Skip the “Game vs. Story” and “Entertainment vs. Practical-Utility” Traps: The Anatomy of Compelling Experiences

I get tired of the games vs. story argument. Not to mention the entertainment vs. practical utility argument. In many cases these discussions come from assumptions that are wrong, and the problem is that if you get caught up in them, they can limit your options to making great experiences. Even some very smart experts have contributed to the confusion. “Video Games Are Better Without Stories” says Ian Blogost in a recent article in the Atlantic. While Robert Marks tells us that “Video Games Aren’t Just Better With Stories, They Are Stories” in another recent article at CG Magazine. I would say yes, video games are sometimes better without stories, and yes, some video games are stories. Neither statement is always true or false. I think the discussion gets muddled from two erroneous assumptions: first, that games are a medium, and two, that storytelling is the primary goal of a medium.


Let me elaborate. Games are not a medium, just the same way stories are not a medium; they are both the product of our need to understand and assimilate our experience of reality. Neither of them is a medium, but you can make both stories and games using almost any medium. The written word is a medium, painting is a medium, film is a medium. I’d like to avoid getting into philosophical definitions of what is a medium here but think of writing: the written word is a medium, a means to communicate stuff. As any other medium it can be used in different ways: to tell stories, to create games, or to solve other practical problems that have little to do with either of them. You can use the written word to make games like you do in cross-puzzles, tell stories like you do in a novel, or solve a practical problem like we do when we write a list to remember what to buy at the supermarket. You can do the same with other media: you can use still pictures to create hidden object games like in “I Spy” books, tell stories like in a movie poster, or solve a practical problem like when you get a photo ID to prove your identity.


So what are games and stories exactly? Why have they been an important part of every culture around the world? If you think about it they are both tools that help us get better at living and dealing with the reality around us. In real life we like to accomplish things, and games let us practice coming up with good strategies to accomplish goals. In real life we also need to make sense of what happens to us, and stories help us do that. Both games and stories help us get better at living and understanding our lives.


Games are formal systems with clearly defined goals and rules. In a way they are a simplification of reality. In real life we have goals that we want to achieve, and to do that we need figure out what are the best strategies to achieve them. Figuring out the right strategies includes finding out what are the best paths to achieve our goals, what resources do we need, how to get those resources, and how to best manage them. In most cases, there are also general rules we can follow to increase our chance of reaching our objectives: if you complete your assignments you have a higher chance to pass your class, if you have experience working at a game company you have a higher chance to get hired at another game company. Games are similar to life but simpler. While in games all the goals and rules are very clear, reality is a lot fuzzier: goals vary from situation to situation, and rules are in most cases only guidelines that don’t assure anything and tend to change over time. In a way, games let us take a stab at aspects of life in simpler and safer settings. They let us experience aspects of reality, and they give us the opportunity to explore and figure out the best ways to reach goals. Games are great because they give us agency and let us practice how to better use it to accomplish specific things.


Stories are also simplifications, but they focus in structuring our experience of reality to provide meaning. They don’t focus on letting us try different ways of achieving a goal, but rather on helping us understand our experiences and make them meaningful. When we tell a story we organize our actions and the events around us in ways that make it all more intelligible, in ways that make sense. In a traditional story there is always some sort of conflict that gets resolved somehow at the end: There is a beginning, where a protagonist wants something but finds one or more antagonists or obstacles that don’t let him get it; there is a middle, where the protagonist tries different ways to overcome the obstacles and reach his/her goals; and there is an end or resolution where he/she succeeds or fails in achieving his /her goals. Stories help us understand life experiences better in terms of conflict and resolution. Stories are compelling not because they let us take a stab at dealing with reality, but because they let us make sense of it. The core value of a story is in creating meaning out of otherwise chaotic random events.


If we wanted to talk about games as a medium I would say that rather than videogames being a medium, computer applications are the medium, and you can use computer applications to make games, tell stories, or solve problems. Or a combination of all three. Most modern videogames contain both game systems, and elements of storytelling. Other applications like CodeSpark Academy -a game for mobile devices with a lot of storytelling elements that aims at teaching kids the principles of computer science in a fun way- even include elements of all three: games, storytelling, and solving a real need.


I think it is much more useful to think of applications for different media in terms of experiences, not games or stories.


Think of real life experiences. Some experiences are great because of agency, because we did it. Do you remember the first time you rode your bike without training wheels, or the first time you climbed a very tall mountain? What makes these experiences great is that we did them ourselves. Many people had done the same thing before, but they are still great because this time we were the ones who did them.


Other experiences are great because of the story or meaning behind it, like when the first person in your family graduates from college. That can be a great experience because of what it means for you and your family, even if you were not the one who did it.


Other experiences are great because they solve a practical problem, like finding a good car mechanic that fixes your car at a reasonable price.


But agency, meaning, and practical utility are not mutually exclusive. The experience of climbing a tall mountain would be even more memorable if there is more meaning or a story behind it, like if you suffered from a physical ailment since you were a kid and were nonetheless able to overcome it and climb after years of preparation and struggle. Fixing your car (practical utility) would be more memorable if you are the one who did it (agency), and even more if the car was your grandfather’s car that is full or childhood memories (meaning).


The same goes with computer applications, from videogames to VR and AR applications. Being able to use your agency to overcome interesting challenges does not exclude the possibility of making those challenges more meaningful, or useful. Mixing game and story to add both meaning and agency can make the experience much more memorable. Just as adding practical utility could.


Games, stories, and practical utility are not exclusive. It is not easy to combine these three aspects in a compelling meaningful way -just as in real life experiences- but following the right process makes it much easier. When you set the right clear goals, use the right ingredients, and use an iterative process with the right prototypes, making rich powerful experiences becomes easier. You can see more information on how to do that in the articles from this same site that I just linked to in the previous paragraph.


I would love to hear your thoughts and comments about the intersection of game mechanics, storytelling, and utility.

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