Mechanics and Story

The opening of “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” describes a tension between narrative and mechanics that I think is common in story-based games. I experienced this tension a bit in “Ask Again Later”: At the end of the game, the storytellers explained some of the thematic and narrative material they intended for the story, in which magic served partially to symbolize repression. And while I enjoyed the LARP a lot, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to experience that thematic material more directly. I imagine more of those themes would have revealed themselves in a long-term version of the LARP, but I also think the format of play limited the storytellers’ ability to convey those kinds of themes as directly because of the need to adapt to our decisions as players. My final project group encountered a similar tension in planning our ARG, as we initially struggled to figure out why, narratively, there would be any need to communicate through puzzles and riddles rather than directly.

To some extent, I think this tension is comparable to other art forms. Across platforms, there are ways in which structure and story can conflict. In a first-person book, for example, the desire to write engaging and compelling prose might conflict with the less polished way a character would actually realistically write. My main creative platform is YouTube, and I’ve encountered similar tensions there. For instance, there have been times when I felt that things like including end screens or asking questions for the comments detracted in theme or pacing from the rest of the video.

I think one way to address this is to try to have structural elements serve doubly as thematic content. For games, this is similar to Bogost’s idea in Persuasive Games of “procedural rhetoric,” in which processes act as a kind of expression. This resonates with the way we used mechanics at the second Queer Game Night, where the game mechanics themselves were also thematic material, such as using “coming out” as an action players could take within the game. I think this kind of procedural expression can also be thought of in relation to derivé or similar kinds of play, in which the meaning comes less from the actual landscape being explored and more from the way it’s being explored, and the process of exploring.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has thoughts on this sort of tension between story, or theme, and mechanics, and on ways to address it.

Everyday Performance and the Willingness to Accept It

In “Technique,” Crease and Lutterbie describe a view of technique as “inseparable from human experience” (162). This understanding points to a kind of everyday performance in which we use learned techniques, often involuntarily, in our daily behaviors. Sociologist Erving Goffman writes about a similar concept, suggesting that we cement our identities and social roles by performing to others in our everyday interactions. But he suggests that, in order to give a convincing performance, we “tend to show [the audience] only the end product” with the effort that goes into performing concealed (44). I’m interested in considering how these everyday aspects of performance can be revealed, and what the implications are when they’re modified.

The Push provides one way of thinking about this: By putting its subjects in extreme scenarios, their performances were drastically modified to the point that they eventually attempted murder. But I’m interested in looking at this idea of performance in scenarios closer to daily experience, so I’m instead going to primarily focus on another example. Since watching The Push, I’ve been thinking a lot about the comedy reality show Nathan For You, which uses somewhat similar tactics of manipulation and deceit. In it, deadpan comedian Nathan Fielder goes to small businesses with elaborate stunts framed as business advice, like a rebate at a gas station that requires customers to hike up a mountain and solve a series of riddles to claim. (If you’re interested, the episodes “Smokers Allowed,” “The Hero,” and “The Anecdote” seem particularly relevant.)

In the show, Fielder performs as a deeply socially awkward version of himself. In interviews, he describes the persona as an exaggerated version of his real-life awkwardness, suggesting a blending of self and character somewhat reminiscent of Colbert. There’s a frequent discomfort that comes from that, as it can be difficult to judge Fielder’s true feelings or intentions at any given moment. But what I think is especially interesting is how he interacts with the performances of his unknowing participants. Goffman describes a tendency people have to cooperate with each other’s performances, playing along so as to avoid discomfort. But Fielder doesn’t do that in interacting with people for his show. As he explains, “In my personal life, I will do whatever it takes to make a situation comfortable… if I’m talking to someone [and] there’s a silence, I’ll try to fill that gap… But in the show, I don’t do that, and I let those moments sit.” This creates a certain frailty to the interactions portrayed on the show, as he leaves people’s performances, or their techniques, very exposed. And often, there’s a poignant humanity in that, and the show presents its subjects with surprising empathy.

