Monthly Archives: March 2013

Storytelling and Culture: Part 2 (In Practice, AKA Minecraft Tales)

In my last post, I examined how stories are central to the human experience, and help us makes sense of that experience. In this post, I want to use an example to illustrate some of those points.

So are you are familiar with a brilliant game known as Minecraft, by Notch (Markus Persson) and Mojang. Here is the introduction from the website, Minecraft.net.

“Minecraft is a game about breaking and placing blocks. At first, people built structures to protect against nocturnal monsters, but as the game grew players worked together to create wonderful, imaginative things.”

To summarize, in the game all the world is made of cubes, textured different to look like stone, water, dirt, sand, and a whole host of other materials. The character can then harvest these blocks, and create structures and creations to the limit of their imagination.

So I was playing on a friend’s server, with a few other friends. At first we built to protect ourselves from monsters, then we built to shape the world. Then I started to write. The game allows the creations of books, and therefore, recorded stories. Not only did we shape the land, we began to shape the past, present and lore of the world. Now, I will post a few selections from my writings. These will serve as examples of some of the ideas I presented in the first part of this series. (Note that all charact personal names have been edited out.)

Creation;

In there beginning, there was a great darkness. Nothing had yet been made, and the world had not yet been created. Then came forth X, for all powers are in him. His is the creator and the destroyer, the blessed and the cursed.

 There are no things that are that come not from X. For it is he who created all that is. He created mighty words of power in the days before creation.

 Then he entered into the darkness, and spoke forth the words he had made, and which were only known to him.

 He spoke, and mountains rose.

He spoke again, and the world was flooded and the oceans came into being.

Thus were the plains, forests, deserts and the frozen forests created. All by the might of X.

He was please on all he had made. Then he created the First Born, and of these there is little to tell. For X grew angry with them, and all that remains are temples and pyramids, the only clues to this great race.

Some say they were turned to demons by X’s wrath, and the now walk the landscape at night. Other say he cursed them to servitude, and now they are those that inhabit the villages that dot the landscape.

Next he brought forth, the Blessed Ones. These he gave control over all he had created. He said to them, “go forth and build thy destiny.” They spread out from the point of creation and built many things and performed great deeds, of which later tales are told

This tale set up a back story, a foundation from which to draw later narratives. It served to bridge the creation (the start of the server), with the present time in the game. Now I present another tale. My friends and I built up a great port city, complete with ships. Without a story, it was just a city. But in time we destroyed the city, and the story below is the result. Names have been maintained because they are alias, characters (players in other names) in an evolving story.

The Battle of Ulvgarde

 With the Black Dragon dead, the horrible god of the Endermen, the world enjoyed many years of peace. The city of Ulvgarde was prosperous and the people their lived without fear.

But the spirit of the Black Dragon had not been slain, and it wandered the world in search of a new host. Soon it found that host in a terrible, dark being from the south. He is now known as the Dark Lord, a terrible and evil god.

His name is not known, but he rivals in power that of the light god. Where he goes there is destruction, and the Endermen celebrated his return. They offered bloody sacrifices to him, and he his armies grew in strength and number.

And so, in the fullness of his power, the Endermen sought revenge for the wrongs they had suffered at the hands of men. So the Dark Lord unleashed his armies against Ulvgarde.

 At the command of the armies was Pygmallion, a ugly and twisted being of pig, man and undead flesh. He went forth against the walls the Ulvgarde, seeking to throw them down and to slay all within.

Yet, two heroes stood proud and strong against the Dark Lord and Pygmallion. They were Astrid the Swift and Norrstein the Strong. With the help of golems of iron, they held waves of enemies at bay. From their bows, arrows flew straight and true.

 Thousands of enemies lie slain before them. But they were hard pressed and soon had to retreat. Pygmallion then marched into the city, and set it ablaze. Astrid and Norrstein were forced to fall back, as they were hard pressed.

 Astrid fell back to the docks, and cried out for Norrstein to join her. But he was overcome by many foes, and none other than Pygmallion himself, with armor of diamond and a twisted, fearsome jack-o-lantern upon his head.

Norrstein and Pygmallion locked swords, and never has a greater battle been fought in the world. With matched blows and strong armor, they fought for many hours. But alas was Norrstein thrown down and wounded.

 Pygmallion would have slain Norrstein, save that Astrid stormed in and rescued him. She lead him to a ship in the harbor and sought to escape.

But again they were waylaid, for a Wither Lord had been unleashed. He killed all he could find, and toppled many buildings, including the Great Hall, the Ulvhaus.

Even wounded, Norrstein fought side by side with Astrid, as the Wither Lord swooped down upon them.

 Their armor held fast, and their arrows flew true and soon was the Wither Lord downed and slain. But Ulvgarde was burning and many lay slain.

