Games, Drama & Authorship | The Narrative Design Explorer™

Chapter 4: Games, Drama & Authorship


    When did games first become tools for understanding conflict and dramatic outcomes in life? History may never tell us, but perhaps they have been employed by our species has been as long as We have been.

    One of the earliest formal games we have found intact is the Egyptian game of Senet “the game of passing” dating to over 5000 years ago. It is a board game for two players that simulates the passage of life to death. Teaching and reinforcing cognitive bias through neural coupling. Leaving patterns, constructs, in the mind of the listener that affect his perceived reality (PPR). In fact, changing the way noumea will manifest as phenomena for the avid listener.

    ‘The time of the rain played its game with frogs for chessmen (nayadyutair), which, yellow and green in colour, as if mottled with lac, leapt up on the black field (or garden-bed) squares (kosthika)’

    Chess was first mentioned first mentioned in be the court poet of Emperor Harsavardhana, Bana Bhatta circa 625 CE (see quote above). Though some would tie it to the Indian Chaturanga, questions still arise as to if there was a clear differentiation between the two.  Regardless, thanks to the trade routes of the ancient world, it was brought to Europe via Africa. Though, only after having gone through centuries of cross-cultural iterative process whereby it evolved into the game now recognized as modern Chess, and it didn’t stop there.

    Europeans also wrote poems about Chess. Games of life. Chess didn’t become predominant in Europe until the 15th century. In 1527 Marco Girolamo Vida wrote a poem called Scacchia Ludus (see quote below).  It went on to inspire more stories told using the mechanics of chess as a metaphor for life.

    A tower’d Elephant, with fatal aim, Stood ready to destroy her when she came: He keeps a watchful eye upon the whole, Threatens her entrance, and protects the goal.

    The drama of such formal games was not lost to only the poets ears. Of the first accounts we have in the west of the evolution of Chess a simulator was of one Christopher Weikhmann of Ulm, Germany. He developed a warlike game called based on Chess, which had been growing in popularity thanks to the publishing of Das Schach- oder Königsspiel (The King’s Game), in 1664. Weikhamann expanded chess to create a game which reflected contemporary warfare. What he created was not simply a pastime parlor game of general and nobles, but as he said “it would furnish anyone who studied it properly a compendium of the most useful military and political principles.” Useful as it may have been, it didn’t seem to have wide appeal.

    In 1824 Lt von Reisswitz Jr. altered his father’s invention, a further iteration of chess, to be more realistic form of wargame to be played on topographic table-top maps. Upon presenting to Chief of the Prussian General Staff, General von Muffling, he muttered:

    “This is not a game!  This is training for war!”

    What was most impressive about this new development was not the game itself, but the attitude displayed in the subtext of General von Muffling’s words. His assertion shows his underlying belief that the closed narrative system represented real life warfare. That abstracted representations of experience, games, are capable of simulating real-life and its dramatic outcomes. In engaging with them a player builds a narrative to represent potential conflicts, and their resolution, in real life. Muffling continued, “I must recommend it to the whole army.”  Soon using such playstories, a such ‘games’ for training became commonplace.

    Within a matter of decades war-game studies became part of regular curriculum at military academies worldwide. According to United States Department of Defense a war-game is ‘a simulation, by whatever means, of a military operation involving two or more opposing forces, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual or assumed real life situation.’ Displayed by this definition is an unspoken core belief that human beings can create working models of life in games, and through their playing, learn how to properly navigate the very real game of life. As U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Sab said playing a war-game put it just prior to being sent off to Iraq in 2002.

    “It’s never away from our minds that the things we are doing here [in the game] are going to happen to us in real life.”

    Not long ago, ‘total annihilation’ had the United States of America and the former USSR both engaged in war-games to determine the outcome of such a scenario should it escalate to “World War III”.  Thanks to war-game strategic studies by the likes of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), only three outcomes were determined to be possible in the confrontation between the two powers: “1. Loss of Command and Control 2. Unleashing Tactical Nuclear Weapons 3. Gas or Biological Attack”. [2]

    SHAPE runs possibly the largest gaming operations outside the United States with the aim of providing “analysis at the strategic level to identify capability shortfalls and to assign priorities to them.”  Out of game-story – movement through a narrative system – combat models are generated and ultimately used to create global military strategies.  

