinearity, multicursality, ergodicity and cybertext. Let's turn to the examples we used to explore the theories.

Example One: Second Life

Second Life is a virtual world developed by Linden Labs. Second Life is open ended: you can build your own avatar, get Linden Dollars and buy virtual clothes and prosthetics to extend your 'body', buy 'land', build 'houses', fly around, chat with other users, and so on. Unlike other online worlds like World of Warcraft and Everquest, Second Life doesn't have 'quests' or 'objectives' in the normal sense that online role-playing games do.

Second Life is, depending on who you ask, a playful alternate universe of performance and possibility, a pointless, deathly non-place littered with sex-crazed perverts poised and ready to invite you to masturbate with them during a cybersex session, or a cynical manufactured and branded attempt to exploit people's desire for escapism and turn their fantasies into consumption. It is either pointless, just like life, or pointless, just like games, or not pointless, just like life, or not pointless, just like games. You choose.

As well as a site for all kinds of play, it is something that people 'play with', either with their parodies, such as 'First Life' ("fornicate with your actual genitals!") or with their videos, re-seeing the real world through the eyes of the virtual:


Example Two: Reality TV

We all know and love reality TV. Come on admit it, you watch Big Brother religiously and happily sit through Strictly, X Factor and I'm a Celebrity one after the other when they're aired on a Saturday night, and when the series all finish, you sit there, staring blankly, disconsolate, flicking aimlessly through the channels: your life is incomplete without Brucie, Dermot O'Leary, Ant & Dec.

This is interactive TV: you decide who stays and who goes. The audience changes the cast of players every week, and the scriptwriters think of what to do with them next. Probably. And when the audience doesn't like the rules of the game, they invent a whole new set of rules, and game the BBC themselves:


And was David Cameron just playing when he said according to The Sun, 20th November 2008, "I am devastated. Strictly won't be the same without him."?

Example Three: Choose your own adventure

A tradition of which I am very fond, I might tell you. I adored the Sorcery! books published from 1983, when I was 11. I wrote one for my English homework when I was 12, and got 20 out of 20 for it. I even drew pencil crayon pictures to go with each page. Here's one someone made for Youtube recently.


These stories contain branching (multicursal) narratives, which, if we drew them out on a piece of paper, might look rather like treelike structures. Sometimes the forking paths would double back on themselves, or recurse. Recursive structures might make us think of computer programmes too - if we could draw the possible execution paths a computer programme could take, we'd normally end up a tree-like picture - an arborescent structure. But these are conceptual models. People playing these games do also draw the stories out on paper, in the form of maps, showing where they turned north, where the troll ambushed them. The spatial map is a non-linear structural representation of the experience of a story and, funnily enough, a memento. Dilemmas (which way to turn?) and dice and their modifiers sometimes introduce random luck and chance into these otherwise predetermined stories.

The analogy with computer programmes is a useful one because these kinds of multicursal narratives can trace their heritage back through various postmodern schools of writing such as Oulipo, where writers such as Calvino and Perec set out sets of rules (algorithms, if you like) which they used to 'generate' literature. Another way in which the connection to computers is relevant is the fact that choose-your-own-adventure style games are very like the board-based role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons which are so popular among computer scientists. Cheap shot, yes, I know, sorry. These role-playing games are of course the precursors of first, MUDs, MOOs and then later, MMORPGs.

Example Four: eXistenZ

David Cronenberg has a great line in the dark body horror genre. Scanners (corporate zombification), Videodrome (Debbie Harry's belly is a video player), Dead Ringers (twins' gynaecological dystopia), Naked Lunch (Burroughs bug porn) and Crash (sex in car crashes) are all brilliant explorations of the merging boundaries of technologies, machines, minds and bodies. His 1999 film eXistenZ is an equally unsettling exploration of the welding of game consoles and human bodies, and the consequent existential problems the characters face in trying to understand the constantly slipping diegeses they encounter.


One question: when no one is looking, do you go into 'a game move'?

Example Five: Role-playing Games

The board-based role-playing game has migrated to the game console, and is in many ways at the cutting edge of exploring the interplay between story and play. Fable II, released in Autumn 2008 is a case in point. As in many such games - The Witcher released in late 2007 is a perfect example - you may choose to follow a path of evil, good, or neutrality. If you do follow the evil path in Fable II, you will have to complete this mission - the Oakfield Massacre.


