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Sharing Stories: Video Games, Storytelling, and the Psychology Behind it All

For over 40 years now, video games have undergone a steady evolution in everything from graphics to mechanics. Even more crazy is how exponential this growth is – the amount of time between the phasing out of one generation of games and the introduction of the next continues to shrink in size as each new generation is introduced .

In my experience I’ve found that the most critical aspect to a game isn’t how good a game looks or how easily playable it is, though those are both important; it is how compelling the story is for the intended audience. It’s because of this that I’ve realized most interesting evolution in video games is the role that they play in society. Video games have always been a source of idle entertainment for the masses since their inception. As they have developed however, they have taken on an interesting role as a medium for storytelling. There’s a bit of science involved for why this is important, but we’ll get to that.

Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us or The Walking Dead are two great examples of storytelling in video games. Both of these games are very straightforward point-and-click adventures. What makes them successful, awesome games is the story that is told through both the actions of each game’s characters and personal experiences that it delivers to the player.

It can be argued that storytelling is something best reserved for Hollywood and for bestselling authors, not for the likes of Epic, Valve, Bungie and other well-renowned developers. I disagree. Video games offer their audience something that nothing else can.  They offer a unique experience by having the player serve as an audience member while also being an active part of the story. You’re not reading a book or watching a movie that tells the story of some hero saving the world; you are the hero of that story, and your actions result in carrying out a grand adventure that hundreds of developers spent thousands of hours on.

This level of detail by the creators of a game and the interesting dual-role of both passive audience and active participant by the player gives video games a certain level of intimacy that can’t be matched by any other form of storytelling. But why should we care? What makes this development so important? Here’s where we get into the sciency bit.

In 2012, the Daily Mail wrote an article which discussed the psychological phenomenon of “experience-taking,” in which people that identify with fictional characters will begin to find themselves thinking and behaving more like that character. If you want to read up on that a bit, that article can be found here.

What makes video games so valuable to current society is their potential in shaping us as individuals. If the findings regarding experience-sharing are true, then we should be seeking out all sorts of stories to model ourselves after their best characters. Modern video games today are full of well-developed characters that are often easily relatable. For those games that don’t, their protagonists often serve instead as an ideal hero; someone that we should be inspired by and seek to emulate. And while Hollywood is more than capable of producing a solid box-office hit, I think I’d much rather have Link’s passion for adventure than Seth Rogen’s passion for partying. It is my hope that video games continue to grow into their role, and that they’ll always have a story to tell.