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Statistics vs. Stories

In this article, game designer Sande Chen looks at why social impact game designers should consider emotion-based appeals rather than statistics-filled logic.

Sande Chen

June 12, 2019

2 Min Read

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect under the topics of Social Impact Games, and Motivation.]

You've likely seen the appeals before.  They usually come at the end of year.  Help us cure cancer, give to your alumni fund, donate to needy students, etc.  What motivates us to care, and care enough to do something?

As Chip Heath & Dan Heath state in their book, Made to Stick, charities have long grasped that the emotional appeal of a story does a better job of opening checkbooks than the logical stance of statistics.  That's why you "adopt" a wild horse or help a young girl in Africa named Rukia. The charity allows you to imagine how the money from giving up your morning Starbucks for 2 months would drastically change Rukia's life.  Her family would have access to running water!  Perhaps you'll even receive progress reports on Rukia telling you how much your contribution has meant to her life.  So why do some social impact game designers still rely on cold and impersonal statistical pop-ups scattered about in the game?

In fact, the Heaths relate a research study in which researchers had one group calculate a math problem and another group think about babies before being asked to donate to a cause.  Even without telling the story about Rukia, the "babies" group was primed to give more money.

So why is this so?

If I were to tell you, "In February 2018, there were 63,343 homeless people in New York City," you may or may not believe me.  Statistics can be fudged.  But also, 63,343 is a rather large amount.  Would my $3.50 a day really help?  How could it help?

In addition, people often have a hard time contextualizing numbers.  If I am told that one small bag of movie popcorn has 60 grams of saturated fat, what does that mean to me?  Is that good or bad?  Is movie popcorn alright?  If I'm shown all the artery-clogging foods I can think of and told that one small bag of movie popcorn is equivalent to 2 days of eating artery cloggers, then, yeah, I might think again.

As I wrote in "Great Narrative Stories Are the Answer,"  the way to changing attitudes and actions may lie in emotion and the great narrative stories that support that emotion.  Let's find a way to tap into that emotion.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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About the Author(s)

Sande Chen


A co-founder of Writers Cabal, Sande Chen works as a game writer and designer. In 2008, she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing. While still at film school at USC, she was nominated for a Grammy in music video direction. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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