Russell Warren remembers all too well how easy he could lose himself on a night like this. At 2 a.m. he’s still leaning forward, his entire body on the verge of falling off his couch and into his television screen, as his eyes flit over digital mountains, rivers and villages asflashes of virtual gore splash on his retinas. Five years after the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Warren is still lost in this fantasy world, even as he plays on his old, dented Xbox 360.
“It’s very easy to submerge yourself in Skyrim. It’s easy to forget that you’re in a structured game. You can make it your own,” said Warren, 23, a museum docent, bakery manager and gamer from Portland, Maine who plays games according to his ever-shifting work schedule.
Warren isn’t the only one who engages with games this intensely. Many players are just as hooked. The games industry brought in $23.5 billion in 2015 and game designers are constantly fighting for gamers’ attention and engagement. The techniques that game designers employ to hook players for years may come as a surprise to some.
Let’s Tell a Story
“It comes down to what is the story you’re telling as the player, what is your emotional resonance with it and what is your identity,” said Gillian Smith, a professor of game design at Northeastern University. “The external way we experience the game is also part of the game.”
The emotionally resonant stories that gamers tell themselves and others can keep them hooked on games for years.
It’s like the water cooler talk that follows an episode of a major television show. The conversation that surrounds a game can create a community or social experience that breathes new life into a game.
Open-world games that let gamers freely explore a virtual environment provide some of the most intense experiences in gaming. With a world full of possibilities in front of him, Warren can tell any story he wants. And he can share that story with his friends, who inevitably have totally different stories. It’s like gathering around a virtual campfire.
“It’s a creative outlet that gives me all the tools. A game like Skyrim lets you tell your own story and play it out in the game,” Warren said.
For Warren, that story was sometimes too compelling. He would “get lost,” he said, wandering the mountains of Skyrim’s Nordic tundra for hours, sometimes even missing his shifts at the bakery. But it was always for the sake of the story he was telling himself.
Skyrim, rereleased this fall for the current generation of consoles with updated graphics, and even last year’s The Witcher 3 still captures the hearts and minds of gamers because of the freedom they offer players to tell their own story.
Gamers come back to these worlds because they want to tell their own story. In worlds this expansive, it’s easy for gamers to imagine they’re discovering something no one else has found. They experience an emotionally-engaging form of storytelling that no other medium can offer. Games have the capacity to keep players invested in telling a story over years because it’s not just any story: it’s their story.
Go for the Goal
Sometimes players define their stories more through concrete goals and objectives than freeform exploration.
For some gamers – like Thomas Molyneux, 23, an associate at Amazon Logistics and gamer from Plainville, Massachusetts – the sense of achievement that comes with completing a goal is enough.
“For a game like Overwatch or Heroes of the Storm, it’s the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing an objective with your friends,” Molyneux said.
Blizzard’s Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm offer clear objectives. Bent over his laptop and keyboard, Molyneux spends dozens of hours a week tapping away at his keyboard, yelling and laughing with his friends as they work together to fight other players.
Each match becomes a story in microcosm with a defined beginning, middle, end, and inherent conflict. Molyneux and his friends share struggles and victories in each match that can turn into anecdotes and stories. Even Blizzard’s choice to add a “play of the game” at the end of every match adds to the story. It highlights the best part of the tale players are telling, while also giving them something short and sweet to share with their friends. It’s another digital campfire.
An Emotional Core
But often the emotional resonance and social storytelling that hook players on a game go beyond the goal itself.
Even for gamers like Molyneux, who love the cycle of challenge and reward, telling a self-made story is important.
“I often roleplay and play for more than the game. In ‘Skyrim,’ I tried to recreate a character I had originally created in Dungeons & Dragons – Shade – just because I wanted to continue his story,” Molyneux said.
Molyneux’s emotional attachment to his character, much like Warren’s, comes from his freedom to play his way and tell his own story inside the game
Joy in Plastic Instruments
For Chris Foster, a game designer at the Boston-based game developer Harmonix, the team behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band, an emotional experience is at the heart of what he tries to design.
Foster has worked as project lead on Green Day Rock Band and The Beatles Rock Band and as a designer on Rock Band 4. In all these games, Foster and his team have tried to give players the tools to craft their own stories through the game and its involved social interaction.
The Rock Band games generate emotional experiences out of simple goals. Armed with nothing but plastic instruments, players strum and drum along to their favorite songs in order to get a high score. But for players Rock Band is more than that.
“’[Rock Band]’ is fundamentally a joyful experience that people love. It’s the fun of performance,” Foster said. “It opens up the opportunity for people to use their entire bodies to perform.”
Rock Band becomes more than the high score achieved at the end of a song. The fact that players are using their bodies in the same room as their bandmates makes it an intimate experience. That kind of connection yields personal anecdotes that “evolve [Rock Band] from a game and into a past time,” Foster went on to say.
Never Ending Stories
For Warren, Molyneux and many other players, games like Skyrim and Rock Band are deeply personal. Games like this don’t come around very often, but when they do, gamers stay attached for years.
The five-year-old Skyrim will suffice for Warren. He’s put hundreds of hours into this game, but he’s not done. His story isn’t over.
“With a game like Skyrim, you’re creating something yourself. You’re investing something more than your time. You’re putting a little bit of yourself in that character and that world,” said Warren.