Mar. 9th, 2010

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So, playful historical thinking. Where to start? I’m not really sure, but let’s get this out of the way:

History is not the past,” writes Greg Dening, “It is the past transformed into something else: story.

You can dress that up in narrative theory, making it an epistemological principle about how we experience the world. You can boil it down to an acronym and write an airport book for business travelers. You can rail against it as a pathology of the human mind. But I don’t think you can deny it. Histories are narratives. We make sense of the present by telling stories about the past.

Don’t want to go that far? How about this: Stories are memorable. To quote that airport book, which is really not bad: “Stories stick.” Our attention spans are woefully finite. There are more philosophies in heaven and earth than there are human brains to dream them. So our memes and ideas and beliefs are locked in a battle to survive and be passed on. In this Darwinian–or is Dawkinsian?–struggle, stories win. And histories that make good stories–those that have compelling characters, satisfying plots, cathartic lessons–have a powerful memetic advantage over those that don’t.

Hayden White says that our grounds for choosing one version of history over another are almost always aesthetic. Romance celebrates the triumph of the good after trials and tribulations. Satire delights in chance and folly. Tragedy laments the costs when irreconcilable values collide.

This seems to me a dirty secret of the so-called “history wars” over school curricula, museum displays, and other forms of public memory. We treat these like political battles–conservatives want this style of history, liberals want this one–but ultimately our attraction to one narrative or another derives from aesthetic grounds as much as anything else. We like that story. It feels right. It does something for us.

Old-fashioned master narratives about How We Got to Be So Awesome–what Peter Seixas calls “The Best Possible Story” approach to national history–are persistent to the extent that they offer satisfying stories, that they are dramatic, retellable, or memorable in some way. Deconstruct them all you want in the graduate seminar room, they still take root and replicate in elementary school textbooks, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, and on the History Channel. And critical counternarratives make their own aesthetic appeals too. Isn’t “agency,” the magic word of the new social history, at bottom an aesthetic or even a literary criterion? Agency means we want the protagonists of our stories to be protagonists, agents of their own destiny.

Among indie roleplaying game theorists (a thrice-marginal community: we play pen-and-paper roleplaying games (like Dungeons & Dragons), but favor small-press “indie” games (ie, not Dungeons & Dragons) and then, weirdest of all, we like to talk and think theoretically about how they work) there has been much talk of “deprotagonization,” which is what you call it when a game’s rules, referee, or other players prevent you from feeling like the protagonist of your own story. I’m struck by how closely descriptions of deprotagonization in gaming–nobody can quite pin down what it is, but everybody knows it’s bad–mirror discussions of agency in history.

But all of the above presumes a world of linear historical texts, like textbooks and movies and monographs. Do the same rules apply to historical games and play? I would say yes, in that aesthetic considerations are just as inescapable in the world of play. But the nature of those considerations may be different. In the world of historical texts, good stories win. What wins in the world of history games and play?

Fun. The history that is fun will win the day. If it’s also true, or useful, or responsible, great. If it’s false, frivolous, or irresponsible, that may be a problem. But for good or ill, fun is very hard to beat.

(Did I just use 600 words to say “play should be fun”? God, I despise myself sometimes. This is the problem with writing about these things in an academic register. I’m off to go play for real with my daughter…)

[Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]

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