Fair warning: this is early thinking, and this post is heavy on theory. I’ve tried to keep it not-dry, but it’s required to set up my argument.
Story structure: I’ve taken courses on this stuff, but it never clicked as relevant to the real world until I read Dan Harmon’s essays on how to tell a story. Here’s a choice excerpt:
Behind (and beneath) your culture creating forebrain, there is an older, simpler monkey brain with a lot less to say and a much louder voice. One of the few things it’s telling you, over and over again, is that you need to go search, find, take and return with change. Why? Because that is how the human animal has kept from going extinct…
Stories are the oldest metaphor through which our brains make the world intelligible. Explicitly, the eight steps:
- A character
- has a need
- and so they go
- and search
- until they find what they needed.
- They take it with them
- and return home,
- having changed.
Borrowing more from Harmon:
Q: Why do stories have to follow this structure?
A: It’s not that stories have to follow this structure, it’s that, without some semblance of this structure, it’s not recognizable as a story.
And my technical interpretation of this: A story is a structure that is used to impose order on a collection of no fewer than eight events in order to deliver an intellectual or emotional payload.
So why does this matter, and how does it relate to games/”gamification”?
Well, if stories are the fundamental metaphor for how we understand everything, it follows that it’s the fundamental metaphor for how we understand our lives, and the activities that make up our lives. If we take, for example, something that you hopefully do everyday, brushing your teeth. You (1) don’t want cavities (2) so you decide to brush your teeth (3) and you go look for your toothbrush and toothpaste (4), find it (5) and brush your teeth (6), then go to bed (7) with a clean mouth (8). It’s not sexy, but it’s a story and it makes sense and is relatable.
This applies equally to big, life changing sequences of events: You (1) want to get a job (2) so you enroll at university (3) and take a bunch of courses (4), then finally get your degree (5) (and are massively in debt (6)) you then leave the alternate reality of being a student (7) and are now “educated” (8).
I apologize for the boring examples. I just wanted to establish that you can find this pattern at every level of your life.
It’s also present in myths, movies, books, and, of course, video games.
Consuming media therefore is the delivery/execution of two stories: there’s the story you’re reading (Bilbo leaves the shire to destroy the ring and save middle earth) and there’s your personal story (I was bored so I read a new book and now I’m smarter).
This manifests in videogames too. There’s a category of game that has a rich in-game plot, structured exactly as you’d expect. Games like Portal or even Gears of War. Then there are games where it’s all about the player’s story, games like Team Fortress 2, or FarmVille.
When people talk about “gamification” and “game mechanics” they’re talking about things like set collection, random reward schedules, appointments. These are all things that have existed forever. For example, random reward schedules have always been with us in meatspace, we call them lotteries or slot machines. Appointment “mechanics” are pretty old too, often called “limited time sales” or “happy hour.” “Game mechanics” are not new to games; games just implemented old tricks in new ways.
In the context of a game, these elements are used to push the story forward: in Diablo, “the grind,” where you kill tons and tons of demons and are randomly given gold, that’s just something to keep you busy while you (4) search for whatever the current quest item is. Similarly, in the context of the game, you want to collect a set of armor, because, in the context of the game, it helps you work through the story with more agency because you’re less likely to die.
What “gamification” tries to do, is take these signposting structures that make sense inside the context of the game and apply them to arbitrary behavior. Getting a badge for a comment is a completely meaningless event in the context of me visiting some blog I’ll probably never see again. Instead of focusing on just haphazardly applying “game mechanics” to their products, companies need to ensure that they’re designing a customer experience that is easily intelligible as a story, only then can they choose what psychological tricks they’re going to use to give people a sense of context and agency in that consumer story.
Take Starbucks for example. Any loyalty program is basically two things: a badge (the card), and points (the points). In the context of being a Starbucks customer, you (1) want coffee (2) and so you set out (3) to find a coffee shop that reflects your values (4) you find Starbucks (5) and pay a huge markup for hot water and beans (6) then return home (7), no longer sleepy/having saved the world through fair trade (8). Having a gold status card reinforces the ongoing participation in, repetition of, and value of, that story. The points provide signposting and reward you with the very thing you seek (coffee) as a consequence of seeking it. This is “gamification” done right, except you’d never call it gamification.
What we really need is “storification,” although that’s also a stupid buzzword. Instead, recognize that your customer is going to remember their interaction with your product, service, and brand, as a story, and that many of the steps will occur outside of your control. You should therefore use all the tools at your disposal to make the story powerful, memorable, and repeatable. More on this later, as I figure it out.