Is the narrative in the game, or in the head?

In his post, The Simulation Dream (which I’ll forever thank Twitter for pointing me to), Tynan Sylvester sets out the Player Model Principle, which is “The whole value of a game is in the mental model of itself it projects into the player’s mind.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, wrestling with the sometimes incredibly didactic way in which cultural heritage organisations can tell their stories. Occasionally we lay the story on thick, especially when we resort to a chronology  of a place: “Humans first settled here in … there’s evidence of a pre-roman village … the Roman villa was destroyed … Medieval settlement … Sir Suchansuch was gifted the land in … changed hands during the civil war … current Lord Soandsew inherited when … and all of them thought it was a lovely place to live.” Ugh! Yawnsville! Why oh why do we do that?

(I always shy away from chronologies in my work, but I bet if I examined my previous projects closely, I could pull out an example of where I’ve accidentally included one.)

Where it’s especially apparent is in poorly designed guided tours. Bad tour guides will often start off their tours with a chronology (or, even worse – a family tree), in a misguided attempt to put the rest of their tour in context.

(Damn, that didn’t take long – here’s a chronology/family tree from an introductory video at Knole that I commissioned a few years back:

Knole – Five Centuries of Showing Off from National Trust Knole on Vimeo.

In my defense, it’s quite funny, and hosted by the lovely Jonathan Foyle. For the prosecution, it’s way too long at almost 15 minutes.)

Why do we (us heritage types) insist on telling you everything at the beginning of your visit? Well, I guess it’s because that’s the one time we know we’re going to reach everybody who comes in, before they’ve wondered off to look at what ever they are particularly interested in, or to the cafe, the toilet, or whatever. But why do we have to tell the story so literally?

Museums used to be accused of not telling the story at all, of being elitist organisations which could only be understood by the cognoscenti, where the objects could speak for themselves, the juxtaposition of their arrangement adding to your insight, but only if you knew enough about them already. Augustus Pitt-Rivers is credited with suggesting, in 1891, the philosophy that museums should be readable by the masses, or as he put it “I hold that the great desideratum of our day is an educational museum, in which the visitors may instruct themselves.”

Sixty or so years later the US Park Ranger Freeman Tilden gave us our common understanding of “heritage interpretation” in Interpreting Our Heritage. In that slim book he said, though we often seem to forget, that interpretation isn’t about transmitting a fact to the public as though they are empty vessels, but rather creating a “revelation”  that “relate[s] what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor.” But still we tend towards spoon-feeding our visitors with facts.

Instead, cultural heritage institutions should think of their interpretation in the same way that games programmers think of their computer code. As Sylvester says:

Designers create the Game Model out of computer code, while the player creates their own Player Model by observing, experimenting, and inferring during the play. In play, the Game Model is irrelevant. Players can’t perceive it directly. They can only perceive the Player Model in their minds. That’s where the stories are told. That’s where dilemmas are resolved. So the Game Model we create is just a pathway through which we create the Player Model in the player’s mind.

So museums and interpretive sites shouldn’t be just telling  the story, rather they should use interpretation as a pathway though which the story is created in the visitor’s mind.

Pinchbeck et al illustrate this with a small experiment they conducted looking at narrative in games. Eight participants (three novices and five more experienced gamers were invited to play a section of the game Half Life 2. This game, and the particular sections of the game involved, were chosen because of a high degree of embedded narrative content:

The architecture positions the overall game world in time and space; the trees suggest a season; the huge alien citadel in the background sets up both a long term narrative intrigue and sows the seeds of a long term goal.

The public broadcast screen in the mid-ground is a good example of an active narrative device. Narrative information id actively supplied by this device; the player can, by listening to the broadcast, gain additional understanding of the situation. Whilst the device does not contribute anything to immediate goals, or short term narrative, it actively establishes the game world further.

In the foreground a humanoid agent will dynamically respond to the player, usually aggressively. Whilst contributing towards long term narrative as a collective, or type, the individual agent’s role in FPS games is ordinarily short term and micro-goal orientated, such as forfilling a combat function. Friendly Non-Player characters such as Half Life 2′s Alyx operate dynamically and actively contribute to long and short term narrative.

The players were observed and their eye movements tracked and recorded to see where their attention was while playing. There’s a lot of interesting observations, but the key conclusion that leaps out as relevant to what I’m thinking about now is this:

The lack of awareness of passive narrative objects was striking; especially in a game that is generally acknowledged to contain a strong narrative. Rather than steering play, the results may indicate that narrative has little to do with it, and is imposed post experience. In other words, when we speak of narrative influencing play, it essentially translates to the narrative being used to position action in context for memory, but not actually being part of the play experience…

… the strong narrative could make it easier to recall specific moments with in play by acting as a more robust framework for retrieval, thus yielding more specific and potentially more vivid recollections of the experience…

…strong game narratives may assist the structuring and management of memories of play experience, by supporting actions with a robust, temporal and contextual framework.

It’s not too far a leap from this to summarize that the narrative, though embedded within the game, only becomes apparent to the player afterwords, having projected itself into the player’s mind.

So, do we (in cultural heritage) do too much telling, without giving the visitor space to work things out?