Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

19 August, 2008

The secrets of storytelling
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 9:50 PM

Scientific American had an interesting article on The Secrets of Storytelling. The article’s focus is on why storytelling works so well for humans. Most of the reasons relate to social activities.

Some food for thought since we deal with social activities in online games.

There is a lot in there that relates to MMO game development. Some of the discussions in this article are obvious to those paying attention in our industry.

It’s interesting that “story” is difficult to define in scientific terms. The article says that some define story by what it is not; it involves more than just some related facts. Some claim that ‘personal stories’, or the stories people construct after a session, are the strongest stories in MMOs. But, are these really just exposition instead of story? This could be why the stereotype about the gaming geek boring other people with stories about his level 100 Paladin ring true: because it’s often simply chronological exposition for people who have not experienced it themselves.

The issue of “narrative transport” is also something to note; the article mentions that people who are more familiar with the elements of the story are transported easier. Looking at genre, for example, this means that people familiar with the genre will be more likely to be transported. This why fantasy settings tend to be unfamiliar to people, but once they know the genre tropes it becomes comfortable to people. Also, people who have had shared experiences in a game will understand a story better than people who haven’t been to that point. This is another reason why people who fall behind start feeling alienated; they don’t have the same experiences and point of view to keep up with the conversations of friends that have raced ahead.

I found this paragraph particularly fascinating:

But what could be the evolutionary advantage of being so prone to fantasy? “One might have expected natural selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real one,” writes Steven Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary psychologist, in the April 2007 issue of Philosophy and Literature. Pinker goes on to argue against this claim, positing that stories are an important tool for learning and for developing relationships with others in one’s social group. And most scientists are starting to agree: stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.

So, storytelling is a large part of dealing with relationships, as the next paragraph goes on to say. The stories tell us how to interact with others, giving guidelines for what is important. On the other hand, this is cause for a bit of introspection: if the game is about warfare and killing, and the stories primarily cover those themes, what kind of community is going to form? Will it glorify warfare and killing? When supported by game mechanics that reward those same behaviors, we have to take a look at what types of communities we’re forming. Since people learn to socialize through stories, we are perhaps missing a large opportunity to form the community through more interesting stories than we’ve been using in the past.

That aspect of using a fantasy world (or, more appropriately a virtual world) to refine social skills is something that resonates with me, personally. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an introvert, and I think my experience with text MUDs in college helped me to learn to extrovert well. It was a way to interact with people on my own terms and learn what little social ability I have today.

The article also covers the power of stories. Since stories tend to involve instructions for living our lives, we tend to listen to them more, goes one theory. The article states that a list of facts makes people think more critically, but a narrative makes people more open to suggestion. It also points out that stories still have an impact on our daily life, as shown by the effect the movie Sideways had on sales of Merlot wine. So, how can we use stories in online games to the best effect?

Can we use our stories to encourage good behavior within the game? Can we use stories for a purpose beyond simple entertainment? What else can we do to make stories something beyond a wall of text that nobody reads? Some interesting issues to consider.


  1. Interesting post.. I once used Diablo 2 multiplayer as a way of trying to learn to be more assertive, if you can believe that.

    I think the critical part of storytelling that is missing in MMOs is Decisions That Matter. When you kill or gather something and it respawns without an attendant explanation, this breaks immersion, plain and simple. When your character can’t build, and doesn’t need a home, that breaks immersion. I have a list here somewhere, of all the things that MMOs do that change them from stories into spreadsheets :)

    What would it take to get there from here? And would we want to go there? I’m not sure in either case.

    Comment by Bret — 19 August, 2008 @ 11:06 PM

  2. Stories, like imagination, are an important part of the learning process in various aspects of life. We’re finite beings with limited experience, and the ability to learn from the experience of others is one of the advantages we have as a community. Sure, we could just learn via a “textbook of life”, but more often than not, when learning from other people, the tidbits of wisdom (rather than just straight textbook knowledge) come from learning how other people lived.

    Fantasy situations are useful for stripping away unnecessary elements of a story, introducing unusual elements (for various reasons), and for maintaining several viewpoints throughout a narrative. They also tend to be more memorable, precisely because they invoke the imagination more, and the brain can’t go on “cruise control” and thereby miss factoids. It’s almost the flipside of the familiarity/dissonance argument. If elves in your world are short, stocky bearded fellows with a preponderance towards ale, and your trolls are tiny and have wings, your story sticks out a bit. (At the risk of people just calling your elves “dwarves” and your trolls “faeries”.)

    It’s like drawing a face upside down; you look more critically at the shapes, rather than drawing what you “know” a face looks like. Your brain has to reconcile seeing something in an unusual setting, so it works harder (and/or gets distracted), and you don’t have to fight the laziness of drawing what you’ve always done before. Looking at something critically often means choosing a new vantage point. That’s true in art, philosophy, storytelling and learning.

    Comment by Tesh — 20 August, 2008 @ 4:07 PM

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