A player story is a framework and format the Praxis Studio developed to evaluate what genres do in video games. It is grounded in activity theory, treats video games as activity systems, and documents the following player experiences:
- Playing and reacting to video games,
- Making meaning with them,
- Being affected by them,
- Metagaming them, and
- Arguing with them.
A player story is, in the words of Kishonna Gray, a “narrative description” of a video game as a constellation of activities. Player stories are both personal and social, and their authors toggle between immersion and critical distance. They resemble Let’s Plays and Twitch streams in some ways, but parts of them are usually scripted. In the Studio, we’ve relied on two ways to produce player stories: video essays with voice-over narration and written essays with images and/or embedded media. There are certainly other ways to do it, and we’re starting to experiment with them.
I first taught player stories in a Fall 2022 English graduate seminar. Links to the course website and syllabus are below, followed by a seminar description, some framing material for students, and the prompt for the final assignment. I also point to related talks I gave at UBC’s “Games in Action” conference in November 2022 and for UVic Computer Science in February 2023.
I invited four guest speakers to join the player stories seminar that term: Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, Maddy Myers, Leonard J. Paul, and Amanda Phillips. They offered us perspectives on how to engage video games through both play and critical practice, and they drew from their experiences across the academy, journalism, podcasting, design, development, and industry.
If you are looking for an example of a player story, then I recommend watching Asia Tyson’s compelling video, “Completionism, ‘Good’ Endings, and the Detective Genre in NORCO.” The image below (used with permission) is a still from that video, which Asia produced while she was a student at UVic and an RA in the Praxis Studio.
Player Stories: On Games and Interactive Fiction
Fall 2022 | UVic English 506 | Grad seminar for 12 students
Links: course website (HTML); syllabus (PDF); talk at UBC’s “Games in Action” conference (HTML); talk for UVic Computer Science (HTML); diagram of games as activity systems (PNG); player story by Asia Tyson (YouTube); the Praxis Studio’s “Player Stories” speaker series: Part 1 and Part 2 (HTML)
About the Seminar
Among the most fascinating aspects of games and interactive fiction are the stories people tell with them, and the entertainment industry is well aware of this phenomenon. Millions of Twitch and YouTube viewers now watch recorded and streaming videos of people playing games and narrating their play experiences. Unfortunately, many of these videos also contribute to a toxic culture where play becomes precarious labour for proprietary platforms as well as an instrument for trolling and harassment. Many players who want to share their stories are thus dissuaded from participating, not only because of the technological barrier to entry but also given concerns for their own health and safety. The result online, particularly in venues such as Twitch and YouTube, is a skewed representation of the political, cultural, and aesthetic potential of games and interactive fiction.
This seminar responds to such toxic culture with four questions, which we will address through a combination of primary and secondary sources. The first considers the attention economics of recorded and streaming video: How do the stories people tell with games and interactive fiction change when they are not immediately, if ever, intended for circulation on “like and subscribe” platforms? The next question is a matter of education: How do players tell stories critically, and to what degree does writing or witnessing a story help them to unlearn toxicity? The third is one of culture: How might player stories feed back into gaming communities, including those known to be toxic? The final question regards memory work: How might stories about play be archived with universities and other public institutions to document games and interactive fiction, which are notoriously subject to planned obsolescence? Or, from another angle, how might player stories persist when games and interactive fiction do not?
What’s a Player Story?
There’s no consensus on what “player story” means or implies in the context of games and interactive fiction. It functions pragmatically in industry as an alternative to “user story,” and it’s used salaciously on Wattpad to denote a (sub)genre of fan fiction. Although I’m certainly tempted to teach a course about the latter, we’ll spin player stories in another direction, toward the horizon of game studies. How, for whom, under what assumptions, and to what effects do people document and narrate their experiences of games and interactive fiction? A Let’s Play video or live stream might be a player story in that game studies paradigm. Yet merritt k’s book, Videogames for Humans, demonstrates why neither audio nor video is necessary for such a story.
What, then, of content and composition? What are player stories about? What do they say, and what do they tell us? Must they unfold in real time, and how might they be reflexive? How do players perform or present themselves in their stories? How do they navigate the personal and cultural dimensions of play, not to mention the narratives at work in games and fiction? How do they influence their communities? Such questions reveal the motivations for this seminar, and experimenting with the praxis of player stories—and what they can do with respect to the toxicity I address above—will be our shared line of inquiry this term. You’ll make your own story by the end of it, about a game or fiction of your choice, using a methodology of your own design. This means you’ll have room to experiment, develop a unique line of inquiry through the seminar, and ultimately define “player story” on your own terms through an example or “prototype.”
Since your player story will be your final project, we will not dwell much on how to write journal articles or monographs in game studies. We will nevertheless read criticism in the field, and I’ll ask you to engage it in various ways: during seminar discussions, in writing, through play, and via your methodology. I will also ask you to consider the roles of documentation, accountability, accessibility, affect, and narrative in research, each of which remains deeply relevant to scholarship across the humanities, not just in game studies.
Many thanks to Melanie Oberg (University of Alberta), who introduced me to Let’s Plays as part of her graduate research and sparked my interest in player stories back in 2015-16. We’ll read some of her work this term.
