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Guest Post: Taking Stories Back

Last week at the Portland Zine Symposium, my friend Mike Sugarbaker showed up at my table with a tiny pamphlet he’d just made, called “Taking Stories Back: A Mini-Festo.” He put them out on the table as a freebie, and folks grabbed them up as fast as he could staple them! It was incredibly inspiring, and I knew we had something special on our hands. So I asked Mike to do a guest post on the blog based on the original pamphlet. Here it is, adapted and condensed down to the essentials:

Serial fiction is important. Characters are important, and other worlds are important. There’s something magical about visiting another place, a place that might or might not even be possible, time and time again, and seeing how the people who live there are doing.

We knew this generations ago, when we gathered around fires to listen to the storyteller. Now, the fact that there even was a storyteller suggests that different people do get different amounts of skill at telling stories. But that’s not the only reason we gave up responsibility for telling stories to somebody else. We like to be surprised by our stories; we like to feel like they come from someplace else; we like to get them passively instead of working hard at them; and we like to have our senses dazzled. All that is understandable.

What it means, though, is that over time we’ve outsourced the job of storytelling, mostly to huge corporations. These entities have the money to hire Earth’s best-looking and most charismatic people to stand in front of the cameras, to make incredible images and special effects, and to hone their scripts to perfect pitch. And I’m not saying there’s no place for that. I like it too! There’s a ton of legitimately great TV right now.

Unfortunately, capitalist economics mean that our stories are often suffering. There’s too much money to be made in catering to people’s privilege to put real equality on movie screens—in 2011, we still have need of Mo’s Movie Measure. The law of increasing returns has a tendency to push out anything deemed too challenging—the economics of movie distribution and major TV networks mean that everything must appeal to the maximum number of people. Or sometimes, dammit, your favorite show just gets cancelled before it can fully live out its potential—remember the campaign to save Farscape? And those are just the cases in which we understand the cost of not having our stories locally made. Surely there are other losses at which we can’t guess.

Maybe you’re fine with getting your stories somewhere else, somewhere less subject to those kinds of pressures. Even given that, though, you’ve given up something fundamental and beautiful. You might have come to believe that you can’t even try to make a fictional story or world, that it somehow isn’t your right. Even people who aren’t such great singers still manage to raise their voices in chorus now and again; when it comes to story, though, we don’t seem to believe in this. We think, as we do with so many things, that it’s got to come out perfect and beautiful or else it’s a waste. That it’s got to be for someone else, for consumption, or it’s somehow shameful.

We use stories to tell ourselves who we are. That’s not only a job we shouldn’t leave solely to advertisers, nor to the people who sell our eyeballs to them—it’s a job we should not leave solely to others, period.

What if there were a way to invite friends over, not to watch True Blood or what have you, but to create an ongoing story just as compelling and human, but be its audience at the same time, and have full control of it?

Of course, there is. It’s important for us in the roleplaying hobby to remember what we have to offer people. We have storytelling prosthetics—a way for people to make some of the hard problems of creating collaborative fiction easier and more rewarding. So while some think it’s a waste of time to try to evangelize people into gaming, or to make games that make us better people, I think it’s a responsibility, even if it doesn’t snowball into a revolution. In a very real sense, there are lives at stake.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Taking Stories Back”

  1. >He put them out on the table as a freebie, and folks grabbed them up as fast as he could staple them! It was incredibly inspiring, and I knew we had something special on our hands.

    I don’t know, man, I think maybe people just like free stuff.

  2. Well..sure, OK, of course! but I got tons of “What’s this” from people, and when I said “It’s about reclaiming stories, because why should Hollywood have them all?” the response was a lit-up face and some variation on “RIGHT ON!”

    I mean, free stuff is great, but at an event like PZS with the sheer volume of material, telling someone “have a free [flyer, zine, sticker, etc] can be like asking “would you please throw this away for me?” Crowd reaction makes me hope that the TSB Mini-festos are getting a better fate than that. 🙂

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