Sunday, August 28, 2011


VIDEO GAME NARRATIVES: On the group blog MMOMFG, reporter Marc Marion writes about "The Story So Far," that is, how narrative is being used in video games. (Image from the site.) In looking over his favorite games in the past five years, Marc notes that all but two have "embraced storytelling" in a way that improves the player's experience. To demonstrate, he compares two games in the same series, those being "Deus Ex," and "Deus Ex: Invisible War." In the first game, the characters you encounter have personal histories, and they go through changes over the course of the game. Newspapers, books, email accounts and other texts reveal more information. And the player's character also transforms as a result of the quandaries you face. Marc writes that the second game resorts to a sort of "choose your own adventure" structure, in which most of the narrative depth is lost. I haven't played these games, but there seems to be a conflict between (1) choice of action and (2) depth of story. In the first game, your choices are limited; you necessarily encounter the same set of characters, and the beginning and end of your "story" is always the same whenever you play. That allows the programmers to go deeper into the story, because they know the basic trajectory. In the second game, you have more options ("choose your own adventure"), but it's harder if not impossible to chart a story out of the many different decisions a player may make, because not all of those decisions actually make narrative sense. That is, you may take a series of actions -- drink the liquid in this goblet, or not; run a sword through that character, or maybe bonk him on the head -- but there's not necessarily an overarching logic or narrative that links them all. To reconcile these two seemingly conflicting principles -- player options, and narrative depth -- might take video games to a new level. 

TELENOVELAS FOR HEALTH: Telenovelas, or the Latin American / Latino soap opera, are of course ridiculously popular forms that have been exported all over the world. (There's also the radio version, radionovelas.) They've also been used to disseminate health messages, as in the case of "Encrucijada: Sin salud no hay nada" ("Crossroads: Without Health There's Nothing"), which originated in Colorado. This 2009 article about the first season says the show helps reach people in the 40% of the state's Latinos who don't have health coverage. The show even has a call-in line for viewers to get information about health care. Then there's this Alabama radionovela "Promesas y Traiciones" ("Promises and Betrayals") about a Mexican immigrant to the U.S., and his sometimes difficult but always interesting life -- it touches on health issues like diabetes, and also has a call-in line. Or how about this Oregon radionovela, "Amor y Salud" ("Love and Health"), about a young Latina named Lourdes, and her fiance Jorge. (The last series was part of the excellent public health initiative for immigrant communities, "New Routes to Community Health," which I also wrote about here.) I've listened to parts of these programs. Pros: High-pitched drama that speaks to Latinos in their own language and culture. Cons: Some of the episodes are heavy-handed, and sound more like a public service announcement than good drama. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011


IRA GLASS ON CREATIVE WORK: Here's a neat little message from Ira Glass about slogging through any sort of creative work, such as the storytelling he does on This American Life. Ira's words are animated in this video by David Shiyang Liu.

STORYTREE: Storytree ("Remember the time") is a new website that enables users to upload and share family stories on video, in response to such questions as "How did you meet mom?" or "What was it like when you had your first grandchild?" I love the concept -- it's a family tree where the leaves are more than just names and dates, but stories. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Beneficiaries of the Trans-Nzoia Youth Sports Association in Kenya evaluate the organization through stories. (Photo by John Hecklinger. From an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.)
GATHERING STORIES FOR COMMUNITY EVALUATION: A story from the summer 2011 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) talks about how GlobalGiving gathers stories from local communities to assess and craft the programs that will support them. Interestingly, cognitive scientist David Snowden talks about analyzing what he calls "micro-narratives" -- snippets of conversation that can be gathered and used to analyze what a community or a society is thinking. For example, the article claims: "Listening to soldiers’ stories can improve troop safety in combat zones. Sales representatives’ stories can yield important insights for marketing. Until the GlobalGiving project came along, however, this approach had never been applied to development work." Snowden's company, Cognitive Edge, has developed proprietary software called "SenseMaker" that can analyze and reveal patterns in large numbers of micro-narratives.

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S FAILURES IN STORYTELLING: President Obama has proven himself a master storyteller -- in his book "Dreams From My Father," and in many of his speeches during the 2008 campaign. However, in an op-ed in today's New York Times, Drew Westen writes that Obama has since failed to craft a narrative about the country that would rally support for his policies. This failure started with the inauguration speech, which Obama could have but did not use to offer "a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it. But there was no story — and there has been none since." What's more, writes Westen, Obama's stories as president "virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem." Whether this is due to Obama's conciliatory temperament, or his triangulations in an effort to get reelected is unclear. But the result is that he fails to achieve victories against moneyed interests, and on behalf of the mass of American people.

FOR ASYLUM SEEKERS, "IT HELPS TO MAKE A BAD STORY WORSE": An article by Suketa Mehta in the 8/1/11 edition of the New Yorker discusses how people seeking asylum might sometimes embellish their stories to the courts so as to improve their chances. He focuses on a person he calls Caroline, who was beaten in her home country, and legitimately feared persecution were she to return there -- after all, her parents were part of the opposition. However, in talking with her social workers and appealing to an immigration judge, she fabricated a story of rape as well. The author says in a podcast that this story should not be taken as demonstration that all asylum-seekers' stories are lies, but rather that the asylum system puts people in a position where they have to "augment" their claims -- which may be based on perfectly legitimate fears of reprisal in their home countries. Mehta started as a novelist, and says that he is "fascinated by the ways in which we shape our own identities" -- all of us, not just refugees. Caroline's story is "indicative of the human condition in general, and certainly in a schizophrenic city like New York, which demands an origin myth of all of us."