Storymaking in sports (a brief interlude)
In an earlier post, I argued that stories don’t just ’emerge’ from open-world computer games, but are actively constructed by players, and that this construction – what Gaynor calls storymaking – requires both a particular stance towards the game experience and some skill. In this post, I turn towards a kind of games where storymaking is done on a regular basis: sports. (For the moment, let’s just ignore that sports may or may not be games – they are sufficiently similar for the discussion to work.)
Just as all journalists, sport commentators are professional storymakers. But where journalists make stories out of real world events, sport commentators make stories out of play sessions. (In this sense, their job is surprisingly similar to that of a game master in tabletop roleplaying.) Sports are in fact better suited for storymaking than the open-world games that I discussed in my previous post, as the structure of a match or a tournament automatically creates the basic framework of a story (a beginning, middle and end). To add, many spectator sports have rules that create an interesting dramatic curve (tennis is a perfect example, as the person who seems to be losing always has a chance to turn the match around). The structure of a competition creates adversaries and the adoption of a ’home team’ provides you with a protagonist. There is also rich background material to draw from: players can be rookies or veterans, young or old, recently injured, teams may be leading or losing in a league, etcetera. In all, successful sports provide us with many excellent examples of game structures that support storymaking (which may be a reason why they have succeeded to become spectator sports).
However, sport commentators are not players – they are professionals, creating stories from a spectator perspective. Do the participants themselves tell similar stories? Given the ’story-friendly’ structure of sports, I believe they typically do. But there is one crucial difference: participants tell stories in which they themselves are the protagonists. I’ll give you an example from an interview with Mary Kom, winner of an Olympics gold medal in boxing:
“This is a fantastic day, it is unbelievable for me to be here, very special. I have been fighting twelve years to get to this point, to be at the Olympic Games. It has been my life-long ambition to get here. My victory is very emotional because not only as am I finally here but it is also my twins’ fifth birthday today and I am missing it. This win is a gift to them.”
See where this is going? In every sport tournament, there are as many stories created as there are players. Sports provide us with the first clues towards how games can support storymaking:
- Game sessions (or tournaments) can provide a basic story structure (identifiable beginning, middle and end points)
- Games can provide access to background material on players, adversaries, and various teams/factions/cultures
- Game mechanics can create a dramatic curve
- Player create their own stories, in which they are the protagonists
But in sports, storymaking is not a major objective of the game (winning is), so the stories tend to be rather similar in plot and theme. In role-playing games, storymaking is one of the core desirable effects, and in Nordic larp it may be considered a major design goal.
Gaynor, S. Storymaking. Blog post, Jan 31st 2009.
O’Neill, M. Olympic games – Day 1 review from London. WBAN news story, Auguest 5th 2012.