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Fantasy Football as Interactive Storytelling at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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fantasy football cover Millions of men out there spend there Sundays in front of computer writing their interactive narratives. They are the legions who give up their time to create entire leagues of combinatoric narratives, known as Fantasy Football.

Robert Coover pointed out this connection in his The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J.Henry Waugh, Prop. In Coover’s tale, Waugh watches over the lives of his players. He lives in a metafictional plane, casting dice, and watching the fate of his teams. Fantasy sports, from rotisserie on out, are the real life equivalent.

The fantasy sports player tunes in to weekly updates, using their computer as an interface. Their choices of their roster shape the drama, as do the real world factors. Interactive…narrative…hmm…

Video games such as Madden have obviously captialized on Fantasy Football. Coover’s book has even inspired a dice and table game. The use of the internet to connect players and to update statistics has transformed fantasy sports, while also bringing the interface closer to that of a video game. But perhaps we could draw another connection to interactive narrative.

  • Players imagine themselves in the role of the managers. (As in god games, such as the Sims) They make decisions that have immediate (local) effects and long term (global) effects on the generation of the narrative for the season.
  • The sports stats themselves act as the systems. (As in interactive narratives such as Facade)
  • Their teams are imaginary groups that play fictional games. (This follows the combinatorics of many games and elit pieces)
  • The narrative changes weekly (As in blog fiction or ARGs)

But wait: There’s not a textual story that’s produced. Or is there?
Every day, sports news journals create narratives about the players: Cindarella stories, hometown favorites, fallen heroes, rising hopes, not to mention the scandals. Their are magazines and websites devoted to the people who play these games, filling out the rules and mapping out the characters. These parallel well the manuals of certain interactive games. They are the Monster Manuals, if you will, as well as part of the larger storyworld.

It is a fixed set of characters that users interact with. Their choice is limited but significant. There is even what N. Katherine Hayles calls “possibility space,” a computational mediating environment that affects how the data of the players is transformed into the story.

Reading Fantasy Sports as Interactive Storytelling, suggests that there are many more people interested in interactive storytelling than we might have guessed. This connection may also offer suggestions for new types of interactive storytelling, such as fantasy politics.




6 Responses to “Fantasy Football as Interactive Storytelling”

  1. 1 Jeremy Douglass

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    Fascinating take, Mark. There may be some sort of spectrum of simulationist activities, which ranges in its story-ness, with a tree-fiction or Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style hypertext on one end, followed by interactive fiction, role playing games, The Sims, fantasy sports…. as we progress, we get further and further from a personal, immediate simulation of fraught moments and more towards a complex landscape of objects, agents, and events. In this way of looking at things, narrative is the opposite of simulation.

    Of course, there is nothing that says a novel or a poem must be immediate or fraught, or that it can’t be complex. There is also nothing to say a work of poetry or fiction must be narrative. Porter Abbott once said to me (and I’m sure many others) that his constitutive test for whether something was narrative was to ask if something was being narrated. By that yardstick I would say CYOA is clearly narrated in the second person, and much of IF is narrated as well, albeit more loosely. RPG sessions also proceed via a process of narration.

    You could argue of RPG sessions and IF transcripts that so much else is going on in them, it takes a colossal editorial labor to extract from them something that looks to us like a readable narrative. Therefor, the argument goes, they are not narratives - they are, like life, experiences, and experiences are as-yet-unnarrated.

    To me, this distinction misses the point. Having recently spent 10+ hours editing audio recordings of an interview (”a conversation”) into a written interview (”a conversation”), and seeing the vast disparity between the two and the work entailed to make it legible, I don’t think difficulty of transcription is a valid objection. To me the point is that CYOA, IF, and RPG all proceed through acts of (negotiated) narration.

    Which finally brings me to fantasy sports. I’m clear on the analogy between the fantasy sports player and the author, both on their removed plane. It just isn’t clear to me that the player is “narrating,” in any sense, as a way of proceeding in this sports simulation activity. Maybe its just because I haven’t played. But the fact that it can be narrated afterward (sports myth-making) doesn’t seem to separate Fantasy Sports from any other occurrence in life, as absolutely everything can be narrated afterward.

    One last observation: even if Fantasy Sports isn’t narrated, it could still be that it is some form of simulation art that is narrative-friendly, narrative-inclined, narrative-inducing… something like the idea of doing role playing as a live commentated broadcast - that whole sports metaphor again….

