Storytelling and Play

How good
are we at spotting a great story? 
Do the toy and play industries inject enough great storytelling into their
were the questions I asked myself as I read an interesting review of a new
book, The Storytelling Animal, by
Jonathan GottschallThe review, by
David Eagleman, appears in The New York Times Book Review.

What first caught my attention is the notion that we actually “…
spend a great deal of time in fictional worlds, whether in daydreams, novels,
confabulations or life narratives
."  In other words, we either are busy telling
ourselves stories or diving into to those of others via books, television shows
or the Internet. 

you don’t tell yourself stories?
  Well, how about what goes through your mind
before an interview or presentation?  As
you wait to enter, your mind continually imagines the various ways the meeting
will go down.  Those are stories. 

stories we tell ourselves are pure fantasy
as we imagine the
imaginable (a date with the person in the upstairs apartment) and the
unimaginable (a date with a movie star).  
We create stories of telling off the boss, saving someone from danger,
being the lead singer in a band and much, much more.  You are in short, a storyteller…to you.

What is interesting is that many of the stories we read and tell ourselves are scary.  Being scared seems to be a big part of
storytelling.  Many daydreams and
stories, according to Gottschall, are “horrorscapes.
They bubble with conflict and struggle…Trouble, Gottschall argues, is the
universal grammar of stories.”

What is the purpose of these scary stories?  According to the author,
telling ourselves scary stories is

a way of testing out potential outcomes
without getting hurt.  In other words,
it’s a method of learning. 

As I read the article, my mind was drawn to
Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a
Thousand Faces
.   In that book, he
tells us that there is a pattern of heroic storytelling that spans thousands of
years and virtually all cultures:  The Hero’s Journey.

It then struck me that those who create great licenses, and as importantly, those who choose
to put them on their products would benefit from understanding the power of
storytelling and the elements of the Hero’s Journey. 
That in my next posting.

4 thoughts

  1. I’m going to buy The Storytelling Animal. As the daughter of a storyteller and one who is just launching a story that fits the storytelling steps to a tee, I know storytelling is a central tennant of humanity, of culture. It is the oral stories created in the human imagination of myth and social comportment that were written into the Bible. All religion, once oral, now written is taught through storytelling. Without storytelling we have no culture, no religion, no knowledge. In Darwinian terms, storytelling is a human survival tool: The processes of the imagination organized into adventurous story helps us create technology, address fears of the unknown, organize society.

  2. Storytelling is the fundamental ingredient in toy and game creation. I had a very interesting conversation on this topic with a 30-year veteran of the game industry, who was under the belief that “emotion” is the special sauce in the recipe. But What is emotion? How do we portray emotion? Emotion is experiential, meaning it is directly tied to events and how events relate to other events.
    Story, in its simplest form, is a progression or series of linked events constructed (or assembled, in the case of actual events) to generate emotions including understanding, amusement, interest, sadness, happiness, etc. Screenwriters understand story movement in terms of plot point A and Plot point B, and the links between, the precursors, and the results afterward. If Greedo is going to get shot by Han Solo on page 40, make sure the gun is in its holster on page 30. Cause and effect.
    I would argue that virtually every toy and game portrays story, albiet sometimes in extremely rudimentary ways. A board game is an easy example, often depicting character avatars progressing across tiles in a race or adventure (winning and losing, victory or defeat, in itself is the great conflict in most human stories, particularly because humans are mortal, fear death, and have daily conflicts that arise and are given metaphor form). But a simple yo-yo also demonstrates cause and effect. The up and down rebound momentum is of particular parallel resonance to conflict and mood swings portrayed in adolescents.
    Preschool toys often impart learning through action. Humanity devised storytelling for the purpose of imparting information, entertainment, and understanding. Playing with blocks is all about building and dismantling. Peg-based toys are all about process and discovery. These are infantile stories given form.
    As kids get older, fantasy plays a bigger and bigger role in play. Kids begin using fantasy to generate understanding regarding conflict in their lives (conflict sometimes as simple as those of a child growing older).
    I don’t think the question is as simple as “do leaders in the toy industry inject enough great storytelling…?” Toy companies are master storytellers. Marketing to mom and kids is a terrifying and powerful art. The bigger topic at hand is how can the industry better use storytelling to capture the imagination and learning of kids and adults? How can we better play into the play fantasy? How can we better promote the important learning areas at various growth stages?
    How can we devise products that are so synonymous with vital stories that kids cherish and remember them forever, imparting those products and stories onto subsequent generations? How can we make the legacy brands of tomorrow?

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