Part 1 of 2
Storytelling is, by nature, a collaborative effort. The most basic manifestation of this is the relationship between the storyteller and the audience. The storyteller weaves the story, and the audience takes it in, making conscious choices on whether or not to suspend disbelief, accept the story and allow themselves to continue receiving it. There is not one without the other. In the most common understandings of storytelling, this reception and reaction is the full extent of the audience’s participation in the act of storytelling. However, newer and more interactive forms of storytelling began to emerge.
Two distinct forms of highly interactive storytelling began to merge in the 1970’s. The video game, once a novelty item among programmers, became the hub of an emerging entertainment industry. On the analog side, “Dungeons and Dragons” emerged as a more adventure-centric alternative to tabletop wargaming. In both cases (though much later in video games), they introduced the groundbreaking idea of giving the audience of the story an amount of agency in the telling of the story along with the nominal storyteller.
Tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) invited player audiences to, within the parameters of shared game rules, participate in the telling of the story by portraying the story’s protagonists. A game master can use a pre-existing adventure called a “module” to generate the setting and the conflict. But, tabletop games like this truly fly as collaborative storytelling when the game master creates an entirely new setting conflict for a particular group of players to help him tell the story with. With player / audience agency, the audience of the story will often display a range of personal expression that will leave each story, and each D&D group unique. From groups of players that set out to kill some orcs to groups of players composed entirely of orcs, and to everything else in between and just outside of it, very rarely are two regular D&D groups the same, with each developing their own in-group culture and personality.
Later role-playing video games would create a similar effect, both on the individual level with single-player games and in groups with multiplayer games. However, the need to maintain a more consistent set of rules, especially for balancing in multiplayer games, means that there is flexibility in creating stories (and resulting cultures) within the same format. Dungeons and Dragons groups, for example, are famous for “home brewing” their own variations and interpretations of the core rules, which account for some of the uniqueness in the stories produced.
In both tabletop and video gaming, player – audience agency represents the next step in the evolution of how we tell stories. D&D is in the middle of a reputational renaissance, while video games have long overtaken movies as the single largest and most profitable entertainment industry in the world.
When organizations look for ways to leverage storytelling into strengthening their organizational culture, they can’t go wrong with drawing lessons from the microcosm of the gaming group forged in collaborative storytelling. This is something we will look into in my next article.