This was originally a Facebook status that blew up into a full article. It’s not about game design, but this is my site so I’ll post whatever I want! Hopefully people will get something out of it, especially as it relates to new years and resolutions and all of that. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!
I did a lot of thinking last night about storytelling, in terms of “the stories we tell ourselves about our lives”. One of the big stories that many of us share is the story that “2017 was a bad year” – mostly because of Trump, I think, but also probably for other reasons.
But one of the reasons that “2017 was a bad year” is because it is good for storytelling. It makes a good story if there was a really bad time, because that opens things up for a comparatively good time later on. Even if that “good time later on” never comes, it doesn’t matter. We are emotionally sort of setting ourselves up for that to happen, and that kind of feels good.
I have been thinking a lot about the narratives we tell ourselves and how those narratives, and not the actual reality, determine our perceptions of reality. Of course, all we have, each of us, are our own narratives, so I want to be clear that I am not saying I or anyone else actually knows the actual reality. I don’t think the actual reality is all that important. We act on the stories we tell ourselves, because those are how we understand the world.
Looking forward, looking back, or looking at the right now, we have a story to tell about what’s going on. And those stories sound like the stories we heard growing up in fairy tales and pop culture. And the stories in fairy tales and pop culture are themselves informed by real-life experiences, so it’s this big soupy interaction of art mimicing life and vice versa.
But the important thing is to remember that you have a little bit of control over the stories you choose to tell. Maybe not much, but also not zero. And the stories you tell affect how you feel about your life, and also what actions you take.
I guess on one level, this is kind of obvious. The obvious thought is “think positive!” or something – but that’s not what I’m saying. Sometimes you DO need to think negative now, so that you can think positive later. So that you can feel the swing of a dramatic change for the better.
I listened to a really good ON THE MEDIA episode today which I recommend. But in in they talked about about various forms of nihilism and some art movements like Dadaism that came out of nihilist philosophy.
The most commonly held narrative about nihilism and some of those post-modern art movements were that it largely had to do with the rise of atheism (also amplified by two horrible world wars). So the situation there was, we had one story – God did everything and he’s looking out for us, etc – and now we have a different story, where we’re just creatures that live on some random rock.
Looking at it now, it looks like we just kind of had a bit of a temper-tantrum that our previously held narrative wasn’t working out. For my generation, and probably newer generations, some of those ideas that they thought were scary – like there being no God, no afterlife – is kind of more accepted. In the podcast above they talk a lot about how it was this huge problem that “now life has no meaning!!! Ahhhh!!” and I guess I just feel like, I was born sort of understanding that and I completely accept it and even welcome it. I wouldn’t want there to be some pre-existing, prescribed meaning on reality or on human life. I like that the project of human life is to create meaning, and besides, meaning is a totally human idea anyway. This idea that there should be some grand “meaning” that’s bigger than humanity is like a silly illogical idea to begin with. At least, that’s how I’ve always felt.
So this is one of the kind of issues with narratives, is that they can hurt when they don’t work out. And maybe that’s even the definition of “hurt”, is something not going the way our narrative said it would, or should.
Anyway the point is, some narratives do us harm, and I think it’s worth looking at those. Classic examples are stuff like “I’m not attractive” or “I can’t draw”. But also we build all kinds of narratives with specific people in our lives, such as “oh this person is good for XYZ, but bad for ABC”. Again, we have to build these narratives so that we can kind of understand anything and take any actions.
But it’s really worth remembering, and here’s the thesis statement of this thing, that our ability to craft accurate narrative is really kind of shitty. Words and sentences are not reality, they are some really loose symbols which make a weak attempt at painting a picture of a view of reality. And just as words are not reality, our stories are not reality.
So I’m not saying don’t have stories, but I am saying, don’t take your stories too seriously. Don’t be too confident in them. Try to be aware of the fact that they are stories, stories which may be “based on a true story”, but which are not themselves true or real. And they can be looked at in different ways.
Maybe a good new year’s resolution is to challenge your stories. Was 2017 really that bad a year? Maybe it was. Maybe it’s helpful to look at it that way. Maybe that one friend of yours who is a bad listener isn’t always a bad listener. Maybe your brother who hates surprise parties will actually like a surprise party this year.
For me, I am very much looking forward to 2018 being the dramatic pendulum swing backwards in the other direction. That would make a good story, and it would also make me happy.
ADDENDUM: Definitely do not want to minimize the degree to which Trump’s year in office actively threatens people, especially minorities and women, and I am not a person in any of those groups. So I am not at all trying to minimize that. I recognize that for a lot of people, the simple fact that this man is president really does make it the worst year ever, for sure. And it sorta also does for me too. I just wanted to acknowledge that and not downplay what a threat this guy is and how much it matters to the least-privileged that this is what’s happening in our world.