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Against Stories

I have often thought that there is an overlooked dimension to the discussions about games and narrative. Many games encourage a particular style of thinking – a way of looking at situations as possibility spaces and applying systemic, algorithmic, and probabalistic cognitive techniques. And in some ways this type of gamer intelligence can be seen in opposition to storytelling as a way of understanding the world.

I usually keep this idea of games against stories to myself, because it seems unnecessarily confrontational. But in this TED talk, economist Tyler Cowen gives a wonderful critique of story thinking. As an added bonus, his advice to embrace the mess of our lives and the world reminded me of Ian Bogost’s recent Digra keynote. Maybe Tyler is a skeptical realist?


  1. Matthew Weise wrote:

    I find Tyler Cowen’s view of stories itself reductionist and simplistic. As a gamer I’ve never felt “story” and what you’re calling “gamer intelligence” are in any way opposed. Stories are just the output generated by a possibility space. Seeing things as stories doesn’t prevent me from seeing them as systems. In fact, I would consider one of the best examples of gamer intelligence to be able to look at a story (i.e. an output) and mentally reverse-engineer the system that generated it.

    What Cowen’s really criticizing, it seems to me, are overly simplistic systemic models of of things, whether they be politics, history, our own lives, etc. To me stupidly reductionist storytelling isn’t *causing* this, just expressing it.

    In order to even believe a simplistic story you have to first buy the logic upon which it generates itself. A story of good versus evil is an *argument* for a good versus evil systemic model. That’s what people are really buying into when they buy into these stories. They are buying into reductionist systemic models that are comforting in their simplicity.

    I really don’t see what the conflict is between stories and systemic thinking. Stories are just systems trapped in amber, which makes them easier to exchange and express. Stories in such a sense may just be a cheap way to communicate systems, because they just imply logic without actually simulating it. But systemic models are really what’s being communicated. Whether those models are reductionist depends on who’s expressing them.

    Monday, November 9, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  2. -a way of looking at situations as possibility spaces and applying systemic, algorithmic, and probabalistic cognitive techniques-

    I can’t see why that is only specific to games. It looks like “narrative” is perceived as something without possibility space; it’s seen as something ‘written’ and hence, set in stone. But that looks to me like we tend to speak of the narrative as something that has been already consumed, and not as a lively experience rich of possibility space.

    Most storytelling techniques are exactly about creating possibility space and getting us thinking about it. Who killed Roger Ackcroyd? Could you tell unless you were finished with the novel? No, to the opposite, you were displaying all sort of stuff that is called “gamer intelligence” in this article. You looked at the situations as possibility spaces and applied systemic, algorithmic, and probabalistic cognitive techniques.

    Thursday, December 24, 2009 at 12:03 am | Permalink

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