I used to watch my good friend and roommate, Alex (a frequent foil in my writings), playing various RPGs on our PlayStation unit. He is particularly fond of the Final Fantasy series. For those who are unfamiliar with RPGs (role-playing games), often they focus around an adventure or a battle in which the human-controlled player performs various tasks–rescuing this wizard, defeating this dragon, escorting this noblewoman to that castle, etc. When I teased Digs about playing games, he would reply defensively, "Hey–I’m engaging a narrative."
I used to scoff at his contention, but now I’ve begun to realize how deep an insight that is. (Don’t tell him.) The most engaging forms of entertainment and art, in any medium, tell a story. Television, computer/video games, books, radio programs, sports contests, movies–each one tells a story. A work of art is engaging and entertaining to the extent that the hearer/reader/viewer is able to identify with and appreciate elements of the story. Technology has allowed entertainment to become even more responsive to the consumer in two ways. First, response is immediate and quantifiable (ratings, hits, downloads, DVR recordings, etc.), enabling producers to know what people want. Second, consumers can now actually be a part of the narratives they follow; they can vote on American Idol (ha ha), they can control Frodo or Albert Pujols on the screen, or they can create their own Fantasy Football teams.
A few years ago I read Exodus to the Virtual World by Ted Castronova after hearing him discuss the book here. It’s well worth a full read, but his thesis is essentially that Americans are spending more and more time in virtual worlds online, interacting with real people in a simulated environment. He assesses the merits and drawbacks of this prospect, but emphasizes that we cannot ignore this phenomenon, especially as it relates to popular expectations of political and social structures.
So, which entertainment narratives are mine? Which ones do I engage, how engaged am I, and can/should I get out? A few observations:
- I follow a few sports teams and several TV shows to varying degrees.
- Some teams I follow because I like to see them win. Identifying with the winning team from my home state or town makes me a part of that team’s story in a small way.
- Some teams I follow because I want them to lose. Usually they are rivals with my home teams. As a New-York-area fan living for the last seven years in Philadelphia, I have followed the Phillies and very emphatically wished them ill. (My wishes have obviously had little effect–apparently I have no control over this narrative.)
- Some TV shows I watch for an hour of diversion, and some I watch because I identify with a character or enjoy the broad story arc.
- A few TV shows I watch for a the philosophical point or social commentary. A few shows contain compelling aesthetic elements (and I don’t just mean attractive women).
As fall premieres begin, my wife and I have discussed which shows and sports to give another try and which to ditch. Try not to laugh too hard at my poor taste in shows/teams…
- We like Chuck because the characters are fun, and because Chuck is just a good guy. Each show contains tributes or take-offs of classic movies and shows. But I actually was quite pleased with the way last season tied up the loose ends, and I’m not very intrigued by the "hook" for this season (Chuck’s quest to find his mom). Chuck and Sarah are together, Ellie knows his spy identity, and everything seems good. Is this a good spot to jump off the train, to chuck Chuck?
- The Mets are awful. Period. They have no prospects. The Phils will win the division yet again. Once again, I will probably be forced to root for the Yankees in the World Series, a terrible fate for one practically raised at Shea Stadium. I’m out.
- The Jets, strangely, seem to be doing better in recent years. For a long time I’ve been able to enjoy the "lovable losers" narrative so familiar to those who root for Gang Green. Now our expectations are higher, and I’ll have more chances to blow 3 hours on a Sunday watching the Jets on national TV. Tread with caution…
- Community and 30 Rock are hilarious, and I can’t get enough. I justify these by reminding myself that they’re only half-hour shows, and that satire is a high form of humor.
I’m trying to be more intentional about these narratives, the time I spend in front of the boob tube, and whether there is anything true, honorable, just, pure and excellent that I should be doing instead. It looks like there are some narratives that I can shed.
Oops, gotta go–CSI: Boise is back from commercial.