Originally published in Social Fictions
A New Place You’ve Already Visited
I’ve said before that social fiction is something you already know. I say it because the roots are hard-coded into human existence. Humans are hard-wired for storytelling and narrative as deeply as they are hard-wired for social contact. Even if you’ve never played anything that looks like a tabletop RPG, you’ve still brainstormed with other people and discussed plans and futures with your friends. You’ve talked about the events in fictional worlds with those friends, right? Maybe talked about what you’d rather see instead of what they did?
Then you’re already there…but since you’re here, I want to talk about social fiction in depth.
Social fiction is the collaborative creation of stories via group communication mediums and techniques.
“Collaborative creation of stories“: in a group of two or more we play and dialogue with the intention of creating a story. Creation implies spontaneity and live-ness; we are not reading from a script and we prioritize playing in the moment over preparation or planning. The fiction is the thing we as a group are making, and not any one person’s responsibility to create or set up.
“Group communication mediums and techniques“: describes the nature and methodology of our collaboration. Are we exchanging text over e-mail or chat? Are we creating a forum thread? Are we talking face to face or online? These questions speak to medium, which creates the space for using techniques and processes. Techniques and process provide the structure for our collaboration, laying down ground rules and social contracts. This structure helps resist creative fatigue and provides direction to our play.
Why Social Fiction?
Why does this term need to exist?
Simply, this term is what I use because “role-playing games”,the activity it stands adjacent to,is overloaded. Say “RPG” and you’re talking about an MMO, a board/video game with a leveling system, or a game-emergent storytelling system that you play with dice. It means a lot of things to lots of people, and trying to add yet another context frustrates:
“I have this RPG called Community Radio.”
“Oh you program games?”
“No, it’s a tabletop RPG.”
“What’s the combat system like?”
“There isn’t one.”
“Can I see a character sheet?”
“They don’t exist.”
“Who do you play as?”
“Any of the people who live in the town. You don’t play just one person.”
My rule is that when I spend more of my time describing what a thing is not than what it is, it’s time for a new term.
Social fiction isn’t a movement. It’s not a sub-culture or life-style. The cool kids may or may not be doing it, but that’s OK.
Social fiction isn’t a term created to “compete” with role-playing games. It doesn’t exist to proclaim itself a brand new thing that is an improvement over everything people are doing in the space of storytelling.
Social fiction is a lens. It is a way to look at the play and design of group storytelling that makes distinct trade-offs.
Social fiction exists to provide clarity to a range of activities that aren’t often described well, causing confusion and dissatisfaction. If I tell someone Community Radio is an RPG, that term evokes a set of expectations which create disappointment for them. It leaves me disappointed because I wasn’t trying to create what they expected in the first place. If I tell that person Community Radio is a framework for social fiction (I’m toying around with calling these “storyboxes”), at the very least she must ask “what’s social fiction?” That provides a chance to talk positively rather than start “it’s like an RPG except…”
What it is
Social fiction is authorial. Social fiction aims to let each player be an author on equivalent terms to all other players. This authorial control is shared across the group, so all players can contribute, but no player is “all powerful” in creation at all times.
Authorial also implies that players may have a many to one relationship to characters. Rather than having a set of characters strictly under the control of an individual player, characters enter the general pool for all the authors to work with. You can’t build good stories without good characters, but social fiction’s approach is to give everyone a chance to contribute to the overall care and feeding of all characters. Social fiction trades the immediacy and immersion of player “avatars” for deeper story control and contribution.
Social fiction eschews strategy. Centering creative reward mechanisms rather than game-based rewards and feedback, social fiction is built through consensus and improv rather than translating results from a game system. Social fiction might use randomization, but uses it to prompt responses and spark the imagination. Rather than ask “can I do it?” we ask “What happens next?”
Social fiction is about contribution, not the mastery of systems and competition. It seeks to maximize the authorial contribution of each player, and build structures that emphasize that.
Social fiction is structure-ful. Social fiction seeks to have structure, but has few rules. A rule describes what it is that you can or cannot do. A structure defines the boundary, and implies or describes what you should be trying to do.
The analogy I like to use is that providing structure is like saying “Be at my house tomorrow at 10:00 AM” but rules are “drive a car. Follow the speed limits and all the other rules of the road. Turn on this street, then drive 1.5 miles”.
When I tell you to be at my house, I’ve described the outline of what needs to be done, but I haven’t actually told you how to accomplish that. With no other guidance or constraints, you could take a plane, fly a helicopter, or walk. You could travel to another location beforehand and then drive over. You can hitchhike. I’ve told you where to go but I let you decide how to proceed. Once I give you rules, I am telling you how to accomplish tasks, but I’m not providing you with the context in which those tasks exist. Without the structure, you can take actions but you might feel odd not knowing where each instruction is taking you.
Rules and structure can complement each other but it’s important to understand each separately. Social fiction seeks to do this and also emphasize structure above rules.
Rather than rules, social fiction seeks to provide prompts and seeds to encourage spontaneous play within these structures.
Social-fiction is conversational. Omnipresent in the modern world, conversation is the prime medium of social fiction. Conversation happens face to face. Conversation happens on phones, in forums, on social media. When you break it down, social fiction is simply a structured group conversation. We set the goal of that conversation to be the creation of some story and narrative, and then the words we use contribute to a form of imaginative play.
Producing good social fiction, then, is a lot like having a good conversation. Are people expressing themselves? Is the end result of the conversation greater than the sum of its part? Did we find a good direction?
Where can I find it?
If you’ve played RPGs, you are likely already familiar withFiasco, Microscope, Primetime Adventures and more. Personally, when I think of these as frameworks for social fiction rather than “RPGs” it seems to fit better.
Digitally, Storium offers a great potential platform for social fiction. In addition, there are numerous forums for group storytelling that embody many of the elements and goals of social fiction.
Of course Thoughtcrime is creating social fiction.
Plenty of other examples of social fiction exist currently, but I do believe that by focusing on it specifically we can develop techniques and design that advance this style of storytelling even further. Hope to see you on that journey!