The Psychology of Storytelling and Gamification

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on January 20
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 Gamification_Storytelling_MarketScale.jpgCan we locate the secret power of stories and“re-install” that power into other texts, like batteries in an old toy? Might we somehow perform some Frankenstein-ian surgical “transplant” of “story” to breathe life into non-storied forms of information?

If so, how would we identify this power? Following Freud, one answer lies in the way stories re-enact fundamental experiences of loss and recovery. Consider the common role of loss and recovery in the most familiar of storylines. A popular romance typically involves the loss and recovery of love. Mysteries and adventures are often driven by the need to recover some lost or stolen object. Conventional plot-lines from popular genres--for instance, solving a murder or finding buried treasure--enact the recovery of something lost, in one way or another.

In Freudian terms, stories engage a more fundamental, if unconscious, human anxiety over loss. By dramatizing both loss and recovery, stories offer a safe and emotionally manageable means of rehearsing deeper fears. While Freud's ideas about recovery and loss provide insight into the engaging power of stories, his thoughts on the issue actually emerged largely from his reflections on the appeal of simple childhood games. Freud first thought about the meaning of these games when watching his grandson play with a toy car. The boy would roll the car away, yelling“fort!” (gone!), then watch it come back, yelling “da” (there!). For Freud, the game of losing then regaining the toy car serves as a safe way to experience loss and recovery. According to this theory, simply playing a game of catch—or any ballgame that involves loss and recovery of a ball-- arguably provides a similarly cathartic means of rehearsing loss and return. The secret fun of game-playing lies in its capacity to provide a vicarious outlet and potential mastery over deeper anxieties that may be too difficult to confront.

 Extended to the drama of recovery and loss at work in plot lines, Freud’s ideas go beyond the notion that we enjoy stories because we relate to the characters or events they portray. Rather, stories arguably bear deep-rooted similarities to the very structure of our emotional experience. Others, of course, counter-argue that we structure knowledge of the world in “story form”because stories have trained us to think this way. Do stories mimic thought, or does thought mimic stories? 

 These are not simply just chicken-and-egg questions. They provide insight into creative attempts to inspire new storytelling strategies. Freud’s discussion of “fort/da,” loss/recovery, can also help us understand the appeal of stories: Like games, stories provide a safe experience of loss and recovery, a comforting experience of resolution that offsets unresolved unconscious fears. 

 The parallel between stories and games suggest other strategic possibilities for how to develop stories. Web developers draw on game strategies to “gamify” and enhance engagement with online sites. Gamification involves drawing on elements of game playing to optimize interaction with marketing and brand campaigns. Fundamentally, game playing structures experience in terms of winning and losing, and this structure recreates the “tensions”of loss/recovery and conflict/resolution that Freud linked to unconscious emotions. 

Freud's ideas help us better understand how we might “transfer” or find the engaging dramatic elements story in content. Perhaps the secret power of story lies in the fundamental drama of loss and recovery that drives our emotional experience of the world—a drama that can emerge in surprisingly unexpected ways.

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Topics: Creative, Content, Narrative Marketing, storytelling, Thought Leadership, STrategy

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