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Gamification Dynamics: Identity and Story

What dynamics of games can be used in gamification, and how can they be used? Badgeville's Tony Ventrice has identified several, and in this latest installment of his series, explores how identity and story function in games.

Tony Ventrice

February 20, 2012

19 Min Read

[In the first installment of this series on gamification, Badgeville's Tony Ventrice looked to frame the discussion around what's possible with gamification by attempting to discover what makes games fun. He has already explored Growth and Emotion and Choice and Competition, and in this article, he tackles Identity and Story.]


Identity describes the attributes that make an individual unique. At its most literal level, it's how we identify ourselves; a comparison of attributes against known or expected quantities. As an example, I'll start by listing a few attributes that describe myself.

I hate cantaloupe. I grew up in Northern California. I'm 31 years old. I enjoy board games.

That's not much to go on, but it's probably still enough for you to come to some vague conclusions about what kind of person I am; the quality of my tastes, my upbringing, where I am in my life, other activities I might enjoy.

If you did come to any conclusions, you arrived at them by making mental comparisons; comparisons made either between yourself and the described individual (me) or comparisons between that individual and other individuals you're aware of.

The Academics of Identity

In academics, the modern psychology of identity is largely based on the work of Erik Erikson, the man who, amongst other things, coined the term identity crisis.

While Erikson is best known for his model of identity evolving through the stages of life, much of the Neo-Eriksonian academic conversation centers on the idea of multiple "selves": from the idea that the person you feel you are inside does not always match the personas you take on in social contexts, including the concepts of identity exploration (that people experiment with identities before committing to them), social identity (the idea that a portion of the self is defined by the ideal of a group), and the ideal self (the identity an individual aspires to).

Together, the academics paint a picture of identity as dynamic and highly influenced, not the inborn template we're often led to believe it is.

The Two Sides of Identity

Considering the dynamic -- even experimental -- nature of identity, the value of role-play in games should be fairly obvious, but I think there is also a second topic worth discussing under the umbrella of identity in games: social purpose.

Role-playing. In the opening article, I noted that I was effectively splitting the proposed topic of Role-play between Choice and Identity. To Choice, went the empowerment of making decisions, to Identity, and what we'll discuss here: the opportunity to experiment with changing your persona.

Social Purpose. Social purpose describes a need for acceptance; more than simply making connections or meeting expectations, it implies an innate desire to provide some value to others. In the simplest of terms, social purpose asks that the individual feel needed. If he stopped playing the game, would others notice?

Before continuing, it's worth noting that while writing this, I became very tempted to abandon the word Identity entirely. After all, can't any preferences for fun be categorized as elements of identity? For example, aren't all the choices I make and forms of growth I seek part of my identity?

The conclusion I came to is this: all the other preferences can be thought of as implicit influencers of identity -- they are presumably pursued on their own merits and their influence on identity is a secondary result -- while what we're discussing now are explicit or self-aware influencers of identity, pursued for the purpose of influencing identity.

The distinction is made more confusing by the fact that it lies entirely in intent. For example: if I play football because I enjoy the competition and strategy, I'm doing it for competition and growth (challenges overcome). If I play football to fit in with the "popular crowd", I'm doing it to find identity (social purpose).


Although we might not always be consciously aware of it, identity plays a huge role in our daily lives. The identity we project forms preconceptions in the eyes of those we encounter. When meeting someone new you are likely to view known details as clues that can be used to make predictions.

Visible tattoos? Piercings? Leather? A flagrant disregard for authority? These are indicators used to represent identity. Sweater-vest? Slacks? Wire-rim glasses? A practical Swedish vehicle? These are also indicators of identity that tell a very different story.

While preconceptions may be viewed negatively in the context of attributes that aren't reflective of personal choice (such as race or gender), those that are reflective of personal choice provide invaluable cues to facilitate social interactions.

Identity in Games

Role-playing. Role-play is easy to identify in games. Any game with a protagonist involves the potential for role-play to some degree. The more-developed the backstory and personality, the greater the role-playing opportunities. For example, Mario is a fairly flat character with limited background for context, so the amount of role-playing is limited. Batman is a character with a detailed personality and rich backstory and provides a greater opportunity for role-play.

Yet while known characters like Batman have the benefit of detail and depth they run the risk of narrowed appeal (what if I don't like the Batman character?) Games like Fable and Mass Effect take the approach of setting up a detailed backstory but leave the specifics of personality wide open, sacrificing possible depth for breadth of appeal and potential replay -- e.g. next time I'll try it as a jerk.

