Gamified Storytelling: what and how?

Bowen Sun
Bowen Sun
Jan 5, 2018 · 8 min read

Games and stories are two popular forms of entertainment. We have been reading stories since childhood. We love playing all sorts of games, from simple candy crash to more complicated ones such as League of Legends, which usually involve a storyline and multiple characters. Games can include stories, but can we do it the other way around by applying gamified features, such as role-playing, into storytelling? In this article, I would like to discuss whether stories can be gamified and what does it take to make a successful gamified story.

Make it fun to stay, and people will stay for fun!

Before tacking that question, I would like to explain what is gamification? According to Yu-Kai Chou, a world-leading gamification and behavioural designer,

Gamification is the craft of deriving fun and engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world or productive activities.

In other words, gamification could be anything that optimizes human motivation — in any system you could think of, such as learning, website promotion, and of course, in storytelling.

Yu-Kai Chou further proposed eight core drives of gamification in his well-received book: Actionable Gamification, Beyond Points, Badges and Leaderboards. Here I listed these core drives with one-sentence explanation as a general reference, and later I will discuss some of these drives in detail with a case study.

1. Epic Meaning and calling, where a player believes that he is doing something greater than himself or he was chosen to do something;

2. Development and accomplishment, which refers to people’s internal drive of making progress, developing skills and eventually overcoming challenges;

3. Empowerment of creativity and feedback, which is when users are engaged a creative process where they have to repeatedly figure things out and try different combinations.

4. Ownership and possession, where the users are motivated because they feel like they own something.

5. Social influence and relatedness, which incorporates all the social elements that drive people;

6. scarcity and impatience: which is the drive of wanting something because you don’t have it.

7. Unpredictability and curiosity: the drive of wanting to find out what happens next.

8. Loss and avoidance: the drive based on the avoidance of something negative happening.

Source: Yu Kai Chou “Gamification and Behavioral Design”:

The next question would be: how can these principles be incorporated into storytelling? Here I would like to use the above-mentioned principles to analyze Inside the Haiti Earthquake project, discuss whether this documentary followed the gamification rules, and what are the effects.

Since most of us have never gone through a devastating disaster, it is hard for us to imagine how the aftermath of a severe earthquake might look like. Featuring the devastating earthquake which killed more than 200,000 people in 2010, Inside the Haiti Earthquake project created first-person simulation, inviting the audience to experience the aftermath as a survivor, journalist or humanitarian worker. The aim of this project, as stated in their press release, is to raise public awareness on how to respond to crisis situation and deliver humanitarian aid, especially in a poverty-stricken country like Haiti.

screenshot from “Inside the Haiti Earthquake” project

The first rule I would like to discuss in this documentary is “Epic Meaning and calling”, which I mean, from the storytelling point of view, is to assign your audience with a clear mission and immerse them into the story background through realistic simulation. The aim of this step is to motivate the audience with a sense of responsibility(which comes from their “mission”), and prepare them to follow the internal logic of the story.

In Inside the Haiti Earthquake project, audience are asked to choose one from three roles, and each role assigns them with a specific task. For example, if you choose to be the journalist, your mission is to create a two-minute feature story with a consistent and a strong point of view. The audience’s immersive feeling is further strengthened through real-life simulation. For example, when you’re shooting in this story, your footage will be shown as if in a real-life camera monitor, which simulates a journalist’s real work. Small details like this will enhance the feeling of being immersed into a virtual environment.

simulation in “Inside the Haiti Earthquake” project

The second rule employed in this documentary is “Unpredictability and Curiosity”. As Chou said, “if you don’t know what’s going to happen next, your brain is engaged and you think about it often.” My interpretation of this rule in storytelling is, a story, no matter how realistic its simulations is, can not be called an engaging experience if the audience can only sit there and observe without taking actions. Therefore, audience need to follow the storyline, take action, and have expectation and curiosity for “what’s next” after their action.

But that is not enough. As Michael Mateas points out in his research “A preliminary poetics for interactive drama and games”,

audience may not get satisfaction if they feel having too many things to do without getting any sense of why any one action would be preferable than another. Though the player can take action, the action is not often tied to a high-level user intention. In this case, adding more material opportunities will not help the matter. The problem is not a lack of options of things to do, the problem is having insufficient formal constraint to decide between choices. Users’ choices can’t come from nowhere.

