work in progress, night thoughts, endings, beginnings, words

To be young, but to feel ancient. He was as mobile as he ever was, but his muscles seemed slower now. More taught, like they had been sewn into the bone. His face — a familiar light dusting of stubble covering his cheeks and chin — felt dry. The moon’s glow gave the top of his bald head a faint aura. The moonwell below him offered up his reflection. He didn’t look that different, from years ago.

He wasn’t that different.

But apoptosis says otherwise. Time says otherwise.

Seven years, give or take. Seven years since he’d stood in this spot. Since he’d first visited this place.

It was nothing like it was.

Azshara, then, was a place of eternal autumn. The leaves always seemed to be falling, the land an exhale or two away from giving in to the slumber brought by snow and thick, silencing clouds. But it never came. That beauty that perpetually exists in the twilight, between life and death, between day and night — it always existed here. It never left. The ley lines, the arcing power just beneath the shattered surface — it kept things locked in time.

Or did.

The Cataclysm came, the world was torn asunder yet again, and the mountains were etched away not by the inevitability of time, but rather the touch of one of the more destructive races carving their literal mark into the mountains and hills. It was polluted now, literally, but also figuratively. It was as if this one extra burden was the excuse the land needed to finally die, to finally rest. And so it did. Royan expected to feel warmth for this place, but there simply wasn’t anything there. He felt hollow.

His blood was here. Hers, too. Maybe, in another time, he could’ve felt the scar of the scale he had ripped from his chest. Now?

The wind picked up, sulfur on the breeze. Once, the acridity of the air was less a mixture of burnt oil and smog and more from the crackling of pine. It made his mouth taste sour, and he had to refrain from giving in to the urge to spit. He turned his back to the breeze instead.

The cliff behind the long-abandoned moonwell caught his eye. He remembered the protective druid, Swiftwind, standing there. Sarucarn, too, the old, crusty bastard. They’d both caused him grief, but he’d missed both of them.

All of them, really.

He sighed. When he left to join Alexstrasza and the others, he knew there was a certain finality to it. He’d denied what he was — what he was destined to be for so long — but he couldn’t deny the call his blood had, or where it wanted to take him. Yet, there was no reunion, no belonging. Soon as he’d returned, he had been alienated again, his own mission seen as nothing but the whims of a foolish drake. He fought, regardless. Maybe that’s what the call he felt really was.

Either way, they’d won. It seemed like seconds after he returned, after he came to try to find some sense of belonging with his flight, they suddenly were no more: Alexstrasza declared it the day of mortals, and all he could feel was bitterness. That was his call, that was his plea, and yet his words had been ignored. After, she told him his words had been heeded. His mission — these were his fruits. His reward.

And so he left, again.

He’d go back — to find the adventurers he’d called his friends, and maybe more. Royan expected to find them, doing what they always had, standing on the edge of the world, a last bastion against whatever evils came forth from the Nether.

When he returned, though, there was nothing. The Scarlet March wasn’t even a whisper. It was as if it had never existed, as if nothing they’d done had ever stuck. No one knew his name, or hers, or any of them. They had become nameless heroes, spoken about in rhyme around campfires, but without any flesh. Just legends.

Perhaps that was comforting, in a way. When he had first sat at that bar, listening in on the thief and the shaman, he’d never meant to get attached, or involved. He wanted to be the whisper, the narrator of the story — never the protagonist. But he soon sat at the head of the March, and…

“I knew I’d find you here,” a voice said from behind him. Royan turned, unable to hold back a goofy smile. A Night Elf stood just a stride away from him, his body covered in dark, dusky leathers, his face hidden behind a shroud.

“How’d you know I’d be here, right now? At this precise moment?”

“You’d be insulted if I didn’t.”

“You’re right.”

Adolos stepped forward, putting his hand on the human’s shoulder. Royan reached his arms around the elf, hugging him tight. “It has been entirely too long, entirely too long. To even see a familiar face… especially out here,” Royan said.


“Have you kept tabs on the others? Any of them?” Royan stepped away, Adolos’ arms almost immediately curling back into a natural fold across his chest.

“Yes and no.”

Royan chuckled. At least this hadn’t changed. At least he hadn’t changed. “Mind expanding on that?”

