Imagine you’re a teacher or parent and you understand a concept and want to explain it to someone. You could simply write up your understanding or demonstrate how it works.
Most people, however, learn through reading and listening combined with hands on experience. Experience turns information into knowledge. Experience exposes nuances and reinforces information you find through reading or listening. Experience also provides repetition and choices, also key to understanding.
Game play is one way to create controlled experiences to convey information and expose people to the nuances of a subject.
The problem? There is no formal definition of game play. Indeed, it’s often spelled gameplay. And it’s a term used mostly in the video game world. However, using experience to turn information into knowledge applies to almost all things we do and learn.
For this article, I’ve split the word to help emphasize two useful aspects, game and play.
One Definition of Game Play
For video gamers, game play is the set of experiences you encounter as well as all possible alternate paths. A good game builds on the users’ past experience with the game and provides different routes to the same or different goals.
For example, characters in a game could be limited to certain actions which, in turn, define the paths they can follow. This mirrors life where infants can’t do what adults can do. If every character had God-like power, no limitations, the game would quickly turn boring. It’s the combination of limitations and paths (the game) with the repetitive engagement by the player to follow the paths (the play part).
The game designer Sid Meier defined game play as “a series of interesting choices.” The book, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, defines game play as “One or more causally linked series of challenges in a simulated environment.”
For our purposes, the word challenges and simulated environment at least suggest limitations and choices. And Meier’s use of the word interesting hints at another important part of game play, telling stories.
Game Play and Storytelling
In video games, as in real life, stories are told based on what the listener sees, hears, and reads. A game on a blasted alien planet tells stories different from a game set in a world full of bright colors where all the lawns are solid green in color, the beaches solid tan.
Storytelling happens to be a useful and practical way to understand game play. Stories have clear actions, strong characters whose needs often conflict, and a simple structure. Stories also require characters make choices based on their needs and what is available to them. Their choices define them and drive the story, the same as real life (and video games).
Stories also use repetition, variety, and gestures. If you want to convey information, you also need to know what to repeat, how to express the information in different ways, and short hand ways to describe key points.
If you want bullet points, stories work if they have these elements:
- Engage the audience with characters and problems
- Build a scene by stating the problem
- Build tension
- Release tension
- Describe only key details
- Follow a logical flow of events
- End conclusively
Probably most important, stories only work if the listener can imagine themselves in the story, no matter how wacky or unreal. My daughter married a raccoon in one of her games, years ago, then excitedly ran down the hall to tell me. Last I checked, she’s not a raccoon or married but she was able to imagine herself in the story and game play of her game.
How to Turn Information into a Game
People have hired me to translate technology into words and phrases normal non-technical people understand. The official title is technical writer. But the process of writing and connecting with readers is the same as storytelling. You begin by understanding your technology and the person who needs to use it.
A great storyteller learns their story deeply then adapts the story based on their audience.
Oddly enough, this is the same process I learned when selling life insurance early in my career: learn the product then shut up and listen as the customer describes what they need, then match whatever parts of the product match the needs of the customer. Many life insurance sales people are pushy, indeed. But the successful ones learn, listen, then engage.
The key to storytelling and game play, in other words, is the person who will experience the game or story. You begin where they are in terms of needs, expectations, interests, and experience. Then you go to all the information available and edit based on what the listener tells you about problems they encounter. You also edit based on time. And you edit based on what interests the listener.
For example, teaching a topic where people often make mistakes due to subtle differences in how things work, your game might cause failure deliberately. And each failure might explain the subtle difference the listener missed then give them opportunity to choose again. If they make the wrong choice, you repeat the failure scenario. If they make the right choice, then you present the next concept to learn and offer new choices. The cycle of choices followed by success or failure creates experience. The cycle of choices also creates tension then releases tension which, in turn, keeps the listener engaged.
The cycles of choices followed by success or failure also is a story. And it’s also game play.
When you turn information into a game, or story, the start and end are also critical. The start often explains the key problem faced by the listener. You might find the start captures attention visually, or with a dire scenario, but the listener only engages if you’ve stated the problem they’ll learn and understand in your game. The end also reinforces both the key problem faced by the listener and the solutions and insights they’ve learned through experience.
In practical terms, the start of any story is written last when you know your ending. You also can’t know the end until you know the middle of the story. The middle, therefore, is created first based on the information you need to convey then sorted based on the needs and experience of the listener.
With fiction, characters with their needs and quirks drive the cycles of success and failure that make up the middle of a story. With information, the listener’s problems with the information determine these cycles of success and failure.