While there is a lot of overlap between concept of identity and the concept of choice (the opportunity, in games, to make decisions we normally wouldn't) I think the distinction is: we role-play for the opportunity to feel what it is like to have a different identity; in a way, to let the adopted identity dictate our choices. When I, as Batman, have the Joker at my mercy, I let him live because that is what my adopted persona, Batman, would do.

In other words, if I'm playing the game doing everything I would do, I'm exercising my choice, if I'm playing the game doing everything my character would do, I'm role-playing.

In interactive online multiplayer games, the distinction between "real" persona and "imaginary" persona can become blurred. If there are people who know you only by a game persona and treat it with complete seriousness, that persona is arguably just as "real" as any other, and I believe this sense of validation constitutes a very powerful draw to engage in a virtual context.

Social Purpose. Any game involving teamwork involves some amount of social purpose. Everyone on the team is working together for a common goal. Everyone provides value to the team and typically it is in the best interests of the team to look out for its members.

In the context of a soccer team, the value provided may be skill in shooting, passing or defending. In a less defined context, such as that of a schoolyard clique, the value provided is that ineffable attribute known as "cool". By being cool, the individual helps to make the group cool.

In some games, everyone on a team has basically the same role. An example might be a pickup game of Counter-Strike, and in such a game it's not unusual for teamwork to be limited to simply sharing a common foe. In these cases value is measured along the same terms for all players (e.g. kills) and the "teamwork" is in constant danger of degrading into a competition between teammates to demonstrate the most skill.

In other games, players have different roles with different available abilities (such as classes) and working together involves strategic cooperation. World of Warcraft raids, for example, can be highly organized with different players absorbing damage, dealing damage, casting modifiers, crowd-controlling and healing.

The role a player chooses not only gives them value in the eyes of the group, but it can also say something about who they are. Are they a player who seeks glory, attention, authority, or gratitude? In many ways, the value you choose to provide sets the basis of your social identity -- the tone of your interactions with the rest of the group (e.g. I'm a healer, I take care of other people).

In Practice

Role-playing. In order for players to role-play, they must be given the means to express identity. How can identity be expressed? Profiles are a great place to start -- pictures, interests, anything that allows for self-expression -- but even more important than stating an identity, is proving it. Players need points of interaction. They need polarizing scenarios. Disagreements, when handled civilly, can be a good thing; they let players take a personal stance and express an aspect of their identity.

Commemorating choices. In virtual environments, just like reality, people desire means of demonstrating or expressing their identity. In video games with avatars, gear worn and abilities wielded tell a story of choices made that other players will be able to read.

Non-game environments are no different and there is value in commemorating choices in a way that can be "read" by other members of the community. Badges and trophies can fulfill this need, but only if there is value in the underlying choices and behaviors. There is no point in commemorating choices that users don't recognize as relevant.

Social Purpose. If role-playing is anchored in opportunities to express identity, social purpose is anchored in opportunities to prove worth. This means interdependencies between community members are needed. A game like FrontierVille uses simple forced 'gifting loops' to artificially create this effect and it seems to work, at least with a particular audience.

The reason that this mechanic might feel forced and spammy to those outside of the target audience is its lack of specificity. In FrontierVille, anybody with a Facebook account and a free moment of attention can fulfill a need for hand-drills or paint buckets. More sophisticated audiences will demand that cooperative skill measure more exclusive talents.

What's important is identifying what your audience values; if you're a Facebook user, it's attention, if you're a Call of Duty player, it's kills, and if you're a Question and Answer forum user, it's accurate, detailed answers.

Commemorating Value. In the real world, things like driving an expensive car or wearing expensive clothes are explicit expressions of success and, for many of those who are successful, a balance is struck between modesty and tasteless gloating. In a virtual community, such as a game, the concern for modesty is largely deferred to the system itself; if displaying status is the default, it's less likely to carry a "gloating" stigma. Think of a military officer with a host of badges on his jacket; within the context of the military, such a representative display of status is not immodest.

Aren't badges kind of simplistic and out of context?

Possibly, and wherever there is an opportunity, indicators of identity and value should be integrated into the pre-existing context of your game or site. Yet that said, there's nothing inherently wrong with a lack of subtlety, just as long as the choice or value being expressed is meaningful.


In my opening article, I arrived at Story as a topic by combining Narrative and Fantasy, which I defined as the events and setting of a story. Although these topics are typically lumped together, each has something unique to contribute to the conversation so I'll address them separately. First, we'll cover Story as narrative.