“Sarucarn went off to do research, as usual. I don’t know where. I didn’t bother to follow. Felt it was for the best.”

“It was.”

Adolos nodded. “Smaepdii, Lamere, and Digsy went through to Draenor, but I haven’t heard or seen from them since. I’ve heard nothing positive or negative on that front.” He sighed. “Imizael… after the portal re-opened, something happened with her. She vanished. Swiftwind has been missing since before you left, and there’s no change there.”

“And your family?”


Royan nodded.

“She’s fine.”

Good enough.

Royan was quiet for a minute. Both of them were, neither knowing quite what to say next, even though they both knew where the script had led. Where it had to go. Adolos, ever the patient one, simply waited, half-lidded glowing eyes locked on Royan’s.

“And Manari?”

“Rumor was that she went through the portal, too, but no one seems to know.”

“No one?”

Adolos slowly inhaled, sucking air through his nostrils. “It was very much like she wanted to disappear. After you left, she did not carry on The March. There were no more meetings. I followed her for a few weeks, and she acted almost as if it never had existed. Then, when the portal opened, she was gone.”

“And that’s it?”

“Far as I know.”

As usual, Royan was playing by his rules. He knew the answers to every question before he asked it, although for once he didn’t really want to be correct. He wanted to hear about how he was mistaken, or how they’d still met, somewhere. But he knew better. He’d found a priestess seven years ago who hadn’t wanted to be found. He’d looked no less hard this time around, but there was nothing. Just the legends. Just the passage of time.

“You must know why I am back, Adolos.”

“I do.”

“And why I was looking for them?”

“Yes. They will all be needed.”

“But it’s just us.”

Adolos nodded.

His blood was a curse, he thought. He had watched the rise and fall of a great order. One he helped save. One he crafted, his fingers turning against the clay, etching out every detail. And yet… it was all gone now. He’d watched a legend form, right in front of his eyes. To be young, but to feel ancient. Nostalgia gripped his stomach, clawing its way to his throat. He’d have to start over. He’d have to do it again.


This is a 1500 word rant about education.

The state of college education is broken.

As a student, this is obvious. As a grad student, it was even more obvious. As an instructor, I’ve passed the point at which I can just ignore it, or act like it doesn’t impact me on a daily basis. So here we go.

This past February, I was invited to present at a symposium my alma mater. I love speaking, and I love sharing ideas, so this was a great opportunity. I arrived at the main campus to find two notable things: main construction absolutely everywhere and a string of parents and high schoolers stringing about the campus. The construction was focused on the new “townhouses” the school is building — which, if I’m honest, look beautiful, which of course, by “beautiful” I mean “expensive.” There will be living quarters for students there, as well as a bunch of shops. Sounds neat. The parents and would-be-students seemed impressed, at least.

I walked into the basement of the old business building, where the symposium was being held. A pipe had burst, water was everywhere, and they were considering re-locating to a different building. A grad assistant and a professor had to clean up the mess.

As far as I could tell, the event never made the front page of our college’s website. Scholarship, it seems, isn’t quite as sexy as updates on the construction, NCAA highlights, and obvious SEO-snatching blog posts.

There are so many fragments of stories I could use as metaphors, but none serve my purpose better than this one. It was like so many different microcosms were colliding at once. It was sort of poetic.

But that’s where we are headed.

College has become business. Everything is a “selling point.” I was told during my grad time there that they happened to be very proud of the fact that no classes were taught by grad students. Just adjuncts. That was a selling point. The location was, too. Those new buildings? Of course.

My wife’s school is in the same bag. New buildings everywhere — to the point I overheard her talking to a friend about how none of the buildings from her time at the school are even around anymore (she graduated in 2010). Colleges are merging and closing, shuffling and renaming, and desperately bidding for students’ dollars. None of this is new, mind you. Well, okay, except for the looming student debt bubble. How much is college, again?

Somehow, despite this boom of colleges becoming bigger and better luxo-resorts, the staff have withered.

Okay, okay. Not everyone — the administrators are doing fine.

I mean the professors.

Oh. Not the ones in the ivory tower, all the way up there.

Instructors? No.

Adjuncts. Yeah, those guys.

