“Story” has been with us for as long as we have been communicating. We tell stories to better understand how we can or should move through life. Existentialists such as Paul Ricour and Peter Brooks argue that an act of narration allows us to deal with time, destiny and mortality, and to create identities. Narrative allows us to situate ourselves in the world.
But as narratives are a metaphor for our own lives, games are practice for it. “Games traditionally offer safe practice in areas that do have practical value,” notes cyberdrama theorist Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. “Lion cubs roughhouse with one another in order to grow to be predators. Small children play hide and seek, a good way of training hunters, and ring-around-a-rosy, a good way of practicing cooperation and coordinated behaviors. Older children in our society are understandably drawn to pitting themselves against machines.” And contest stories are as old as Odysseus. Murray places the contest as “one of the most pervasive organizing principles of human intelligence.” These dramas compel us through stories from MacBeth to Mortal Kombat. If the former is the drama told, the latter is the drama happening.
In a game the drama happens to us through “agency,” the pleasurable aspect of play in which the players actions have meaningful consequences in the game. We act, the game responds, the story changes. A novel asks us to set aside our agency, our right to make choices argues Ken Perlin. Instead the agency of the protagonist takes over and we are swept up in his or her struggles. We cannot interfere as we hitch ourselves to them for a ride. “By way of contrast, look at games,” he notes. “A game does not force us to relinquish our agency. In fact, the game depends on it. When you play Tomb Raider you don’t actually think of Lara Croft as a person the same way, say, you think of Harry Potter as a person… While you’re actually playing the game, the very effectiveness of the experience depends on you becoming Lara Croft… Every choice she makes, whether to shoot, to leap, to run, to change weapons, is your choice.”
Game play can also deepen immersion. Murray pointed to the early text-based Zork computer game to demonstrate the difference your presence in the story makes. In the game you enter a dungeon through a trapdoor. It is slammed behind you, and, She says, “The moment is startling and immediate, like firing a prop gun on the stage of a theater. You are not just reading about an event that occurred in the past; the event is happening now, and unlike the action on the stage of a theater, it is happening to you.”
In an effective transmedia franchise the keystone element may be a narrative story told through film or in a novel, in which a fully drawn character acts without our influence. But games offer an important expansion of the world in which that story unfolds. Through a game we can step into that world and exercise our agency to create our own side story or experience the actions of the hero first hand. We can feel the tension as we approach the Death Star’s exhaust port and the elation of a good shot that wins the battle.
The role games play in a transmedia story is examined more on the Lure of Games and Power of Networks page linked here, under Contexts at the top of the site, or near the top of the right sidebar. Stay tuned for posts on how games can work in a transmedia journalism story.