Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #79:

The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Five: Ritualizing Backstory

With thanks to Greg Stafford and RuneQuest

by Shannon Appelcline

July 4, 2002 - In the United States this day — July the 4th — is a day of holiday and celebration. If you're like millions of other Americans all across the country, you've spent the day enjoying a backyard barbecue and will soon be heading off to see fireworks at an amusement park or a civic center. (And, I'm aware that there are many non-Americans reading this and also many Americans not celebrating the holiday, but stay with me; I have a point here, and it's about myth.)

If you're like millions of other Americans you're actively celebrating one of the United State's numerous legal holidays, but... have you ever stopped to think about what it really means?

The Fourth of July is, you see, like all holidays, a ritual. It's an organized way to remind ourselves of the mythology that underlies our country. And that's going to be my topic for today — the ritual of July 4th, what it tells us about mythology, and how we can expand those ideas into online games.

The Ritual of the Fourth

There are numerous elements which define the Fourth of July ritual. Barbecues (or picnics), fireworks, and the colors red, white, and blue are the biggies. But, particularly as you step back in history, you can find other elements that have been a part of the holiday over time. Parades still show up now and then; I can vaguely recall participating in one back in 1976, my tiny bicycle adorned with red, white and blue streamers. In Ye Olden Days you also used to have speeches, oratory, and a lot of civic pride.

I'm going to examine some of these various elements in turn, and as I do I hope to portray three major ritualistic influences upon the Fourth of July: historic recreations, symbolic representations, and symbolic replacement.

We see historic recreation most powerfully in the element that is at the heart of Fourth of July celebrations: the fireworks. The historic symbolism of fireworks should be immediately obvious to anyone who thinks for a moment about the Independence Day celebration. We're celebrating the fact that we won a war to gain our independence, and so, once a year, we set off neutered explosions to recreate the acts that brought us the Independence that we still enjoy today.

The importance of this imagery is supported by the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner:

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Moving onward, we can find symbolic representation in the colors red, white, and blue. The original symbolism of those colors is probably lost to most of us; we simply think of that tri-color mating as the mark of our country — of patriotism. But, when the earliest patriots were trying to decide upon the colors for their country's flag they picked specific colors which had specific meanings to them, and perhaps some of those meanings are universal enough that we still reflect upon them at a subconscious level when we see the colors displayed today.

Secretary of the Congress Charles Thompson described the symbolism of the colors when he wrote about the Seal of the United States, which also uses red, white, and blue:

The colors of the pales are those used in the flag of the United States of America; white signifies purity and innocence, red, hardiness & valor, and blue, the color of the chief, signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.

We have to dig a bit deeper to discover the symbolic replacement within the Fourth of July; we need to really consider all of the elements that make up the holiday as a whole. As I've already mentioned the earliest incarnations of the holiday included not just fireworks and patriotic colors, but also lots more parades, speeches, and other public gatherings. Oddly enough, there'd been a holiday that Americans used to celebrate which had exactly the same components: the King of England's birthday. Thus, the rituals of July 4th actually validate the new Independence Day holiday by subsuming the older King's birthday rituals.

The barbecues and picnics that surround the Fourth of July suggest one other bit of symbolic replacement found within the holiday. In America, the Fourth of July is very much the holiday that ritualizes the start of summer, just as the Summer Solstice did in elder days. The older Summer Solstice rituals often involved bonfires, sometimes even driving cattle across hot coals. The correlations to popping cattle bits on the grill seems fairly clear.

Rituals in Online Games

The next clear question is: how do we expand these ideas about ritual and backstory into online games? The first thing you need to do is decide how you're going to manage the backstory-ritual interface. There are two main methods:

  • Backstory Amplification. Having built a history or mythology for your online game, you want to use ritual to demonstrate that backstory in a very real in-game way. This is, really, an example of the age-old writer's saw: "show, don't tell." It's "bottom-up" building, and it's the most simple to manage and understand rituals.
  • Backstory Creation. Conversely, you can start from the opposite extreme, creating interesting rituals that add lots of color to your world, then stepping back to see what backstory they imply. This is "top-down" building, and it'll take you a bit more work to get your brain around creating an interesting ritual-backstory interface using this method.

You've now sketched out a tight correlation, either with a backstory which is embodied in a ritual, or a ritual that embodies a backstory. The next thing you need to do is figure out what exact method you'll choose to demonstrate this correlation. You could be very explicit or totally abstract. You'll probably use a number of these methods, as we see has happened in the Fourth of July holiday.