In games, there is a strong tendency to think of story as the non-interactive part of the experience, something that exists in cutscenes and dialog. And this makes a certain kind of sense; story is traditionally a passive experience, books and movies are experienced with no influence over the outcome.

Yet, in other ways, this doesn't make sense. Story doesn't have to be passive. Oral stories, especially those which are improvised, can be influenced by suggestions from the audience and the theatrical concept of improv is based entirely on the idea of an interactive story.

There is a fascinating card game called Once Upon a Time in which players compete to incorporate topics, drawn from cards, into a collectively-told improvised story.

If you play Once Upon a Time, one thing you'll notice is that the stories it tells are meandering; they don't have a coherent structure and there is no pacing or logical progression from beginning to end. And this, I believe, is the biggest break in expectations between the traditional passive form of movie/book narrative and interactive improvisational/game narrative.

Passive Narrative vs. Interactive Narrative

The most satisfying narratives are carefully crafted. They have clearly defined character arcs, tantalizing mysteries, dramatic shifts and a plotted progression of emotional highs and lows. Robert McKee's highly regarded screenwriting guide Story outlines the entire process in detail.

Yet, there's one difficulty for a game-developer looking to use his model: his prescriptions are entirely impossible in an interactive environment. Interactive stories between a player and a system inevitably meander, slave to the free will of the player, who might spend entirely too long on a puzzle or miss it altogether, refuse to open a particular door or find a certain battle entirely too easy or too challenging. As a basic tenant, the less linear the gameplay, the less control you, as the designer, will have over the story.

The advantages of a passive narrative are optimized levels of expectation and emotion, while the advantages of an interactive narrative are increased choice and personalization. Most games likely involve some blend of the two and we've already talked previously about the advantages of choice and identity. Therefore the focus of this discussion will be the passive side of narrative.

Passive Narrative

I just described the value of passive narrative as expectation and emotion and I'll cover both of these in detail.

Expectation. When I mention expectation, I'm talking about a few things, drawn from both McKee and my own observations. Stories tend to engage the audience's expectations by including some or all of the following:

  • Mystery / Suspense

    • Unanswered Questions or Cliffhangers

  • Dramatic Reversals

    • Broken Expectations

  • Moral/Intellectual prodding

    • Pressing the viewer to ask: What would I do? How would I solve this?

These three things all create expectation: the first two combine to ask, what will happen next? The last asks, will my solution or philosophy be validated? Does the author agree with me?

Emotion. The other advantage of the passive narrative is emotion. In a previous article, I already covered emotions, as experienced by the player, but here we'll acknowledge emotions as observed by the player.

While people enjoy experiencing emotion in a safe, controlled environment, direct emotions can still be stressful. A further step back from the direct emotions of games are the vicarious emotions of stories. With stories, an additional level of removal has been added -- the viewer experiences emotion either through the trials and victories of a protagonist or through the morals of society condemning an antagonist (and occasionally both at the same time, as in the case of a movie like Bad Lieutenant).

Passive Narrative in Games

I think there may be two routes to obtaining the benefits of a passive narrative:

  • Scripted events

  • Emergent events

Scripted events. This means keeping the story on a constructed path and this is the method more than 99 percent of stories in games take. It doesn't necessarily mean 'linear' but if it isn't linear, it is going to be a lot of work as the effort-to-gameplay ratio of branching stories quickly becomes impractical.

Quantic Dream's Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit represents an extreme example of scripted linearity for the sake of passive narrative. The game even sold itself as interactive movie, with "begin new movie" on the main menu and a rewind button instead of "replay".

Many games use a linear model but do their best to create the illusion of freedom by giving the player free-reign to roam and explore between story sections, such as the overworld between dungeons in the Zelda series. Open exploration, optional stand-alone events, and sidequests contribute to a sense of choice without interfering with the overarching balanced beats of a linear story.

Emergent events. This is the idea of story created by social interaction. Given enough players and opportunities for drama, social constructs begin to emerge on their own and generate suspense, intrigue, deeper intent and the sense of a collective story as players work together, predicting and responding to the behavior of others. The story isn't so much written as it is experienced.

The purest examples of emergent story, such as Travian or Diplomacy, are well-crafted designs that contain the germ of suspense, reversal and morality in their mechanics. In the case of MMOs, designers have the opportunity to create emergent story by giving the occasional push to create tension and challenge communities along unexpected lines.

