Thought Tools

Technology gives us tools for our professional lives. Art gives us tools for our personal lives.

For years, I felt a guilty about making videogames. Computers are one of the most powerful creative tools of the last decade, and here I am making disposible playthings for tits and giggles. With all the worlds' problems, and all other professions like doctors or teachers or firemen, being an entertainer just felt so trivial. And when your life's work is seen as trivial, you feel like your life is trivial.

But, in the last year, I've slowly come to the realization that not only are art & stories measurably meaningful, they're probably the greatest untapped force for social and personal change - and we don't recognize it.

My super slow epiphany in three steps:

Step 1 - There were a few stories I've read/watched/played recently that really resonated with me on an emotional level. And while I felt like a better person after experiencing these stories, I couldn't put my finger on any concrete benefits. (yet)

Step 2 - I made Coming Out Simulator 2014, a personal interactive story about my coming out as bi. And it really resonated with a lot of people, and all the fanmail I got varied from heartwarming to heartbreaking. Now, the fanmail started to list some vague benefits the players felt they got -- for queer folk, it was usually "courage" or "closure", for non-queer folk, it was usually "empathy". Still, it was vague.

Step 3 - Out of curiosity, I read a few books on psychology and the craft of storytelling. Specifically: The Righteous Mind, Screenwriting 101, and The Storytelling Animal, in that order. And by coincidence, (or not so coincidentally...) all three books independently pointed at the idea that stories are the best way to affect people on an emotional, instinctual, visceral level.

I want to unpack the arguments made by those books. Because when I say "art is meaningful", I don't mean in some fluffy, abstract, detached-from-humanity way, like there's some big invisible Art-O-Meter in the sky, objectively judging how meaningful art is. That's bull tits. No - these books showed that art & story is measurably meaningful, and there's solid scientific studies behind its effects.

The Righteous Mind is a book on the psychology of morality.

The first part of the book lists several studies showing how much our emotions affect our logic. In fact, higher IQ people aren't more rational - they're just better at rationalizing. As someone who's prided themselves on being "smart", this book made me eat some humble pie. It's not enough to get someone to understand something intellectually, they've got to internalize it emotionally.

Screenwriting 101 is a fantastic book with a crappy title.

I wrote a bigger book summary a while back, if you're interested. In this book, the author lays down the case for using stories to provide emotional tools and moral lessons, citing fables & fairytales as fantastic examples. Sadly, the author laments, mainstream filmmakers have seemed to have forgotten this - instead focusing mostly on escapism, rather than education. (Or, to use the author's harsh words - "is your work art, or just pornography?")

The Storytelling Animal dives into the evolutionary reasons behind why we tell stories.

For instance - why is it the most common story structure, across all cultures, involve people facing problems? Why do stories even have people or people-like characters, like gods and talking animals? Why aren't the "stories" we tell around campfires just descriptions of places or objects? And if stories are just meant for pleasurable escapism, why do most stories even have conflict? Wouldn't the ideal escapist story be all in second-person, "you", and nothing but good stuff happens to "you"?

It's mostly conjecture - evopsych is notoriously hard to empirically test - but the author plausibly claims that the reason we like to hear stories of people facing problems, is because that is essential to our survival. Because one day we might find ourselves facing the same problem, and the actions, solutions, and worldviews we internalize from stories guide us...

...for better or for worse.

Technology gives us tools for our professional lives. Art gives us tools for our personal lives.

Actually, that's not quite true.

Art is a technology.

Stories are the way humans have evolved to communicate to each other lessons about how the world works, what moral principles to hold, how to act in the face of problems, what the consequences are of your actions, how to be a better person.

Stories get us to understand ourselves, each other, and the world.

I'd argue that a lot of the problems we currently face in the modern world stems from the fact that our technology is growing faster than our morality and cultures can catch up. But if art is a technology, then the solution is clear - we need better art and stories to help us understand and deal with an ever-faster-changing world.

Right now, most people don't see the very concrete, very practical, and very powerful influence that stories have. Most people think the movies, shows, books, videogames, music they consume is just entertainment, or escapism, and won't really affect them.

And the media industry often does downplay their affect, their power. I don't quite blame them. Controversial books, games, films get a lot of backlash, and it's tempting to defend them by saying they're harmless. But I think that's the wrong approach - we're shooting ourselves in the foot.

I think we, as media makers, storytellers, need to accept our responsibility to the world.

So we can finally make full use of our power to change the world.