Saturday, January 20, 2007

The power of stories

This morning I woke up with a few interesting realizations about why stories are important and why games are important:

  1. Stories shape our world. Everyone learns about how this world functions by one type of story or another. In each culture, there are usually tales & lores passed down from generations ago. In our daily life we hear stories from friends and relatives about who did what that bring out what results, and we would caution ourselves or improve our own behaviors based on them. In some way, perspectives, values, political or religious affinities are also certain types of stories (“God loves us all,” “bosses are manipulative,” “work hard and you'll be successful”). And we watch the events in the world go by to either reaffirm our existing theories/stories about the world, or sometimes, learn new ones. Some people have optimistic stories about life, people, or just about anything, while for others, they're always the victims of bad environment, bad people, or bad luck. Stories powerfully shape our understanding, and subsequently, actions in this world.
  2. Stories define power balance. It might be argued that there are three types of people: story-generators, story-tellers, and story-listeners. Story-generators are the stories themselves, they are the contents and topics of the stories, their actions and deeds become what people will pass around and talk about. They're usually the heroes or villains in a story context. The retired soldier who bravely saved a man off the subway rail, the Internet start-up that made a big fortune, the dictator prosecuted by international court. Story-tellers are those who pass, re-make, or re-tell stories to others. In the old agricultural life, they might have been the elders in town who always attracted a gathering after dinner, telling distant tales. In today's societies, they're the news-reporters, film-makers, book-writers, and increasingly, I would say, the game-developers. Story-listeners are just about everyone else, the you and me who read the news at breakfast, watch the movies on weekends, or listen to a friend at work. It might be observed too, that many of the story-generators are the role-models or winners in society -- the rich, the powerful, the influential, or the inspiring. Many of the story-tellers also hold above-average income or power in our society (think about the money and fame of Hollywood actors/actresses, the power of the producers and directors, or the people involved in TV and news productions). While most of the story-listeners are consumers who spend their hard-earn cash to listen to or watch new stories in life, real or fictional.
  3. Games are the new story-media. The oldest stories are being told in the oral tradition, and many stories are still delivered orally today, although story-telling has changed dramatically with the introduction of new technologies: newspapers, radios, TVs, and movies. But beginning in the 80s', a new and possibly unparalleled medium was born: computer and video games. While games come in different flavors, many types of games contain story-lines and character developments. As games are often both audio and visual, it makes them more approachable to stimulus-seeking people (especially the young). But most importantly, the participatory nature of games bring a new level of power and control never before seen in any story-telling medium, where the story-listener, for the first time, may also act, contribute, and decide, how the story will unfold. Although most game-stories are still linear, increasing trends made possible by new technologies are making games more non-linear, complex, life-like, engaging, and empowering. If seen as a new medium to story-telling, we might then be able to explain its natural appeal to people -- because we've always been interested and willing to listen or see a good story, now the chance to be the heroes? Wow! :)

So this brings up some interesting question: will democratizing game productions (developments, and distributions) tilt the power balance? Or put another way, what will happen if the power to create and distribute games, which may very well be the most powerful story-medium to-date, is being distributed to the masses?

Some analogies might be made with the movies and news industries. With the rising popularity of blogs and Internet, some may argue that news agencies no longer control the creations and distributions of news of interest. However, although camcorders allow just about anyone to make short videos, so far popular movies are still made by big-budget studios as opposed to small teams or individuals (but perhaps YouTube has changed somewhat of that?) So what happens if game creation and distribution tools are also accessible and affordable enough to anyone with interest? Can it be done? Will it be done? And what will that mean to the traditional power balance between the story-generators, story-tellers, and the story-listeners?