Everything is Narrative
Two weeks ago I successfully defended my dissertation, thus earning a Ph.D. During my defense, I made the argument that game mechanics can serve as the foundation for the construction of a narrative. I am by no means the first one to make this claim – indeed, in their video titled Game Mechanics as Narrative, Daniel Floyd of Extra Credits makes a similar argument. In my dissertation, I provided additional examples and took the concept a step further by combining it with other play elements. It’s all very interesting and you can read about it in my book once it’s published. What’s important, however, is that one of the committee members objected to the idea of mechanics as narrative. He said “I think there’s a difference between stuff happening and a narrative.” I explained that my argument was not that mechanics and play are a narrative in the traditional sense of the word, but that mechanics and play create a space in which narrative emerges. Another committee member suggested sports games and chess commentary as examples, and we moved forward with the defense.
However, I have since continued to consider the possibility of “stuff happening” being “a narrative”, and the more I think about it, the more I come to accept the idea that everything is narrative.
The idea of everything being narrative may indeed sound ludicrous to some. However, similar concepts have been suggested in fields tangential to that of narrative theory. Indeed, when one considers rhetorical studies, there is a school of thought that argues that everything is an argument. The faculty who raised the objection to everything being narrative adheres to this school of thought. The simplified premise behind this mode of thought is that when someone’s clothing, for example, makes an argument about the person wearing said clothing, that the colors of objects and, indeed, objects themselves make arguments, and that even sounds make arguments based on human perception. If, for example, a fire alarm “being there” makes the argument that “everything is fine” while silent and that “you should run for your life” while active – an example that one of my mentors used in one of my early classes – then why can “stuff happening” not be narrative?
Now, I understand that making parallels is by no means support for a claim as broad and far reaching as “everything is narrative”, so allow me to elaborate. In this context, there needs to be a differentiation between a narrative and a story. Rather than conflating the two terms, as is often done when popular critics – specially in gaming studies – invoke the term “narrative”, we will make a distinction. A narrative will be considered as the element that addresses the question of how a sequence of events are conveyed and retold, while a story will be considered as the retelling of events. Narrative, in other words, is to be understood as a mode for understanding how stories happen and how they are arranged temporally and spatially, while story will be understood to be… well… a story. With this understanding, it becomes possible to accept that “stuff happening” can indeed be a narrative. That being said, I would like to add a bit of a caveat.
While under the proposed definition it is hard to deny that mechanics – and indeed reality – are narrative in nature and can, thus, lead to spontaneous narrative creations that can later be recounted as stories, I do not thing that a single event happening by itself is a narrative. A single event is hardly enough to understand how stories are structured or the mechanics that gave rise to said event. However, when we have two interconnected events, we can start to unravel the narrative process. When we have two events in a row, we can see what rules are in play, what events might have an effect on other events, how actors respond to situations, and so on. But of course the single-event instance is hardly realistic, as all actions lead to other actions and to new discourse, which leads to further action and discourse.
So, is everything narrative?
Everything is narrative.