Creating our own narratives in the games we play

The University of the West of England's Esther MacCallum-Stewart on taking children into the real world with Mighty Minis
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Mighty Minis is part of the REACT: Sandbox Play project, and aims to develop a toy that gets kids away from the screen. And yet, in order to do so, we are tapping into the huge capacity for children and games players to tell stories about the videogames that they already play.

Seth Giddings, another of the collaborators in Sandbox Play, argues that our contemporary relationship with videogames allows us to create stories that exist in multiple places. His observations of children playing ‘Grand Theft Tractor’ during a trip to a farm is one of many examples demonstrating how children take ideas from games and use them in imaginative play elsewhere.

And this isn’t unusual; it happens all the time in games – especially ‘open world’ or ‘sandbox’ style games that allow our minds to wander when we play. Because we are playing, often engaging with a fairly developed narrative world, our minds idly add details unique to us in order to make sense of the individual narratives we witness.

So for example, my World of Warcraft night elf has spent many hours fishing; in game terms it’s a good way to make money, and is needed as food for raids; but in story terms I’ve changed this into a narrative pleasure with Neveah sitting beside a rainy Zangarmarsh lake in order to cook sumptuous feasts for a certain dwarf friend she wants to impress…

Roger Caillois calls this type of play ‘paidia’; a counterpoint to play associated with rules and structures (‘ludus’). Paidia is about being playful, imaginative and experimental, and is more endemic to videogames than we think, because we are constantly rationalising unique moments within them, often by telling ourselves stories. Sometimes, as with my night elf, we keep this to ourselves and engage in ‘quiet roleplay’; roleplaying our characters without sharing these intimate details about our characters or experiences.

Sometimes we attach special imports to a series of actions or behaviours – for example, deciding to collect all of a particular item to make our character ‘complete’. However it’s just as common that we share these stories; as brags, anecdotes and tales of dramatic success or failure, when we meet or discuss the game with friends both in person and online.

Many games also facilitate this sort of play because they move us into a state where play is relatively ambient; so grinding in games (doing a repetitive task for materials or other gain) or performing familiar tasks that we’ve done many times before can lead our minds to drift. During this time we invent stories or tasks for the spaces where we have very little else to occupy our minds.

Minecraft is a good example of this (and possibly a key reason for it’s success); it’s a game where the imaginative process of building dovetails with a relatively blank narrative tableau. Minecraft doesn’t have quests, or bosses, or a grand overarching story for its bland rural world, so in effect it’s as much about players building stories to fit this world as it is about making structures to accompany them (in fact this is a rather chicken and egg situation – we make the structure to explain the story, and the story to fit the type of structure).

This is also why Minecraft has helped the rise of YouTubers and webcasters; an element of gaming that is becoming increasingly part of player culture and viewing. Groups like the Yogscast injected stories into their playthroughs of Minecraft in order to make it interesting to viewers. Their ability to make games into interesting stories resonated with gamers. These YouTube videos return us to the start of this article – since they show ways in which players take and recreate imaginative play beyond the videogame.

It’s common to see kids doing this with Minecraft, perhaps watching a video and recreating it elsewhere, or using LEGO to the same effect, or simply making up stories about the game and envisioning what they might do if they were really there, or were better builders than they actually are, or had more people helping them to make bigger structures. It is this sort of activity that Mighty Minis is aiming for; making the game become ‘ambient’ to the main elements of playfulness.

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The Mighty Minis team aims to encourage kids to play during the day, spending minimal time in front of a screen. As part of this, they ran an exercise involving eggs, which the kids had to name, decorate, look after... and eventually break.

So, how are we going to do this? The interesting thing about Mighty Minis is that it exists predominantly beyond the screen and through the actions of the player, who carries the ‘Soul’ element of the game around with them, and then uses the data it has recorded to generate a ‘food package’ at the end of the day.

This package is used to tailor the attributes of each Mighty Mini; a creature based on the Chinese Zodiac. So if our player has been throwing the Mighty Mini about, it’s Flight statistic might increase, and if they have been running about, it might get more Speed or Dexterity. We’ve also been thinking about aspects like mindfulness (and our child coaches agree here); aspects that might help kids be calm and quiet as well as active and full of movement.

The object here is to produce something engaging that allows kids to play during the day, spend minimal time at the screen, and yet still be engaged with the ‘story’ of the Mighty Mini. We’ve already done an exercise with eggs, and seen the kids name them, make them small homes, attempt creative ways of breaking them and draw all over the shells.

We’ve based the Minis on the Chinese Zodiac – it’s a nice, gender neutral world with a range of animals and mythical beasts – and apart from the more familiar tiger, dragon and dog, there are some interesting creatures to play with – roosters and snakes, pigs and rabbits.

These are the creatures that the daily activity recorded in the Soul will ‘grow’ online, but we’ve left them fairly narratively blank at the moment and are thinking of ways to get kids to engage with them in their own ways. Perhaps they want screensavers where they can add photos of places they’ve been with the Soul, maybe they just want to work towards making the Mighty Mini as powerful as possible.

Throughout this, we need to keep the idea of storytelling in mind. This is a game with elements of Pokemon, but the closer it gets to the screen, the more we lose the central objective. It will be an interesting journey to see which directions we take this in order to make the final product.

Dr Esther MacCallum-Stewart is part of REACT Play Sandbox funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to follow the project visit: www.react-hub.org.uk/play

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