Narrative Design vs Narrative Warfare - Harmony Square

  • Edwin McRae

I recently heard the term "narrative warfare" in a Daniel Schmachtenberger interview where he talked about media manipulation that hijacks us, makes us unwittingly behave in ways that suit the agendas of corporate or political power. Of course, Cambridge Analytica is the most infamous scandal, but I'll leave that one to the media psychologists to pick over.

My expertise lies in games, and that's where my primary concern resides too.

How are games, particularly video games, being hijacked by narrative warmongers, either overtly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously?

One obvious example is the Action RPG genre.

This is the classic ARPG loop.

1. Slaughter mobs and bosses.

2. Loot their corpses.

3. Empower your player character with looted items and/or crafted items that use loot as source material.

4. Rinse and repeat.

Is not the above game play loop an allegory for the capitalist growth model?

1. Extract.

2. Collect.

3. Consume and increase one's capacity to produce consumable items.

4. Rinse and repeat.

An ARPG can quite literally be read as a growth capitalism training simulator. How can your brain possibly embody, or even consider, an alternative model like de-growth when it is being actively conditioned, for many hours per week, to feel comfortable with extraction and consumption?

Do games have to contribute to the Metacrisis in this way? Are they unwittingly committing narrative warfare against our brains? Based on my observations above, it seems possible, but I don't yet know for sure. I'm only just starting down this road of inquiry and cogitation.

Still, while these thoughts weigh heavily on my gamer brain, it's a relief to find genuinely fun games like Harmony Square, created by Gusmanson.

Warranted, the game was funded by the US Government and Cambridge University with a clear agenda; to "address foreign adversarial propaganda and disinformation and its impact on foreign audiences and elections overseas". It's not a commercial endeavor, like your average ARPG, so doesn't need to earn money to sustain itself. It doesn't have to play by the usual business metrics of the games industry. So perhaps it's not fair to compare Harmony Square with the likes of Torchlight Infinite?

All I can say, at this stage, is that I would love to see more games like Harmony Square that are at least trying to train our brains in ways that are healthy for us, and ultimately our civilization. If there are commercially viable games out there that do this, please let me know!

To play Harmony Square in your browser, click here.

About Edwin McRae

Edwin is a narrative consultant and mentor for the games industry.

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  • Cifer
  • 2 Mar 2024
  • 2:15 am

Hi Edwin! You're definitely on to something. A similar line of thought has been proposed in progressive tabletop roleplaying game circles regarding the classic dungeon crawl roots of the medium. 1) Go somewhere foreign and exotic 2) Meet the locals, who are barbaric, evil and inhuman ("orcs"), so it's legitimate and even moral to kill them. 3) Take their stuff and grow stronger from it. 4) Go to 1. Sure sounds like colonialism, doesn't it? But one can go way deeper. Take the hero's journey itself: The lone chosen one, destined to save the world and be rewarded for it. Consider how it maps on the way societal change actually happens, by lots of people doing unglamorous work that no one outside of their close friends will ever thank them for. Consider how Elon Musk's biographer has been quoted saying "I think he wants the world to be saved, as long as he can be the one to save it." Games and stories have been teaching us to be The Hero, but our world doesn't work that way (nor should it) - we don't need The Hero doing the one act of Saving The World, we need millions of regular people who stay regular people as they get up out of bed, do a tiny act that will never be written about in a history book as they struggle with their daily mundane life, and then do it again the next day. For years, maybe decades, until change is achieved. If you take a look around among progressive SF/F writers, there are a lot of fascinating attempts to break away from this hero's journey retelling and find something new (or old) that can serve us better. Maybe try Becky Chambers and Kai Cheng Thom if you're in the mood for something new!

  • Edwin
  • 2 Mar 2024
  • 9:10 am

Thank you, Cifer! I think you're absolutely right. Hero's Journey narratives may serve to celebrate the individual but do little to empower the collective action that is ACTUALLY NEEDED to improve our world. Will Storr's "The Science of Storytelling" does a great job of unpacking the psychology around the heroic narrative. We naturally love to be the hero's of our own narrative, which is why the RPG personal empowerment mechanic is soooo popular! Unfortunately, hours spent playing such RPGs only reinforces that narcissistic outlook. If only we had more games with cooperative, collective and constructive mechanics!

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