Passive Narrative in practice. Integrating passive narrative into a non-game experience really isn't any different than integrating passive narrative into a game. This is because games aren't a natural environment for a passive narrative any more than a website or application. Until recently passive stories weren't found in games at all; card games, board games and sports don't have passive stories. It wasn't until the arrival of role-playing games, followed by text adventures and simple cutscenes like the intermissions in Ms. Pac-Man, that passive narrative was introduced to gameplay.

There are two approaches to the task of adding a passive narrative to an unrelated activity, such as a game, website or activity. The first is to start with a story and layer on the context. The second is to start with the context and layer on a story.

The world of advertising is already rather adept at both. An example of the first case would be a movie where the protagonist spends a scene holding a can of Coke. An example of the second case would be a DeBeers commercial with a montage of a couple falling in love and getting engaged. It might be a stretch to call either of these examples gamification, but it seems a valuable lesson, regardless of whether games invented the concept of story or not.


The other aspect of Story, after Narrative, is Fantasy. While the word "fantasy" is often used to describe a specific genre of fiction, in the context of stories, I think it's more appropriate to understand the word as describing the world the narrative takes place in -- the locations, cultures, customs, natural phenomena and technologies. In particular, where they are different from those in the world experienced by the audience on a daily basis. In other words:

Fantasy describes the differences of a world and its inhabitants from our own.

The fantasy genre simply refers to this concept taken to its extreme -- entire worlds which are very different from our own.

Strong Fantasy

The success or strength of a fantasy (not necessarily appeal) is typically measured by its ability to adhere to its own internal reality, the rules the world must abide by. The more the introduced elements influence the culture, and the more the culture influences the characters, the more consistent and "legitimate" the fictional world will feel. A stronger fantasy does not so much describe the scope of the fantasy as the thoughtfulness put into its consistency.

If you'll bear with me, we'll use the '80s sitcom Alf as an example. In Alf, the fantasy is that a sarcastic, cat-loving, extroverted alien has crash-landed in a suburban family's garage. That's about it; the rest of the series is set in reality. The strength of the fantasy lies in the show's ability stick to the premise. If, from the beginning, Alf was able to interact with the outside world, got a job and found a human wife, the fantasy would lack consistency (although it possibly might have been a more interesting show).

This is not to say that an existing fantasy can't evolve, it just needs a believable, internally consistent explanation for the change to its rules.

The Appeal of Fantasy

The concept of escapism proposes that the goal of fantasy is to distract the audience from the nuisances of real life; the fictional world provides an alternate reality that is more appealing. This implies that the more immersive the fantasy world, the greater the potential pleasure. I don't see any faults with this reasoning, but I'm not sure it explains everything, for example, why the same fantasy can get boring.

Studies have shown that humans fear an unknown outcome more than a known bad result, yet they have also shown humans crave new experiences. Perhaps fantasy offers an opportunity to experience novelty without any of the risk. An appeal similar to the appeal of visiting a foreign nation, meeting exotic people, and seeing strange new things, all without the danger of getting lost, deceived or rejected.

Fantasy in Practice

Fantasy is a consideration when creating the setting of an experience. The more the experience can be made to resemble something it isn't, the more opportunities for creating fantasy and the more likely the user will be able to imagine they are somewhere else, somewhere they have never been.

For example, crafting a web experience to feel like a deep-jungle archeology expedition (pushing through leaves to navigate, text written on stone tablets from an ancient ruin, appropriate jungle sound effects, etc.) could introduce features under the fantasy of uncovering and experimenting with unexpected mystical artifacts.


Possibly more than any other aspect of games, fantasy represents a risk of trivializing the experience it's meant to enhance. By implying the activity needs to be hidden or changed, there is a possible implication that the activity itself lacks value.

Should fantasy be seriously considered for Gamification purposes, it needs to be thoughtfully integrated and complimentary to the primary experience in tone and objective. For example, the jungle theme given above makes more sense in the context of an activity that already involves concepts like searching or deciphering and less sense if the activity involves building or recording.

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About the Author(s)

Tony Ventrice


Tony Ventrice started out designing games for phones with 128x128 screen resolution. He followed mobile through to the iPhone era (I Am T-Pain) and made the transition to social-games pre-FarmVille, working at both Zynga (Poker) and Playdom (Mobsters 2 / Deep Realms). He sees the next expansion of the industry in bringing games into everyday life and joined Badgeville in early 2011 to help lead that evolution.

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