How Games Can Bring Storytelling to Life in Your Classroom

By: Chris Klug, Assistant Teaching Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Anna Roberts, Head of Outreach at Zulama

As games continue to evolve and attract broader audiences, they have become sophisticated vehicles for storytelling—putting the player (i.e., audience) at the center of an experience and giving them the power to bring the narrative to life. Story-rich games like Journey, FireWatch, This War of Mine, or Dungeons & Dragons engage your emotions and immerse you in new worlds. Could these qualities of story-rich games help engage your students, introducing them to unique and exciting learning experiences?

“I’m not sure I would have been able to transition from reader to
writer so easily if it had not been for gaming.”
—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author

Game stories draw from the same core principles that writers have used to craft stories for millennia. Most games have a plot, characters, a theme, and dialogue, making them exciting for students to explore as writers and “readers.” This post examines some of the similarities and differences between games and traditional storytelling, providing tools and inspiration for bringing games and game narratives into your creative writing or literature classes.

What’s the Same? What’s Different?

Point of View

All stories have a Point of View that determines whose eyes the reader experiences the story through. In games, that Point of View is always first person because the player is the protagonist—deciding where to go, interacting with the world, and making decisions that impact the game.

More on First Person and Third Person in Games
If you’ve played games before, you may have heard them referred to as first person (playing the game through the protagonist’s eyes) or third person (playing the game as the protagonist, viewing them from the outside). But those references are to your perspective through the graphics, not the character’s Point of View in the story.

First-Person Perspective in What Remains of Edith Finch by Giant Sparrow Gam

Third-Person Perspective in Journey by thatgamecompany

 

Structure

Most stories draw from a traditional three-act structure that the character moves through, and game narratives are no different.

Act 1: The Beginning
Here the story introduces the major characters and the Inciting Incident, the event or decision that begins the story’s problem and sets the story in motion. For example, in Gone Home the story begins with Katie, the protagonist, returning from a trip to Europe to find a locked, empty house. The Inciting Incident is an ominous letter left on the front door from someone named Sam.


Gone Home by The Fullbright Company

Act 2: The Middle
This is where the story develops, where the protagonist encounters a series of obstacles and setbacks that creates rising Tension. At times, the protagonist (aka player) may feel like they’re getting further from their goal, and even need to learn new skills or strategies in order to progress. An interesting challenge arises in writing Act 2 of game narratives. As the protagonist, the player experiences setbacks more directly than one might when reading a novel. The game’s writer must keep that experience in mind, providing challenges but ensuring that the player still feels like they are making progress.

Act 3: End
Here the protagonist encounters the Climax and wraps up any loose ends. The protagonist must use all that they’ve learned so far in the story to tackle the hardest challenge of them all. In games this is often referred to as “the Boss Fight,” but in story-rich games it might not be a fight at all. In What Remains of Edith Fitch one of the final scenes brings two stories together, merging fantasy and reality, and forcing the player to do different actions with each hand as they move between the storylines.

Emotion

Like traditional stories, story-rich games can make a player feel things in intense ways—the fear of entering a dark room, the joy of mastering an especially hard mission, the discomfort of an awkward situation, or the sadness of losing a beloved companion. Games are great at evoking some emotions and aren’t so great at others.

Games Aren’t Great at: Empathy
While empathy is often used in traditional stories to stir the reader’s emotions, that’s not so in games. The player is a direct agent who makes decisions and choices, so the emotions they feel are typically built through those experiences. The player is much more like an actor in a play rather than the audience watching the play.

Games Are Great at: Guilt
One emotion that is easy to evoke in games is guilt, which is almost impossible to elicit in traditional storytelling. Guilt occurs when a person believes (accurately or not) that they have compromised their own standards of conduct or a moral standard. As readers of traditional stories we’re passive, we can empathize or feel sad but we can’t compromise ourselves through the experience. Games charge the player with making decisions as the protagonist, letting them choose how they’ll play (moral vs immoral) or presenting them with hard choices that impact the game or other characters.

A recent example from Anna’s own gaming experience:
I’ve been playing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a game where one class of people (the augmented) is being oppressed by the larger population. In one part of the game, I (as the protagonist, Jensen) had to sneak into government offices to obtain documents that would help two people escape the city. When I arrived, I found out I could only save one of them and had to quickly choose between the two. I had met both of these characters, knew their stories and what they would face if they didn’t leave. The decision was a guilt-ridden one for me that lingered well after I had stopped playing.

Games Leave Room for the Player

One of the biggest functional differences in storytelling in games is that the game has to make room for the player–giving the player varying levels of freedom to interact, explore, and make choices within the game. This difference changes how the author needs to think about writing and even designing the story. From the moment of inspiration, game writing is a problem-solving exercise: creating a world and moving the player between major plot points, while also making room for the player to feel active and make decisions.

“In a game, you’re going to have to allow for player agency—the player needs to exert some control over the narrative’s direction . . . [this] changes how the story is laid out, and the tools a writer has at their disposal. ”
—Bill Gaider, Senior Writer at Bioware

An Analogy
Imagine that the writing process is like driving a car through the woods at night and the road is your story. If you’re writing fiction or poetry, it’s possible to just drive and discover the road as your headlights light the way. When writing a game, you need to know the end point and major intersections before you start driving. You’ll still discover details along the way that create a rich experience, but you have to understand the map first. (Of course, this approach can be used in traditional storytelling as well, it’s just mandatory when writing games.)

Bringing Games Into Your Classroom

Interesting, huh? And that’s just the start! Here are a few resources and ideas that could help you bring games into your classes:

Lucid Learning: Gone Home in a High School English Class

Paul Darvasi has done a bunch of cool things with games in his high school English classes. Paul’s blog details his experience using Gone Home as a literary text in three senior English classes. He provides “everything a teacher needs to know to duplicate the experience and, hopefully, build on it.”

Zulama Courses

Storytelling in Games
Zulama offers a 15-hour course called Storytelling in Games that is perfect for bringing game narratives into middle school English classes. In the course students create a game story through The Hero’s Journey.

Screenwriting
We also offer a full-semester Screenwriting course (co-developed with Chris) that helps high school students understand, critique, and write dramatic stories for movies, games, and television.

Computer Science and Game Design Certificate (professional learning)
If you want to learn more about games and game design yourself, the Computer Science and Game Design Certificate is a great option! Offered jointly by the Computer Science Teachers Association and Zulama, this 30-hour online course is a fun, rigorous introduction to both computer science and game design concepts.

Edutopia: Using Games for Serious Learning in High School

Social Studies teacher Matt Farber has written a book on game-inspired learning. In this Edutopia article he dives into a few more great story-rich games and how they could be used in schools to enhance students’ learning.

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This post is part of a blog series in support of our new professional development opportunity, the Computer Science and Game Design Certificate, co-developed with the Computer Science Teachers Association. For more on the intersection of computer science and professional development, read the previous posts in the series:

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