Typically I don’t publish my Culture Clash columns here until they’ve been run at the IGDA website, but honestly, in the last few months I’ve had no fucking clue what’s going on over there. So I present to you my latest – sort of, in that it was filed on June 10 and I haven’t heard anything from an editor yet, which is uncommon because my editors there are apparently of the opinion that I have no professional writing experience whatsoever – with all hopes that it pleases you.
This one comes on the tail of a column that… well, it caused some chaos, let’s put it that way. And while its final published form didn’t spark any particular controversy, it was quite an adventure for those behind the curtain. As such I went for a more innocuous, if not entirely cheery, thesis this month. Enjoy!
History Became Legend, Legend Became… Well, You Know
By Matthew Sakey
June 10, 2011
Eventually to be published by the International Game Developers Association
Have you heard the legend of how Rome got started? If you’re like most people, you’ve got a mental collage – Romulus and Remus, maybe a wolf. Those who remember Classical Lit courses from university may also recall something about Aeneas and the fall of Troy. Didn’t happen that way at all.
For reasons now fuzzy (to me and my parents alike), I obtained a degree in Roman history. And while The Aeneid and the Romulus/Remus story are widely known and generally popular, they’re also fiction. They remain prevalent because the fiction is a lot more interesting than the likely reality: in the most ancient possible mists of western civilization, some tribal clan liked the look of them thar hills and assembled a sad collection of dung huts on them, upgrading over time.
There were no orphans-raised-by-a-wolf-even-though-that-word-also-means-hooker-in-Latin-and-which-is-more-likely-really-a-wolf-or-a-prostitute-but-wolves-make-better-theater; no jumping over the wall; no fratricide. The word Rome comes not from the name “Romulus” but from Etruscan. There was no Romulus.
Paul Revere didn’t ride around screaming “The British are coming,” either.
Also: there is no Santa Claus, the Loch Ness Monster is a big log, that badger or whatever it is can’t predict spring by looking for its shadow, and “trickle down” economics does not in fact improve the financial well-being of the majority. Hah!
They’re myths. People like myths, because reality is dingy, dull, and cold, without much to recommend it under even the best of circumstances. Myths and fairy tales have a tantalizing dreaminess about them, an idealized, optimal reality more emotionally engaging than the plodding mundanity of day-to-day life. It’s fun to tell stories, it’s fun to imagine. Which is part of the reason why it’s fun to play games.
Games are modern myths, of a sort. They usually tell fictional tales steeped in traditional narrative structure – heroism, world-saving, righteous warfare, confrontations with evil, that kind of thing. Indeed games often stick to this to a fault. Joseph Campbell, whose Monomyth philosophy has always struck me as several thousand pages of “well, duh,” probably has more influence than he ought to when it comes to narrative design in games and other fiction. But that’s a subject for another day; today, we’re talking about mythology.
While traditional history records what actually happened, myth tells us what could have happened, or maybe what should have happened, or at least what would have been cool if it had happened. They can be allegorical, like the boy who cried wolf. Some we invent for entertainment but pretend are real, like The Blair Witch Project. Still others began as fact, then got a good creative spackling. Jack the Ripper was real. But since they never caught him, and since people like closure, a mythological ecosystem of speculation, opinion, and fiction has sprung up around the Whitechapel murders.
That closure-seeking so integral to the human psyche applies itself to recent events too, meaning that a myth can be as up to date as a news cycle.
The use of myth to optimize reality, before or after all the facts are known, is also quite ubiquitous. You might recall the immense speculation about the identity of Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein’s secretive informant who helped bring down the Nixon White House. Over the years people agonized about Deep Throat, endlessly debating the merits of two dozen or more potential suspects. One thing seemed certain: whatever Deep Throat’s identity, he or she was a great patriot who saw corruption at the highest levels of government and fought to stop it.
Or not. When the truth finally came out it was much more… pedestrian than that idea. Turns out Deep Throat wasn’t some do-what’s-right crusader; he was Mark Felt, Associate Director of the FBI, a man who’d been passed over for promotion and tipped off W&B as a big F-you to Nixon. At the end of his life, Felt even acknowledged that he only revealed his identity because he saw the potential for profit in it. The shadowy parking deck figure from All the President’s Men makes for far more delicious history.
And that’s something that advises mythology. Mythologized events tend to be more fulfilling than reality. Orphans getting raised by wolves resonates more than “a bunch of people decided to start a city.” A lone warrior defeating the oppressive might of an alien force is definitely more fun than the likely actual outcome, which could probably be summed up as “A lone warrior goes out to defeat the oppressive might of an alien force and gets shot in the face.” Thus do games mythologize stories and blend them with interactivity, which is pretty awesome when you think about it.
Some myths are dangerous. The myth, for example, that video games induce violence – a widely-held perception despite the absence of even tangential real-world evidence supporting it. Other myths make people ignorant: I’m sure some out there think 300 is accurate history. But who cares? Other than historians, I mean? 300 was fun to watch. The real Battle of Thermopylae would have been fun to watch too, and it did contain more than its share of superhuman heroism, but that doesn’t invalidate 300 as a really excellent and visually triumphant myth. Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies, but if you do ask me questions I reserve the right to embellish a bit in the interest of drama.
We create myths because we don’t know for sure – constellations explained shapes in the sky before astronomy, and lots of people still cleave to their meaning. Rome needed a kickass story about how it got started and no one remembered the truth, so they created one. Nobody caught Jack the Ripper and since it bothers us to think murders can walk free, we invented closure. Interactivity allows self-insertion into the story, which is even cooler than watching 300. Viewed in this light, game developers are not simply creators of interactivity, they are crafters of myth, and myth is immortal.
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