Prismatic Play: Games as Windows on the Real World
Elves and orcs, spaceships and robots: any survey of well-known works of interactive storytelling reveals that most are set in worlds very different from the one we live in, worlds of visionary futurism or fantastical imagination. The imagery communicates the subject matter's dislocation from the real world. Likewise, they in no way attempt to address modern life or any themes other than, say, good vs. evil or underdog vs. oppressor. They exist in a void of meaning where recreation is king and the only goal is entertainment. This inevitably consigns such works to a metagenre: escapism. Escapism is a departure from the real world, an opportunity for an audience to let go of everyday anxieties in favor of an unreal experience. Escapism has its place. The human mind is a busy beast and flights of fancy are a welcome reprieve. Alien and inventive genre worlds are tremendously popular, as witness the Final Fantasy and Myst video games.
But while escapism has its joys, it also carries with it a connotation of irrelevancy. The trailblazing likes of Dungeons & Dragons or Doom may have been enjoyed by millions of people, but few assign to them even the feathery cultural weight of children's cartoons such as Shrek. Such escapist entertainment is commonly considered meaningless, or at best serves as a vehicle for bland homilies. Every medium whose signature works are escapist becomes perceived as irrelevant, immature, and meaningless. The prose novel, for example, reached a mass audience with the proliferation of the printing press, but educated aristocrats did not deign to read them; their modern descendants would likewise not consider playing Grand Theft Auto. It took more than two hundred years for the novel to be taken as seriously as, say, classical religious painting or poetry. Movies made a similar journey in just forty years, and rock music went from "Rock Around the Clock" to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in about fifteen. In all such cases, it was the combined work of innovative practitioners and influential critics that elevated each medium into the cultural mainstream.
Yet three decades into its life, interactive storytelling remains in an immature state. Video games and tabletop role-playing games are seen as childish wastes of time. The demographics of the audience and the experiences they demand are very diverse, but this reality has not penetrated the mainstream consciousness. The controversies over Grand Theft Auto illuminate this disconnect: games made for adults, and only for adults, are perceived as a menace to children because the cultural authorities do not understand who the audience has become.
For interactive storytelling to mature into a form that earns the same critical respect and mainstream acceptance as novels, movies, or rock and roll, it is vital for this form's content to evolve beyond escapism. I believe the next step in its development is already at hand but unrecognized and underutilized.
This step is the development of engagist works that embrace the modern world around us instead of rejecting it for a fantastic otherworld. An engagist work is one that uses the modern world or the recent historical past as its setting and that provides tools and opportunities for participants to explore and experiment in that setting in ways that real life prohibits or discourages. It may still have genre conventions such as ghosts, monsters, or mad science, but it uses them deliberately and symbolically within a familiar real-life context.
The differences between escapism and engagism are profound. They are fundamentally driven by the intent of the creator and richly manifested in the experience of the audience. But the simplest difference of them all is that escapism is a state and engagism is a tool.
As a state, escapism offers no change, no enlightenment, no redemption. It is a prisoner of form, a sitcom-game that puts its pieces in the same starting positions with every episode.
As a tool, engagism is an agent of change, capable of leading journeys through enlightenment, redemption, or any other genuine human experience. It uses form and transcends it, a restless exploration of life.
The tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons is the archetype of escapist interactive storytelling. Participants adopt personas in a fantasy world and enjoy rollicking adventures through a hodgepodge of myth and imagination. As published, the game is a vehicle for heroic storytelling and an engine for fictional accomplishment, as the personas "level up" to become more powerful in ways that have no relationship to the participants' own lives. They may take satisfaction from the experience, but any meaning they derive from it is only what they brought with them.
My own Power Kill is the deliberate antithesis. This engagist metagame posits that Dungeons & Dragons participants are living out their fantasies through real-world psychotic episodes in which they practice robbery and home invasion against ethnic and economic minorities - a violent incursion to a black ghetto is, to the participants, just another "dungeon crawl" in which orcs and their money are soon parted. They are asked to reconcile the differences between their Dungeons & Dragons character sheet of statistics and treasures with their Power Kill character sheet, a patient record from a mental ward for the dangerously insane. Once they are prepared to accept the latter and reject the former, they are released from the hospital and the metagame. Power Kill is intended as a Swiftian satire, an engagist attempt to take the escapism of Dungeons & Dragons and explore its connections to the real world of human behavior.
