The Campfire & The Sphinx: Getting beyond story

screen-shot-2011-02-24-at-41227-pm.pngAt least five times a year, I hear someone make the claim that everything is story. All communications are stories, stories tie everything together, stories are the key to human understanding. “Going back to our earliest days, when we were gathered around a campfire” is a common way to invoke the basic, primal importance of the story.

I’m always skeptical of any concept that attempts to explain it all or under which everything can be captured. Can it really be that easy? Isn’t it more likely that we’re spreading the concept so thin to make it apply to everything that it’s virtually useless? (Try analogous reasoning around the physical sciences: it’s all atoms! Chemistry, biology, physics, whatever . . . it’s all atoms, it’s all physics.)

The bigger point (than my own bias away from silver bullets and big Big BIG statements) is that there are a lot of other impulses that engage people — and they’re not story. The NY Times recently did a story on the Angry Birds craze, noting that people are playing Angry Brids for 200 million minutes a day. No matter what number of people you put under 200,000,000 as the denominator, that’s a very engaged audience.

So, what’s the story? Really, what is the story that is pulling people into this craze?

Well, you see, these pigs have stolen eggs from some birds who are now pissed off at the pigs. As a result, the birds have found specialized skills within themselves and built a slingshot that hurls them at improbable porcine shelters in which there are no eggs.

Technically, that is a story and story fetishists can take comfort in that. But does anyone care? Is anyone really wondering what the mystery is? (Actually, I am now . . . but that’s not why I played through twice.) People are putting serious time into this for another reason: we like to think, we like to solve puzzles, we like to challenge our brains in new and interesting ways. Other crazes, such as Sudoku, crossword puzzles, Brain Age and Madden have even less, in fact no, story. But look at how engaged people are with them.

This is an impulse as old as storytelling, and arguably built into our savanna-evolved minds even more deeply: solving puzzles. The riddle of the sphinx is an ancient legendary moment, representing the application of our brains to larger symbols and ideas, the solving of puzzles. The act of cutting through complexity and noise and bewilderment to find an elegant answer is a deeply, sigh-worthy, and satisfying impulse. Game designers know this. Sure, you need a story that grounds it, but at the end of the day, we get the dopamine dripping by providing interesting problems to solve. So much more important is that dopamine drip that you can even throw a ridiculous story – with no ending! – at it.

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