“If this is so, then what else is so?”

My brother introduced me to this particular precept of improv acting a few weeks ago. The basic idea is, something comes up about a character or a situation or circumstance: Following that thread, what else can be inferred about that character or situation? A simple example of this would be, say, if one player at one point says “I’m not allowed at the aquarium any more. Not after what happened last time,” another player could then call back to that by saying “Okay let’s go get lunch. Seaf–nnnngMexican?”

My favorite example of this in action is a bit from an episode of The Simpsons:

The part that elevates this bit above pure slapstick is the moment when, just as our brains are beginning to construct the kind of circumstances that could lead to this odd situation, they pull back and show us this hilariously, sadistically improbable arrangement.

There’s a lot of joy to be found in these unexpected inferences. After all, these intuitive leaps, these unexpected connections, is much of what humor is about– an insight which I owe to Mr John Cleese of Monty Python, and one which has transformed my understanding of humor.

Actors play these games, but anyone who wants to construct any kind of narrative has to play it as well– we just have more time to play it in, so we don’t need to infer out as much. We construct our bridges at one end and build them out to the other, rather than establishing a point in the middle and building out from it.


There’s, uh, probably actually some pretty good reasons to do it that way…

Except, well, we don’t usually. Usually we start with a seed, a phrase, a moment, a trait, and we build out from that to make our stories. I do, anyway. Starting out of the middle of nowhere  and then building out to it– it’s not good engineering, but it takes us places we didn’t expect to go.

Similarly, literary analysis is a game that writers play: They pretend each thing represents some thing or things unrelated, then try to deduce what relationship these would have if they were, in fact, different things. It sounds silly because it is, both silly and is frivolous, as it is with most games. And, as with most games, it can teach you things which would be impossible to learn almost any other way.

We pull at one symbolic thread of the story, and start to pull it apart to see how it’s made– and, to me, the most interesting parts of a story where it can’t pull apart, where something needs to be many things at once to make sense within the story. These little knots are why fiction and metaphor are important instead of just indulgent. These sloppy conflations of ideas are where inspiration comes from.

And someone keeps on knitting, and knitting, and...

And someone keeps on knitting, and knitting, and…

We play these games to train ourselves to be more creative. Seeing these connections and following them is the largest part of crafting a narrative. Both the physical and causal connections, as in an improv game, and the symbolic and emotional connections, as in literary analysis. And, from these, we can craft a story.

Playing games, trying to do well at them, demands care and attention to detail. The stringency of these demands varies from game to game– some games are easy to space out and play on autopilot, some require constant vigilance or the whole thing will fly off the rails– but because understanding of the game is a prerequisite for playing it, we are required to engage with them in a way that is more fundamentally analytical than the way in which we engage with other forms of media.

In other words: You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules.

And yet, most people engage with games so shallowly!

This is something I frankly don’t understand. We have a form of entertainment where our enjoyment is premised on our understanding of the interactions it offers, and yet so many people are content to blunder through using just the most obvious mechanics. More so than any other medium, games should provide an intrinsic drive towards a deep understanding of how they work– and yet…

There is a natural path that leads through game-playing into game analysis, just as there’s a path that leads through improv games and literary analysis to story and character creation, and yet very few people seem to walk that path.


1 comment
  1. I’m not a gamer (sorry!) but recently played my first game (Far Cry 3). I suspect many players are simply eager for escape from reality and fun, even though you raise interesting questions.

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