Books and films are content-driven media. They exist to give information or tell a story. Video games are not content-driven media. They can convey information or tell a
story, but that is not their point. Video games are activity-driven (usually problemsolving driven) media. So, what is the point of a story in a video game?
When a book or film has a story, that story is authored by someone other than the reader or viewer. The story is fixed in the sense that it cannot be changed by the reader or viewer. Let’s call this type of story an “authorial story”.
Games can have authorial stories just like books and movies do. However, when playing a game players do not just read or view, they physically interact with the game. They do something, and the game does something back. The player and the game take turns and respond to each other, much like a conversation. For this reason, there is a certain conflict between an authorial story and game play. The authorial story is made up of someone else’s narrative choices, but game play is inherently about the player’s choices and desires. If the authorial story leaves no room for player choice to make a difference–and for different players to make different choices–it ruins the game as a game.
So why do video games have authorial stories (and they often do have them)? They have them for the same reason books and films do, to convey interesting or important themes. However, in a game the authorial story is complimented by two other sorts of stories that draw on the authorial story. These two other types of stories I will call the “lucidity story” and the “play story”.
The “lucidity story” works this way: Players use the images, themes, motifs, actions, and information from the authorial story as it unfolds (usually quite slowly) across time to make sense of what they are doing, why they are doing it, who they are when they are doing it, how they should think and feel about it, and how they should value it. The bits and pieces of the authorial story float in the air and players grab pieces in real time to render their game play lucid and motivating moment by moment and across different stretches of time. Some players–I am one of them–do not pay much attention to or remember the authorial story as a fixed and complete story, rather they swim in it as a sea of images, actions, themes, and motifs. Lucidity is key to human motivation, understanding, and learning.
The “play story” is the tale players can tell themselves and others during the game and afterwards about what they have accomplished, what decisions they made and why, and the results of those decisions. The “play story” is complex and has three interacting parts. It is a blend of (a) the avatar’s story (say, Lara Croft in Tomb Raider); (b) the player + avatar story (Jim + Lara Croft as a blended identity); and (c) the player’s story (Jim).
To take an example, consider the game SWAT 4. In this game, you play the lead member of a four-person SWAT team. You give orders to the other members (played by computer-driven characters) who carry out the orders. You have to follow the rules and values of a real SWAT team. Each mission has a story about, for example, hostage taking in a hotel. This, along with the ongoing story about your specific SWAT team and how such teams are supposed to behave, is the authorial story. The player uses this story to figure out what to do, how to do it, why it is being done, what it means, how to value it, and how the player should think and feel about it. In SWAT 4 this amounts to knowing how and why to know, be, and do as a SWAT team member. Everything the player does makes sense, feels right and real, and is lucid. Even failure is lucid, since the player knows why he or she failed. This is the “lucidity story”.
The “play story” is composed of, first, the story of the avatar the player controlled, here a SWAT team member, let’s call him “Joe”. Joe had a “career” in the game through many levels or missions. Things happened in certain ways and not others, partly based on the authorial story, partly based on whatever capacities the game rules give the avatar, and partly based on the player’s decisions. Then there is the joint or blended story of the player (here, Jim) and the avatar (Joe). This is a joint story because the avatar, given the game rules, can only do certain things, not others, and because the avatar’s identity influences the sorts of decisions the player makes, while the player’s decisions partly determine the avatar’s story. The player and the avatar are a team; they are joint actors. Finally, the player (here, Jim) can tell a story about how his identity as a real person (really just some aspects of that identity) influenced his play and the outcome of the game, relative, of course, to the avatar’s story and the player-avatar’s story. The three parts of the play story are not really separate but interact in a complex way that is part of the joy of game play. Players regularly switch between saying things like “My avatar died” (“Joe died”) and “I died” in game play, as they meld avatar and player.
So we can see a contrast between content-driven media (like books and film) and games. But what about architecture? Architecture has, in a sense, an authorial story, though it is iconographic (a set of images and designs meant to communicate themes, designed by an “author” and not the user/viewer). But is this “content” the point of architecture, as it is of books and films? I would argue that it is not—though it can be important and masterly in its own right—but rather that the authorial iconographic story functions more like story does in games than in books and films.
The point of architecture is to guide purposeful activities, just as the point of games is to guide playful problem solving. The authorial story, no matter how good in its own right it may be, is in the service of this activity (and, remember, thinking and feeling are activities). So, does architecture have the equivalent of a “lucidity story” and a “play story”? I would argue yes.
People who enter and act in a designed space can use aspects of the design to render what they are doing lucid. For example, schools designed in different ways can give teachers, parents, and students different ideas of what is meant to go on in a classroom or school, why, and how people should think about it and value it.
The way in which designed spaces have a play story is more complex. When I enter a designed space I usually enter not just as “Jim,” but in some role or roles connected to the purposeful activities the space is designed to afford and enhance. So in a school I might enter as a teacher, parent, or student, or in some other role. Let’s call this role an “avatar” just to make an analogy to games. The avatar story is the story of how the designed space has afforded, shaped, and constrained my activities and “career” across time in those activities in the designed space. The avatar-player story is the story of how this shaping was the joint work of the avatar identity (role) and aspects of my real world myself (Jim). The play story is the story I can tell about how and why I brought certain aspects of my real-world identity to–and how these were changed or influenced by–my purposeful activities in the designed space. Again, these three are but interacting parts of one system.
I said earlier that games are like conversations. The player acts and the game responds and then the player acts again in response to the game’s response. This does not happen in books and films, save silently in people’s minds and even then, they have to carry out both parts of the dialogue themselves, speaking for the text or film as well as for themselves. Architecture is sort of in the middle here. Buildings cannot actively “talk back;” they don’t DO something, but they do let us know when what we are trying to do in them does not work or work well. There is a sort of conversation between users and designed spaces, one that is in some cases like a fight and in others like a dance. For example, the “conversation” is vexed in the classrooms in which I teach when I try to implement certain sorts of social configurations. The room keeps telling me that this is not its “favorite” way to be used.
So, architecture is midway between a book and a game, a middle ground. A differently paced and enacted conversation, but a conversation nonetheless.