Admittedly this is an extreme illustration of the differences between escapism and engagism, as Power Kill is a didactic attempt to measure the distance between these two metagenres by placing itself and Dungeons & Dragons at opposite ends of a span. In more common practice engagism can entertain just as well as escapism. But engagism has three primary practical and conceptual advantages that provide sharp distinctions and make it a useful tool. These advantages are narrative, educational, and revelatory.
The Narrative Advantage
Participants in engagist media are intimately familiar with the modern world. Cultural, religious, linguistic, political, and technological concepts are already understood and available for use. This familiarity solves simple problems, such as explaining to the participant how personas travel from one town to another, and allows for much freer use of irony, symbology, metaphor, and other literary conventions that depend on cultural comprehension. It's hard to make a pun in the Black Speech of Mordor.
Imagine an interactive story based on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings books. The participants take the roles of hobbits traveling on a grand adventure. In a distant land, they encounter a group of strange people. Do they speak the same language? What language do hobbits speak, anyway? For that matter, what about this traveling thing: how far can a hobbit walk on foot in a day? How much sleep do hobbits need? Does a human need to eat more lembas bread than a hobbit, or is it a magical food that can sustain anyone with an equal amount of consumption?
These are pedestrian questions - literally, in some cases - but they illustrate the fundamental lack of familiarity that participants will have with a fantastical setting. In some works, these questions may be irrelevant. If travel in the work is abstracted, so that participants merely arrive in one interesting scenario after another with all intervening time bypassed, then the land speed of a hobbit is irrelevant. But take a further step back: what the heck is a hobbit? What is an orc? For a novice audience, there are a lot of questions to answer before the story can be fully understood. The opening exposition utilized in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, offered a potted history of Sauron and the ring of power but did not try to explain the many fantasy concepts contained in the book. For audiences unaccustomed to the fantasy genre, it was not at all intuitive that dwarves live underground or that they have an ancient rivalry with elves.
The tabletop role-playing game setting known as Tékumel is an excellent example of this challenge. M. A. R. Barker, a former professor of linguistics and South Asian studies at the University of Minnesota, has been developing this fantasy world for three decades. Tékumel first saw print in his 1975 game Empire of the Petal Throne and has since appeared in several different game incarnations and many volumes of supplementary material, as well as novels. Tékumel exceeds even Tolkien's Middle-earth for obsessive documentation by its author, with Barker issuing treatises covering languages, histories of particular military units, guides to the various religions, and even the tactical use of magic on the field of battle. This summary from the game's web site illuminates its complexity:
Tékumel is a world of tradition, elaborate bureaucracies and heavily codified social structures and customs. They have mighty, well-organized legions like those of the Romans. Their gods are like those of the Hindus, with a heavy dose of the bloodthirsty Aztec or Mayan deities. Their legal codes and sciences are much like those of the Arab philosophers of the Middle Ages; they are obsessed with personal and family honor much like the medieval Japanese. The societies presented with the game are very intricate and very old, with histories, traditions, and myths stretching back some twenty-five thousand years. (Gifford 1999)
In short, this is no Shrek. Participants in Tékumel stories must overcome a substantial barrier to entry, as the game mandates a high degree of cultural literacy for a culture that does not even exist and that has been documented in only piecemeal form across dozens of small-press publications - many of them out of print - for longer than many players have been alive. When the site's Frequently Asked Questions includes entries such as "What is Mitlanyál and where can I get it?" one wonders that anyone other than Professor Barker can even play the game. Its adherents are devoted but few, as the work's scattershot publishing history can attest.
At the opposite end of the comprehensibility scale lies Millennium's End. Created by Charles Ryan, this tabletop role-playing game took the technothriller novels of Tom Clancy as its inspiration and posited a modern setting of terrorists, espionage, covert military actions, private security forces, and international intrigue. While first published a decade before the 9/11 attacks, Millennium's End has remained timely and even prescient, as concepts such as "collateral damage," "covert operations," and "low-intensity conflict" are now household terminology instead of baroque jargon.
