Reaching a New Demographic

by Rachel Baker on March 7, 2011

This morning, I read a fascinating interview with world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal.  She is also the author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Press).  What made this interview fascinating is what she said about gamers and the story-telling aspects of a game.

Question: Publishers are increasingly thinking about the way games compete for the attention of their customers, and it’s been said that gaming is a new medium for storytelling. Is gaming affecting the way we tell or think about stories?

Answer: That’s an interesting question, because a lot of the most popular games today don’t have stories in them. But the storytelling you do get is the story of the gamer’s experience. It’s a story of starting out with nothing, not knowing what to do, figuring it out, working hard, getting better, triumphing, and making something meaningful out of the experience. A lot of game designers, when they talk about storytelling in games, they’re really talking about the gamer going through a sort of heroic journey. And I do think the story of the heroic journey is the archetypal story for the gamer generation. So, yes, gaming does affect storytelling. It can change the way gamers choose to tell stories about themselves, and it can certainly affect the kind of stories we are drawn to in other media.

I also thought a little blurb about the demographics was pretty interesting:

Question: Can you help us understand who gamers are? I think the publishing community will be especially interested in some of these demographics.

Answer: The average gamer is 35 years old. About 40% of gamers are women. One in four gamers is 50 years old or older. We know that 97% of boys under the age of 18 in the U.S. report playing games regularly, and 94% of girls. And we’re really seeing this shift where under a certain age, there’s no gender distinction at all. Games are just the medium we live with today, like TV was to previous generations. We’re even beginning to see generations starting to bridge, where the over-50 generation, who didn’t grow up with these games, connects with games through their grandkids.

Let’s talk about the definition of gamer, before we go any further.  Gamers are no longer those who play video games in front of the tv with joysticks and controllers that eat cheetos and nothing else.  McGonigal’s demographic above shows us that.  But more importantly, there’s a few things we need to remember…gamers play games on their computers, iphones, androids, xboxs, playstations, and wii.  In my household alone, we have computers, androids, ipods, xbox with kinect, and we play games on at least two of the devices every day, some weekends, we are playing on three or four at a time.  I think its easy to say, we are a gaming family.  And, this does not include blackjack or every word on Kindle that I’ve been known to sit and play. To go one step further, outside my immediate household, my mom and I have just started playing Words with Friends on our phones.

Now, I bet you are asking how all this relates to all things book-ish, and why would I spend valuable editorial time writing something about this.  Well, for a couple of years now, we’ve been rpg players (role playing games).  We like games like Oblivion, Fallout, and Dragon Age – all games that allow us to be the hero character; and all games that allow us to take a journey through a story where our actions and decisions shape the game to a certain degree.

I like these types of games because they do for me what really good books do – they allow me to immerse myself in the story and become a part of the journey.  It doesn’t matter if the journey is the time taken to read a book from beginning to end or starting at the character creator, getting out of jail and making my way to the big battle scene where I battle a dragon and save the world.  These are the exact same journeys – with no real differences in story telling techniques at all.  They only real difference is the medium.

In the previously mentioned interview, McGoningal ends with where books could go – interactive where you control the storyline.  She says:

I think that there are lots of ways to make books more social and personal, not just interactive, so that there is another emotional, sort of adventurous quality to them.

I think this is already being done to a degree.  You can certainly purchase games made from popular books – Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings comes immediately to mind.  I think one of the major challenges is not to make interactive additions to books but instead to allow one to create their own hero character for these types of games.  Both of the games mentioned are games where you have to be the main hero character.  The games I like (rgps mentioned above) are games where who the main character isn’t really defined as much as it is stated the user is the main character (Dragon Age gives you a bit more of a structure in who you start out as, but there are several beginning stories to choose from).  I don’t want to be harry potter – but I’d like to play out the story as me.

