From the Archives: Storytelling in the Darwinian Tournament

In February of this year, I put together an essay on the mechanics of tournaments like the Muppet Madness Tournament, analyzing the project that Steve and I were seriously engrossed in at the time from a theoretical perspective.  What follows is a copy of this essay, with nothing more than a few minor edits (fixing grammar, poor word choices, etc.).  While I do not believe it is definitive, and I do think the way the 2016 MMT worked out in the end shows that my work may have been flawed, I do think this essay offers fans of the tournament a glimpse into some of the thinking behind it during the 2016 planning stages.  Enjoy!  – J. D.

I have had the privilege twice now (including this year) of being one of the managers of the annual Muppet Madness Tournament.  This tournament, like most, involves many characters vying for championship by filtering the contestants through a series of brackets, which creates an artificial “process of elimination” to whittle the large group of characters down to one remaining survivor.  I call this a “Darwinian tournament” to contrast it with simple duals or competitive games that are intended to provide a stage for the courageous to flaunt their skills, and instead focus on the type of tournament that uses “survival of the fittest” principles to eliminate the inferior and glorify the survivors.  Conveniently, Suzanne Collins’ iconic Hunger Games franchise perfectly captures the nature of such a tournament, particularly concerning the element of storytelling.  The world of The Hunger Games employs “Gamemakers” to mold the deadly tournament into the most interesting spectacle possible, which will hopefully make for a dramatic story for the audience (meaning the viewers in Panem and the viewers in our world) to follow.  When the Hunger Games metaphor is applied to the Darwinian tournament, it becomes clear that the principles of storytelling can help the Gamemakers behind real-world tournaments create more entertaining and satisfying tournaments.

This may be easier to understand if these mysterious “principles of storytelling” are spelt out more clearly.  In general, a storyteller’s goal is to entertain an audience by thrusting a series of challenges upon the protagonist(s) to create a sequence of progressively intense events (which must be both caused and causal) that prompt an inevitable, climactic conclusion.  Notice how most of this description depicts tournaments like Muppet Madness very accurately, whether a particular character is viewed as the protagonist or the individual voter is the protagonist.  However, the Darwinian tournament contrasts with ordinary storytelling by adding the distinctly Darwinian element of a lack of foresight.  Consequently, the storyteller behind a tournament does not have the omniscience of an author or screenwriter, which serves to further delimit the role of a tournament’s manager to that of a Hunger Games Gamemaker.  If it is to be accepted, then, that it is suitable to declare a tournament’s manager as a Gamemaker, then I think the role of this kind of Gamemaker can be boiled down to three primary jobs that he or she must perform in order to create the desired story: serving the audience, providing socialistic order, and antagonizing the audience.

The first job is obvious, because a storyteller needs to entertain its audience in order to keep an audience, and a game needs to bring pleasure to its players so they will play again.  A Gamemaker will make the tournament intuitive enough that it’s easy for people to play along, and will provide a clean and visually appealing interface for the player to interact with during his/her participation.  The Gamemaker will add fun to the tournament with game elements that may be silly, surprising, dramatic, or possibly all of the above.  This clearly lines up with what a more traditional storyteller – such as an author or filmmaker – would try to do, but the other jobs of the Gamemaker are actually borrowed from storytelling as well.

Describe the following scenario in one word: a dentist, a furniture mover, an entrepreneur, and two motorists on a road trip to Las Vegas learn of $350,000 buried near the Mexican border, and they all race to Santa Rosita State Park to get to it first.  The word that comes to mind is probably madness (which is only natural since this is the premise of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), and since the March Madness tournament presents the type of chaotic race to the prize, it is no surprise that the word madness seems just as appropriate for describing tournaments.  The structure of a tournament like March Madness sits on the edge of capitalism, dipping its toes in anarchy, carefully balancing total madness with a controlled, Darwinian chaos that brings only as much order as is absolutely necessary.  The Gamemaker, then, must bring more order, even to the point that it chisels a little bit at democracy, so that there are no runaway victors or monopolies.  The Gamemaker will subtly manipulate the order of things to ensure that the bottom of the food chain isn’t much lower than the top, so the little guys have a fair shot at the championship.  In the Muppet Madness Tournament, we are very careful to prevent any character from being too powerful, or else the game loses its fun, and the audience grumbles at the inevitable victory of the juggernaut.  This is when the capitalistic nature of these tournaments must be saved from itself, which means the Gamemaker is forced to intervene more than the audience might like.

