The Tyranny of the Plot

We talked a few weeks ago about the tyranny of paper (Ted Nelson’s term), a concept that I have been thinking about ever since. The big question here is: how much are new technologies trapped by the format of old technologies?

Another kind of tyranny comes up in Brenda Laurel’s work: the tyranny of the plot. In her article on “Star Raiders,” she is interested in the way the producers and the users of the game collaborate to determine the plot. This seems to be a radical departure from traditional forms of media (the novel, let’s say), in which plots are fixed by the author. Readers can certainly interpret the plot in different ways, but in most traditional media there are certain plot elements (Professor Plum committed the dastardly deed, in the dining room, with a shoe lace and a half-eaten mango) that are pretty much set in stone.

You can therefore see video games, as Laurel suggests, as being emancipatory, allowing users to determine their own plot. The same could be said about many forms of new media. But is our emancipation from the tyranny of the plot ultimately delusional? Aren’t we still firmly confined to the grooves constructed by the games’ creators? Perhaps there are newer forms of new media that are more truly emancipatory. Perhaps the latest generation of video games (Second Life?) provide more complete freedom than Star Raiders. But I’m not convinced. And in any event, was there really such a thing as the tyranny of the plot to begin with?

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