Everyone knows the statistics, so I’ll spare you them again, but over the last decade adjuncts have taken more and more of the teaching load off the shoulders of tenured faculty. Why? It’s cheaper. It requires less planning (you don’t have to worry about that infamous spring drop). Oh, and they’re disposable, too! All of those academic freedom issues? With adjuncts, you can just drop ’em after a semester if you disagree with their politics.

But hey, let’s focus on the most important one: they are cheaper.

Once again: I’ll spare you the specifics, but Glassdoor is your friend. Take a look-see at what adjuncts are paid, per course, compared to tenured professors.

“But oh,” Professor of Whouldntchaknow Stevens says. “They are paid less because they teach easier classes, and because they don’t have as much responsibility.”

Are you dead yet? If you aren’t, it’s because you probably aren’t an adjunct. To wit, every adjunct professor (if NOW is when you’ve had your stroke, because I’ve dared to combine those two words, you are the problem) I know, have known, or likely will know, teaches at least as many classes as full-time faculty. I say “at least” because I have friends working 8 (eight) classes a semester. I don’t want to do the math for you on how much work that is, but let’s say a lot. A lot of work. Too much work.

And then — and then! The professors (often the same ones who sold you on Marxism) at the same university will often offload work on to you, or special requirements. Nooo, you aren’t REQUIRED (loool) to show your face at this meeting, but… you know… if you want that position… (ps: there ain’t no pay here, chief)

No, we don’t get paid to research (but we know that if we want your job, we have to do it anyway). No, we don’t get paid to take part in departmental meetings (but we know that if we want your job, we have to do it anyway). No, we aren’t paid to sit with students and help them through their problems because you have garbage office hours (but we know that if we want your job, we have to do it anyway).

Oh! And back to that “difficult class” thing.

Now. Okay.

I’m going to let you have it. I’m going to let you believe that teaching the subject you’re psyched about (or, that you were psyched about enough to get your doctorate in it) is hard, and something only you could do. I’m going to let you think that teaching an audience of juniors and seniors is totes hard, especially when the class you teach is in their major. I’m going to let you think that your specially designed class you (ahem) ~earned~ is a very difficult thing.

Ah, fuck it. I can’t do it. You’re wrong.

Now, okay, I’ve never TAUGHT that class (oh wait, I *did*, I just wasn’t PAID for it eeeeeeeeeeeeee), but…

Okay, so here’s the deal. I know that you hate teaching 101. I know it. How? You told me. You snickered to me about a student you had. You looked me in the eye and made a comment about how teaching this class was hell, because oh my god you had to grade PAPERS from STUDENTS on THINGS that weren’t the one thing you’ve spent your whole life researching. Oh no!

I hear you. I heard you talk about how whoever gets stuck with the 101 class has gotten the short end of the stick. What, is it too easy to teach? Is three classes just too much for you?

I once had a professor who told me how he’d designed all of his classes just so he was the only person that could teach them — so he never had to deal with those horrible 100-level classes ever again. Those were for adjuncts. Ha! What a good joke!

Here’s a message to you, students: no matter where you go, the majority of your education will be sold to you by people making less than you will working college jobs. That’s almost not even hyperbole, depending on where you work.

You’re being taught by people who are scared. This class might be their last. Not because they are bad at teaching, but just because. Last semester, every (seriously not hyperbole now, this is literal, I’ll even say it again) *EVERY* adjunct friend I have (there’s quite a few) had classes cancelled. MOST (once again, see above) had ALL of their classes cancelled. I was lucky enough to retain one class.

Now, that’s not necessarily the fault of the college. In my case, at least. My workplace has been great to me, at least for an adjunct.

But other friends? Two students short? Cut the class, stuff ten students in your other class so it’s beyond full. Pay you for the one. Enjoy.

Another? Hired. No classes, though.

Another? Had to get a job working retail. Nothing against those in retail, but I’m not sure of another line of work that occasionally requires you to work three jobs in order to make ends meet while, hopefully, building up enough of your CV so you eventually don’t have to worry about starving (after 6 – 8 years of education).

Students: you are being taught by people who love what they do. That is the only reason they are there. They want to be there. They want to teach you. They’d literally beg to do it.

Most are one step away from homelessness, unless they are independently wealthy, or are supported by someone else.

But most aren’t.

