That strange place between memory and emotion
An argument that often crops up when discussing shared narratives, emergent narratives and fictional versus real narratives is whether the fictional is really a real experience or not? As gaming culture has come up in the last two decades, some question whether a shared memory of a group of people in a game, in a fictional world, really has the same weight as a shared memory of a group of people hiking a mountain together for example.
This question I feel also then extends to whether the memory of the individual versus the group, has as much weight when it is fictional, virtual or real. The answer may be worth a research case study in its own right, but from personal experience, as someone who has created memories alone and, in a group, both online, offline and in fictional or real worlds, my belief is that the answer lies somewhere in the weight of the emotion that is connected to the experience, not it’s “location”.
As we established, a memory is strengthened by sharing it with a group. Therefore, whether it is fictional, virtual or real, the experience of a shared narrative is very real in our minds.
The one aspect of this that does need to be teased out, is the difference between following a shared narrative versus creating an emergent narrative. Watching a film together and following the narrative has a bonding aspect to it because you shared the experience. But it is a very different experience when you enter into an interactive narrative, where perhaps the game has laid the basis but everything else is down to your interactions and how you and your group create another layer of narrative on top of that basis.
There is enough anecdotal evidence from large multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and EVE Online, where the base narrative of the world exists, but what the players experience with each other as they create an emergent narrative together, is a very powerful and engaging experience, and a long-lasting memory. Even in offline worlds, such as the Forgotten Realms from Dungeons & Dragons, the shared narrative has equally effective results among groups of players.
The emergent group narrative, therefore, is a more personalized one, and because the shared memory of it strengthens social bonds.
What this does prove is that both extraordinary experiences and ordinary experiences in a fictional world, create worthwhile memories that everyone in the group enjoys and cherishes. As opposed to what certain studies may have shown when experiencing ordinary versus extraordinary occurrences in the real world.
One thing to note and remember is that these are voluntary, emerging fictional shared narratives and that these at times allow for stronger social bonds. Whereas a repetitive spoon-fed shared narrative that eventually leads to distraction, such as perhaps watching TV, does not really strengthen social bonds or promote engagement.
What we know then is that the memory of a shared experience may be less accurate than if it were a solitary experience. But those memories will remain longer thanks to the communal recall and discourse that a group offers.
Virtual fictional narratives that are woven together by individuals in a group are simply a product of the modern digital age and happen to be more prevalent at the moment. But any narrative woven together is meaningful. Though this piece focused on online gaming and virtual encounters when in a work environment with face-to-face interactions, weaving an emerging narrative together is incredibly formidable experience and tool to use. Team-building events or team-learning exercises strengthen team cohesion and learning retention thanks to the emerging manifestation of a shared narrative.
At times perhaps, a fictional world allows us to step out of the mundaneness of everyday life, and whether it is virtual or in the real world, experiencing that fictional world and creating memories in it with someone else, offers us all a sense of magic and the extraordinary. Perhaps that is why games such as Warcraft, EVE Online, and Dungeons & Dragons still remain popular after so many years.