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Design Book

Narrative, as a Designer

It’s interesting how the definition of narrative shifts, completely dependent on the role of those defining it. A writer will see a narrative differently than a gamer, who will see it differently than a designer. For me, a gamer and writer turned designer, narrative is a foundational element of design and an integral part of most games, educational or commercial. A narrative ties the content to the mechanics, and creates a story that connects the game to the player, activating their emotions and helping store the content in their long-term memory. 

Connecting a player’s emotions to the content being learned is a staple of game and learning design. Affective design creates an emotional relationship between the learner and the content, helping store knowledge for future use. The importance of affective design in learning is clear to see in any classroom in the world. Students will focus more and learn more effectively when they have a connection to the content and care about what they are learning. My own experience as a teacher taught me that the ability to connect with your students is the single most important teaching skill to have. This is also true in game design. Part of the reason games like Last of Us and Shadow of Mordor are so popular is because players can identify and connect with their characters emotionally. They feel the visceral emotions of Joel when he learns (spoilers!!!) that Ellie must die in the process of creating a cure. (spoilers over) They identify with Talion as he finds vengeance for his family in a final showdown with the Black Hand who killed them. Even the music and audio included in games create a narrative. Vibrant, heroic music uplift the player as they progress, while foreboding, sad music follows a touching scene. Every aspect of narrative design is an attempt to connect with the player’s emotions. Once a player connects with the game emotionally, the learning and content flows. Emotions create connections, and creating connections is how people learn.  Narrative is so essential because it connects learners to the content and players to their games by using their emotions. 


Overall, narrative is an integral part of learning design and game design. As a history teacher, I always taught my students to understand the story by asking themselves a series of questions: who are the characters, what is their purpose, what is the conflict, and is there any resolution. Learning design and game design require very similar questions. The first question students ask is why does this matter? Why are they learning this lesson, or playing this game? With good learning design and game design that connects with players emotionally, the answer should be, because they care.


Narrative, at its core, helps people care. I can’t think of anything more vital to a lesson or a game. 

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