Conceptualizing Narrative-Based Video Games as a Narrative Modality

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Heather Ness-Maddox, M.S., A.B.D.

:classical_building: Affiliation: Georgia State University

Title: Conceptualizing Narrative-Based Video Games as a Narrative Modality

Abstract (long version below): Researchers have explored the cognitive processes players engage in during video game play, such as problem-solving and attention (e.g., Hamlen, 2018). While they are viewed as interactive problem-solving tasks, video games are not often included in discussions of narrative modalities in the field of narrative research. However, some video games communicate a central story throughout game play, referred here as narrative-based video games (NBVGs). Throughout this paper I define and set parameters for NBVGs as a narrative modality, examine their adherence to traditional narrative structure, and discuss the potential narrative comprehension processes players may engage in during play.


:newspaper: Long abstract

Researchers have explored the cognitive processes players engage in during video game play, such as problem-solving and attention (e.g., Hamlen, 2018). In these studies, video games are viewed as interactive tasks (e.g., Ossenfort et al., 2018) rather than a narrative modality. Currently video games are viewed primarily as problem-solving tasks with varying degrees of narrative elements depending on the game (Nitsche, 2008). However, some video games communicate a central story throughout game play. This subset of video games I refer to as narrative-based video games (NBVGs). Because video games are not often conceptualized as narrative modalities, little research exists investigating the effects of this narrative modality on players. In this discussion, I advocate conceptualizing NBVGs as a narrative modality and investigating the cognitive processes of narrative comprehension during game play. I define and set parameters for NBVGs, examine their narrative structure, and discuss the potential narrative effects players may experience in during play.

Narrative-Based Video Games (NBVGs )

Unlike other strategy or fighting games, NBVGs present a narrative to the player. Players progress through the narrative by engaging in game play. NBVGs often include fighting and strategy, but these actions are done in the context of a narrative (e.g., The Last of Us). Whereas in fighting games, in which players can play an infinite number of times without completing the game, in NBVGs, progression and completion of the game results in progression and completion of a narrative. The player controls the main character and experiences the unfolding of the narrative as the character experiences it.

The element of interactivity separates NBVGs from other narrative modalities. In this discussion, I conceptualize interactivity as the amount of player choice allowed by the NBVG and the amount of impact players have on the narrative. Depending on the design of the game and how much control players have, players can choose to act outside the narrative of the game. In NBVGs with less player choice, players must complete tasks related to the narrative but have freedom to choose how to complete the task. In choice-based, reaction time NBVGs (e.g., Life is Strange), players have structured and limited freedom to choose how to interact with the game and progress the narrative. These choices then impact which events players see play out in the narrative.

Narrative Structure

This element of interactivity (Qin et al., 2009) leads some video games researchers to describe the narrative structure in video games as nonlinear or branching (e.g., Moser & Fang, 2015), unlike other narrative modalities which are often described as linear or causal. Indeed, depending on the video game, players are given choice about how the narrative unfolds. However, player choice does not erase the traditional, linear, causal narrative structure; rather, player impact on the outcome of the narrative allows the player to become a co-creator of the narrative (Buchanan-Oliverse & Seo, 2012). While NBVGs do contain a branching structure to allow for player choice to affect narrative outcomes, the player experiences a linear story. Perhaps the player can replay the game and make difference choices to prompt different outcomes. That new playing experience results in a novel narrative outcome.

Narrative Comprehension

Cognitive processing of video games in general has certainly been studied (e.g., Kozhevnikov et al., 2018), but players’ comprehension of the narrative presented by NBVGs has not been intensively studied. However, understanding how players comprehend the stories of NBVGs is essential to understanding other effects of NBVGs on players.

For example, Quin et al. (2009) created a measure to assess player immersion in a narrative-based computer game. They include a comprehension dimension in their measure because in order to be immersed in a game, players need to extract information from the game about the plot, make inferences and strategize, and update their understanding of the narrative as they progress through the game. Successful game play and immersion in the narrative requires successful comprehension. During this discussion I present various comprehension processes players may engage in during NBVGs and how these processes can be further investigated.

Creating novel video game stimuli for empirical study requires time, resources, and skills which most researchers do not have, unless they are also trained in game development and design. Empirical research on the literary effects of NBVGs would require collaboration with game designers. Video game designers also want to understand how elements they include affect players, particularly elements which keep players engaged and playing. Conceptualizing NBVGs as a narrative modality not only opens new avenues of research but provides opportunities for collaboration between the creators of these narratives and the researchers who study them. With a definition for NBVGs as a narrative modality and relevant constructs that set NBVGs apart from other modalities identified in this discussion, I also present ideas for how empirical studies can further investigate the effects of NBVGs.


Buchanan-Oliver, M. and & Seo, Y. (2012). Play as co-created narrative in computer game
consumption: The hero’s journey in Warcraft III. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 11, 423-431.

Hamlen, K. R. (2018). General problem-solving styles and problem-solving approaches in video
games. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 56(4), 467–484.

Kozhevnikov, M., Li, Y., Wong, S., Obana, T., & Amihai, I. (2018). Do enhanced states exist?
Boosting cognitive capacities through an action video-game. Cognition, 173, 93–105.

Moser, C. and Fang, X. (2015). Narrative structure and player experience in role-playing games.
Intl. Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 31, 146–156. DOI:10.1080/10447318.2014.986639

Nitsche, M. (2008). Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Game Worlds.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.

Ossenfort, K. L., & Isaacowitz, D. M. (2018). Video games and emotion regulation: Aging and
selection of interactive stimuli. GeroPsych: The Journal of Gerontopsychology and Geriatric Psychiatry, 31(4), 205–213. (Supplemental)

Qin, H., Patrick Rau, P., & Salvendy, G. (2009). Measuring player immersion in the computer
game narrative. International Journal Of Human-Computer Interaction, 25(2), 107-133.

Thank you @Heather_Ness-Maddox for a great presentation. Your presentation, especially the questions and ideas you pose in the last slide, made me think of empirical research that is taking place in digital fiction, which shares a lot of communalities with narrative based video games (I think). In particular, you may find the work by Astrid Ensslin and Alice Bell and their colleagues of interest: Immersion in Digital Fiction | International Journal of Literary Linguistics or Immersion, digital fiction, and the switchboard metaphor - Bangor University

What they show quite nicely is that as a first, I would argue, highly neccessary, exploratory step there are ways of investigating narrative-based video games and the literary effects they evoke empirically, without needing to rely on video game developers to help you create specific games targeting specific features. The qualitative empirical approach Bell and Ennslin took allowed them to build an empirically-grounded theoretical framework for understanding ludic and narrative elements and processing of digital fiction.

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Thank you for the recommendation! I’m not a qualitative researcher, but I will read their work to see how I can incorporate it into my own. Or consider how to collaborate with qualitative researchers!