Former Pixar CEO Steve Jobs once said "Story is King. No amount of technology will turn a bad story into a good story." It was 2005 and he was explaining how Pixar had been able to experience nearly a decade of hit after hit after hit. The late Apple founder noted that while many studios simply "make the movie", Pixar had no problem stopping and fixing their stories. Movies without solid stories forever remain poor movies. Except maybe Avatar. That was pretty interesting despite being a remake of Dances with Wolves and Fern Gully.
Video games have had a mixed relationship with stories. Some have enjoyed 30 years of success without much more than an introductory premise. Super Mario is told "Our Princess is in Another Castle", Sonic is told "Go" and Angry Birds don't speak but watch in a silent cutscene as their eggs are stolen. Other games have more more interesting storylines. Zeldabegan almost 30 years as a stand alone adventure and now it's games take the gamers through a new stage of mythology with each adventure. BioShock tells a tale so complicated that I wasn't able to understand it despite listening to a student rail about it for 30 minutes on a bus trip, and Skyrim, a game I've never played, must have some sort of plotline as it's 50 GB in size. In short, stories need not be large and complex in video games, though they certainly can be. What is true though is that every game at least has some sort of scenario. There may not be complicated mythology behind it, but you and end in mind with checkpoints along the way and a promise of some sort of resolution.
My first year with Gamification, I had no narrative. To be fair, this was not an intentional choice, I simply ran out of time to make one prior to the course starting. My students were simply players and they had to get points. The more points they got, the better. To win the game, they needed more points than other people. It worked just fine for some, but many saw it as no different than normal school. As I said yesterday, the lack of avatars and ownership crippled the game. Likewise, the complete lack of narrative made the course less of a "Game", and more of "School with some game pieces". It was fine, but not ideal.
In my dissertation research, one thing that's become clear over and over is the importance of narrative. More than being something that's "fun", narrative in games (and courses) contributes to something called "Flow State Theory" in which the user ultimately finds themselves so immersed in the activity that they lose track of time and self. This is the reason people spend days building model trains or months rehearsing for a show, or a year training for a race. The motivation behind the event is such that the user loses themselves in the "flow". Most students, I'd be willing to bet, get into a "flow" in one class or another, but very few experience this in all courses. English, especially for those who won't be English majors, usually ceases to be compelling once the students stop reading "fun" books and start reading "good" books. After that, the "flow" is gone. Narrative in the gamified course is essential to get it back.
With several weeks left in summer, I'm busy retooling the 3D GameLab but more importantly, I'm writing the narrative for the course. My narrative is less of a minute to minute story, and more of a frame for each unit. My students will play the role of TimeTravelers from the 22nd century seeking content from the past with which to repopulate the creatively barren. It sounds pretty goofy, I realize, but it's a frame with which to focus the main QUEST units. Each QUEST will begin with a video cutscene with me, and possibly some other teachers, explaining the students' purpose in a given time period, as well as acting out the consequences from the previous unit. Students have a two fold challenge of answering questions and gathering data, while also hunting for the mi They'll begin by traveling all the way back to Anglo-Saxon days and moving forward through British literature as they learn to re-teach society how literature reflects society, how to analyze and create stories, and what elements are found in all canonical tales. The cutscenes will serve as rewards, motivators, but more importantly simply something fun to add to the "flow" of the course. A game without a story of scenario really isn't much of a game for long.
While the videos aren't done just yet, look for them to be posted on the website in the next few weeks. Once they're finished, I'll be happy to share the beginnings of the plot line, though I'm keeping the end a secret until June. The students need some sort of surprise. (At least that's my story, and I'm sticking with it...)