Few escaped with Astrid and Norrstein aboard a ship, watching as their homeland burned and their kin and friend lie slain. They mourned those who could not be saved.

 Now they looked to the horizon, seeking to make a new life in the dark days ahead.

This story served to place the city into a greater arch of events, with references to earlier stories (Slaying of the Black Dragon). It also places enemies into a greater arch. While in the server, Ulvgarde is now ruins, it also plays a part in the growing story of our game. As pointed out in the last article, it also situates the player/characters in the world, while also adding shaping their individual stories.

I could post most examples, and still may do so in the future if there is demand. But considering this post is getting awfully long, I wanted to stop here and draw a few conclusions. These stories help to illustrate some of the points made in part 1. First, we see that the narratives create (for a generally story-less game), a rich vibrant mytho-history that serve as the foundation for later stories. This “grand narrative” serves as the communal culture of the our fictional world, and they take shape through the experience of the players, and also shape that experience in relation to the common culture. We also see the “natural” enemies of the game being put into a greater narrative. Also, we see artificial constructs (I.E. city of Ulvgarde) taking on their own narratives, and further reinforcing the common cultural story, as well as the story of the individual players.

It is clear to see a connection between the players, NPCS (enemies and others, ie iron golems, black dragon), and the world in these stories. We also see a connection formed via narrative to an imagined past and the game’s present. Also formed is a pattern for future events to draw from.

Let us ponder on this…

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Storytelling and Culture Part 1 (Theory)

So I have been writing stories lately, much more than I have been writing in this blog. As I wrote, it got me thinking about the act of storytelling. How much do the stories we read and hear shape our worldviews? So I went in search of some scholarly work on the subject. I came across “Narrating the Self” by Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps. This article presents a lot to think about, and I want to highlight some of the points.

The abstract begins by stating; “Across cultures, narrative emerges early in communicative development and is a fundamental means of making sense of experience. Narrative and self are inseparable in that narrative is simultaneous born out of experience and gives shape to experience. Narrative actively provides tellers with an opportunity to impose order on otherwise disconnected events, and to create continuity between past, present and imagined worlds.”

Just starting out, the authors have hit on a few important points, that are strengthened throughout the article. Stories are a method in which we make sense of the world. Because, let’s face it, the world and the universe are very, very complicated places. If you look at the scientific narrative (the story of the cosmos according to science), you find that we are very small specks on a very small world, in a universe of such immensity we can hardly comprehend it! Heck, if you follow are of the indeterministic bend, it is a miracle we exist at all!

Stories bring this down to a local level, and help to shape our own understanding of our place in the universe. Also, as the authors point out, stories are a two way street. Stories come from experience, and at the same time they mold and shape that experience, often to coincide with our worldview. We sometimes fit our own experience into a greater “cultural narrative” that is the very lens through which we understand the world, and our place in it. Another important point is that stories transcend time and space, allowing us to connect the objective with the subjective, the past with the present, and the mind with the world outside ourselves.

To delve a little deeper into this idea, the author’s later in the article state that; “… we define our selves through our past, present, future, and imagined involvements with people and things; our selves extend into these worlds, and they into us. One of the most important functions of narrative is to situate particular (personal) events against a larger horizon of what we passions, virtues, philosophies, actions and relationships.”

I have hit on some of these ideas in past blogs. How heritage and past, real, imagined or somewhere in between, really help to shape our identities, how we view ourselves and how others view us. Every individual human has a personal story, the experiences that are unique to their life. These experiences are related by narrative, by stories. The storyteller is making sense of their place in the world, at the same time they are shaping their understanding of the world beyond themselves. Also, they are connecting themselves to a larger narrative, a worldview, a life philosophy. A large, overarching story that condenses and makes coherent the vast, complex universe. It is the metaphoric equivalent of a “You are here” sign. We connect our personal narratives with a grander narrative, a cultural story, that is a communal product of our community and society. As an example, think what it means to be American. Think about all the stories, the history, and the legends you have heard that attempt to define what being American is all about. White picket fence, home ownership, wife and kids, all part of the cultural narrative. The product of thousands of interconnected personal narratives.

The authors discuss the ideas I have just mentioned by saying; “As narrators, we evaluate specific events in terms of communal norms, expectations and potentialities; communal ideas of what is rational and moral; communal senses of the appropriate and the esthetic. In this way, we affiliate with other members of society both living and dead. We come to understand, reaffirm, and revise a philosophy of life.”

Stories; shaping worlds and connecting lives and events. Stories come in writing, orally, music, movies and television. We hear stories on the news, and from the mouths of our friends and family. In many ways, we engage in stories every moment of every day, shaping our selves, our lives and those around us. We connect ourselves to the past, and bridge it with the present and the future.

Now, I’m off to shape some narratives.