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The Ultimate Secret to Skyrocketing Engagement

February 9, 2023

Combining gamification and storytelling will enhance experiences, boost motivation and drive participation. Using in a smart way the impact of storytelling on the human brain, the release of hormones and the phenomena of mirroring combined with the integration of game mechanics can take your engagement to new heights.

Game theory defines a game as a mathematical object, requiring four essential elements – players, actions, payoffs, and information. If we were to create a game around this article, the readers would represent the players, the action would be to read and find it interesting enough to share with others, the payoffs or the rewards would be points that you will find through the article and the information would help you understand gamification, gamification mechanics and storytelling on another level.  

What sets a game apart is the unique element of storytelling. In this instance I could tell you that you’re in the 1800s, the plague is everywhere and you worry about your sick children. You would do anything to take their mind off their suffering. While rushing home from the doctors, you stumble upon a wet paper a rich man dropped on the dirty streets.  While looking through the paper, you find a title, “Inventing Games” which makes your worried mind think…While rushing through the streets with the paper underneath your arm, a strong hand snatches you into a dark street…

Storytelling has been a vital part of human history, predating writing, and serving as the only way to preserve and pass down stories from generation to generation. Stories have been woven into the fabric of human culture for centuries. They are powerful tools for entertainment, education, and cultural preservation, offering a window into the beliefs and values of different societies. At its core, storytelling is the art of bringing events to life through words, sounds, and images. 

In the picture below we can observe how a good story can activate different parts in our brain.

Infographic created by www.stayingaliveuk.com

First of all, the activity in the cortex could be intense, besides processing the facts I gave you in that little story, the motor cortex could be tackled by my description of you walking through the streets and the sensory cortex could be engaged by you imagining the feeling of the wet paper.

Then is the release of hormones. First is oxytocin which has as effects: generosity, trust and bonding. My little story made you feel empathy for the character. How hard must it be to live those times of uncertainty and powerlessness? you may think. This release of oxytocin ultimately makes you bond and trust the character, maybe even want to help.

The second hormone is dopamine. The brain does that when it experiences an emotionally charged event, like the cliff-hanger created in my little story. Because I created suspense and didn’t describe what happened on that dark street or who was the possessor of that strong hand, your brain produced high levels of dopamine. You may have already made up a scenario of what could have happened. This release of dopamine will also help you remember the story and with greater accuracy, that’s because it makes you more aware and interested in the subject.

You might be thinking what Neural Coupling is. Well, when a speaker is telling a story, the listener’s brain activity is “coupled” in both space and time with the speaker’s – in other words – listener’s brain activity precedes the speaker’s, which means the listener is accurately anticipating what the speaker will communicate.[1] This helps the listener relate to the story and also turn it into their own ideas and experience. 

Lastly, there’s mirroring which means that all of you reading would experience the same brain activity, making you want to share your opinion in regards to the story and others agreeing with your thoughts. 

From the tales told in a cave by the flickering fire by a primitive hunter, a priest or the ruler of a tribe, to The Poem of Gilgamesh, an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, believed to be the earliest surviving notable literature, the storytelling has evolved to a new form. 

Digital storytelling transcends boundaries as diverse individuals come together to share their life stories and captivating imaginations. A modern twist on the timeless art of storytelling, it blends the power of words with digitized stills, moving images, and soundscapes. With new media and technology at their fingertips, storytellers are able to approach their craft from fresh perspectives, pushing the limits of traditional forms and captivating audiences, they can make storytelling participative through gamification or games with immersive and non-linear narrative.[2]

Enters – gamification, the art of taking something that already exists – an object, a task, a website, a store, an activity, a community – and integrating game mechanics into it to motivate participation, engagement and loyalty. Sounds easy right? 

Though the term “gamification” was coined in 2002 by Nick Pelling, a British-born computer programmer and inventor, it did not gain popularity until 2010. But the concept of gamification was not without precedent – prior to its formal recognition, forward-thinking fields such as learning disabilities and scientific visualization were already incorporating the excitement and challenge of video games into their own domain. 

Creator: Rabia Elif Aksoy.

In the picture below we can notice that storytelling (storyline) is the base of the pyramid when you are building a gamification, followed by mechanics and aesthetics. 

Gamification plan by webmaster@epicwinblog.net.

