On storytelling in games.

On storytelling in games.

I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience.  These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.

Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable.  He produces a popular series of video reviews.  And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection.  I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.

I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.

Consider a story of moral complicity.  When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described.  Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.

But there’s no excuse within a game.  The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.

In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:

You think you’re better than me,

cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only

imagined

When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level. 

In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:

                                    The guards

Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.

I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not

What you’d expect from Americans.

Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people

Having a good time, blowing off steam.

Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level.  We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.

And yet.  In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner.  And players did it.  Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …

Screenshot from GTA 5.

You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from.  Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military.  Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.

From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:

“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.

There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.

I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture.  It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts.  We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.

The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth.  But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.

We are monsters.  That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.

And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.

Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes.  The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative.  Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.

Picture of Secret Hitler by Nicole Lee on Flickr.

When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism.  I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier.  It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.

Header image by Padaguan.

On killer line breaks.

Tracy K. Smith’s poetry collection Life on Mars is excellent, combining bursts of science-fiction weirdness with totally non-speculative emotional clarity.  If you chance upon a copy, you might try flipping to her poems “The Museum of Obselencence,” or “Sci-Fi,” or “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” particularly the fifth strophe of that last one; those are my favorites, although you could also do pretty well by opening her book at random and reading whatever you find.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any pull quotes that do justice to my favorites from her collection.  So instead I’m stuck writing an essay about a section of the titular poem “Life on Mars.”  And I use the word “stuck” because my lack of experience with poetry will be quite clear here: I picked some lines where Smith reworks quotations from Rush Limbaugh and Senator Norm Coleman about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and, with some killer line breaks, really shifts the meaning.

                                                     The guards
Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.
I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not
What you’d expect from Americans.
Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people
Having a good time, blowing off steam.

9781555975845What she’s doing here is totally unsubtle — if you’re a poetry person, let me reassure you that she employs a much lighter touch in her other pieces.  But, right: I am not a poetry person, so I enjoyed her lack of subtlety here.  To me, this feels almost like going to a martial arts demonstration and seeing someone make a slow, exaggerated motion.  If you’re in the audience you finally get to nod and muse, “Ahhh, so that is how they do it.”  Sure, it’s not real evidence of someone’s prowess, but I think it’s a kindness to sometimes tone down a performance to the point where the untrained eye can appreciate what’s being done.

Here, she plays with a readers eyes.  The line break after “not” pushes you to isolate the phrase “what you’d expect from Americans” from Coleman’s words.  The accusation becomes perfectly clear: this is what Smith would expect from Americans.

There is a lot of debate about whether the United States is a Christian nation, or was meant to be a Christian nation, or the like.  If you’ve ever scrolled through search hits for the topic, I’m sure you’ve already seen numerous screeds written from one side or the other.

To me, it seems compelling that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a plurality of Americans believe their country to be a Christian nation — and the same was probably true earlier, except that fewer people were bothering to ask.  Which I obviously don’t think implies that this country should start drafting laws based on the Bible (although: start?).  I just think it’s important to acknowledge the prevalence of Christianity in American society when trying to ascertain what Americans would or would not do.

Unfortunately, one reason why I think it’s not so surprising that Americans would torture their prisoners is that the Bible takes a pro-torture stance.  Of course, not every Christian sect includes the Book of Revelation in its scripture, but many do.

Capture14:9 And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, if any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand,

The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb:

And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

The types of torture described here are very different from what went on at Abu Ghraib, although not so dissimilar from treatment at Guantánamo Bay — including exposure to scorpions, sleep deprivation, extreme heat, extreme cold, pepper spray, all resulting in persons who’d rather die than endure their torments, etc.  (I’ve written a little bit about Guantánamo elsewhere.)  But to me the key point here is that enemies of the regime are tortured at all.  If a soldier used to be a kid wearing a WWJD bracelet, and Revelation makes clear that Jesus would torture his enemies, well…

But then we reach the next fancy line break that Smith uses, the one right after the word “people.”  Here is Smith’s acknowledgement that it isn’t just Americans who are inclined toward evil (not that it’s fair to hold the abuses of a few against the inhabitants of an entire country — although we did bomb the inhabitants of two whole countries after the horrific actions of a few).  Her poem is “only talking about people,” as a reader is forced to consider before finishing the sentence.  As in, it’s all people who are wired to seek retribution after they or their loved ones or their country are harmed.

Which I thought was a clever trick for Smith to pull off, especially since she’s doing this by repurposing the words of others.  She’s even better in several of her other poems, like all the ones she wrote from scratch.  If you’ve got time, you should check out her book.