Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Our part of the game's narrative contract

I was listening to the back catalog of Extra Credits today, which is totally worth it by the way, and I came upon one of my favorite episodes, The Magic Circle.  Basically James is talking about ways that storytellers use ritual or structure to allow us, the audience, to enter into the 'magic' of the tale being told without having to abandon our knowledge and reason as thinking adults.  It is the contract that we make with the storyteller that we are willing to listen to whatever she has to say without rejecting her medium as foolish or childish or unimportant. 

EC gives the example of the mystery of the campfire as a circle that allows us to experience ghost stories in a way would never be as effective in another setting.    But circles can come in many forms. Think of the effect of the opening song from Firefly.  It is a wrapper around the story that signals the kind of magic the author is offering.  Once we've passed that boundary, we've given the author permission to show us space ships in the wild west, and the author has given us a promise to make that magic make sense.

In return, the storyteller has an obligation to treat our attention with care, to not stretch the permission we've extended to them too far and make us feel foolish.  By entering this circle we expose a little of our own credibility.  And again, we must be willing participants in this contract for it to have any effect.  Someone outside that circle may well look at some of our cherished tales and disparage them a bit.  It's easy to laugh at X-files, or Doctor Who, or Rocket and Groot and say, 'It doesn't make any sense. I just don't get it."  This ridicule is part of what the magic circle gives us protection from.  It's OK to believe.

Corey Olsen is a popular commentator on Tolkien's works and he talks about "secondary belief" a term he uses to refer to the investment in the world of the story by the audience.  We might call it a willing suspension of disbelief.  "If the art of the storyteller is good enough we will be led to accept things like magic or dragons as perfectly plausible within the bounds of the secondary (the storyteller's) world."

This is the complex social contract that we enter into every time we play a narrative game like an MORPG.  The players are willing to cross the boundary of this artificial world, and must be willing to overlook its weaknesses and the artificiality of game mechanics in order to gain the freedom to live in that other world.  This is were we as players have an obligation to be something more than passive observers.

On the other hand, if the game is willing to invite players across that boundary, they had better have something to offer them other than game mechanics and dexterity puzzles. Very often that magic circle has been lost when we log in and start to grind out dailies.  Where we queue for an instance and then start farming for cloth drops. This is what we begin to lose on the long stretches between expansions.

Post twenty-six in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

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