Ethan Gilsdorf: As electronic gaming grows, and the digital world becomes more ubiquitous, interest in participatory storytelling is growing. Audiences don’t just want to passively absorb, they want to participate. (JuditK/ flickr)
Sure, it’s easy to laugh at people in costume who wave swords or wands at each other and shout “Lightning bolt! Lighting bolt!” Adults dressing up. Playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Playing make believe.
But “interactive storytelling” should be understood, not dismissed.
Such gamers’ entertainment is self-made — real, live, immediate and transformative, and not bound to Happy Meals and marketing campaigns.
The term interactive storytelling is used to describe all manner of games where both the audience and actors are part of the performance: live-action role-playing (LARPs); alternate reality games (ARGs) that often mix in technology or mobile devices; interactive theater; and everything in between, including old-fashioned role-playing games (RPGs) like D&D.
You once took part in a murder mystery dinner party? Guess what, you LARPed.
As a former (and current) dorkwad who has rolled his share of dice and devoured more than his share of Cheetos and Dew, I know this genre well. Back in the 70s and 80s, I played D&D every Friday night [proof can be found in the video below]. As teenagers, my gaming buddies and I tapped into an intoxicating mojo. Immersed in our frivolous tales of dragon-slaying, orc-slaughtering and other vicarious derring-do, we were also secretly saving the art of oral storytelling for posterity.
This was in an age before the Internet, before wireless, before smart phones, before DVDs, and Twitter and Facebook. Before instant anything.
But since those days — or really in the intervening decades since dawn of the 20th century — the pre-technological culture of storytelling has been largely dominated by forces who want to sell us franchises, sequels and transmedia narratives spread across multiple platforms: video games, novels, TV shows, movies, apps, YouTube channels. And make us buy stuff in order to enjoy a narrative.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (and have begun to fall for his trio of “Hobbit” films, too). They are masterful at what they do: creating fully-immersive visual and emotional experiences. I cry every time Boromir gets skewered by the evil Uruk-hai.
But who or what will teach our children to entertain themselves? To understand that the story, not the special effects and painstaking rendering, is what truly matters?
D&D, LARPs and their ilk are powerful. They connect us to one of humankind’s greatest inventions: the oral story. Once upon a time, we told tales. We posed riddles and wove sagas and sang ballads in the dark, around the campfire. Our audience was ourselves and our tribe, and our stories were original, and (sadly) ephemeral.
My D&D narratives captured some of that manna. They were not extensions of some larger, corporate-run universe. They carved out a DIY-driven, non-commercial entertainment space.
Gamers say: We don’t want your mass-distributed narrative machine. Just give us a table, some pencils, some dice, some graph paper, and some company. We want to make our own world.
These games can be transformative. Teen centers in Arlington, Mass. and Belfast, Maine, use gaming to teach kids leadership, positive expression and problem solving. I’ve seen otherwise shy kids blossom into leaders, heroes, and villains as they charge through a gymnasium or the underbrush in search of adventure.
As electronic gaming grows, and the digital world becomes more ubiquitous, interest in participatory storytelling is on the rise. Audiences don’t just want to passively absorb, they want to participate.
Why? An “interactive” video game like “Portal” or “Mass Effect,” as limitless as their landscapes appear, are still fairly proscriptive. You can’t wander too far from the theme-park ride. There is a set track and a limited story to tell. Despite all the high-def visuals and stunning action of video games, their eye-candy and bling is missing something. Namely imagination, camaraderie, patience, and that irreplaceable experience of telling a story, improvisationally, together, around a dining room table.
I still play tabletop games and role-playing games. While much of America watches TV or football on Sunday nights, my gaming buddies and I make our own entertainment. Sure, our stories of epic heroics may be hackneyed, or silly, or fluff. But they are fun. And they are ours.
“I won’t kill you, you nasty orc,” I say, playing my half-elf ranger-cleric character Renn. “Rather, I want to know, whatever came of my mother?” Renn has a score to settle, and his own story to discover.
That’s some powerful necromancy — one that we should teach our young geeklings how to use to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the magical, and find new and meaningful ways to transforms themselves.
Editor’s note: This weekend’s Intercon convention, in Chelmsford, Mass., March 1-3 is one of the nation’s largest gathering of those devoted to “interactive storytelling.”
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.