More about the relationship between games and narratives.


For a game to inspire specific retellings, to be narratively designed, it must involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing, but fulfilling a concrete goal. It cannot therefore be about aligning three tokens on a line on a game board, nor about kicking a ball into a net. But it can be about stealing cars or using cars to chase bank robbers.

— Marie-Laure Ryan, Avatars of Story, 2006, p. 193

Does this make sense? It doesn’t seem to.

‘Aligning three tokens on a line’ and ‘kicking a ball into a net’ are, to my mind, clear instances of concrete goals. However, Ryan’s claim is clearly that ‘stealing cars’ is a concrete goal and ‘aligning three tokens on a line’ is not.

Explanation 1. In order to make sense of this, let’s assume that perhaps this means to say that the concrete goals of narratives, as opposed to the concrete goals of games, are of a special sort of concreteness: a concreteness that is part of the human condition. Thus, stealing cars would bring with it the expectation, in the world in which we as humans live, of repercussions. Someone would miss their cars and come looking for them. Likewise, using cars to chase bank robbers would imply that we would wish to capture the bank robbers and that the bank robbers would wish not to be caught. In both cases, we might infer something about the goal-seekers from their goals; and we would infer this based on the assumption of a common human condition among those who infer (us) and those who we infer about (the goal-seekers).

On the other hand, ‘kicking a ball into a net’ gives us little to go on regarding such inferences. Did the ball wish to be kicked? Was the kicking done in order to improve the kicker’s calf muscles?

We just don’t know.

So, perhaps this would work: concrete goals are part of the human condition; non-concrete goals aren’t.

Explanation 2. But then, upon reflection, it is also unclear that this version makes any sense. Because, as Ryan notes, ‘stealing cars’ in a game is what the game’s goals are about — not what the game’s goals are. In fact, it is fairly important (to our personal human conditions) that the game goal of stealing cars be something distinct from the (truly) concrete, non-game goal of stealing cars.

So, perhaps, in order to make sense of this, we need to assume that the concrete goals of narratives, as opposed to the concrete goals of games, are of a special sort of concreteness: something like (but not really) the concreteness associated with the human condition. So, stealing cars is not really stealing cars, but it is about stealing cars — and being about the human condition is close enough to the human condition to be concrete.

So, perhaps this would work: concrete goals are about the human condition; non-concrete goals aren’t.

Explanation 3. But then, upon reflection it is also unclear that this version makes any sense. Because, after all, although we know that the game goal of ‘stealing cars’ is about stealing cars (that one is easy), what about stealing (instead of aligning on a line) three tokens? Is that about stealing cars? Or what about stealing three cars in order to align the three cars on a line? Is that still about stealing cars?

Or what about drawing little car pictures on the three tokens (or attaching little wheels to them) and then aligning them, or stealing them, or doing something else with them entirely? What would that be about exactly?

And, if it is unclear what a game goal is about, then how can we know when one game goal is about the human condition and another game goal isn’t?

Maybe we should just chuck this whole human condition thing entirely.

Explanation 4. Maybe what it means is this: For a game to inspire specific retellings, to be narratively designed, it must involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing (period).

This would be okay with me because, among other reasons, it is okay with Suits. Suits’s definition of a game (well, game-playing, actually):

to play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity

— Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper, 1978/2005, pp. 48-9

In this definition, the purpose of games is not just winning or losing but “bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules” — and Suits goes to great lengths (believe me, he does) to distinguish between winning a game and “bringing about a specific state of affairs.”

So, if we are to go with Suits’s definition of a game — I’m going with it — then all games involve actions whose purpose is not just winning or losing. And, then, extending this definition to Ryan’s claim takes her claim to mean that all games inspire specific retellings and are narratively designed.

But then, of course, the whole point of Ryan’s claim is that some games (those with concrete goals) inspire narrative stuff and other games (those with non-concrete goals) don’t inspire narrative stuff.

So that doesn’t make much sense either.

Explanation 5. Games are one thing, and narratives are another thing.