    The Lanchester equations (remember Propp) used by NATO shows when a game of Tactical Nuclear Weapons is played out using a “simplified force” that the United States must be 9 times as effective to win a duel of nuclear tactics with Russia.  The narratives generated by these equations, strategists and their war-games, while dry, are quite compelling.

    “Simultaneously, the Central Army Group and 4th Tactical Air Force launch conventional and nuclear strikes against the following tank army and severely disrupt it’s advance, throwing its command and control into chaos. Again, the improved effectiveness of NATO’s new classes of nuclear warheads achieves a high level of military effectiveness. The reduced collateral damage [death and injury of civilians] of these warheads couple with the West German civil defense program and keeps civilian causalities relatively low.” 

    Here we see the ultimate forms of game, play and drama on a macro scale. A game is a semiotic system in which players engage in a dramatic conflict, defined by rules, using uncertain means that result in a quantifiable outcome. Not all games have the same goal. Dynamic closed narrative systems, games, simulate experience and generate stories-centric to the narremes they contain.  Narremes are perceived as phenomena by the viewer-user-player – the actor which are then used by them to create a temporal sequence, a story gleaned from their play in spacetime.

    While the player, or at least, today’s players might think they are only engaging in jest, what they do is most serious. The simulacrum of the living world that is a modern game teaches and reinforces reality. The same is true of all fiction, art, media – all ‘text’ ‘read’ is actively produced in the mind of its reader. This narratological approach is especially apt when reflecting on the implications of what is herein contained.

    The patterns we ingest, those which we listen strongest to inform how we perceive new patterns. We seek reinforcement when engaged with a synthetic experience, reinforcement of cognitive bias.  Though some might seek to challenge one’s own bias, tis the rare soul, that of an infinite player in a most infinite game.

    As Jame P. Cearse would have it, games are divided into two categories finite and infinite. Finite games are contests such as sports and finance in which players agree mutually upon a winner for which there is often a ritualistic reward. An infinite game is a highly formalized yet unstructured method of play in which players interact with a system and its boundaries to discover and share meaningful outcomes. Life is one such game. Though some might say such play depends on the player.

    Play is a word of particular interest. Something studied for only a short time, at least within our culture. The definition most associated with it’s common usage is ‘engaging in, or an activity for recreation rather than practical purpose’. We can see quickly how this definition fails to encompass all forms of play.  A most apt definition in this context is Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen’s definition of play from Rules of Play, “movement within a system.” Play is afterall at its root is a certain contest against the boundaries of a system. A dance between actor and author, one that begs the great I-Am. Play is a test, an almost existential reflex that serves the clear biological function of discovery. Discovery of boundaries, and, within those, what room there is to play within the system as to achieve what one desires. From play one derives meaning. It is from this very act that all beings discover what it means ‘to be’. Without, we fall into stagnation and death. Play is in fact the center of what makes us sentient beings.  

    This is the start of what Zimmerman and Salen call meaningful play. The way game actions result in game outcomes to create meaning. This is an emergent relationship between player and designer.  Meaningful play is what occurs when the relationship between actions and outcomes in a game are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game.  This is the basis of satisfaction, we we achieve meaningful outcomes through action.

    Here is the starting point for drama, the beginning. The contender. The word protagonist comes from the Greek protagonistes, meaning ‘the first player’ and antagonist or antagonistēs ‘opponent for a prize’. The Greeks clearly realized the game the drama of life is, and we still call some such reenactments ‘plays’. Engagement with the patterns of life over time in front of an audience, reinforcing and/or challenging beliefs in the nature of reality. Quite literally placing content into the heads of an engaged audience. Experiences of fiction that can become all too real.