In Millennium's End, participants take the roles of private security contractors employed by a firm resembling the real-life African mercenary corporation Executive Outcomes. Story topics include corporate espionage, counterterrorism, kidnap resolution, executive security, and other hot-button concepts involving professionals with guns working in real-world danger zones. It's the sort of game where a storyline can be readily improvised just by reading the newspapers.
Participants in the game already have the required cultural literacy. They have reasonable shared expectations for how well cell phones work in rural areas, how many bodies you can shove into the trunk of a car, and how to get a plane ticket to a foreign country. If a story is set in wartime Iraq, participants have at least some notion of how that setting looks and feels, courtesy of cable news networks or movies such as Three Kings.
The barrier to entry for Millennium's End is low, at least in terms of required comprehension. The need for supplemental material is lessened as well; no participants are demanding a sourcebook on the American criminal justice system or the restorative qualities of milkshakes.
Millennium's End, therefore, enjoys a substantial narrative advantage over the Tékumel games. It is more accessible, simpler to play, and easier to create new stories. Similar tabletop role-playing games include some of the most popular: Vampire: The Masquerade, Spycraft, Mutants and Masterminds, and Call of Cthulhu all layer genre conventions on top of the familiar modern world and have much larger audiences than the alien and otherworldly Tékumel.
Such real-world games are not simply more accessible. They also reward familiarity with the modern world and improve that familiarity - which brings us to the second advantage enjoyed by engagist interactive storytelling, the educational advantage.
The Educational Advantage
Participants in engagist media acquire knowledge of the world around them. This is not the case in worlds consisting of dungeons and spaceships, and should be considered an interesting alternative "loot drop" to video game rewards such as magic swords and superspeed. By engaging with the real world through interactive storytelling, participants can travel to foreign countries or local but unfamiliar subcultures. They can experience historical or current events firsthand and conclude the work more knowledgeable than when they began.
A precursor to this form can be seen in the 1953 television series You Are There, in which recent and distant historical events were re-enacted by actors and explained by journalists. I believe the first interactive storytelling attempt at this educational approach was the 1971 computer game Oregon Trail, in which participants recreate nineteenth-century pioneer caravans traveling from Missouri to the West Coast. In both of these early examples, immersion is used to facilitate education.
This informative visualization of the past has manifested most recently in the form of Kuma\War, which updates the mandate of You Are There and demonstrates the ability this form has to richly present knowledge in an engagist manner.
Kuma\War is a subscription service that regularly delivers new computer game scenarios based on actual military conflicts. Single-player and online multiplayer play are supported in first-person or third-person perspective, as well established by escapist action games such as Unreal and Max Payne. Participants take the roles of soldiers in conflict, fighting enemies and achieving objectives. The scenarios released thus far have almost entirely been set in Afghanistan and Iraq, dramatizing the recent conflicts there, but historical scenarios have included the Korean War and, most surprisingly, U.S. Senator John Kerry's Vietnam swift boat action that earned him the Silver Star and became a major point of controversy during his presidential campaign.
With Kuma\War, participants can take the role of John Kerry and command his swift boat in a scenario recreated directly from the battlefield reports. Besides presenting this playable game scenario, Kuma\War offers written analysis of the battle and the controversy, as well as a ten-minute video interview with a swift boat veteran and a game designer. Links to media coverage and official commentary round out the presentation.
While most of Kuma\War's offerings blur into an endless sandy horizon full of gun-toting jihadists, their up-to-the-minute approach is intriguing. When a lone Navy SEAL escaped from Asadabad, Afghanistan, in late June of 2005, in a conflict that left nineteen other soldiers dead, Kuma\War had a recreation on subscribers' hard drives within a month, complete with satellite images of the area and extensive notes and references. This attempt to publish on a journalistic schedule with educational goals helps distinguish Kuma\War from games such as the World War II titles Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. Those are popular games of escapism, offering no commentary, no historical context, and no timeliness. They use historical events as a simple backdrop to pure entertainment and do not educate their audience. Kuma\War, by comparison, makes a real attempt to expand the participants' knowledge and immerse them in an authentic experience.
