Story and the illusion of influence

Michiel van Eunen Michiel van Eunen

One of the key aspects in gamification is the ‘illusion of influence’; to give the player the idea that she can affect the nature, development, condition or outcome of whatever she is manipulating. Any form of interaction is always more memorable and more interesting than just ‘receiving’ information. So where does this leave ‘story’?

yellowYesterday I visited the Art of Brick exhibition with my six year old daughter. I was amazed by the great works of Lego brick-art by Nathan Sawaya, and was inspired by his story: He gave up his job as New York attorney in 2004, to go – as he told his boss – ‘play with bricks’. When I asked my daughter what she liked most about the exhibition, I was actually not very surprised when she answered ‘playing with lego’. (The last room of the expo was a playing room full of tables with Lego bricks, where inspired kids & parents were creating their own great pieces). I tried a second time: ‘What did you like besides playing with the bricks?’. ‘Using the storymachine’, she replied. audiotourIn every room she would walk up to the sign next to an object and punch in the depicted code on her audioguide, resulting in a short explanation. ‘Ok, and what Lego statue or painting did you like the most?’, I tried. ‘Eeeehm…. ‘. She couldn’t think of one.

When I develop a game or an event, I always make a big deal of creating an engaging backstory. First line of input is usually the ‘dry information’. It could be a learning goal,  a commercial goal, a mindset, a specific task or a type of behavior change. As a gamification designer I could use any game mechanic or off the rack gamification ‘solution’ to create interaction. But for the interaction to be both effective and meaningful, I find it extremely inspiring to use a great story. This could be a pratical case, an archetypal character, an appealing theme or a famous legend.


When I use a setting like ‘Robin Hood’, the context is immediately clear to the players; There is a hero (Robin Hood) there is a team / are teams of players (Robins gang), who all have their own competences and there are clear goals (steal from the poor & give to the rich, get lady Marian, annoy the Sheriff of Nottingham). The  joint reference makes it easy to relate to the story. From here I can create puzzles, games, challenges & interactions that are meaningful to the players and relate tot the original goal (or ‘dry information’).

For example, if a company would ask me to devise a teambuilding game in which coworkers should work together, I would make a ‘Robin Hood’ spinoff in which they have to work together to steal from a revenue officer driving a coach loaded with gold through their forest. By doing so players are easily inspired and activated, and often surprised by (hidden) competences of their selves and other players.
I’ve been using ‘story’ in this way for 10 years in my eventcompany, and this is what I notice time after time: Story is the perfect way to translate ‘dry’ objectives into active and meaningful experiences & interactions that have a lasting effect. Meaningful interaction has the biggest ‘I‘, which stands for Influence; For the amount of Impact that you have on the world around you, or your thoughts, and of any outcome.