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June 16, 2019
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Emotion, Reverse Engineered

by Sande Chen on 03/09/17 09:50:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topic of Emotive Games.]


What does 'storytelling' mean to you?

It's curious to parse the exact meaning of words, but as we know from comparing the game industry to the tech sector, even job titles don't exactly mean the same from one company to the next.

I noticed a similar disconnect when I attended a storytelling event last year.  The first speaker was a game design professor who spoke eloquently about storytelling in games while the second speaker, a marketer, spoke about storytelling in a very different way.  A marketer is more interested in how the audience connects with a brand and it's the brand story that needs to be repeated.  But, both game designers and marketers recognize that storytelling has the power to connect with an audience through emotional means.

I think most writers strive to connect emotionally on a universal level. By that, I mean even if the nitty gritty details are about life in a slum, people can still recognize a story about perseverance, about rising above poverty and succeeding.  Marketers, though, tend to craft a message or story based on the preferences of the target audience.  A marketer asks, "What already resonates with my audience?" rather than trying to elicit emotion anew.  Then, the marketer provides the story that fits the target audience.

For example, AI software can analyze social media texts to determine personality traits like "adventuresome," "achievement striving," and "openness to change."  If the brand's story is about "achievement striving," then targeting the "achievement striving" results in 30% more engagement and sentiment.  If the target audience now associates the brand to an "achievement striving" lifestyle, that's a success.

In fact, social psychologists say that it may be hard to connect with audience members with different viewpoints from the author.  In analyzing liberals and conservatives, Professor Matt Feinberg and sociologist Robb Willer found that liberals value benevolence, nurturance, equality, and social justice whereas conservatives prize highly group loyalty, authority, and purity.  So, the thought of garbage left in a forest resonates more strongly with a conservative than the devastation on wildlife due to deforestation. By understanding these differences, a writer can reframe the message to the audience's moral values.

By writing this piece, I don't mean to suggest that we should all start writing to the audience.  After all, creative work can have different audience interpretations.  I just think it's interesting to note how a related field tackles the issue of how to create emotional connection in storytelling.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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