Hungry for Stories – December 19, 2010

All my life, I’ve been literally bathed in stories. We were read to as children. And then, when I was six years old, the family bought an early television. Suddenly, I was exposed to video plays and broadcasts of old movies.1 The TV Age made more visual programming available to my generation than to any before it—unless a child living sometime earlier in the 20th century inhabited a large city and had endless pocket change and the leisure to visit movie theaters. Children and adults before the 20th century had to make their way to a theater where live people were actually performing, or get their stories through reading books and visiting public storytellers. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have created a wealth of visual storytelling.

I loved—still love—receiving stories in whatever form: books, plays, TV episodes, movies. Following the action, watching people make decisions, learn new things, go new places, and find out the truth about their lives is bread to my mental life. Something primitive in me responds to the unfolding of the story arc, the path of discovery, and the satisfaction of a plot that comes around to a definite ending that might have been foretold from the beginning. My brain responds to following the trail, sighting the quarry, and bringing it down. In a way, every story is a story of the hunt, retold in the guise of a quest, a journey, a love affair, a gamble, or whatever other form human action can take. This is very old stuff, going back to our 100,000 years of hunter-gatherer culture.

Note that, in this, I don’t make much distinction between stories read in books and stories acted out in the playhouse, or on the movie screen, or in ten-minute bites between commercials on the TV screen. They’re all storytelling. They all answer the questions: What do the characters want? What will happen and what comes next? How will they get out of that? The author or screenwriter or scriptwriter lays a trail of breadcrumbs that the characters in the story—and the reader or viewer vicariously—will follow through the various subplots, the climax, the denouement, and the resolution. It’s all story.

But now, with the rise of the personal computer and more recently with the connectivity of the internet, people have the ability to create their own stories. (Without, that is, undertaking a life of adventure and risk, gambling “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors,” enduring harships and terrors, and perhaps dying the “real death.”) Through participation in computer-structured worlds and with the possibility of interacting with total strangers who have unknown characters and purposes, players can participate in games that are beginning to rival the best stories and screenplays for visual and aural realism.

Games have always been an evening’s entertainment as an alternative to reading and theater-going. Playing chess is a highly abstract way of planning and executing a battle in the field.2 Playing Dungeons and Dragons with a board and painted figures, under the tutelage of a dungeonmaster, is a much more realistic way of going on a medieval quest. Either game exercises your imagination—as a story does—but also puts you in control of the action. Either game, also, is more interesting to play in than to watch. When you control the action—or at least your part of it—you reach a level of involvement that a mere observer cannot attain.

Computer games like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty raise this experiential reality and personal involvment to near-lifelike levels, except for the reek of gore and pain of wounds. There are also other online venues than battle games. For example, Second Life enables interactions that are more social, educational, artistic, and commercial than combative. Farmville enables the sort of community interaction and growth that people experienced in the 19th century.

But people will still try to find story lines in the battle and other games. How do I know? Because most of them involve writers in their creation, who develop some sort of background history and accompanying setting to the game action. The action itself may be an animated contest with swords or guns—a knockdown or a shooting gallery—but there is a story line that supports it in the player’s imagination and gives it a sense of purpose. Also, several of these games have themselves been made into movies by adding specific characters and a fixed story line to the game setting.

Some people think that the realism and excitement of these online games will soon overtake the pleasure of reading books and watching stories unfold in movies.

Perhaps. I’m open to the possibilities. Certainly, there’s the potential for someone with a big enough island in Second Life to run a participatory adventure/mystery/quest game against an interactive background, like those envisioned in many science fiction stories3 or the holodeck adventures of characters in the later Star Trek series.

But I’m not convinced that even the most immersively realistic game played with multi-sensory avatars will ever replace the human hunger for stories. I think there is still a desire to have another creative mind lay out the breadcrumb trail, craft a story arc, and lead us from an innocuous beginning to a satisfying ending with all the plots resolved. And I think there is more power in the human imagination to conjure delight and terror than can be found in any combination of pixels and soundwaves.

There is also a particular downside to games. The more you become involved with creating the plot through your game actions, the more your own creativity and imagination will be execised and, possibly, found wanting. The more you interact with other players, the more their capabilities along the lines of storytelling—as indeed their reaction times and sense of strategy—will be revealed. The hunger for stories is also the hunger to put ourselves in the hands of a master storyteller, to let someone with more experience, more insight, and more clever tricks take over our brains and show us something new.

A mechanical knockdown or shoot-’em-up—not matter how lavish the special effects—cannot compare with this. We still want to be entertained.

1. It drove my father somewhat crazy that I would rather watch an old movie on television than join him in tuning into a ballgame. It was forty years or more before I could read a story arc and personal drama into a sports contest.

2. So is checkers, I guess, if all you’ve got is pawns.

3. See the Dream Park novels of Larry Niven and Steven Barnes.