HSS8120 – Narrative Agency

I think tabletop roleplaying games are awesome. I’m not personally a Dungeons and Dragons fan, but that is the kind of nerdery I’m talking about. Someday, I’m going to launch into a big long pretentious rant about the wonderful collaborative, creative venture that is tabletop roleplaying games, but today is not that day.

For now, here’s a good quote about them:
We no longer tell stories – we listen to them. We sit passively and wait to be picked up and carried to the world they describe, to the unique perception of reality they embrace. We have become slave to our TVs, permitting an oligarchy of artists to describe to us our lives, our culture and our reality. […] However, there is another way. (Vampire: the Masquerade, 1992, p. 21-22)

I found that quote in this paper, which acknowledges the hyperbole in it. People who print roleplaying games are every bit as invested in the cultural significance of their medium as TV pundits and film critics, goes the reasoning. But I think this quote does a good job of capturing the part of the appeal of interactive mediums like roleplaying games and video games. You get to tell a story, or even better, you get to be in a story.

tabletop games

‘most players experience roleplaying sessions quite vividly. They have not just listened to a story, they have actually played a part in it, without them it might have finished differently.’ (On the Roll of a Die: a brief ludologic study of pen-and-paper roleplaying games and their rules)

It’s like experiencing a narrative from a film or a TV show or a novel, except the audience (if you can still call them that) has agency, and that can make it all the more engaging. Maybe it’s a kind of engagement that appeals mainly to people in which the ‘I-wonder-if-I-can-make-something-like-that?’ impulse is especially strong. I know that impulse is pretty much the whole reason I started writing and became interested in game development, so I’m definitely biased.

I do think agency is a huge part of the appeal in any kind of game, though.  You don’t just let games wash over you like a song or a film. Maybe you do still ‘consume’ interactive media, but surely its a much less passive kind of consumption. You’re more engaged. Assuming you’re not a grizzled white man with military training, your options for the ‘surrogate you’ to help you engage with the game can sometimes be quite limited in games. Or even if you were, you may well want to experiment with being someone else. Well, tabletop games, or video games where you can customise your character, are a little better in this regard.

This is all very well and good. Games are awesome, tabletop roleplaying games are awesome, and they are an underrated medium for creativity and problem solving. It’s a good spiel, and I buy into it. Jane McGonigal’s Ted Talk ‘Gaming can make a better world‘ (which Ashley put me onto) is probably the most articulate expression of this view that I’ve seen.

Most importantly I think she handles the criticisms leveled at games and gamers well and fairly even-handedly. According to her stats, more collective hours have been spent in the fictional universe of World of Warcraft than the sum length of human history, and by the age of 21 the average American will have spent approximately the same amount of time playing video games as they have in education. I’m sure to some people that sounds like a terrible thing – what a waste of life! But she makes a good case for it.


Urgent Optimism+ Social Fabric + Blissful Productivity + Epic Meaning = Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals

That’s her formula for how online games galvanise and train the people who play them in a positive way. They’re solving problems and saving the world, just not the real one, and the appeal of that is understandable. “We are witnessing what amounts to a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.” is a quote she uses, from Edward Castronova, and she does a good job of spinning that as a positive thing, or at the very least, a rational thing that is not inherently bad.

She tells Herodotus’ story about the kingdom of Lydia, in which the people were starving and alternated between days on which they would eat, and days on which they would play dice games. According to the story, they would be engaged enough in playing games that they were able to endure the hunger. The kingdom survived eighteen years this way, but the famine wasn’t ending, so the people gathered together to play one last game, and the winners left to find a brand new place to live, leaving enough food for the rest of the people to survive where they were. Thus, the games weren’t just an epic distraction or a surrogate life when times were miserable: they actually saved the kingdom (in the story).


But as much as I want my favourite mediums to be able to save the world, or at least be more significant than a compelling distraction, I’m skeptical. Because ‘a mass exodus to virtual worlds’ sounds an awful lot like some of the scary trends of the past year.

You know the ones. The ones where social media echo-chambers were super comforting but then turned out to not be remotely representative of how the rest of the world thinks. Or the ones where it felt like, at least from some people’s perspectives, that huge numbers of perfectly sane individuals were taking leave of reality in favour of narratives that told them solving their problems was a simple as playing a game, or voting a particular way.

So I’m curious about how the act of adding agency to storytelling really works. Its engaging, yes. But can it actually be empowering? I don’t believe games, even the roleplaying games, are really free from that so-call ‘oligarchy of artists’. There are still games developers and dungeon masters, and even when there aren’t, someone still made the rules that give that narrative meaning, and those rules still privilege certain experiences in ways that the player doesn’t have control over.

Long story short, for my presentation I want to host a short roleplaying game, and with any luck I’ll be able to use that to experiment a little bit with ideas of control, agency and who’s really telling the story.


Image credit: the first picture was nicked from Wyntercon’s website here, the second from the World of Warcraft wiki, and the third from Jane McGonigcal’s talk.

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