  2. 2 Mark Marino

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    This what I’ve been thinking, Jeremy,

    Even when we read an account of a game, we experience narration. Doesn’t the samething happen when we read just the statistics from a game. (I recently did this with a Steeler’s blowout, following all the numbers that built a narration of domination).

    Along these lines, then, Fantasy Sports offers that same statistical narrative with all of the partial narratives that populate sports reporting, partial in as much as they contribute to a larger story of the system…

    Here is a cognitive psych approach to this discussion.

    the spectator brings innate capacities to their perception of media. The spectator’s top-down processes are fluid in relation to the media, allowing the data to be reconstructed within certain parameters offered by the narrative. Narrative comprehension operates through various acts of analysis involving hypothetical exploration, speculation, confirmation, and composition of possible combinations of goals and actions.

    So this definition of narration is a bit broader than the one you cite. But I do believe that games, matches, and meets, are more like narratives than like life itself. They have beginnings, protagonists, antagonists, conflict, and resolution. When represented iconically in statistics, they still build a narrative in a way that life does not, given the pre-existing narratives into which we read them.

  3. 3 Jeremy Douglass

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    Ah. So you are saying that the statistics are more narrative-inducing than say the food pyramid on a cereal box because, while both can be narrated, the statistics have the underlying set of sports game rules which are… a genre? Schema, or a schema-system?

    The interesting thing to consider about this argument is whether under it the authors of games (either basketball or Shutes and Ladders) could be considered equivalent to the authors of generator-art: they designed a schema with a beginning, middle, and end which was then actualized each time by participants in accordance with constraints or rules. Or conversely, if generator artists should be considered less similar to hypertext authors and more to amusement park architects - experience designers….

  4. 4 Jeremy Douglass

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    For those following narratives of fantasy sports, the excellent blog of video game IP law Patent Arcade has a brief update on commercial fantasy sports being sued as illegal gambling. The issue as framed by the plaintiff is whether fantasy sports are fundamentally chance-based or skill-based. Can players meaningfully influence outcomes?

    At first I thought this argument was a bit of a dead end - most games involve a mix of skill and chance. Still, arguably to the extent that the outcomes of a contest are determined by skill, it is not gambling. Chance operations exist in both a set of tennis and a round of poker, and I play neither, but I know that my likelihood of winning a hand of poker against a top-ranked poker player are much, much higher than my likelihood of winning a set of tennis. Of course, my odds of winning a poker tournament against top ranked players are almost as good as winning a tennis tournament - essentially nil.

    For our consideration of fantasy sports as narrative, this argument about skill-chance has interesting implications for author-debates - can there be meaningful authorial intent, or is any drama solely a byproduct of chance?

  5. 5 Mark Marino

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    Ah, very good, Jeremy. I like your analysis of the role of chance and skill.

    This also ties in well with the questions I post in CPG about the ways in which “The Movies” can be used as authorware.

    I guess I’d also raise the question of exactly how important “authorial intent” is in general.

    It seems to me that “Conflict” is inevitable in fantasy football and probably a variety of stories. Of course, this relates to the question of whether atheletic competitions are dramas. I tend to think they are.

    Add the life stories of your players and your ficitonal relationship to them as manager working with other managers and I think you have quite a bit of storymaking going on.

    Although whether it is at the level of “Starcraft” (with you watching your empire rise or fall from a far) or whether it is at the level of the Sims (with you watching the minute details of your players’ lives) seems up to you.

    Of course, I’m redefining the authorial relationship here as “the activity of shaping stories out of the material presented to you”– a more Barthesian notion — than actively telling a story with your team.

    A story, here, is the collaborative byproduct (between you and the real-life activies of the players) in your quest to win the season.

    Thoughts?

  6. 6 Jeremy Douglass

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    It has been a while, but I stumbled upon this HypertextNOW piece on Hypertext Narrative and Baseball and was struck by similarities in the metaphorical approach. Bernstein says that “The patterns that help us understand hypertext fictions are patterns we see in other large-scale narratives…” and goes on to observe that baseball is dominated by cycles, and has an inner game of ephemeral possibilities and alternate realities. He also terms the statistics aspect “navigational feints” - an interesting idea….

    Myself, I think I’m most interested in the various reality / unreality argumants that get mobilized around professional sports - for instance, the two recent highprofile lawsuits.

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