Religious Games
Story... Narrative... Game... Toy

The Caterpillar Jihad

Yesterday, I argued that "story is conflict" was a false proposition. Actually, I roped in Orson Scott Card to do it for me. Today I'm going to take a different tack, and explain why it could be dangerous to conflate these terms, especially for games. The reason for this, I'm pleased to say, is that I received my first ever Trackback, from Man Bytes Blog, which was really satisfying. I've been blogging for a month now, and it's good to know I'm not just barking at my back fence.

Firstly, a dip into philosophy. We all employ words differently. I'm not arguing that there aren't people for whom the proposition "story is conflict" will hold true, but I am arguing that it isn't a universal, and more importantly, that it might be dangerous to think of it in this way. Similarly, I was stunned to hear Corvus suggest (even potentially in jest) that "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" wasn't really a story, as I (in common with many lexicographers) consider a story to be any account of a sequence of events. I apply it as the broadest of terms, and so do most dictionaries, but that doesn't make my definition big-t True. After all, definitions shift in time, and even dictionaries only agree with each other 95% of the time. Language is constantly in flux. Perhaps a discussion for another time...

As ever, I side with Wittgenstein that the meaning of a word is how it is used (regular readers, if I have any, will become very bored of me saying this). And I believe that when a child asks to be read a bedtime story, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" will more than meet this request. In this particular language game at the very least, the term 'story' can be applied to this particular picture book. Corvus gives an interpretation of how the caterpillar's story can be seen as conflict - but does the child reading the book interpret it as conflict? I do not believe so. I don't believe the child has the capacity to understand that the Caterpillar might die if it doesn't eat... They are swept away in the texture of the narrative, and the wonder of its resolution.

The problem with starting at the premise that "story is conflict" (but not, as Corvus shrewdly observes, that "conflict is story" which is a very different claim) is the subtle effect this has on the storyteller's reasoning process. If you presuppose "story is conflict", you run the risk in the sphere of games that you may conflate story with agon (competition) which is a vastly dangerous move. We're already hideously addicted to agon in the games industry, such that other forms of play are often overlooked - I personally do not like the idea of writers contributing to this by spotting the obvious avenues for conflict, and missing the potential subtleties.

And this is my point... When you examine individual stories, you can find a way to make the proposition "story is conflict" fit - as Peterb and Corvus do with "The Very Hungry Caterpillar". But in terms of what stories can be about, it is a potentially restrictive approach - it could narrow how you think about stories, and that's not a good thing.

When a writer records a travelogue, I consider this well within the scope of the blanket term 'story', but the travelogue really need not contain conflict. It may become a more engaging story if it happens to contain conflict, but that's a very different claim to the statement that conflict is a necessary condition for story.

Similarly, when one reads about a spiritual journey or similar inner conflict, as in, say, the book of Job, one can view this as a conflict - obviously the phrase "inner conflict" gives one an open door for this. My argument is that if one thinks of story as conflict, one is more likely to be channeled to the obvious (agonistic) conflicts, and away from the more interesting inner conflicts. Similarly, a Muslim who interprets "jihad" as physical war is trapped in a narrow way of thinking, because most Islamic scholars and holy people agree that this is a tiny aspect of jihad, which is more properly interpreted as an internal, self-rectifying struggle.

Yes, one can probably find ways to identify conflict in most (possibly with a great stretch all) stories, but stories of survival, mysteries both secular and spiritual, and crises of personal, social and philosophical nature are all fascinating and engaging in their own right. That you can stretch the fabric of the word 'conflict' to reach them is not in debate - only that it might not be healthy to do so. The most lauded novels and films tend to reach beyond the obvious, and it would be great if games could do so as well.

What I propose instead of thinking that "story is conflict" is that writers consider that a good story should engage, and that conflict is a powerful way to engage the reader. But so is intrigue. And so is crisis. And so is discovery. And so (in the scope of games) is choice. Conflict, intrigue, crisis, discovery and choice, but the greatest of these is choice. At least, it would be nice if this were so. (Disclaimer: I don't propose that these five cases are exhaustive, nor that they are completely distinct).

Let's not say that "story is conflict" for the same reason that we should not say that "jihad is war" - namely that saying these things may lead us to think in a limited fashion about topics which deserve to be thought about in an unlimited fashion.

Comments

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I see my trackback didn't make it this time. Unsurprising, as my host appears to be suffering from a rash of DOS. Regardless, I picked up the baton and ran with it... probably to another field, but that happens some times.

It's quite possible you _have_ been barking at the back fence, but I suspect we share a property line, so at least you're not going unheard!

It's nice to have a new Banter Buddy... I can call you my Banter Buddy, right?

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