Out of context it may seem like just another shoot-em-up, but in the context of the game it was, for me, quite disturbing. The game uses a number of clever devices (such as showing how your character, whose morphology, physiognomy and effect on other NPCs evolve in response to your actions, has changed since it was a child) to make explicit either how the player's choices in the game affect the outcomes of the narrative, or how, even if the outcomes do not change, how the decisions the player makes have a moral dimension if only they decide to look at them. I chose the good path on the second time round.

Games like these use 'questing' systems - tasks which must be completed in order to progress through the game. In Fable II, the questing system can be left on hold almost indefinitely as you are free to build up your character's wealth, buy property, marry villagers, have children, and so on. Other games in the genre enforce the over-arching quest narratives much more strictly. There are a variety of approaches to the interplay of synchronic freedom (exploring and playing with the world in a freeform way) and diachronic necessity (moving the overall diegetic storyline along towards the 'completion' of the game).

Some players adopt a 'completionist' approach to such games - playing several times in order to experience every single available narrative thread (since some threads are only available on 'good' or 'evil' paths through the game). Some completionists (in games of any genre) use hacks and cheats in order to reach every possible avenue - forcing us to wonder what sort of 'play' they are actually engaging in?

Example Six: Machine generated poetry

Is text generated by a machine, poetry? How about this one?

Sentences begins.
money must
Sentences for love forsaken.

It's from a new book of poetry which has been generated algorithmically. Texts created collaboratively between people and machines.

Michael Bérubé analyses rather well the problems of saying that certain kinds of language are poetic - the following lines:

Unbelted occupants
Are not able to resist
The tremendous forces of impact by holding tight
Or bracing themselves. Their impact
With the vehicle interior
Has all the energy they had
Just before the collision.

- may seem deeply poetic, but only because we choose to read them as poetry. Bérubé actually took them from the 2003 VW Passat owner's manual.

So: where is the poetry: in the author's skill? The poem's language? Or the audience's reception? i.e. are you a romantic / structuralist? A realist / formalist? Or a postmodern / post-structuralist (see the lecture 6)? Only you know.

Example Seven: Upload Festival

Here's Ollie Bourne playing Upload Festival, which i encourage you to do too. He, along with Aneurin Barker-Snook, Dean Cadwallader and Angela Dickens made Upload Festival for their BAIMP Level I group project last year. How many meanings of the word play can you find in here?


Example Eight: Leeeeeeeeeeeroy Jenkins

See if you can identify the many different kinds of play at work here, and in what ways we might say they conflict.


If you don't get it, well, you probably have a life.


So those were the examples. All you have to do now, is find a friend, and you too can play the Universally Challenged game.

Play the game

Here's scoreboard for you and your friend. You can type in your names (by clicking in the big yellow boxes), and award yourselves points for being interesting and intelligent, or deduct them for being banal and unanalytical (by clicking on the '+' and '-' signs). All you have to do is take some of the theories listed above, and apply them to some of the examples listed underneath. Simple!


If you're stuck for ideas, here are a few suggestions for questions you might ask yourselves:

Next time in the narratives keynotes series, we pick up where Brecht left his theatre off: where we become story-tellers ourselves, trying to make sense of the world.

Too Long Didn't Read

Rear Window has parallels with ideas about interactivity. Brecht would make scary videogames if he were alive today, and you would feel freaked out after playing them. Narratives are sometimes interactive, and this throws up problems for authorship, spectatorship and the nature of story.

Interactivity throws narrative theory into a spin. Caillois' ideas about play may help us to understand games, and Espen Aarseth can help us understand flexible and reflexive narratives and texts.

People like to play. Do you?

Additionally and finally

James sent me a link to this video on youtube which captures some nice ideas about diachrony and synchrony, reflexivity, and play, all in one go.


And finally, here's me 'playing' with my new digital SLR when I was supposed to be writing this lecture up.

Joe's Desk

Lecture archive

  • Media & The Body Readings
  • The Use of Theory
  • Play
  • Production - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]
  • Narratives: Endlessnesses and Existence
  • Narratives: Endings, Meaning and Morals
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Familiarity and Strangeness
  • Intro to Media and Participation 2008 - 2009
  • Narratives: Stories and Structures
  • Narratives: Opening and Introductions
  • The Writerly Text: Part 1
  • Media & Participation: Identity
  • Media & Participation: Truth
  • Media & Participation: Citizenship
  • Media & Participation: Culture
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 2: The History of Copyright
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 1: The Romantic Author
  • Bournemouth Soundseeing: collaborative authorship
  • Marx's Critique of Capital: 101
  • Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view
  • Narrative and Structuralism and the brothers Grimm
  • Intro to Digital Media at BU
  • Small Print

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