An even more immediate example of this approach appeared in Jonathan Turner's tabletop role-playing game scenario "When Angels Deserve to Die," which he first ran at the Convulsion game convention in July 2002. Turner had recently returned from a three-month stint in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he worked as a press officer for the British-led International Security Assistance Force. His scenario placed the participants in the locale he had just left, and the intensity and vividness of his depiction were remarkable. Turner brought with him the latest unclassified maps of Kabul and surrounding regions as published by the British military, with current safety and risk zones marked, as well as his rucksack, which supplied props for the experience. He notes:
I wanted to get across to the players what it was like to be in that place at that time. I wanted to do what I always do, which is to make it more real for them. My goals in providing them with genuine props such as unclassified "mine maps," old Russian medals bought in a marketplace, all that stuff, was to let them get their hands on something cool that gave them a tangible connection to what their character was experiencing, something that they as players had never seen before, that they would remember afterwards. This even came down to smell - I had an Afghan shemagh [bandana] which still smelled like Afghanistan. . . . I used to pass it around the players and have them take a deep whiff of it. That conjured up an image of the marketplace in a way no photograph or map or verbal description ever could. (Turner 2005)
Still wired from the experience, Turner powerfully immersed the participants. We were there, on the ground in Kabul, navigating our personas through a treacherous setting of intrigue and risk. We attended a Buzkashi game, the traditional game of Afghanistan where riders on horseback struggle over the headless carcass of a goat to score points. There we interacted with U.S. intelligence operatives mingling in the crowd and escaped a bomb scare, then journeyed on truly treacherous roads into the countryside to negotiate assistance from a regional warlord. All along, Turner evoked the sights, sounds, and smells of occupied Afghanistan and the mix of chaos and optimism that followed the fall of the Taliban.
Genre elements were certainly present: the plot concerned a horrific supernatural manifestation that had to be defeated. For this, Turner drew on the Cthulhu Mythos created by 1930s pulp horror author H. P. Lovecraft, as expressed in the role-playing game book Delta Green. Yet even this fictional construct was subservient to the scenario's educational goals, as Turner notes:
The [Cthulhu] Mythos is kind of the least of your problems. You're more likely to step on a mine or get rolled and robbed or shot in a feud between people in a market. Or more likely, die in a car accident. I think most players find great novelty in that approach, especially if I can put them coherently and convincingly in a place that is real but still feels alien and threatening to them. (Turner 2005)
The educational approach to interactive storytelling seen in Kuma\War and in "Angels" engages the participants in exciting new ways not seen in escapist works. Watching television news reports from Kabul, I could shake my head sadly at the misery and horror. In Turner's masterful game, I lived it vividly, my pulse racing; in my mind, I saw an Afghanistan I'd never seen on television: the Afghanistan Turner knew. The knowledge acquired in this engagist way can have a lasting impact on the participants' lives and thoughts; by definition, escapism does not enjoy this advantage at all.
As interactive storytelling has evolved, its sophistication has evolved as well. When we move from explaining and illustrating the modern world to interpreting and critiquing it, we realize the third advantage of engagism: the revelatory advantage.
The Revelatory Advantage
Participants in engagist media can make choices that are denied to them in the real world due to finances, physical limits, laws, or personal reticence. They can experiment by adopting personas different from themselves, ones that they perhaps have coveted or even feared in life. They can use the engagist experience as a Skinner box, exploring not just alternative behaviors but testing the consequences both within the narrative and in themselves. Engagist works can reveal insights and interpretations beyond simple facts.
The role-playing practiced in therapy is a narrow example of this advantage. Patients are asked to act out situations they find troubling or intimidating in real life, so they can learn to respond to them appropriately and add those responses to their repertoire for the next time they face such a situation. A patient who cowers before anger may learn useful responses he can offer the next time a family member loses her temper, and the exercise of role-playing turns an abstract lesson into a (simulated) life experience.
Working with a broader canvas than that of therapy, engagist works use the revelatory advantage to give participants unusual experiences. These experiences might be difficult to explore in the real world, such as living the life of a politician or spy. They can even be impossible, positing situations that defy reality. But even with such genre elements, they remain a tool for participants to explore, learn, and grow.
The creators of Waco Resurrection characterize it as a "subjective documentary." Participants don a helmet sculpted to resemble a polygonal model of the head of Branch Davidian messiah David Koresh and then use a mouse and keyboard as well as voice recognition to control a Koresh video game persona during the 1993 showdown with the federal government. This Koresh is imagined as a supernatural reincarnation with mystical powers, as per one of his prophecies.
