How Important is Story in Gamification?

How Important is Story in Gamification?

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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  1. Right, the problem seems to be that game designers insist on pushing games to the real world as if everybody else enjoys virtual world games as they enjoy.

    Pushing complex narratives to the real world violate the “do not make me think” principle. People do not want to be bother with detailed stories.

    They just need to know very quickly what to do to progress, and when it is not evident, they need to know why they need to accomplish each mission.

    I just added a new system of missions and levels to a site. Missions have briefing pages but the beta testers made it clear they will not read the long mission briefings. I had to make an optimization effort to make briefings as short as possible and highlight key phrases in bold so they at least read those.

  2. VERY IMPORTANT! See Google’s new game “Ingress.” At its core, it’s a simple capture-the-flag-type of augmented reality game. But the in-depth story they’ve created (“which is better enlightenment or freedom?”), with groups battling it out covertly in real space all over the world, is amazing.

    Players that I’ve so far encountered are truly a part of the story…and they feel it. That level of engagement is a rare commodity in games, much less in other gamified environs.

  3. I would say that the ‘gameplay vs. story’ battle depends on the situation being gamified, and perhaps is relevant on a personal level to the gamer. The storyline would not matter much to me in a fitness game, but more that it was sticky and fun to play (motivating), however I can see the value of an engrossing narrative in a game related to something in which background knowledge was essential e.g. a charitable or educational environment, as empathy or learning are more likely to take place.

  4. The storyline works if the game is designed for a niche group. You’re not going to have a story that excites a general mass audience. There’s too many entertainment options and tastes are too different now. I don’t think this is an question of either do stories work or not, but if you havea niche target market or not.