How Much Story Does a Serious Game Need?

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In serious games, story is a narrative that either weaves through an entire game or sets up the reason you are playing the game and elaborates on the theme. The type of story and level of detail you need will depend on your learning goal.

Some in the corporate learning field get nervous about using “too much” story for obvious reasons. Will the story be too “out there” for some learners? Will a story that is too detailed exclude certain learners or make them feel the game does not apply to them?

Should I use a story?

Sharon Boller wrote extensively on this subject in her Learning Game Design Blog Series. When deciding whether to use story, or how much story to use, it’s important to ask two questions:

  • Would story add to this game? Include story when you need to evoke emotion in players and motivate them to play.
  • Can story be used as a learning tool? Research shows that incorporating story and even fantasy elements into games can help embed memories. You also might be able to make the story mirror a real-life situation for learners, either literally or metaphorically.

 

Should I combine my story with a theme?

When we think of story, we often think of theme at the same time. A game’s theme is essentially a backdrop or collection of aesthetic elements. In the board game Smallworld, the theme is a beautifully illustrated fantasy island with many topographies. The story connects to the theme: you are one of many races vying for control of a small island that is not big enough for all of you. The game’s story is simple and intentionally vague, but it is effective because it is combined with a lovely theme and well-done aesthetics.

Smallworld board game, ® Days of Wonder

Smallworld board game, ® Days of Wonder

How much story do I need?

The level of story will depend on how immersive your game needs to be. For a complex game teaching high-level skills, you might require a level of story bordering on simulation-worthy realism. For a game teaching foundational knowledge and simple skills, a complex story might be unnecessary.

Each time we develop a new theme pack for Knowledge Guru, we try carefully to develop a story that is simple yet fun… and does not distract from whatever content users put into the game. We also carefully link the game’s story to the aesthetic elements of the theme.

Knowledge Guru theme pack

In the new fairytale-themed “Knowledge Hero,” players learn about a Dark Wizard who has locked up all the knowledge in the land.

These simple stories create a feeling of interest and novelty, yet have nothing to do with the actual content or “knowledge” the user has inputted into their game.

New Knowledge Guru theme packs

Even when the theme is pretty “out there” (like our new Space Aliens theme), the story is always fairly straightforward.

You should also consider how a simple story can be more business-centric, which will be more suited to certain players.

Knowledge Guru business theme

We created three different “business” themes that combine a corporate feel with fun and whimsy.

The truth? The type of story and amount of story you need completely depends on your learning goal. Make sure story is being used as learning tool and not a distraction.

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