Pick a Game or Interactive Fiction
A player story needs a primary source, so I created a list of roughly 150 games and interactive fictions to help you choose one. In fact, choosing one is an assignment for Week 6 (October 13th). I’m open to suggestions if nothing on the list interests you or you came to the seminar with a particular game or interactive fiction in mind. The game or fiction you select just needs to be something I have played and studied a bit (or I could play and study this term). Thanks for meeting me halfway.
Please don’t hesitate to ask if you want me to narrow the list based on your interests, a type of game or play, your technology needs, or . . . I realize the list is pretty long, if not a little extra.
I’ll encourage to you start playing early in the term. This way you can refine your research, gather plenty of documentation, replay the game or fiction where necessary, and share your work in progress. How you document your play, how you define and compose a player story, and what you ultimately say or argue will be up to you; however, I’ll nudge you to try a few techniques before you select one for your project. Your player stories don’t need to be high-tech. You can use audio or video, if you wish, or just text and images. I’ll cover more of the player story particulars during the three workshops I’ve planned for the term (see Weeks 6, 12, and 13).
Final Project: Your Player Story
This is the prompt for your final project in this seminar: your player story. (The prompt was crafted in consultation with students.)
Aims of Your Player Story
Let’s say a player story is a format that documents the experience of a game, playing and reacting to it, making meaning of it, being affected by it, and even arguing with it. A player story is, in the words of Kishonna Gray, a “narrative description” that frames a game and contextualizes it. Player stories may be personal, political, creative, critical, social, transformative, educational, entertaining, homemade, and/or professional.
For this seminar, your player story should:
- Tell a story about at least one game or interactive fiction (your “source material”),
- Document the experience of playing your source material, making meaning of it, being affected by it, and even arguing with it,
- Have a clear theme or line of inquiry your audience can follow from start to finish,
- Be intentionally designed and scoped such that it does not try to address every aspect of its source material or all topics related to that material,
- Demonstrate an awareness of your audience and provide them with access to (some of your) source material, and
- Make a meaningful or compelling use of its media (audio, video, images, and/or words) and format (the player story as defined above).
Format for Your Player Story
Your player story does not have to be high-tech. You are welcome, for instance, to use:
- 2000-5000 words, plus images and/or embedded media (such as video, GIFs, and audio).
You are also welcome to use:
- 10-30 minutes of video or audio, which may or may not be scripted.
The style of communication will matter here. Please think carefully and deliberately about when the player story is improvisational and when it’s scripted, not to mention how it integrates documentation into its theme or line of inquiry. Please also be mindful of your audience’s time. What is essential to your player story, and what may be included as an appendix or “bonus file”?
On that note, I encourage you to understand your player story as a project (presented or published in a single file) available in a repository of files. You might submit your final project as a word processor, HTML, video, or audio file, for example, and along with it include documentation, notes, and material from the cutting room floor. Your final project might even point your audience to other materials, especially documentation, in your repository: “If you want to see how I romanced Steve Cortez, then see minute 7 of dancingAtPurgatory.mp4.”
Your final project should be accompanied by:
- An abstract (no more than 300 words), which you’ll draft for Prompt 7 (see November 24th in the seminar schedule), and
- Two specific criteria (see more below) you’d like me to consider while assessing your player story.
Audience for Your Player Story
You should identify your intended audience in your abstract, and your player story should demonstrate an awareness of them and how you’re addressing them (be it directly or indirectly). Perhaps your player story involves audience engagement, or maybe it doesn’t. This choice is yours, as is your choice of audience. That said, I recommend narrowing your audience as much as possible: not, for example, “scholars of media” or “people who play games,” but rather “scholars interested in the intersections of race and gender with games and roleplay” or “people who play immersive sims like Prey.” Again, how you engage this audience is up to you.
Assessment of Your Player Story
I will use the Faculty of Graduate Studies’ official grading system to assess your work according to the following criteria:
- Engagement with the course: how well and to what degree your player story engages a theme in this seminar, a topic of seminar discussion, and/or a research area in game studies we considered this term
- Selection and creation of content: how persuasively your player story draws from documentation, comments on it (or narrates it), and frames or situates the play experience
- Awareness of audience: how aware you and your story are of your intended audience, who should be identified in your abstract (see above)
- Quality of the story: how clear, cohesive, refined, and compelling the story is, especially with respect to engaging a theme or line of inquiry
- Potential of the project: the degree to which your player story could be expanded into a larger project (perhaps about another game) to further develop its themes and techniques
- Two other criteria you will draft during our final workshop (see December 1st in the seminar schedule) and should include alongside your abstract.
What to Submit for Your Player Story
You should submit:
- One file containing your final project (e.g., an MP4 that is 10-30 minutes long or a PDF file containing 2000-5000 words plus images),
- One file containing both your abstract (no more than 300 words) and your two assessment criteria, and
- Optional: a repository of files containing additional documentation, notes, drafts, and other “bonus” files you’d like to include to provide me with context for your player story’s production.
For more about the Player Stories seminar, see the syllabus.
Featured image (PNG), edited in Photoshop, of the game, Disco Elysium, care of Asia Tyson and ZA/UM. Main image (PNG) also care of Asia Tyson and her player story about the game, NORCO. I created this page on 7 August 2023.