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How Important is Story in Gamification?

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Do you need story in gamification?

Today’s edition of Gamasutra carried an interesting article about legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s opinion about the role of story in his upcoming game, Super Paper Mario. The gist is that consumers appear to favor great gameplay over deep narrative, leading the development team to question its raison d’etre.

The handwringing has already started on Twitter, and I have no doubt that as the story is processed in the games industry, it will only generate more ennui. In their hearts, many game designers believe that story is very important in games, and a great deal of effort, energy and money is spent to develop narrative skills and output.

This emphasis on story is also one of the main stumbling blocks for game developers working in gamification. Critically, when you build a gamified system, the story arc is based on the journey of the player in real life rather than in some parallel universe. So, a mom learning how to care for her newborn doesn’t need a fictional story (“slay the breast milk dragon!”) any more than an aspirational runner needs a virtual world for encouragement. The key story is the user’s own progression to mastery, a discussion which both exists before, during and after their interaction with the gamified experience.

Moreover, gamification presents another challenge for narrative-addled game design: brands. When working with an established brand — whether corporate, government or even conceptual — the goal isn’t to introduce a whole new dialogue between the consumer and the entity. After all, the brand narrative of Coca-Cola, United Airlines or Pampers well predates the video game era itself. The ideal mode for gamification of brands is to allow consumers to play with the narrative that already exists, experiencing it in new ways. Imbuing it with feedback, friends and fun, and giving the user wider latitude for expression, collaboration and achievement.

This doesn’t mean that narrative isn’t — or can’t be — important. Merely, it highlights that gamified design has additional constraints that can be frustrating for game developers. Others view this as a challenge, finding ways to realize their vision within the constructs of the real world.

I’ve often defined gamificaton as a kind of non-fiction game design, though this doesn’t mean slavish adherence to realism. What is means is that you need a different narrative skill, one that will become increasingly relevant — and in demand — as gamification grows. So you may yet design a level where you beat the boss and rescue the princess, but unless the player can see themselves in that pink dress (and perhaps a personal foe in the boss), you’re probably not doing your job right.

Image via kodomut

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