    Drama too, like game, is a form that has been with us since time untold. At its simplest drama is an emotive sequence in spacetime. A mirror of life, it seeks to synthesize, reduce and refine life upon the stage, or given form, so that we the audience might wrestle from it truths about the meaning of our own existence and purpose. More so, these synthetic experiences actively inform the way in which we perceive reality.  Some might call it propaganda.

    Plato himself disliked story, art, drama. He said it crippled the mind. Perhaps he knew of neural coupling? When a message is well communicated in whatever form, however real, an actively engaged audience is prone to actually believe it, and in some ways actually experience the tale as if it were their own, in time modifying their perceived reality – their cognitive bias.

    Freytag's Pyramid
    Illustration 5: Freytag’s Pyramid

    Drama is serious play in the human condition. The structure of drama is one that has driven thinkers for thousands of years. The best examples of dramatic form still stay with us. The form itself best described by Fraytag’s Pyramid (see illustration 5) exposition (A), rising action (B), climax (C), falling action (D), denouement (E). It comes to us across the borders of space, time, experience and consciousness,  rendering unto the Fabulator Ludus truths about the nature of existence. These forms called out here in an effort to understand, but known without such names by our very being.

    In contemporary Western culture, true drama is increasingly rare as skepticism drives us towards minimalism and anti-structure, but it is a form no less embraced worldwide. According to storytelling instructor Robert Mckee, the classic story is one that follows the classic arc, engenders hope and delivers truth. Drama is a dance of both a finite and infinite games, various levels of conflict, sequenced as to give rise to emotions and elicit catharsis from its audience. In drama we seek to  explore the boundaries of what it means to be human – without the consequences of the conflict with the actual in the pursuit of desire. It’s many forms tend to be centered on one thing Action. Action that brings about absolute and irreversible change.

    This is the fundamental building block of drama and play – the beat. A moment of action and reaction. So to in games player actions and system reactions define the basis out of which play is built. Here is where play and drama meet. Thier fundamental units. Play and story are built out of the same thing. Action. Action taken by an active protagonist seeking outcomes. An exchange of behavior in action/reaction driven out of engagement, out of a willful desire act and to achieve. Story is a narrated chain of related, or patterned, events that build to a climax which brings about absolute and irreversible change.

    Narrative structure is a selection of events that is composed into a strategic sequence activated by a player to arouse specific emotions and, expresses a specific view of life. Note that within interactive mediums the real story of importance is not the traditional authored story, but that of the audience. What separates this craft of storytelling, interactive narrative design, from other forms is that what is authored is a selection of elements, a database with an array of possibilities. Selection, and hence story, driven out of audience progression given navigational means also devised by the author(s). 

    Conflict, this opposition between is and what might be, is the fundamental driver of action. The willful pursuit of desire. Conflict runs deeper though, and is inherent in all things. It runs between what is and what may be; opposition between two or more simultaneous but incompatible things. Some might claim to try to escape conflict in art and story, but the only way to avoid it is to move to anti-structure.  The beginning of all great stories is one or more active protagonists, one who in the pursuit of desire takes action, rather than passive choices, which are in direct conflict with what is.  This is the beginning of all drama – play. Movement against the perceived boundaries of what is in order to discover what it takes, and if it’s possible to, achieve what might be.

    Narrative systems invite the player to co-create drama with play via conflict with the boundaries of the system to achieve desire.  Allowing the player to develop a plot through a world that is influenced, if not shaped, by their actions and resulting outcomes. By actively pursuing desire the player becomes an active protagonist. In taking action, trying to achieve that character, to be the person she desires, conflicts naturally emerge. As Robert Mckee would have it, the ‘gap’ opens up. That is the gap between what ‘is’ in actuality, and the goal of achieving what is desired. It is in this basic human conflict of wanting we have drama. Drama is a serious play of human conflict. Conflict driven on a player’s own desires to act and achieve – a participatory dramatic pattern. A playstory, if you will, or semiotic system in which players engage in a conflict, defined by rules, using uncertain means that result in a emotive dramatic outcomes. The game is a story and the story a game.

    The Golden Ratio