What does the Iliad have in common with World of Warcraft? Where lies the connection between Oliver Twist and Bruce Wayne? And how does Emerald City relate to the Death Star? One word to qualify them all: They are epic (in the original meaning of the word) – and they have more in common with each other and with our lives than we may think.
Stories have probably been around as long as humans have, passed on orally over generations. The history of storytelling is strongly mingled with the history of media. The means to make and share stories have changed massively. But to what extent has technology changed our stories?
Stories: Brainfactured by humans since 2.500.000 BCE
We are surrounded by stories, and we make more and more of them daily. We organise our lives in stories by relating events to each other and assigning meaning to them. We do this whether or not such meaning actually existed on its own. Jane Friedman thinks that story is “how – long, long ago – we learned to take the confusing flow of many things that happen and try to make sense of them“.
As with any idea, a story requires a medium to materialize, but it is by no means bound to spoken or written language. Stories can appear as movies – the biggest storytelling manufacturer ever goes by the name of Hollywood – they can be drawn, painted, or cut from paper (as demonstrated by Béatrice Coron in her TED talk).
There is no story that hasn’t been told before
The appearance of stories is diverse, yet structurally many stories are amazingly similar. The US-American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987) spent a good deal of the 20th century collecting, reading and analyzing myths from all over the world. Surprisingly, he discovered that many of them share one fundamental structure that he called monomyth. Some of the universal stages a hero has to go through are: The introduction of the hero in his ordinary world, the call to adventure, the hero’s initial reluctance, the encouragement by a wise man or woman and the first threshold. Sounds familiar? Well, it’s universal. The Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces illustrates all stages and recurring characters in detail. Browse through them with any movie, TV show or novel in the back of your mind. Most likely, you will be startled.
While not every stage or character has to occur in each instance, Campbell suggests that any story ever told is basically a variation of that one monomyth. Regardless if this is entirely true or not, it is a fact that George Lucas constructed his Star Wars Saga along the lines of Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Disney Studios distributes an adapted version as standard lecture, and Stanley Kubrick was as familiar with it as the script writers of the Matrix Trilogy or of the TV show LOST.
However, one question remains: Why are we not yet bored by having that one story told over and over again? The answer is simple: Everything that follows the structure of the monomyth is psychologically true. It makes sense for the story, and it helps us to make sense of the world.
Interactive Storytelling aka Game Design
Speaking of quests, initiations, obstacles, thresholds to increasingly challenging levels and rewards, we shouldn’t neglect another popular means of storytelling. Succesful videogames are more often than not based on stories. Think of Super Mario Land, Sim City or World of Warcraft and try to identify “monomythical” elements. Not a hard task at all.
In his very interesting article “How Game-Based Learning Can Save the Humanities“, Forbes-blogger Jordan Shapirs uses the term “interactive storytelling” for game development and recognizes a strong potential to integrate game design into education programs to help children develop competences that are usually referred to as “soft skills“.
So whoever thinks that stories are somewhat outdated in a world where modern technologies have been tasked with entertaining us, think again. There is plenty of room for stories in the digital age. Social media, interactive tools with multimedia integration, offer perfect environments for stories to grow and bloom with more diversity than ever before. One last example: In 2010, in an attempt to prove that anything can be interpreted as process, Microsoft recorded a series of videos recounting popular fairy tales…in MS Visio.