Becoming a professor, honestly, isn’t about skill. It’s about attrition. The reality that we’ve figured out, those of us that remain, is that fewer and fewer people are coming out of grad programs now (they’ve finally heard the message). We clutch our Derrida and Foucault close, waiting. We watch our friends find lucrative (above minimum wage) positions elsewhere. Slowly dropping off. Market shrinking.

Indecency will happen. We know the fate of some of our friends. We’ll watch others literally (honestly) torture themselves, because this is all they know, because academia does that to you.

We’ll watch them, because we believe in it.

Me, though?

The system is broken, and I don’t think my stress will fix it.

A scribbling of notes… (In Progress)

Limited time? Limited blog post.

Some notes:

Bricolant/bricolage — Bogost uses Derrida here (sort of?) to riff on the idea of the bricolage, or the piece of art created by synthesizing multiple bits of knowledge, information, or art. Obviously, such a term has a lot of potential in video game studies. The creation and dissection of video games both utilize “bricolage” as a central concept. No game is an island. Bogost uses the phrase for both. He most often, however, uses the phrase as a point of criticism against the strict compartmentalization of video game studies.

Aarseth — Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext once again gets a few hits. Bogost isn’t a fan of how Aarseth has essentially “separated” cybertext from literature, as he (Aarseth) sees video games as a “new art” that can’t be described in “literary” terms. Aarseth even takes a shot at “interactive fiction.” Bogost’s criticism of Aarseth (and Mayra, and DiGRA) is short and quick: all of the previously mentioned games criticism characters are basically in a race to compartmentalize game theory into its own little self-sufficient box in which the “ludic is privileged over the literary.”

“Instead of focusing on how games work, I suggest that we turn to what they do — how they inform, change, or otherwise participate in human activity, to borrow the ACLA’s words. Such a comparative videogame criticsm would focus principally on the expressive capacity of games and, true to its grounding in the humanities, would seek to understand how videogames reveal what it means to be human.”

Site note: I’m totally on-board. While I’m only *just now* reading Bogost, his approach seems similar to mine. Back when I wrote about Portal 2, linearity, and feminism, I discussed linearity as a mechanic of storytelling — that was my prime interest in it. I wasn’t interested in saying “hey, the game used linearity! This is how it did it,” I was interested in showing how that linearity advanced a narrative of a lack of female agency.

In my current project, admittedly, I’m swinging away from this a little — I’m talking mostly about mechanical things. But still! Those mechanical things are nothing without the stories inherent within them.

(To be continued tomorrow — running out of time…)

Bogost’s Unit Operations (Part 1)

Yes — part 1. This isn’t a blog post so much as it is a “freewriting” post. Why? Because Bogost, that’s why.

To start:

When I was constructing my reading list for this independent study, I knew there were two authors that I absolutely had to have somewhere in my proto-syllabus: Espen Aarseth and Ian Bogost. Aarseth’s Cybertext is cited just about everywhere, as is Bogost’s Unit Operations.

While time dictates that Cybertext should probably be where I begin, I couldn’t help but pick up Unit Operations after reading a few of Bogost’s pop-philosophy/theory articles. And so here we are.

The first thing you need to know about Unit Operations is that one Amazon reviewer referred to it as “terrifyingly erudite.” You get why as you start to turn the pages. This is a book that mixes Grand Theft Auto with Ulysses; Lacan with ENIAC; Derrida with everyone/thing else — it’s an assault of theorists, philosophers, and tech milestones rolled into sordid romance between the humanities and STEM. To conceptualize it further, this is undoubtedly the result of the fear encapsulated within my blog post a few weeks ago. This is the relentlessly interdisciplinary. It doesn’t run from this — it embraces this. It screams it at you. Early on Bogost analyzes the film The Terminal through the lens of his theory, poking at the individual “unit operations” (we’ll get into those in a second), first showing you where they are, and then ripping the rug out from under you. He laughs. You can hear him from beyond the text. “This is for all media,” he declares.

While Derrida launched a revolution of everything being read as text, Bogost seeks to see everything (or at least all media — but I don’t really buy he wants to stop there) within a series of unit operations.

So, yeah, those things.