Gamification combined with storytelling can effectively enhance various experiences. The key lies in seamlessly blending these two elements. For this example we’re going to use education as a field that can be improved by gamification. Let’s imagine we have a class of 20 children, ages 4-5, and we have to motivate them to learn the irregular past tense verbs. We have to give them some motive, e.g. a prize with intrinsic or extrinsic value. Then we would have to split the main goal (to learn the whole list of verbs) in smaller goals (as side quests) and to make it more interesting and engaging we can have leaderboards, points, levels, and give each child a role in a main story that covers the goal. 

The first step in designing this game for our students is experience. We should ask ourselves, how do I want the players (children) to feel when playing my gamified system? It is very likely that you are thinking of words such as fun, freedom, mystery, courage, etc. 

The second step is thinking of a theme, while thinking of this you should take in consideration the children’s interests, they may love reading fairy tales, so then your theme could be a fantasy land or they might like robots, etc.(Example: we have a short story make of sentences in which the kids have to choose verbs to fill in the blanks in sentences. If they fill it correctly they advance in the story winning battles, collecting loot and finding hidden treasures. They can get as prizes other words which they can use in the next step of the story, though not all words are good ones. At the end they can also get a small prize but the actual prize is to find out the ending of the story to which they contributed. Imagine also that in these days you can get a lot of help from AI to generate that).

The 3rd step would be to build your game on a gamification platform, with the mechanics I explained previously. While doing so you should create a storyline and the game mechanics while always thinking about the user’s experience and then come up with the proper aesthetics in correlation with the chosen theme. 

In this scenario it is easy enough to come up with a story that covers the needs of the goal. But if we had to use the same scenario for an IT team for the needs of finishing a particular project, we’ll have to change the story, the side quests and the rewards. 

The freedom to fail aspect of game design should be incorporated as it encourages people to experiment without the fear of irreversible damage. We can incorporate this element by giving the players multiple lives or the option to start the game again at the most recently completed quest. As  we noticed from our scenarios above, gamification can be an effective tool both in education and in industry, but it also has many other uses. 

Before playing a game, we familiarize ourselves with the story and our assigned role and objective. In contrast, when reading a book or listening to a storyteller, we have limited control over the events, which typically unfold in a predictable and linear manner crafted by the author to intrigue and surprise us. 

The narrative of a story or game is crucial to the reader or player’s enjoyment. Despite the fact that the outcome of a game is often predetermined, our perception of having agency in affecting it enhances our enjoyment. [3] Most games conclude when the objective is achieved. For instance, rolling dice and striving to reach the finish line with as few rolls as possible, despite obstacles like snakes and ladders, creates a non-linear progression that is more entertaining than simply taking turns rolling a dice until someone reaches 100.

Infographic created by Andrzej Marczewski.

If we have a real choice in changing the direction of a game, it becomes more personal and empowering. For instance, when the game offers different paths based on our decisions, such as turning left or right, we actively influence its progression. While designing a game with such options might pose challenges, it ultimately enhances its quality and appeal. This concept applies to experiences of all kinds. As for our previous example for the children. We could give them choices between the verbs they choose to use that would change the course of the story. When an experience is personalized and allows visitors to craft their own story, it becomes more memorable. The interactive nature of the story also makes players want to revisit and try new options, making the experience even more engaging. So, the children will ultimately learn the whole list of verbs and think you’re the coolest teacher. 

Taking in consideration all the points discussed, I hope we can all agree that storytelling plays an important role in designing game mechanics for any use case. In future articles I plan to give you tips on how to improve storytelling, scriptwriting, character development and many more. So, if you are passionate about gamification or storytelling keep your eyes out for my next article. 

Oh, I almost forgot! Here’s your first token, for finishing the article!💰 You’ll receive an extra one if you share it with your friends! Till next time, you opened a new chapter towards mastering gamification! 🏆





 [1] Brule, Jim. 2021. “Neural Coupling and Storytelling”. Neural Coupling and Storytelling (transformationalstorytelling.org)

[2]Giakalaras, Marios. 2016. “Gamification and Storytelling”. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315518111_Gamification_and_Storytelling

[3] Marczewski, Andrzej. 2018. “Narratives and storytelling in gamification”. https://www.slideshare.net/daverage/narratives-and-story-telling-in-gamification

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