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.

One thought on “The beginning of a postmodern project

  1. Chris: Really interesting–and I’m interested in how you’ll synthesize this critical perspective with your earlier thinking about how WoW is or can be “queer.” Circling back to Lyotard from your substitution of agency for interactivity, several questions and rambles–(1) Does “agency” correspond better to “petits recits” than “interactivity”? (2) How do you account for player interactivity in terms of agency? That is: little stories often emerge from players’ interactions–so is focusing on agency a different way of reading players’ relationships? (3) Players often (in my experience) socialize other players into the metanarrative: “You have to do such-and-so next…we have to go to this new hunting ground…” So the little stories can be preempted or at least enmeshed with the metanarrative…not sure where to go with that. (4) You focus on the end game as a marker of metanarrative (or not): I’m not sure how Wow works with this, but in Lineage the end of the metanarrative continually receded, which was a great way to keep everyone paying their monthly fee, and most often the actual destinies of characters was determined by real-life: lost my job and can’t afford it, need to spend more time with family, died. In the end, all characters shared the destiny of being destroyed by dragons when the player base became too low to sustain in the US server. So it’s hard for me to imagine a stable destiny written into the metanarrative. Or is it necessarily unstable? Explain? (5) Back to petits recits v. metanarrative: In Lineage there were several players who creatively restricted their game play to form an outsider identity–e.g. a prince called FrogGuy who killed only frogs and lived in one spot, an oasis. He became a community exchange center as players would donate things to him that he would give to other players–so he gained a pleasant notoriety without leveling, crafting, etc.

    I think your idea about “queering” WoW depends upon the enmeshment of agency and metanarrative…or perhaps more specifically on the fissures between metanarrative and the mechanics provided in the game (I’m not up on all of the terminology you’ve introduced yet–sorry–I mean all of the virtual stuff in the game).

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