Media, Technology, and Education
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We’re Not Telling Stories

One of the aspects of game analysis that my students struggle with has to do with the dramatic elements of a game. According to the text that I use in my Creating Games class (Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain and Steven Hoffman), dramatic elements are those elements of the game that help to keep the players engaged in the game. There are five dramatic elements but the ones that my students struggle with are premise and story.

The text says that premise sets the stage for the action that will propel the game forward while story has to do with actual plot points in a narrative being told by the game. For example, the premise in Monopoly is that the player is a real estate mogul. But there is no story in Monopoly because there is no action that moves from point to point as determined by the author of the game. Fullerton and her co-authors say, “Plays, movies, and television are all media that involve storytelling and linear narratives. When an audience participates in these media, they experience a story that progresses from one point to the next as determined by an author. The audience is not an interactive participant in these media and cannot change the outcome of the story.” They go on to say that games are different in that the audience (the game player) interacts with a game and can (in fact, must be able to) change the outcome of the game. So traditional storytelling methods will not work in a game system because the player will not have enough of a sense of control if she cannot change the outcome of the game. The game will feel “fixed” or “random” which will result in an unsatisfying game-playing experience. Because of this need to have the player feel that she is in control of the progress of the game, very few games incorporate story as a dramatic element. Instead, most games use some sort of premise. Of course, some premises are more elaborate than others. When a premise gets to be very elaborate, it is called a backstory. Confused yet? Obviously, the boundary between premise and story is blurry.

I’ve been thinking about the word story a lot lately because of FaceBook. Every change that is made to your profile is called a story. So, for example, every time I change my status, a story is posted to my mini-feed as well as to the newsfeed for each of my friends. And then I can look at all my status stories. In fact, here are my status stories:

Saying that each of these items is a story is confusing to me. If you were to say that together these items make a story, each item being a plot point developed by me, the author, then I would understand why the word story is used. But how is each of these items a story by itself? I think this is yet another example of FaceBook coopting a word and changing its meaning.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. James M.

    I may be misunderstanding your usage of the word ‘game’ but I’m curious if you have explored or studied the culture of Massive Multiplayer Role Playing Games like City of Heroes or World of Warcraft. I actually played both (mostly CoH) a few years back and while they also worked more on premise that a story I could personally mold or shape, I felt in some way I was affecting the ‘story’ of the CoH culture. I had a community of players online that knew me and enjoyed teaming up w/ me, and when I was absent (or present) I felt it had some factor of impact.

    On a different note, Spore might be the first game that attempts to allow the player to really shape their own story by having worlds & the universe adapt to the species the player creates. The phrase I’ve heard used for it is that it is a Massive single player game. We’ll have to wait and see… (I think it’s due out next month based on pre-order info on amazon).

  2. Pingback: » We ARE Telling Stories Desert of My Real Life

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