Lore as Lens
I’ve been lucky enough to have had several conversations about world running recently; with people who by their own admission have roles that involve elements of the work of a world runner. One of the topics these conversations shared was the rise of the term lore.
We talked about the nuances of story, narrative, and history in co-created worlds. How and where it gets produced, and by whom. What does the rise of word lore mean within narrative producing systems? and what does lore mean when it’s used in the context of the real wold?
Traditionally, lore is a body of knowledge. One that encompasses story, myths, and traditions. Passed down from one person to another within a particular culture or community. Lore provides narratives or beliefs that help shape a group’s collective identity, history, and understanding of the world. A cultural expression that often serves to preserve cultural heritage, entertain, educate, or convey moral lessons and values. As in Folk-lore.
Years ago on 301 I talked about how narrowly I avoided doing a Phd in corporate folklore. I wanted to use ethnographic methods to explore the depth and breadth of an organisation’s collective memory.
Organisations and institutions are techno-social systems or put simply, *worlds*. They have systematised and official processes of remembering and ways of working. And less official ways of understanding things like mission, values or strategy. In 2023 you can ask ‘what’s your company’s lore?’ and a decent number of people will understand what you’re asking. But back in 2014? Not so much. It was quite hard to convince senior colleagues at Gartner to hear me out.
In his 2022 series ‘On Lore’ Venkat Rao wrote that a “millennial management science is being born” in the introduction to ‘Lands of Lorecraft’. He then says that the production, navigation and management of lore is the evil twin of marketing.
Marketing is the story insiders tell outsiders to influence them in some way Lore is the story insiders tell themselves to manage their own psyches
lore cannot be engineered in the same way marketing can be. While you can shape lore as it emerges, it is a matter of subtle gardening and curation. You do not go around trying to invent brand names, logos, and brand-identity postures for emerging lore. You are not pumping “messaging” into scarce “channels” pointed at distant “markets.” You act like a gardener trying to make your own garden thrive, cutting away unhealthy bits, and supporting the healthy bits.
He goes on:
lorecraft is a natural and adaptive intellectual response to the automation of vast swathes of managerial/leadership functions, and organizational processes.
I don’t fully agree about the marketing point at all. But I do think that lore as a response to ‘organisational processes’ is a very good way of putting it.
Over the years, you will have observed that I make no distiction between corporations, MMOs, Twitter, personal banking apps, or the global supply chain. Each represents a hybrid-environment, born from interactions within techno-social systems. Again, in short they are all types of worlds.
The rise of lore is more than just a ‘millennial management science’. It’s no surprise that the first generation to grow up with videogames has embraced the term. We are the first generation to grasp what agency (and its limits) is inside of complex and dynamic technical systems. It’s the lens we look at the world through that gives rise to lore.
I want to take a moment to explore this lens, and sketch out a key argument that I’m making in my metaverse book: ‘The Web Was a Side Quest’.
The lens through which (consciously or not) my generation comprehends the intricacies of techno-social systems with, has its roots in one of the most significant social technologies of the 20th century. Dungeons and Dragons.
Before D&D and the elusive shift of the 1970’s it was rare for people to encounter systems of any kind (let alone games) that produced narrative. There are some exceptions of course, the iChing, Tarot, Wargames etc. But think about Monopoly, Battleships, even Chess. Kinds of rule bound simulations yes, but narrative engines they are not. Today it’s rare that a game doesn’t include or produce narrative.
In the late 70’s D&D and its logics fuse with computing almost immediately. Think Zork and MUD’s. Subsequently over the last 50 years D&D has become the default mental blueprint for how individuals and groups with a shared set of goals; construct social norms, interact, and understand how to coordinate inside of a techno-social systems.
The techno-system of D&D is its ruleset – which when injected with meaning by people, gives rise to the simulation. Inside of which players navigate and narrative unfolds. This narrative unfolding as understood by people, is in turn, called lore.
The same is true of start-ups, DAOs, or any groups of people coordinating inside of techno-social systems. They all have formal processes and procedures, rules and protocols. These give rise to a technical simulation that, when injected with things like mission or values, we call the world of work. Then things happen and we call it lore.
The growing importance of lore in both media franchises and organisations reflects a new and emerging kind of cultural sense-making. One arrived at through the lens of a social technology designed for exploring and co-creating inside of a simulated world.
In my work as a consultant strategist, and on world running I try to impress on people just how crucial it is for individuals and organisations to recognise the existence of this new way of sense-making.
And the power it has for shaping collective identities, fostering engagement, and navigating worlds.
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the episode in the edit.
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