Narrative as Reward

Although most educators would agree that learning can and should be fun, our education system is not set up with fun in mind. Instead, we have boring worksheets, anxiety-ridden tests, and long periods of boredom, so many teachers find reward systems useful motivation to get students to complete the distasteful schoolwork. Common incentives are stickers, candy, pizza parties – anything that gets the students excited – if only temporarily.

Game designers do something similar. In essence, games ask players to do meaningless, repetitive, difficult tasks and then punishes them when they fail. (Yes, I am talking about Flappy Bird) What keeps us playing? Part of the reward of games is the triumph of beating a level, boss, or high score. However, many games also make use of a compelling storyline to keep players engaged.

I recently finished The Last of Us, which features a story about two survivors of a zombie apocalypse. The drama and character development are spread out throughout the game in the form of dialogue and cut scenes.


This means that often players must finish a combat sequence or two before finding out what happens next in the story. The game is also interesting in that it has difficult combat sequences that don’t always reward you with special equipment or perks after successful completion. Instead of tangible, in-game benefits, the rewards players are seeking lie within the storyline. In essence, the story is the reward.

What if, rather than rewarding students with meaningless badges or points, we rewarded them with a compelling narrative? Talented educators for years have harnessed that “what happens next?” feeling to enhance student motivation and engagement, but it’s sadly left out of discussions of “gamification.” Additionally, when a narrative contextualizes educational tasks, it can help make those tasks less onerous and more meaningful. A realistic narrative can answer the inevitable “Why do we need to know this?” questions, because the rationale lies within the story.

There’s a big difference, though, between a narrative that is compelling and relevant, and a narrative that’s only presented as bribery. “You can finish the movie when your homework is done” is great way to devalue learning and keep students’ minds off-task. If your mind is still on the half-finished story, how will you suddenly switch to focusing on the comparatively dull homework? Instead, we should craft educational and game tasks that fit within and reinforce the narrative. The verbs that describe gameplay should also describe what’s happening in the story. In The Last of Us, the transitions between active gameplay and cut scene are seamless – the things you do (running, climbing, killing zombies), and the abilities you have fit within the overall story arc and add to the experience of the narrative.

Sadly, I believe that the reason why it’s so difficult to implement this idea in schools is because we have so successfully divorced learning from context. Students graduate high school thinking biology is all about memorization and physics is just another math class in disguise. (No wonder we have trouble getting students interested in STEM subjects!) We need to show students how their decisions exist within a larger and more meaningful context than just passing a test. Let’s harness the power of a good story!


Posted in Storytelling

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