Questioning the “emergent narrative” claim in games

I have some problems with Salen and Zimmerman’s view that games are an emergent narrative, outlined is their book “Rules of Play”. Firstly, emergent narratives are not created by games, but by players. This important difference draws a clear division between some types of games compared to others. Personally, I’m not at all interested in trying to catagorise games or to shoe horn this or that game into a niche from which to discuss it in a more convenient manner.

I argue that games are simply remediation of two long established themes in literature itself, which brings me to the much quoted Salen and Zimmerman idea of games having emergent narratives.

The idea of emergent narratives is that as you wander though the game, the story emerges to the player though their interaction with other players and game-upheld rules which can release elements of the story to the player(s). Some games, such as Minecraft and Second Life, have emergent narratives (but not because a player clicks on an NPC for a sound-bite. These games are almost entirely autotelic in nature). However Minecraft and Second Life are also realist games in the tradition of realist literature., rather than Romantic. I believe kids love Minecraft because its a realist game, and one where by the narrative is often added later – for example, kids explaining a build on YouTube. Kids find it really useful because they are learning how to manipulate a fantasy in order to make sense of it, and explain it. Sadly, some teachers don’t get this and insist on bolting on their own narration (look at how my kids do math in Minecraft) and miss the point of WHY kids want to play it completely.

Realist games (like novels) tend to focus on a few actual characters, in relatively small locations where they symbolism of the world around is intended to be realistic. Within that, the player can explore their own identity, create a world of their imagination and so on. But, as a realist game, which incidentally I might place ‘educational games’, this functions more like Pac-Man or Street Fighter, not a TRUE game such as Skyrim or Tombraider Reboot.

And here is the crux of my problem with Salen/Zimmerman’s ’emergent’ idea. These games are predominantly Romantic in nature. I’m going to talk about these types of games as TRUE games, as these are the kind of game which specialise in alternative worlds where players engage in episodic romance. This is because bringing a willingness and joy of these themes to play sets them apart from realist games. For example, Skyrim is a True game as it is a romantic, whereas Street Fighter is a realist game. If you like, Lord Of The Rings is a romantic movie, whereas Breaking Bad is a realist TV show.

The key criteria of a TRUE game is that it revolves around a grand episodic plot as a central feature. It’s also easy to get lost in these games (mentally and actually) as you wander vast open worlds in which the environment changes, but limits movement, and the hero (you) is often beset by problems and characters both flat (NPCs) and round (NPCs who hold some story). I can see why Salen/Zimmerman would say the story emerges from interaction with these NPCs (together with narration from the camera view and overlays) but the romantic theme (the heroes journey) cannot be broken by the player refusing to engage with it. Games which set out to allow players to skip parts, pay their way to success should be excluded from TRUE games, however some TRUE games (The Secret World, World or Warcraft and so on) offer players the choice of buying objects and weapons as part of their over all economy. This is similar to the idea of the Romantic novel using Realist situations and characters from time to time, to engage the reader.

So to me, having a new classification – the emergent narrative – isn’t required in order to discuss games or rules – when approaching games as cultural literature, rather than attempting to divide them in to narratology or ludology. My preference is to take the viewpoint that games are simply a remediation of literature, and better understood from that point, rather than making cases for them to be seen as a new sensation, and therefore useful for those with that belief to dream up new terms for them. To me, true games are based in romantic traditions and simply being remediated, like many other forms of media.

Five reasons you might be a romantic educator

Another way of looking at ‘integration’ of technology is to see it as a hybrid solution. I remember Top Gear reviewing the Toyota Hybrid car, suggesting “this car has two engines. Normally, in say a Bugatti, this would be fantastic, but here one’s electric the others petrol – neither are very good”. Rather awkwardly digital-traditional hybrids haven’t sat easily or consistently in school either. In many ways, like electric cars the infrstructure simply isn’t there. But I’m a romantic, and I think that rather than paint a picture of a ‘digital classroom’ – building romantic classrooms is what successful teachers are doing now, and these people are somewhat irrepressible because they understand digital culture and society more than the machine which seeks to control it. If this wasn’t the case, we would walk outside and the world would be steampunk. Here are five reasons I believe in the romantic classroom.

1. Ambivalence towards a tipping point.

Some teachers and students get a great deal, others nothing in between is ambivalent interest waiting for a tipping point. As classrooms and lectures today don’t operate in isolation from society, so it’s possible that kids don’t experience any continuance in how they learn with technology, and recent Australian report show no increase in student engagement or satisfaction in recent times. It would be easy to think if students have a laptop, then digital hybrid learning is changing learning on a wholesale bases. Without clear evidence on a wide scale, the question is how do we know hybrid education is better than an alternative? For example, government policy to allow parents to purchase a laptop for their child directly (as parents carry the risk anyway) and then to present digital education as a family and community concern.

