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For humans, narrative is an ineluctable part of life

For humans, narrative is an ineluctable part of life

The always-interesting James Surowiecki’s column in the Jan 26 isue of The New Yorker is, on the face of it, about Obama’s $100B tax-rebate stimulus package. But scratch the surface and you’ll see that it’s also about the key role that narrative plays in our lives, a lesson at the heart of the World Without Oil game.

Surowiecki describes how the context of a tax rebate shapes its actual use. The easy analogy is the difference between $20 you find on the street and $20 that you earn. From an economic (top-down) point of view, they are identical $20 bills – they are fungible, as economists say. But the actual boots-on-the-ground feel of the two is very different: the found $20 is a windfall, a lucky break, and apt to be spent in a celebratory way. So it is with tax rebates, Surowiecki says, and he marshals some great examples that indicate that Obama’s plan for the tax rebate (by reducing withholding) is a smart one.

Surowiecki mentions what happened when Bush the Elder reduced withholding in 1992: even though in this case there was no actual saving to the taxpayer (taxes due were the same, just the amount withheld was less) people felt that their incomes were greater and thus tended to spend the money.

I find this remarkable, as money derives its value precisely from its fungibility, its lack of narrative, if you will. If you can (verbing alert) narrativize money, you can narrativize anything. Just another example of the power that narrative has for us humans…  and an indicator of why games and “what if?” projects that get people to narrativize an issue, as World Without Oil did with oil dependency, can be a powerful force for actual real-world change.

You can read Surowiecki’s column here (may require registration). Photo by goldmember

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.