Tag: narrativist

Faith in Play #17: Narrativism

This is Faith in Play #17:  Narrativism, for April 2019.


Two months back we started seeking what might be a Christian approach to what is called Creative Agenda, by discussing gamism. Our conclusion was that gamism was not inimical to Christian faith, insofar as it encourages us to be our best and meet the challenges we face.

We did not conclude that it was “The Christian Way” to play; we did not touch on the other two identified agenda, narrativism and simulationism, at all. This month we’ll continue in the order in which they are commonly listed and look at narrativism.

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers. 1812 Henry Fuseli

People mistakenly equate narrativist play with storytelling, but the gamist group will tell of the time they rode into the mountains, trapped the dragon in its cave, and after a hard-fought battle killed it, and how is that not a story? What distinguishes narrativism is more the focus of the story. Narrativists thrive on moral and ethical issues, emotional responses, and human relationships and interactions. Did you risk your life because you were in love with the princess? Did the sorceress accompany you because she hoped to tap some of the dragon’s power for herself? Was the dragon a proven danger to the community, or was this done simply because we wanted to be famous as dragonslayers? Stories of love and betrayal, of ambition and greed, of nobility and flaws, plots which could be ripped from the pages of Shakespeare, are the heart of narrativist play. It isn’t that you risked your life but why you risked your life that forms the story.

In that sense, narrativism is about posing life questions and exploring possible answers—and in that sense we discussed this long ago in Faith and Gaming:  Answers, that role playing of this sort allows us to practice making moral, ethical, and personal decisions, in a petri dish environment that allows us to consider the consequences without suffering them. It permits us to communicate about our beliefs and explore alternatives in ways that are non-confrontational.

Anything that facilitates communication about beliefs is a worthwhile pursuit for Christians, both among ourselves and in groups with unbelievers. Narrativism thus has much to commend it as a Christian approach to play.

There are hazards, however. Just as the context of play enables us to express beliefs, it enables others to challenge those beliefs, to explore the weaknesses in what we claim. C. S. Lewis once said that at any given moment the weakest doctrine in Christianity always seemed to be the one he had just successfully defended, because at that moment it seemed that the truth of that doctrine depended entirely upon his own meager abilities to defend it, and not on God. Any time we put our beliefs in front of others, we can expect that they will be attacked, and the weaknesses uncovered. It might well seem that what you believe is not unassailable, as others bring their beliefs against it within the context of play. This, too, though, can be beneficial, as our beliefs are strengthened by our recognition that God, and not we, is the foundation for truth, and our understanding is imperfect but improving. Narrativism gives us this opportunity, if we can grasp it.

So again it appears that narrativism is also an approach to play that is not unchristian.

We’ll look at simulationism in a couple months.


Previous article:  Mourning.
Next article:  Order.

RPG-ology #2: Socializing

This is RPG-ology #2:  Socializing, for January 2018.


Gamers have, or at least not so long ago had, an image of being socially inept.  Many are thought to suffer from high-functioning autistism or Aspergerger Syndrome, to be highly intelligent but have difficulty identifying and expressing feelings, entering into relationships with other people.  The “unwashed masses” once referred to immigrants coming to Ellis Island; now it perhaps describes GenCon.

I have written a fair amount about role playing game theory.  I participated in discussions with (Sorcerer author) Ron Edwards, (Dogs in the Vineyard author) Vincent Baker, and others, in the late 1990s at Gaming Outpost and later at The Forge, as what began as “GNS” (for “Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism”) expanded into something Ron calls “The Big Model”.  My own explanations of that are still at Places to Go, People to Be as Theory 101:  System and the Shared Imagined Space, The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, and Creative Agenda (also appearing in translation on the French version of the site and in print in Jeu de Rôle Magazine), and I would like to think I contributed at least a little to the development of that theory.

What The Big Model had at its root was the recognition of something that is in one sense completely obvious and in another completely overlooked:  game playing is a social activity.  It is a way in which people interact with each other within a structured setting, and thus we can reasonably say that it is a structured social situation.

This intrigues me, because I have recognized about myself that I do not do well in unstructured social situations—parties in which people mingle and eat and drink and chat, for example, or that social hour that’s really only about fifteen minutes after the church service.  I don’t know what to do, how to interact, in a sense what my role is.  I do well in classrooms, whether teacher or student, because I understand the roles and play my part.  I similarly do well in worship services, in discussion groups—any situation in which the roles are generally structured and everyone knows what to do, how to act and interact.

What is more interesting, though, is that a role playing game is itself a structured social situation, that is, a gathering of people interacting with each other following an agreed set of rules for that interaction, which itself is about creating a social situation—the interactions of the imagined characters within the game.  Thus people like us, people who have trouble relating to other people in unstructured social situations, enter into a structured social situation in which we are cooperating in the creation of a story about people interacting with each other in an unstructured social situation.  We are, in a sense, teaching ourselves how it’s done by simulating such situations and relationships and interactions between imaginary characters.  We learn how to socialize by creating characters who do that, and we do so by social interactions.

Thus as we come away from our games into the real world, we bring with us this picture of how people converse, how they relate, how they interact, from having attempted to reproduce that kind of conversation, relationship, interaction, in microcosm.  We then begin to become more like our characters, more able to be like other people, to socialize in unstructured situations.

I still have trouble with multi-party conversations—I never know when it’s my turn to speak, whether to hold on to that thing I was going to say and say it later when it’s no longer apropos, or drop it and hope that whenever it’s my turn to talk I will know it and have something to say.  I never have that problem during the game, because the rules, the fundamentally social rules, provide the structure that informs those questions.  But gradually what I have learned about character interactions has worked its way back into my life, into human social interactions.

We the geeks of the world have created our own therapy, a social activity that teaches social interaction.

Who would have guessed.


For what it’s worth, I have written about social interaction in games before, notably in Faith and Gaming:  Fundamentals and other articles in that series.

Previous article: Near Redundancy.
Next article:  History of Hit Points.