The “point” of Unit Operations seems to be (thus far) to unpack media as a whole: to pick out individual “units” in texts that serve as guiding points, little bits and bytes (sometimes literally) that build on other cultural overtones. This isn’t to say that there is a universal at play — no, quite the contrary. Instead, Bogost posits an idea that sites somewhere outside that distinction. Any media can be analyzed in such a way to see similar units at play that are part of the human experience. Consider it a deconstruction of the idea of “games as escapism.” Bogost would say bullshit, because games aren’t escapism — they are a product of the systemic operations that formed them (not to mention the player herself).

In his own words: “Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems.”

Unit Operations are not universal (but the concept is) — they decentralize the role of the critic as flag-bearer. Instead, they privilege the critic-as-reader (or gamer), allowing her to see, build, and locate the units within the text at hand.

And… that’s where I am right now. More to come shortly…

World of Warcraft, Metanarrative, and The Scarlet March

In my last two posts, I’ve tried to explain what I’m trying to do with my independent study project — this week I’m going to try and flesh it out with an example of what I’m talking about.

So, where are we?

World of Warcraft as “postmodern” — or, the idea that World of Warcraft is decentralizing the idea of the metanarrative. To be a little more specific, the idea is that the game allows the player to circumvent the metanarrative.

As a practical example, we’re going to look at a guild that existed on the US roleplaying server Maelstrom a few years back.

In World of Warcraft lore, there’s an alliance of humans known as “The Scarlet Crusade.” The Scarlet Crusade is, essentially, a group of human zealots that despise the “undead scourge.” Prior to the events of World of Warcraft, there was a plague that wiped out a large chunk of humanity, turning them into mindless ghouls and zombies. All of these newly-undead creatures were then placed under the control of The Lich King — one of the series’ main villains. However, some of these undead manage to get their “control” back, turning them into a separate race.

So at the end of the day you have the “free” undead (known as The Forsaken) and the “zombie” undead (known as the Scourge).

In World of Warcraft, The Scarlet Crusade fights against both, believing every creature that comes into contact with the scourge to be tainted. This means that any individual, family, creature, whatever — it’s all destroyed in the name of purity. As you can imagine, this is where the whole “Crusade” business comes in. They are so zealous in their fight that they develop an intense xenophobia, and they become hostile to any of the non-human races, believing everyone but them to be tainted (not just the Scourge or the Forsaken).

On the Maelstrom server, a group of players started a guild known as The Scarlet March. The March was seen as an offshoot of the Crusade — an even more zealous and radical sect of Crusaders. In their story, they were “officially” split from the March — certain events happened within the game, and they saw themselves as the “true” Crusade.

This is where we see the first off-shoot from the metanarrative.

The Scarlet March actually isn’t “officially” split from anyone — they are completely independent, and they exist only on the Maelstrom server. Their entire story is fabricated from a mix of “official” lore and “imagined” lore. Likewise, their story — as a unified whole — is made up of many individual stories (or petits récits). The guild, as a construction of the game, is essentially a collection of stories follow its own metanarrative (separate from the games). The thing is, this central narrative isn’t the most important — as without the petits récits of the individual members, it does not exist.

But wait — how does that count as a “game mechanic”?

That leap comes from the fact that The Scarlet March doesn’t just impact itself. The existence of this group of players working within their own story allows them to have an impact on the gameworld.

This is visible in how The Scarlet March emphasizes its “control” within the game — players from the March patrol around the main city streets, harassing any player they deem to be “unworthy.” In addition, they also co-opt a large in-game cathedral, holding “Mass” there. They also conduct military “expeditions” into “hostile territory,” killing players that refuse to bow to them.

All of these events directly impact other players, even if they don’t have anything to do with the March.

This is the second off-shoot of the metanarrative — the players aren’t just a separate story (distanced from the metanarrative), they are also a mechanic that encourages other players to disconnect from the metanarrative. Likewise, when other players interact with them, they are giving them validity — they are saying, yes, this group of players is more “valid” than the metanarrative imposed on their characters “officially” by the gameworld.

The final off-shoot of the metanarrative can be found within the characters themselves.

In order to “level up” in World of Warcraft, you must kill monsters and complete quests. Now, every quest in the game has some sort of narrative. If you’re a roleplayer, some of these quests will certainly “mesh” with your character, and some won’t. For budding “Scarlet March” characters leveling to whatever the “level cap” happens to be at the time, this is crucial.