  • Rituals can recreate backstory. In their simplest and most pure form, rituals simple demonstrate what happened in myth. Imagine that on July Fourth you gathered together with your neighbors, read from a copy of the Constitution, then signed it. That would be a somewhat idealized recreation of the actual reason that we celebrate on this day.
  • Rituals can recreate the emotions of a backstory. Consider instead a different myth who's importance is in emotions, not events. Say your backstory describes the great courage of an ancient, mythical warrior. A modern-day ritual might involve the participants doing something very courageous — like hunting a wild animal or telling their spouses what they really feel. To a certain extent this is what Valentine's Day is about. We're not celebrating specific events, but rather the (supposed) emotions of St. Valentine.
  • Rituals can symbolize backstory. We've already seen this in the fireworks of July Fourth, which symbolize the battle fought for independence. Symbolism is rife throughout American holidays, though it's largely lost upon most participants. The use of an evergreen tree in the heart of winter, at Christmas, celebrates the triumph of life over death. A carved pumpkin symbolizes the ancestral skulls which were once displayed at Halloween. By identifying key elements of a backstory you can determine which symbols to use.
  • Rituals can symbolize abstract concepts. This was the case with the red, white, and blue of July Fourth. The meaning of the symbols is very abstract, to the point where they might not be understood today, but they definitely had meaning two hundred years ago. You might choose meaningful symbols when creating rituals for your game, or you might create rituals with forgotten symbolism, and then develop quests around discovering those meanings.
  • Rituals can subsume symbols from older rituals. July Fourth subsumed the rituals of King George's birthday. Christmas subsumed the rituals of the Winter Solstice. Easter subsumed the Pagan spring ritual of Eostra. In each case the ritualistic celebration actually includes symbolic elements that aren't important to the current ritual's backstory, but rather the backstory of the ritual that came before it.
  • Rituals can symbolize our current culture. This point is a lot less interesting from the viewpoint of ritual as backstory, but is still a valid consideration; it's also an interesting way to differentiate backstory rituals by adding additional elements. For example, most American holidays have been at least partially corrupted by modern American consumerism. Or, to take another example, the Fourth of July holiday no longer involves the firing of guns to as great an extent as it once did because we now know that's a pretty stupid thing to do.
  • Rituals can be meaningless. The passage of centuries can garble rituals just like the Telephone Game garbles conversations. Thus, you might create rituals for your game which once had meaning, but no longer do because they've changed so much.

There's one last consideration that you should make when figuring out how rituals will work in your game: when will the ritual be held. A number of possibilities spring to mind:

  • On a specific date. This is how modern ritual-holidays tend to work. They either commemorate a specific event (George Washington's Birthday) or relate to a specific time of year (Christmas/Winter Solstice).
  • In advance of a specific event. Traditionally rituals were held to give luck or seek the blessings of the gods for a specific event, such as going to war.
  • In response to a specific event. On the flip side of the coin, rituals were sometimes held because of what had happened. For example, a ritual might be held to "banish spirits" when someone started acting a little wonky.

And that's ritual in a nutshell. You've got great backstory — real myths — that you've created for your world. Ritual is the way to introduce them.

Closing Notes

As I've noted elsewhere in this series, the structure I decided upon for these myth articles is the same as Kimberly Appelcline's Elements of Good Storytelling. Having finished reading this week's column, you should go read The Elements of Good Storytelling #5, Imagining Backstory.

Much of my understanding of how ritual can be used to help show backstory comes from Greg Stafford and the World of Glorantha, which for years was part of the game RuneQuest. The latest version of the game, HeroQuest, is even closer to its mythical roots.

And finally I wanted to make a few additional notes on old topics.

When I talked about singular plot in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #76, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Two: Singular Plot in Theory, I neglected to discuss another way to define singular plots in myth. Many students of myths, and folk tales specifically, use something called a type index (or a motif index) to define the many different types of stories which are told. These can be great sources for mythical story ideas. Here's a discussion of what types are. Here's types for a very specific class of folk tales. You can also find numerous books with complete motif indices.

Finally, some notes on character, which I discussed in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #78, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Four: The Heroic Character. The hero is just one archetype who shows up again and again in mythology, and I'd considered covering other mythology archetypes. However, upon doing some rereading of Jung, it became obvious to me that the scope of archetypes was much larger than just myth, so I've decided to save that for a future series on The Psychology of Online Games.

I'm again doing a bit of research before I decide for sure what the next column will include. I think there might be some opportunity to talk more about the structure of rituals, but I also want to finish up my talk of mythology by returning to the whole question of modern myth. I have a few more thoughts about how the modern day is trashing myths, and also about how myths still exist (and can thus be created in your own games).

We'll see which topic is best to explore in 7.

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