Making Things Up: Memory, Narrative, and Play

As I was completing my MA thesis in 2013, I ran into something of a conundrum. I was trying to talk about narrative in video games, and fighting against the notion that narrative in games is just something added onto play experiences after the fact. As Markku Eskelinen famously remarked, “if I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories” (Simons, “Narrative, Games, Theory”). This argument always struck me as something of a straw man–it’s not like anyone talking about narrative in games expects inanimate objects to suddenly start speaking. Nevertheless, it has proved to be a remarkably stubborn argument holding on in game studies. I recall my thesis advisor asking me something to the effect of, “But surely you don’t mean to say that playing kick the can in an alley is narrative?”.

Actually, that is exactly what I mean to say (more or less). Narrative isn’t just the unfortunate byproduct of experience, the redheaded stepchild showing up late to the party. Rather it is inherent to experience, always-already present and bound up in the very cognition of events. How would one even begin to prove this though–to the extent that one can *prove* anything of the sort? I was stumped by this question, until I made a truly serendipitous discovery when I was reading through the Ocober 2014 edition of the journal Narrative, in which Hilary Dannenberg points out the importance of narrative in memory and the field of trauma therapy. As she says, “memory is narrative” (“Gerald Prince and the Fascination of What Doesn’t Happen”, 309). If memory, itself so experiential, is narrative, then other experiential things like play certainly can be too. But this is pretty speculative and has wandered pretty far from this week’s topics of memory and forgetfulness, so I should return to those.

The point that Dannenberg makes about narrative is precisely the point Jonah Lehrer makes about Proust and memory in Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2007). Lehrer is not dealing specifically with narrative in his text, but he is arguing extensively for a Proustian view of memory as something always changing: “Simply put, [Proust] believed that our recollections were phony. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications” (82). Memories are not events, feelings, and experiences captured in stillness, but rather are “fabrications” or stories–constantly shifting, never quite the same as the experience when it happened. Lehrer goes on to say that memories get more inaccurate with each act of remembering, or perhaps more aptly named misremembering (89). The narrative of memory shifts with each telling of the story, and this is not a bad thing. Indeed, this ever-changing process is how memory endures.

Lest memory feel lonely in its projects of making up stories and fabrications, it is important to remember that such processes are crucial to knowledge-building in general. Lehrer’s own project with Proust and neuroscience demonstrates this quite well. As much as there is apparently a link of ideas between a French writer who died almost 100 years ago and contemporary neuroscience, it would be a pretty large leap to sincerely think that today’s neuroscience is built on Proust, and training neuroscientists will probably be forgiven having never read his writings. The connection between the two is itself a fabrication–an incredibly apt one that reveals exactly what Lehrer and Proust are talking about with memory. It isn’t mere coincidence that a writer musing on his own life and past could come up with valid theories of memory. Proust observed tendencies in his own personal experiences with memory, and then built stories and theories on those observations. Is this not the similar or same process we use in scientific experimentation? Thus while Proust was not in reality a scientist, he provides an excellent example of how scientific processes and fabrication–making things (such as theories) up–are never too far apart. This relationship does not render all science less real any more so than it makes all fiction more real. It simply reminds us that our mental processes might not be as easily compartmentalized as we’d like to think.

As further food for thought, here’s an image from the video game Bioshock Infinite, which also plays with the plasticity of memory:

2013-03-27_00036

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