If you’re a zealous, xenophobic crusader, you’re probably not going to go on adventures to help out races that aren’t human. Yet, in World of Warcraft, you are frequently forced to help out virtually every race in the game — this means that a character moving through the levels is going to have to take part in gameplay events that break his or her “immersion” — they aren’t things that their character would actually do.

Now, it’s possible to look at a player “ignoring” things like this as “cheating.” After all, how can you escape the metanarrative here? How can you realistically pick-and-choose what events your characters get to “experience?”

The thing is, you’re supposed to — it’s something actually reinforced by the gameplay metanarrative. You see, the player (as in the individual behind the character, not the avatar) is supposed that there is a duality in the narrative being presented to him: yes, these are things *he* is doing, but they are not things that his or her character is necessarily doing. After all, if a quest has you saving the kingdom, then how does everyone have that same shared memory? How is it possible for everyone to save the kingdom — especially when your character is being thanked for the task!

This is the game winking at you — telling you that yes, there is a “central” story line (the metanarrative), but that it is important for you (the player behind the avatar) to selectively ignore it.

So when the xenophobic Scarlet March crusader saves the village of gnomes, he isn’t actually doing it… even though he is.

These three metanarrative off-shoots allow the narrative of World of Warcraft to exist both in a centralized space and a decentralized one. The game is fully open to the idea of the petits récits — in fact, it *requires it* in order to stay cohesive.

A more thorough proposal…

Last week I briefly touched on what my “final project” is shaping up to look like. This week I’ll go over what I’m trying to say/do in a little more detail.

So, the general idea at play here is that World of Warcraft is transgressive in the sense that it achieves a “postmodern goal” of “beating” the metanarrative.

Last week I mentioned that one of the big problems in defining “interactive fiction” is that interactivity itself is a problem — how is a game truly interactive? How is a piece of fiction truly interactive? The immediate problem that arises is that a game can only present a player with so many options: there is no true “sandbox” game. No computer game can exist outside of the realm of numbers and narrative — every game (and every story within each game) must be mapped out ages before a player actually interacts with it.

That, of course, is the problem. That fact seems to invalidate video games as possibly postmodern, as they seemingly reinforce their own metanarrative — that is, there is a predetermined story that the player cannot escape from. No matter how the player experiences the game, their narrative will always bow to the game’s.

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern give us away around this with agency — they show us that interactivity in drama (and games) is not marked by the ability to do anything, but instead the ability to do something meaningful (from the player’s perspective).

Yet, there is still a problem — the metanarrative is still enforced by the game. While interactivity — the player’s ability to impact the narrative — might be part of the game, the narrative is still defined in relation to the metanarrative. That is, if we take a game like Mass Effect, and we look at how it presents its choices to the player — those choices still align the player within the gameworld’s narrative.

So, how does World of Warcraft deal with this? That’s where I come in!

In World of Warcraft, the community is a gameplay mechanic. Using roleplaying servers in World of Warcraft as an example, I hope to show that there’s this weird paradoxical thing going on in the community, where players both consciously acknowledge the “metanarrative” and rebel against it in a unified way. That is, the “metanarrative” might say something (the “most important” story is defined, individual characters all theoretically go on the same journey from 1 – 90, etc), but the players can (and are expected to!) ignore it.

Basically, there’s a level of cognitive dissonance within the game that every player is expected to accept. On one hand, you’re supposed to acknowledge that yes, you can’t play the game without encountering the metanarrative. At the same time, however, a roleplayer can’t actually do all of the things his avatar is doing within the game.

For example, a quest in the game might have you take down an important character. Of course, a million other players are going to do the exact same thing. So how does the individual roleplayer deal with this event? If you “take credit” for the action, you are invalidating the experience of everyone else. What most players do, in this case, is situate the event within their character’s perspective: so perhaps they didn’t kill the important character — maybe they just witnessed his death, or maybe they might have aided someone else involved in the slaying. Or — another possible alternative — the player might choose to separate their character from the storyline entirely.

By bifurcating the story, the player creates their own narrative, independent from the metanarrative. Not only is it independent from the story, but it displaces it — to the player, her story is the most important element — not the “metanarrative.” Likewise, players that interact with the player will be interested in her story — not the overarching “metanarrative.”