The show plays with the idea of performance in several other interesting ways. The idea of bleed described by Bowman frequently seems relevant. Not only does the public draw meaning from some of Fielder’s marketing-based stunts (several have been mistaken for Banksy pieces), but Fielder himself often seems affected by his own performances. When audiences find meaning in his bizarre stunts, he finds meaning in them too. And there are moments in which he uses his own fictions to comfort himself, in one instance asking an actress to portray one of the small business owners in order to tell him he did a good job. As he constructs his elaborate fictions, there’s an extent to which he seems to believe them on an emotional level.

In this way, I think the show highlights our frequent willingness to believe performances, both of others and of ourselves. We tend to accept and cooperate with the version of a person we’re presented with. And when we don’t, it’s disorienting. I’m interesting in exploring both that willingness to believe and the discomfort of leaving a performance exposed.

(Goffman quotes are from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life)

The Artistic Potential of Unethical Practices

There’s been a lot of discussion in class and on the blog about the ethics of something like The Push. I agree with most of the criticisms: The participants were placed in intentionally traumatic situations and subjected to intense public shaming once the special was released. But I’m also interested in considering the artistic potential of this kind of manipulation and deceit, and whether such practices can ever be artistically justified.

In considering this, I think it’s worthwhile to think about who the audience of The Push, or similarly manipulative works, is. Watching The Push, it feels obvious to view ourselves, the viewers, as the audience. But I think we can alternately frame the participants as the audience, with the manipulation itself, rather than the special created around it, being the art. Slater seems to take this approach in describing the Milgram experiment, which comes across in her writing almost like an immersive theater performance, intricately staged with a “ghoulish air” (44). The subjects, then, act as the unknowing audience. And even for those of us viewing The Push or the Milgram experiment as outsiders, part of the effect comes from putting ourselves in the place of the subjects. We don’t just experience the work as an impersonal experiment. We experience it as personal, and we are implicated in the actions of the participants.

I think art, in general, manipulates by design. It’s usually not so overt, but all art seeks to provoke us into thought or feeling. These works take that a step further, provoking their audiences into genuine belief in the falsehoods constructed, as well as provoking them into action. And while that inherently poses ethical questions, I also think there’s artistic potential in the ability to give people a completely novel and unique lived experience. It seems like a powerful way to communicate a message, or create an artistic sensation, is to make people live it, or even manipulate them into living it. And the knowledge that something is a fiction, or that it is, in fact, a game, can get in the way of that lived experience. While there are certainly ethical questions surrounding the Milgram experiment, I think it was absolutely artistically impactful for its subjects, seemingly making some of them reconsider their own obedience and actions. And I expect The Push was similarly impactful.

Of course, it was probably impactful in largely negative ways! So I wonder if there are ways for this artistic impact to be channeled in a more ethical manner, while keeping the intensity of experience. There a couple things that come to mind for me. The “this is not a game” aesthetic of ARGs definitely comes close. Hoaxes can also be similar, and I think some of the elaborate hoaxes created by the show Nathan For You are quite fascinating (I’ll probably talk more about that show in the context of performing the self). I do wonder, though, if there’s something artistically unique in pushing at ethical boundaries. The Push definitely crosses the line, for me at least, but I wonder if there’s value in nearing that line, and if the impacts of The Push could have been achieved in any other way.

The Space Between In-Character and Out-Of-Character in “Ask Again Later”

In looking back on the “Ask Again Later” LARP, one aspect of the experience that I find particularly interesting is the dynamics of interaction prior to the start of actual gameplay. While the storytellers seemed to construct a clear magic circle contained between our in-character introductions and out-of-character introductions, there was still a degree to which play began prior to the game’s actual start. Before we were given any instructions, we were primarily out of character, but even then the boundaries between in-character and out-of-character began to blend. At the table I was sitting at, for instance, we all introduced ourselves with both real names and character names, and for the players who didn’t know each other, there were several moments of clarifying which name was which. This blending of in-character and out-of-character became more pronounced once we were told to look for people we might have relationships with in the game, as players approached this task with differing degrees of in-character behavior. During that time, I spoke about my character in the first person, but I wasn’t fully acting in character: I was more likely to say “I am an angsty teenager” than to actually act angsty like I did once gameplay began.