Each player enters the network as a Koresh and must defend the Branch Davidian compound against internal intrigue, skeptical civilians, rival Koresh, and the inexorable advance of government agents. Ensnared in the custom "Koresh skin," players are bombarded with a soundstream of government "psy-ops," FBI negotiators, the voice of God, and the persistent clamor of battle. Players voice messianic texts drawn from the Book of Revelation, wield a variety of weapons from the Mount Carmel cache, and influence the behavior of both followers and opponents by radiating a charismatic aura (C-Level 2003).
The goal of Waco Resurrection is right on its face: to put participants into the head of David Koresh and reveal his vision of a messianic apocalypse. The nature of the work is distinct from Kuma\War in that it transcends educational accuracy by giving the Koresh persona supernatural powers that serve as metaphoric tools to explore an historical event. Fantasy is thereby yoked to critique in the service of a larger truth: that the tragedy at Waco was not simply an armed conflict but a nexus of religious, social, and legal issues complicated by one man's insanity. This exploration of a truth larger than simple facts is the hallmark of the revelatory advantage.
Breaking the Ice has an entirely different goal and approach, yet it also embodies revelatory engagist principles. This tabletop storytelling game depicts the first three dates of two characters as a romantic-comedy plot. Two participants create the characters by switching something about themselves, such as their gender or their marital status, and then verbally play out their first dates using a game system that introduces conflicts, mishaps, and opportunities to grow closer. There is no Gamemaster, and it's up to the participants to create the experience they want.
The game is, of course, set in the modern world and relies on comprehension of western dating customs; setting it in a sci-fi future or a medieval fantasy world would derail its goal. Breaking the Ice gives participants an opportunity to explore the early stages of romance without real-life consequences. It could increase confidence for those nervous about dating, spark ideas for actual dating activities, or prompt discussion between the participants about their own lives and romantic histories. While the tone is light and entertaining, at every stage the game encourages the participants to engage with reality, not escape from it.
The use of genre conventions as revelatory metaphoric tools is a primary feature of Unknown Armies, a work that tries directly to apply engagist principles. This tabletop role-playing game is set in a modern America of trailer parks and shopping malls but weaves into it a supernatural milieu known as the Occult Underground. Participants take the roles of crackpots, visionaries, mystics, and schemers in a clandestine struggle to acquire magical knowledge and power in order to change the world in whatever way best fits their personal beliefs.
The setting of Unknown Armies posits that people who embody cultural or mythic archetypes ascend into a higher reality and serve as demigods, granting magical powers to people who abide by the traits and taboos of those archetypes. Their goal is a cosmic endgame in which the final archetypes ascend and jointly create the next reality, rebooting the cosmos into the form unconsciously demanded by the aggregate desires and behaviors of humanity. A warlike cycle might produce more violent archetypes, leading to an even more perilous incarnation of reality - it is existence as if determined by a truly representational government. The modern world we know, therefore, is the product of human archetypes from the previous version, and it is this world that the game is concerned with.
These archetypes go well beyond the formative ones of Jung and express modern ideas. Thus, we have the Demagogue, who can discern and alter the belief systems of individuals or entire societies; the Flying Woman, embodiment of unconstrained femininity and freedom of choice in the post-feminist West; the MVP, the star athlete whose power comes from the fervency of his fans and who is supernaturally incapable of letting down his team, and many more.
Participants can choose to "walk the path" of one of these archetypes. They gain in power by faithfully mimicking the archetype's behavior and lose power when they violate one of the archetype's taboos. If they gain enough power, they can eventually challenge the ascended archetype and take its place, bringing their own new interpretation of the archetype into the cosmic realm. For example, the Messenger archetype seeks to banish ignorance and spread true knowledge. Its most powerful adherent in the setting is a man who attempts to replace the archetype with his interpretation, the Heisenberg Messenger: delivering uncertainty and spin instead of truth, changing events rather than reporting them.
