Playing the hero
How games reflect life
by Celia Emmelhainz on
Are we really the hero in our own lives? This was the question I put to Nick Mizer when I interviewed him last week. A young anthropologist who researches gaming, storytelling, and how we make sense of our lives, Nick's also trying to popularize his research by reaching out to Kickstarter and the gaming community. Below, I catch up with him to learn more about storytelling, tabletop games, and what they can tell us about the world we live in. (The interview has been slightly edited for length).
Celia: First off, can you explain what gaming is?
Nick: When you're talking about gaming, you're really looking at the overlap of a couple of general human behaviors: you've got the idea of play, and that's pretty universal. And narrative and story, that's clearly something that as humans we use to make sense of our entire lives. They're combined in games like Dungeons and Dragons, but they're not always the same.
But even if you just talk about daily activities, how you go to work. The way you tell that is narrative, the way we make sense of our lives.
Celia: Wait, what narratives do I make about everyday life?
Nick: Look at the hardships we experience, even just the little hardships. Like, this spring I was biking with my daughter to school every day. Now I'm caught in the daily life of a grad student: write papers, grade papers, clean the house, do the dishes. Mundane things. It's easy to lose that sense of what drew me into this: why I started school, why I wanted to have a kid.
At the moment we make those life decisions, we do it in mythic terms: this is why I want to study humans, this is why I want to have a family. But then you have all the details: I forget my daughter's lunch and have to go all the way back home and back to school again. So if this is a story, it might not be a very good one.
But then, all the things that seem to be distractions from my life the way I want it to be, they can all be part of the story… we do this all the time when something bad happens. We say, "that will be a good story later!" It's a good story in that it emphasizes our humanness, and the absurdity of life–we learn to embrace that and share in that craziness with other people.
Celia: But aren't we deceiving ourselves with this kind of narrative–are we really the hero in our own lives?
Nick: Looking as it as an anthropologist, partly the answer is that it doesn't matter [whether it's unreal]. Because we can't stop doing it, as humans. Part of my job is to describe how humans are experiencing things, and the question of whether we are all heroes in our own stories… well, that's really the only way we can share with other people, through the stories that allow us to envision ourselves in another's place.
Celia: This reminds me of Joseph Campbell and his Hero's Journey as a universal story. Are these stories really universal, or just something we do in the west?
Nick: There are culturally specific patterns, but Campbell is trying to get at the one everywhere. And of course it makes an anthropologist uneasy, because if you're trying to get to a universal structure, you have to shed all of the contextual information that really gives a story its meaning.
Celia: So, the structure of a story may not be universal, but the idea of narrative, that does seem to be a very basic human thing.
Now I've never played Dungeons and Dragons. Can you tell me something about the game?
Nick: Dungeons and Dragons is a storytelling game, mostly oral–you sit around a table with a group of people, and through describing the action of characters and the results of those actions a story emerges.
What makes table-top role playing games [like this] unique in terms of other types of storytelling is that it's very rule bound. It's not like telling lines of a story around a campfire; D&D is governed by statistics. You're describing what one of the characters of the story does, and someone else's job is to describe the result of that, but it's not arbitrary…
The cool thing about gaming is that you see the process of story making as it happens. Immediately, people are trying to make sense of changes, and they process it in chat afterwards. If you're watching the game play out and you're not a gamer, it's not always clear what's going on. But that's like everyday life: we go through events and we don't know the story that's happened until we make sense of it.
Celia: Okay, but how is D&D different from other kinds of gaming, like video games?
Nick: Almost all the video games now are influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, even action games like Call of Duty, or games like Farmville. The idea of Experience Points as a character progresses, or of Hit Points, in many ways goes back to Dungeons and Dragons.
For a video game, if it's not hard-coded in, you can't do that. Yet in tabletop gaming, you can attempt anything you can think of. With Dungeons and Dragons, you've got a creative mind actively generating things as you go.
And there's also the social side, because tabletop games are more inherently social. You can play video games with friends on a couch or chat electronically if you want, but a tabletop game has to be social: you can't play it on your own.
Celia: So how did we see this kind of thing start?