Ultimately, intervention on the Gamemaker’s part must be for the tournament’s own good, because the job of antagonizing the audience is not meant to contradict the job of serving them, but to compliment it.  Once again, we see that this boils down to basic storytelling.  The protagonist needs adversity, and the movie or book supplies threats to the protagonist so the audience gets caught up in the drama of the challenges.  This arguably makes the storyteller an antagonist him/herself, and the same can be said of tournament managers.  The Gamemakers of the Hunger Games are constantly raising the stakes so that the viewers will not get bored, whether that means introducing wildfires or poisonous berries.  We have the unfortunate task of generating hatred in the audience towards certain roadblocks and enemies that we create.

One of these enemies is intrinsically built into the tournament, which means the Gamemaker need only increase its power to create tension – the enemy of mathematics.  The tournament structure inevitably requires math to work against the audience by using addition and subtraction to force the contestants into working to avoid getting “subtracted.”  This challenge can be manipulated in a few ways, one of which is using “up-vote” and “down-vote” buttons to skew the way the players see their voting options, and another is punctuated equilibrium.  I borrow the theory of punctuated equilibrium from Darwinian evolutionary biology because it concerns isolating a smaller group of members of a species (usually with a catastrophe that separates this small group from the whole based on skill-set) to bring about a large jump in the evolution of the species.  In the case of a tournament, we can isolate smaller groups of characters based on big factors that give them an advantage – which in the Muppet Madness Tournament seem to be familiarity, relatability, or comedic strength – to quickly create a diverse variety of finalists.  For example, let’s say the final four movies in The Disney Nerds Podcast Movie Madness tournament were all PIXAR films.  To generate a more diverse group of leaders in the future, the Gamemakers could put all of the PIXAR movies together in one “corner” of the bracket, so only the dominant PIXAR film is left to face the Disney princesses and talking dogs.  Another antagonist the Gamemaker can play with is random chance, and another is “unlockable” bonus elements (such as the item blocks in Mario Kart).

While I mentioned above that the lack of foresight of the conclusion is what separates the Gamemaker from the author, there is more to this distinction than meets the eye.  Recall from the Hunger Games series the saying, “remember who the real enemy is,” which appears when the protagonist’s focus is meant to be directed from the other players in the games to the people who made the games.  In authorship, the anger the audience feels is aimed at the antagonist responsible for bringing about evils, or possibly the author responsible for bringing about suffering by writing a sad or frustrating book.  In any game resembling a tournament (even a board game), the enemy of the audience . . . is the audience.  If the game is made in a way that seems fair, then the anger the loser feels can be aimed at the other players, and that way the Parker Brothers needn’t receive death threats whenever someone loses a game of Probe.  Therefore, the goal for the Gamemakers behind a tournament is to create the illusion that the main successes and defeats in the game were brought on by the players.  So when little Timmy loses at Monopoly, it feels like it’s all Mommy’s fault, and he’s forgotten who the real enemy is – Mr. Monopoly.  This way, the game’s conclusion is the result of proper storytelling, since the ending is not an arbitrary choice on the Gamemakers’ part, but is instead inevitable, just as our definition requires.

And what better enemy is there than the inevitable?  Mathematics and the other players can work in tandem to fight against the “protagonist” to ensure that the game stays interesting, and all that the Gamemaker has to do is amplify their power, throw in a surprise here and there, and keep the ending unexpected.  The Gamemaker has to keep the audience from knowing the conclusion too early in the same way that the traditional storyteller does, or else the story of the tournament gets boring, but the Gamemaker has the added challenge of not knowing him/herself what that conclusion will be.  With this in mind, please try not to be so angry at the Gamemakers behind the tournaments – they’re not really trying to screw people over; they just want to tell a good story.

Posted in Archival & "Behind the Scenes" Content, Articles

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