Unknown Armies explores other forms of symbolic magic as well. Adepts are people who gain magical power by pursuing personal obsessions. They are essentially schizophrenics who decide that they know what really matters, and the force of their will bends reality to conform to their delusion. Examples in the game include the Boozehound, who uses the power trip of alcohol consumption to fuel his destructive spells. The Fleshworker is obsessed with body image and body manipulation, moving from "cutting" behaviors to actually reshaping her flesh and that of others with supernatural force. The Vidiot turns watching television into a ritual act, using its conventions to manipulate daily life; for example, he can make someone remain completely calm in a stressful life situation by magically convincing the person that he's merely experiencing a rerun.
The game's supernatural elements are pervasive, but in every case they are based directly on modern life and modern culture. Unknown Armies is a Swiss army knife of metaphoric tools, allowing participants to deeply immerse themselves in symbolic constructs and explore archetypes and behaviors that exist in the real world. Participants can heighten their awareness of positive and negative traits in themselves, their friends and family, and their society, and adopt a wide variety of personas to experience these traits firsthand. This is the heart of the engagist ideal: interactive storytelling that is both entertaining and seriously thought-provoking.
Ongoing participants in the game frequently report the real-life effect of these metaphoric tools. Online discussions between participants often critique the daily news cycle by viewing the people and events through the lenses provided by the game. When American tourist Natalie Holloway disappeared while vacationing in Aruba during the summer of 2005, obsessive and out-of-proportion media coverage of her case generated substantial critique in the press. Unknown Armies participants analyzed this coverage in terms of the Messenger/Heisenberg Messenger rivalry, and proposed that a new archetype was taking shape: the Oppenheimer Messenger, in which reporting the facts actually destroys the facts.
Maybe the first of this new breed was Geraldo Rivera, who made up a story about being under fire, gave away troop movements while live and on camera, and pledged not to leave Afghanistan until Osama Bin Laden was dead, dead, dead, and yet he enjoys a degree of credibility that's not inconsequential (Toner 2005).
Because of its engagist philosophy, Unknown Armies has worked itself into the mental tool sets of its participants and given them new ways to examine and critique the modern world. Any engagist work can do the same - and should.
We live in the real world, and our lives are full of real problems and real joys. When works of interactive storytelling can teach us how to solve those problems and discover those joys, while entertaining us just as novels, movies, and music do, these works become worthy of real cultural critique and join the great conversation of human thought. Such engagist works can utilize and expand our knowledge, immerse us in real ideas and cultures, and provide tools to explore behaviors and interpret events. Art, knowledge, performance, and imagination intersect therein and bestow profound gifts.
It has been thirty years since Colossal Cave Adventure introduced early computer gamers to its "twisty maze of little passages." We're still waiting for our Sorrows of Young Werther, our Napoléon, our Sgt. Pepper's. Endless regurgitations of dwarves and elves or action-packed recreations of Omaha Beach will not get us there. But genre is not the enemy; it is simply a tool we have clumsily wielded to middling effect. The real missing ingredient is intent, the authorial intent to create works that engage our world and lives. When future participants delve into that twisty maze of little passages and find themselves at its heart, we'll know we're doing something right.
C-Level (2003). Description of Waco Resurrection.
Gifford, Peter (1999). "New to Tékumel?"
Toner, Timothy (2005). E-mail correspondence on the Unknown Armies RPG Mailing List.
Turner, Jonathan (2005). E-mail correspondence with the author regarding "When Angels Deserve to Die."
Breaking the Ice. Emily Care Boss; Black and Green Games. 2005.
Colossal Cave Adventure. William Crowther and Don Woods; DECUS. 1976.
Delta Green. Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy and John Tynes; Pagan Publishing. 1997.
Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson; Tactical Studies Rules. 1974.
Empire of the Petal Throne. M. A. R. Barker; Tactical Studies Rules. 1975.
Kuma\War. Kuma Reality Games. 2004.
Max Payne. Remedy Entertainment. 2001.
Millennium's End. Charles Ryan; Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment. 1993.
Oregon Trail. Paul Dillenberger, Bill Heinemann and Don Rawitsch; Carleton College. 1971.
Power Kill. John Tynes; Hogshead Publishing. 1999.
Unknown Armies. Greg Stolze and John Tynes; Atlas Games. 2002.
Unreal. Epic Games. 1998.
Waco Resurrection. Mark Allen, Peter Brinson, Brody Condon, Jessica Hutchins, Eddo Stern, and Michael Wilson; C-Level. 2003.