Nick: When Dungeons and Dragons was first developed was in 1974, it was the final years of the Vietnam war, a time when there was a lot of stress, people waiting in gas lines, the problems of modernity in the midwest. And in the middle of all of this comes the idea of using the trappings of modernity, the statistics, as a way of reconnecting. It's what Max Weber would call re-enchanting the world of the imagination.
It's interesting that they didn't make a role playing game set in the year 1970, but instead set it in a fantastic medieval world, before the disenchantment of the enlightenment.
Celia: You've said before that you're interested in "the places where the personal histories of gamers intersect with the history of the hobby as a whole" (examiner). So how do people's personal stories connect into their play?
Nick: When I'm talking to people in their 30s and 40s, I see that these people usually came into gaming in the early 1980s. At that time, D&D could be found in every bookstore, every toy store—it was a fad that blew up really quickly. They played in elementary and middle school, but when they hit high school or college they stopped playing. They started dating and trying to be popular.
But now, once these guys settle in as "successful adults," with a wife and a family… now they start reflecting back on those experiences when they were a kid.
And there's an element of nostalgia there in the lives of the people I'm talking to. . . One of the guys I talked with tried to figure out if his nostalgia for gaming was nostalgia for being fourteen, or mostly for the game. He decided it must be nostalgia for the game, because it's not like he was particularly happy as a fourteen year old! And another guy describes it as "nostalgia for things I never knew."
Celia: So you're raising funds for your research with a Kickstarter campaign. Why? How do you think it will benefit people?
Nick: I applied for some formal funding and I did get money that will let me do some research. But when I was looking at the scale of the project, I knew I wanted to do more.
Kickstarter is a tool that's used a lot in the gaming community. It's really built into the culture I'm working with. But as I thought about it, it became about the ethics of ethnography, the obligation the anthropologist has to represent people accurately. . . Sometimes there are people I've talked to at gaming conventions who say, "Here's this amount of money and I appreciate what you're doing." It's very different from grants, which are impersonal, a stamp of approval from the academic community.
And there's really something about this that's more like the traditional anthropologist-in-a-village, with the host family giving them a place to stay and helping them to get food. Working in the Western context we don't often experience that—I'm not living in the village of gamers.
The outcome is that once the Kickstarter is funded I will be in contact with my backers for the entire part of my research, sharing thoughts on my Youtube videos and getting feedback as to whether I'm hitting the mark. In some ways it helps, because for an interpretive anthropologist like myself, there's never a moment in which you get it exactly right in the way that a physics equation is right. Instead, we hope that once we listen to someone and write it down, we hear, "Yeah, it's something like that, keep going." That's as good as it gets… that's a really valuable process.
Celia: So where do you see yourself going, and what do you hope to learn next?
Nick: My primary goal is to teach anthropology somewhere. I decided I wanted to teach even before I decided to study anthropology, so that's a long term goal….
The next thing I hope to look at is the story beyond the confines of North America. Dungeons and Dragons was born in America and it's a very American thing, but role playing games extend internationally now. I've done one small study of how gaming came to Spain, and the ways in which they adapted it to their context . . . I'd like to look at how gaming spreads and how the local culture takes that and adapts it to their own needs.
I've also heard an apocryphal story that during the cold war, the idea of D&D spread to Eastern Europe, but they couldn't get their hands on the materials. So they took a story they'd heard about what the game was, and tried to build their own game. I'd love to hear if that's true. What I'd like to look at next is how cultures adapt storytelling, to take a different angle on globalization.
Celia: So where do you think the study of gaming might be going in the future?
Nick: It's a really interesting time because gaming is getting more and more public attention… We're coming up on 40 years for D&D… and it seems that the academy is finally to a point where we can take the study of gaming seriously as an aspect of life. The first ethnography of gaming was in 1983… but in the last 5-10 years that's really exploded, whether it's tabletop gaming, video games, or looking at game-like aspects in other areas of modern life. McGonigal talks about gamification, where you can take tasks and feed the part of humans that likes to play games, and turn it towards productive ends. But it's really important that we understand games, as sometimes the narrative aspect of play becomes lost as we assign point values to chores. We can motivate people to some extent, but that doesn't tap into why I hear people say they want to play games. As we understand why people play games, we can apply it to other areas.
In tabletop gaming, you can attempt anything you can think of. With Dungeons and Dragons, you've got a creative mind actively generating things as you go.