The Role of Narrative in Game Play

How important is a narrative to game play? It is a no-brainer to answer this question in the context of an RPG or an adventure game. The story is the crux of the game. Period. But, how important is it to an educational game? Again, a reasonable answer is that it is important. The story engages the player and will keep them playing. Making a personal connection with characters in the game will provide the motivation to solve even the most difficult problems. The narrative can add context to problem solving and make it easy to throw a spotlight on applications. One of the earliest papers I read when I started the Learning, Design, and Technology program at Stanford was about making learning fun, in which, Malone and Lepper (1987) talk about the elements of challenge, fantasy, and curiosity as key elements in a game that foster engagement. Their idea of endogenous fantasy, where the narrative and gameplay are intertwined, is central to our game design process. In ProblemScape, the math problem solving and gameplay are built into the narrative and not grafted over it.

The next question is more important for educational games: What effect does a narrative have on the learning outcome? Well, according to a meta study done at SRI Education (2014), games with a narrative were actually less effective than games without a narrative, and the entertainment value of simulations and games did not significantly affect learning outcome. Ouch! Does that mean we should close shop? I don’t think so and neither does the study.

“[While] meta-analyses aggregate research conditions into categories that sound highly generalizable, the included research conditions do not fill or equally represent the entire domain suggested by the categories. Neither this nor any other meta-analysis can thus account for all possible design approaches or the implementation quality of those approaches.

We therefore do not suggest that future research and design should focus only on the characteristics and mechanics that outperformed others in this meta-analysis. Instead, if designs around a specific characteristic demonstrated lower learning outcomes, then other designs should be investigated if that characteristic is considered critical. We argue that this implication is particularly salient regarding our findings for visual and narrative contextualization, where overarching research supports situating cognition in terms of transfer and deeper understanding (c.f., Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000), but the findings of this meta-analysis underscore challenges in terms of design implementation.“

This post has become longer than I planned, but in the interest of ending in a positive note, I would like to add a reference to another study (Black, Khan, and Huang, 2014) in which findings suggest that the narrative in game play may increase learning, understanding, and transfer of knowledge, when used in conjunction with more formal learning activities.

So, ye aspiring educational game designers out there… this is the take away: Do flex your creative muscles and build a meaningful narrative that is tied to the gameplay, and then pray that it has a positive impact in learning!


Malone, T. W., & Lepper, M. R. (1987). Making learning fun: a taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. In R. E. Snow, & M. J. Farr (Eds.), Aptitude, learning, and instruction. Conative and affective process analyses, Vol. 3 (pp. 223–253). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Clark, D., Tanner-Smith, E., Killingsworth, S . (2014). Digital Games, Design and Learning: A Systematic Review and MetaAnalysis (Executive Summary). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Bransford, J. D., A. L. Brown, and Cocking, R.R., eds. (2000). How People Learn. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.

Black, J.B., Khan, S.A.and Huang,S.C.D.(2014) Video games as grounding experiences for learning. In F. C. Blumberg (Ed.) Learning by playing: Frontiers of videogaming in education. New York: Oxford University Press

RationaleVidya Raman