Let’s pitch a something else. Say we create a digital department who’s sole job is to work on topics from and in the digital domain. Digital is already a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people
who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years – create a superstructure where a willingness to participate has a reward system. The department is publicly visible in ways to which education might be generally unaccustomed, yet where scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit.

2. The drop out zone

While this sounds exciting, even a depiction of the “connected educator”, the problem is that it doesn’t work (yet). Much of the current research is around how to identify students at risk of drop out which then leads to predictions of virtual school success. Overwhelmingly, they find digital-opportunities tend to benefit primarily already-advantaged learner and educational access does not equate to educational opportunity.  The advantage schools have in prediction lies in policy where kids are not really allowed to physically drop-out, where as online, dropping in and out is the experience loop itself – and completely normal. In higher education, students can easily drop out. In 2010 this cost Australian Universities billions of dollars. Drop out rates among teachers, in my experience is similar story. While 30 sign up for some technological training, only half show up and two percent will persist on a reflective process of experimentation – often  over 12 months before they believe it is successful. Along the way is a sea of self-doubt – and we know the human brain hates that sensation. This means very few become digital-explorers, most remain users of the provided infrastructures – and many do it perfectly well in the context of the institution. There’s no data on how long exploration lasts either, some feel happy to put down roots in some topic or interest, while others continue to roam the metaverse in search of wonder.  More pragmatically, when only 11% of Australian have a Twitter account (which doesn’t indicate activity), I seriously question how this use (exploration method) among educators can have all but marginal benefits,  It’s easy to tune in and drop out – and results little public-sphere or institutional improvement so far. It has no scale.

3. The utopian elevator to nowhere

The Gates Foundation paints a different picture, they believe “In this paradigm of next-generation learning models, students and teachers— both secondary and post secondary—will have access to high-quality, relevant, and engaging content in a variety of forms.” In addition they say they hold “a belief that providing investment capital to strengthen emerging information and learning technologies, collecting and sharing evidence of what works, and fostering a community of innovators and adopters will result in a robust marketplace of solutions and a larger pool of institutional participants”. In other words, throwing money at it will lead to greater participation and quality. It forgets that what people imagine and what they believe are quite different things – and that for many people, this is a very Victorian idea where mechanisation will lead to greater discipline. There are then people who are are going to challenge this – romantics if you like – those who highly value individual success, pastoral activity and local community (the rural life). Look on Twitter, which is more evident? People doing what Gates suggest, or the romantics?

4. The crash-zone

The point (to me) of using digital technologies is to shape it to discover something new and wonderful in it, to do things that are otherwise not humanly possible and open doors to break the illusion being presented by people who title things with cybertopian headings. None of what they espouse tackles perceptual infrastructure issues that hybrid idealism creates (making it worse). For example, we can use technology to demolish the utterly dysfunctional 9th grade electives and replace them with digital departments (which are not the same as virtual schools). Electives are generally a 2 line system that has been around as long as mass-education. It was a way of water shedding kids using the aggregate that the numbers who get what they want – are sufficient to perpetuate the chain, but not flood it.  In column A are four subjects and in B, another 4. You choose 1 from each line and there’s no guarantee of satisfaction or transparency. Typically is you like music and technology and they are on the same column, you can’t do it. This nightmare persists regardless of whether the school has laptops, iPads or a holo-deck. It’s insane to then moan kids are disengaged in a topic that they were herded into in the first place or think giving them a laptop will somehow make them more interested.

5. Great  teachers are romantics

I believe in creating romantic learning experiences, and these lead to deeper learning. It doesn’t matter if this is in adult, primary or secondary education. People are pre-wired mentally drop out if they believe something is crap or they can’t imagine any emotional engagement in it.  Kids who grow into using the Internet independently, focus at school on things they like (as do adults) – they create friend networks and vary interest towards their academic subjects based on their belief of success and intrinsic motivation – which they call ‘work’.  Kids now have so much access to digital youth culture that they can easily opt out of ‘work’ and into thier networks of i interest – most of which are highly romantic, based on friendship and binary opposites – as is the nature of youth. This is actioned as updating your profile, liking your friends, posting a photo, support a friend in crisis  and so on. This is what digital technology is for – to react against the machine and to escape reality (which itself is an illusion of the actual world).

To me, successful teachers which use hybrid technology (not opimal technology) almost always create romantic positive digital spaces. The poor ones use hammers and gears of the machine. The best create the illusion of a digital department (usually for almost no money) and bring in like-minded friends to fuel the richness of the experience loop they want- the bad ones hold a webinar and talk.

I think that by using technology is to discipline students. To me, those who use it to break the illusion, and open doors have a lot in common with romanticism and for the most part use it against the machine, just as Blake wrote deceptively simple poems, using the technology of his day. That seems kind of wonderful to me.