Stories we play: Canadian researchers explore narrative in gamification

Princess and the peanut-MyFoodFacts-CommerceLab.48 PM

If you’re playing a game, it’s okay to think of yourself as a hero. Whether you’re motivated purely by points or a fairytale ending is another matter.

While gamification is widely recognized as a technique for educating the public in ways that are engaging and fun, there are still questions about what ingredients are essential for its success. A group of researchers at the University of Waterloo is exploring one of these possible ingredients in a project that pairs a mobile app with the storyline of a children’s book to see what role narrative plays in gameplay.

In Applications as Stories (R. Langer, A. H. West, M. Hancock, N. Randal), a paper presented at the 2013 CHI Workshops in April, the researchers discuss how storytelling techniques like timelines, fantasy and suspense can “help guide people from novice to expert use.” More specifically, they are using a children’s book called The Princess and the Peanut and adapting it as part of a gamification project using MyFoodFacts, an iPhone app created by Visdatec Inc. which scans barcodes on food packaging and identifies products that contain dangerous allergens.

“Mysteries and cliffhangers will be designed to keep players interested in exploring and using the application,” the paper says. “The plot of the game will map the most important features and instructional content to the most emotional, shocking, and/or humorous events in the story, so as to make the most important content also the most memorable. Avatars in the game will reflect the players who control them, with an avatar’s special powers and limitations relating to the player’s own allergies.”

Though still a work in progress, the University of Waterloo researchers say there are already some challenges and potential limitations of using narrative in gamification. These include coming up with a compelling story, having enough time to convey it as part of a game and the way plots can overtly influence the players.

“If a person has already decided on a specific, concrete plan of action, our approach may, in some cases, be perceived to interfere with their goals,” the paper says. “As a result, story-based design may be more appropriate for software that users may find daunting, complex or unfamiliar, or for software aimed at those who have a nebulous goal – such as self-improvement or safety.”

More details on the project will be published in Designing gamification: Creating gameful and playful experiences — CHI 2013 Extended Abstracts later this year.


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