Now, magnify this by a thousand choices, on a hundred different realms. Suddenly, World of Warcraft is way more than just a single storyline — it’s a thousand independent storylines, each existing independent of each other (yet each taking up the same “important” space in relation to the player).

The beginning of a postmodern project

The theoretical “project” my independent study is working toward is a paper on metanarrative and MMORPGs. Specifically, it’s the concept that World of Warcraft‘s community is the ultimate destroyer of the metanarrative. In short, the idea goes something like this:

“Metanarrative” was first defined by Jean-François Lyotard as a fancy word for “grand narrative.” Lyotard described the postmodernist movement as one that was in reaction to the idea that “grand narratives” were the basis for social movement. That is, “metanarratives” were stories that propped up stories — they were the history behind the history, or the meaning behind every other story situated underneath them.

If you’re an American, perhaps the “bootstraps” metanarrative is a great example. In America, there is a general (capitalist) idea that motivation, determination, and hard work are all that one needs to succeed. Therefore, every narrative (literally stories of individuals) must conform to this metanarrative. So when someone succeeds in America, it’s because they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. Likewise, when someone fails, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough. This metanarrative is so loud and so dominant that it eats the petits récits, or the tiny stories of the “little people.” A man might fail to succeed because of racism, ableism, or other variables, but because these events are not recognized by the metanarrative, they are ridiculed, ignored, or otherwise completely overshadowed.

Postmodernism is seen by Lyotard as a rejection of the metanarrative. Instead of privileging metanarratives, postmodernist prefer petits récits — they prefer narratives that exist outside of the influence of metanarratives (or, at the very least, they aren’t overshadowed by it).

A typical metanarrative will privilege certain voices — a petits récits on the other hand, looks to give voice to anyone.

So, where do video games come in?

It’s fair to say that up until the contemporary era, video games were very much metanarratologically oriented. Video games are defined by central narratives: one of the largest theoretical problems in critical play studies (and game development) is the creation of a space that gives the player a balance between gameplay and narrative:

“If the system decides the ending, we have guaranteed closure without interactive freedom; if the user decides the ending we have guaranteed freedom but possibly no closure. Further, if a player is playing a prescribed role, such as Ghandi, we either have to limit interactive freedom to maintain the player’s role (and story arc) or provide interactive freedom at the expense of the role (and story arc).”

In this typical ludological criticism, a true postmodern game is seemingly impossible: true “interactivity” destroys any hope of a narrative, and a distinct narrative destroys the possibility of interactivity (and thus, the possibility of a “game”).

Within this line of thought, contemporary games are destined to be metanarratives: there is no way to provide “true interactivity,” and so all narratives must conform to developer intentions — they must conform to the metanarrative of the text. Using World of Warcraft as an example, players might be offered different paths through the gameworld, and players may (or may not) choose different quests — but the overarching story of the gameworld itself is predetermined: it follows a metanarrative that the player cannot escape from.

There is, however, a theoretical way out: redefining “interactivity.”

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern manage to do this by replacing “interactivity” with “agency.” They argue that “interactivity” is needlessly vague, choosing to use agency instead: “A player will experience agency when material and formal constraints are balanced. This is not the same as ‘a player will experience agency when they can take arbitrary action whenever they want.’ So in the case of choosing the ending of an interactive story, the player does not need the ability to make arbitrary endings happen in order to feel agency. A small number of authorially-determined ending configurations can still produce a strong feeling of player agency if reached through sequences of player actions within a materially and formally balanced system.”

While this does not mean that agency = breaking into the postmodern, it does mean that the potential exists: for the first step to reaching the theoretical “postmodern game” is giving the player the ability to even have a separate story to tell (outside of the metanarrative).

This is where World of Warcraft comes in again — while players might not be able to arbitrarily exit the predetermined in-game narrative, they do have the ability to pick and choose their character’s destiny, giving them agency within their own story.

So, at the very least, we know the possibility is there — the only questions that remains is this: does the game acknowledge stories outside of the metanarrative? If the answer is yes, then World of Warcraft has to be considered a postmodern game.


Mateas, Michael, and Andrew Stern. “Interaction and Narrative.” Ed. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. 642-69. Print.