When the game Alan Wake came out,  I was incredibly excited about the concept – but it fell short in its execution.  The story is about an author who has to save his wife by writing a story…only he doesn’t know he’s already written the story.  The game was marketed as Stephen King-esque. The game used the element of darkness as a metaphor for the author’s writers block and for all the bad things that was happening – classic storytelling technique. I couldn’t wait for the game to come out. From an avid reader’s perspective, sounds cool, right?  Except there’s dead people in the dark who can be killed by the light, and you have to run place to place in the dark trying to kill the dead people; and  you don’t have any freedom in the game and the only places you can explore are the places the game tells you to explore.  I get that one probably couldn’t actually write a complete story via a game play sitting – mostly because I think the programming parameters would be insane, and at this point it may be unable to actually be done.  But while the story was interesting, the game play was extremely limited and disappointed.  Alan Wake could have been incredibly enjoyable to someone like me who spends her time reading and writing, and likes the interactivity of role playing games.

Kinect is here, now.  I’m really interested in seeing what sort of storyline immersion gamers will be able to achieve in the future with Kinect. I think the possibilities could be incredible.  With Kinect, I may not mind being Harry Potter, because I’m actually doing the work physically, not just sitting on my butt with a controller in my hand pushing a button to cast spells.  I think Kinect has a unique opportunity to reach across storytelling mediums more than any other gaming platform available.  Hell, I may even really enjoy being Harry with two others playing Hermoine and Ron – even if I know how it all ends.

Game designers need to understand something really important though when they develop epic games that the bookish sect of society will enjoy – readers like to immerse themselves in a story – that’s the main draw to great fiction.  Sure, there are readers who enjoy games that are based on the idea of just shooting zombies, the hard core reader however will crave a game where they can explore the landscape, problem solve and test the very borders of the plot limitations and define their character’s attributes.

I, for one, don’t really care about whether I can make an interactive character from one of my favorite books to play with on my phone or as my avatar on xbox or as a game I can play online with friends via some social networking platform – I do care that I can play a game where I get to define what my favorite character looks like, how they reach the final climax in the story and what type of ‘person’ that character is.  But I also want to be able to try multiple things with the character.  One of the great re-playability aspects of the Fallout Games is you can play the game as a saint or a son-of-a-bitch; and in some ways it does change whether or not something is easy to accomplish in the game or not.  If you blow up Megaton, you have to deal with the Tenpenny people for the first few levels of the game and frankly, Tenpenny people suck.  However, when I’m reading a book – no matter how great the book is, I always think about what I would have done differently as the author; or I wonder what would have happened if the character took one action over another, and how would that have changed the outcome of the story.  Gaming gives a reader the ability to explore these aspects of the reading experience that aren’t really available right now to hardcore readers. To put it simply, I agree with McGonigal, gaming makes the storytelling experience something I’ve created.

Something  that must also be said, spending the last couple years playing RPGs has taken my reading back into the fantasy genre, which was something that I’d not delved into since I was in my late teens.  The reason for this is purely academic – I’m completely intrigued by the influence of the fantasy literary genre on game developers. Often times, you can see subtle tributes to authors and books in games.  I can’t help but wonder what authors they read or have read over their lifetimes.  I think because of the subtle literary references in games there’s already a natural transference between the gaming industry and the reading/publishing industry; and I think that developers, in a sense, are authors by their own rights. I understand there are writers, but I think the developers who bring the story to life are probably as close to authors as the writers of a game are.  To put it in more simple terms, the developers are creating the the story-scapes that readers expect from their favorite authors.  So, when I look at the games I enjoy, I can’t help but see influences of the great authors of the fantasy genre. Despite genre, all authors show who the influential authors are in their writing.  Its really not much different with RPGs.  Thus, I want to read more of what I’m enjoying.

With the advent of new technologies in the gaming, reading/publishing, and interactive technologies, I’m extremely interested in seeing what options there will be for me to combine my technological passions.  I’m willing to wait for the epic all-inclusive game, and I’m willing to trudge through some real bombs as developers try to figure this stuff out – as long as the end result is my ability to come close to having my own holo-deck with my favorite holo-novels loaded for my interactive pleasure.

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