Coming into gamification from behavioral science, I found it very easy to focus on mechanics. I was able to say things like, “Points will work in this context because they show the user clear, immediate feedback on how their actions relate to their progress towards a goal that they care about” and “A streak counter will work here because users currently have avoidance goals and the loss aversion that comes with a streak counter will feed into and enhance that.”

I was focusing on mechanics because they felt like natural ways to apply behavioral science interventions.

However, after going to Gamicon and speaking with Naomi Pariseault and Javier Velazquez (the 2018 and 2019 winners of the overall excellence in gamification award respectively), I realized that I underestimated the power of a real story.

Before, I had been thinking about a story in very narrow terms. I thought of it as connecting your present actions to a long-term outcome you’re working towards and giving those actions meaning. I thought of it as an analogy that you can set to what the user is doing that helps them to visualize their progress towards a goal. Thinking about it in these terms allowed me to essentially come up with mechanics and name them fun things so that they related to those concepts of what makes a story.

Now I see it differently. While those theories still hold true, that only addresses the core of the story. The story can be something bigger, like something you might read in a novel, and that can keep you on the hook. Beyond just being an analogy, it can have actual progression through a series of events.

Naomi worked with a professor at Brown to create a gamified online course that explores what it means to be human through classic literature. Together with the professor, they wrote a winding tale that had a series of events, where there were two NPCs (non-playable characters) that guided you and asked questions that inspired you to complete certain tasks along the way. These characters were incredibly relatable and well-written, and so the player empathized with them, deepening their immersion, and, because of the story, they were on the hook to learn what came next.

A real story (rather than just an analogy) can give the players a very meaningful sense of progress that goes beyond just leveling up.

Javier worked with Bancolombia to try to reduce the amount of cash that employees used and start transitioning them towards cards. He framed the whole gamification system within a story- there’s the evil Cash Inc, a corporation that’s trying to rule the world. You are among a group of secret agents that are trying to take it down. All of the missions that you receive help you to make cashless transactions, fight Cash Inc, and they all push the story forward. When you were looking at and accepting those missions, you really felt like a secret agent- you opened them up by placing your thumb on a “fingerprint scanner” and the text describing the missions fits with the theme of the story.

A real story can empower the player. Game mechanics and the story can support each other and give more meaning to each. A real story can give context to all of your actions AND make them more interesting.

I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say what the concrete impacts of their projects were, but the satisfaction and success that their users had in completing their course and changing their spending behaviors was jaw-dropping.

Behavioral science can give us better ways to understand a story- to understand what makes it effective, what holds it back, and how it impacts people’s actions. Combining the theoretical knowledge with the sheer creativity of a storyteller just makes everything more interesting. Behavioral science is at the core of gamification, but gamification is both an art and a science. I seriously underestimated the power of a well-written story.