These gradual increments of in-character behavior suggest a blurring of the magic circle, specifically in the form of what Montola describes as a “temporal expansion” (14). Interestingly, the game was temporally defined within a clear “game session” (14). But on the edges of that session, there remained elements of play. And there were similar ways in which the game contained slight “spatial expansion” (12). For instance, the building’s entrance room was defined as an out-of-character space, but if we were just passing through it between places, we tended to stay in character. While this might seem like a mere technicality, it shows the difficulty of fully containing the gameplay within the bounds of a magic circle. A circle was clearly defined, but play seeped outside of it. And similarly, non-play seeped into it: My mom texted me at one point, and I understandably replied out-of-character.

I think this blurring was ultimately helpful in making the experience more comfortable for the players. Spolin writes about the value of players not having authority imposed upon them, instead letting “each player freely [choose] self-discipline” (6). And the allowance of some leeway in choosing when to be in character or out of character allowed for this. It was more of a “yes, and” approach, allowing us to choose who we wanted to be and respond to others on their own terms. I think having a strict boundary would make the act of performing more intimidating, suggesting a need to get the performance right. The ability to blur the lines of the circle, on the other hand, allowed for a more open and comfortable experience.

Can Post-Truth Fight Post-Truth?

While watching Get Me Roger Stone and reading “What is Post-Truth?”, what initially stood out to me was how much structural overlap there seems to be between ARGs and the falsehoods constructed by the far right. Roger Stone was almost like a gamemaker (puppet master?) in how he took joy in news manipulation, almost treating it as a form of play. Of course, the intentions of ARGs and post-truth are very different, but both have an interest in blurring the lines between fiction and reality, as well as somewhat of a disregard for the very notion of truth. Post-truth relies on the idea that there’s a truth in how people feel and act, with Gingrich saying, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and let you go with the theoreticians” (McIntyre 4). And ARGs, I think, rest on a similar idea: There’s truth created when players feel and participate, and those feelings, based on an alternate truth, are meaningful and real.

I don’t think these similarities mean that ARGs are somehow complicit in post-truth: Again, they have very different intentions, and McIntyre even points out how postmodern questions about truth predate the current post-truth movement (6). But the similarities do make me wonder whether ARGs, or movements similar to them, can be used as a tool in fighting post-truth. I think McIntyre would be doubtful. He writes that the “issue… is not to learn how to adjust to living in a world in which facts do not matter, but instead to stand up for the notion of truth” (154). And in that framework, I’m not sure ARGs as the most effective tool.

The interview with Massumi, however, suggests a way in which ARGs could fight post-truth. He argues that “alternative political action does not have to fight against the idea that power has become affective, but rather has to learn to function on that same level – meet affective modulation with affective modulation” (234). I think I lean more towards that way of thinking. In recent years, many of the forms of political resistance that I’ve thought most effective fit Massumi’s suggestion of “a performative, theatrical, or aesthetic approach to politics” (234). For example, YouTuber and philosopher ContraPoints makes videos responding to alt-right claims that are intensely theatrical, with costumes and characters, while also being factual and well-researched. And working more in this vein of political engagement, I think ARGs could be effective, especially because they in so many ways fit with Massumi’s ideas of affect. His descriptions of the “depth and breadth of our experiencing” and of “embodied” participation (214) both seem in line with the experience of playing an ARG and the attitude that such gameplay encourages.

I’d be interested in looking at the specifics of how such an ARG could interact with post-truth, and in whether others think it’s possible, or advisable.