To put it simply, story designers need to provide the audience with enough information to make justifiable actions. This is not just about giving audience enough space to explore or enough actions to choose from, there needs to be enough information for the audience to justify why one is better than the other. Otherwise, insufficient information will result in confusion and low-level engagement: why would anyone bother to think if all choices feel like the same?

Still taking Inside the Haiti Earthquake as an example, the designer has done a good job in asking the audience to make justifiable decisions based on real-life scenarios. For instance, in the journalist section, If you see someone being trampled in a riot, do you drop your camera and help her, or do you keep filming? If the interview you got contradicts with your previous point of view, do you still include it in your story, or skip it? These questions are closely related to the story situation itself and can reflect the audience’s personal values. Through thinking and analyzing the situation, the audience’s intellectual engagement and their understanding of the theme are greatly enhanced.

Real-life scenario question from “Inside the Haiti Earthquake” project

The third principle I would like to discuss is “Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback”. As Chou explains, this is not just the process of trying new things out, but the audience need to be able to see the results of their creativity, receive feedback and respond in turn.

Michael Mateas shares a similar view that “ transformation as variety is necessary to make interaction really matter”.

If every time a player enters the dramatic world, roughly the same story events occur regardless of the actions taken by the player, the players’ interaction would seem inconsequential. The player would actually have no real effect on the story.

So, let’s put their concept in a storytelling point of view, no matter how immersive a story might look like, it may not be a satisfying one, if the effect of the audience’s action does not relates to their intention. If there are many choices for the audience to choose from, but none of their results will influence the story line, the audience will soon lose interest since there is no point in engaging with it; If the audience can manipulate the story by making different choices, but the result of their manipulation falls short of their expectation, the audience may feel even more disappointed.

In Inside the Haiti Earthquake project, the choices of the audience will influence the development of the storyline, and the excitement of unpredicted result motivates them to move forward in the story. For example, when choosing narratives, will you describe it as “the humanitarian aid is chaotic, and is endangering the people it meant to help.” Or as “In the slum of Cite Soleil, starving Haitian riot at a humanitarian food distribution”? If you chose the second one, later you’ll find out your interviewee said “It happens just because people are hungry”. Will you include this clip in your footage? If yes, your story views will be contradictory, which is against your mission; If no, your producer will remind you not to blame the victims.

users are able to influence the story and get unpredicted result from “Inside the Haiti Earthquake” project

However, after playing it several times, I found out that the audience’s influence to the storyline is still limited, because the story always end up in the same result. For instance, the journalist will lose his job anyway because the story is designed in such a way that the last interview you got is totally unrelated to your previous story — no matter what choices you make. I am afraid this will leave a bitter taste in the audience’s mouth. Anyway, who wants to lose?

I guess the project is designed in this way because this documentary needs to convey a particular message: it is really difficult to deliver humanitarian aid in a poor country. And the story designer doesn’t want to lose his point of view. But the challenges are, does the designer have to hold the final say in his hand in order to convey a message? Is it possible for the audience to experience something new each time they play? How can we create an experience which will give audience more freedom of exploration while maintaining the author’s point of view?

So, what is the effect of implementing gamification into storytelling? If designed properly, a gamified story will immerse the audience into the virtual environment, allow the audience to constantly face challenges, make judgements, and be taken to different storylines based on their responses. And who would turn away from a dynamic and fun story like this?

Overall, the experience in Inside the Haiti Earthquake project is both engaging and satisfying for the first-time viewers. We as storytellers, or anyone who needs to convey a message through fun experience, needs to think about the balance between “keeping your audience engaged” and “having author’s point of view”.

Bowen Sun

About the author: Bowen Sun is currently studying M.A. in Digital and Interactive Storytelling Lab at University of Westminster. Determined to transform digital insights into tangible solutions. Welcome to find more about me through Linkedin:


Y. K. Chou (2015). Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards, 1st ed. Octalysis Media.

Y. K. Chou (2015). Human-Focused Design: The Better Term for Gamification. Available from[Accessed 1st January, 2018].

PTV Productions INC. (2010). Inside Disaster Haiti Press Kit. Available from [Accessed 14th February, 2018].

M. Mateas (2001). A preliminary poetics for interactive drama and games. Available from [Accessed 29th December, 2017].