Pwning the Narrative: Storytelling in Small-Scale Video Games

Tetris Immersion Pic

You are checking Facebook to see if your picture of brunch got any likes when you see it: another Farmville invite. Your eyes roll.  You click the “ignore” or “delete” button and move on with life.

Sound familiar?

In an ever-expanding digital age, social media like Twitter, Instagram and others have increasingly connected us by sharing information and by expanding and reifying social and professional networks. An interesting outcrop of the recent past has been smaller-scale gaming (to be distinguished from larger-scale, MMO or console gaming). While games of this variety can seem casual and cliquish, they retain the ability to tell stories that provide a crucial role to their users.

In his book, The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, Bryan Alexander analyzed the qualities of smaller scale games that enable them to enhance and tell stories. Beyond cutscenes and sound design (which are present in larger games such as the Grand Theft Auto series), Alexander identified subtle elements that help gamers become immersed in their chosen digital environment. According to Alexander,  limited digital space and placing gamers into the position as a second-person character in that finite world helps us, the players, feel “deeply constrained in our actions” and yet feel an “inner sense of linear development” as we progress through a game.

By engaging with the world within a video game, people can engage a “dual consciousness” of experiencing what the game presents and of witnessing the game’s response to button presses and commands.  This experience sets gaming apart from other entertainment in its ability to turn its audience into character-narrators with control over the pace and direction of the narrative.

While I have felt this strange sense of immersion in larger games with complicated plots, I confess that smaller, simpler games have had a similar impact of making me feel like a part of their world and inner logic.

Take Clash of Clans, for example.

For the uninitiated, Clash of Clans is a “castle defense” game, based on creating villages to generate resources and to build armies capable of defending said villages or to invade ones created by other players.

The game’s tutorial and notification system refer to the player as the architect of the village. While this seems like a small detail, the fact that the player has total design control over the layout, scope, and priorities of the village–be it resource accumulation or attacking other villages–helps to make users feel they are fulfilling their given role.


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The game also displays from a top-down point of view that helps to ground the player in the role of an omniscient architect. All at once, the player can feel immense pride and power in designing a digital hamlet of their own and an obligation to defend it against any and all threats.

Clash of Clans contains many qualities of “social gaming” that Alexander identifies in other games. The ability to invade other players’ villages across many servers, as well as to join into “clans” that pool resources and armies and engage in wars with each other with tremendous amounts of resources at stake, has helped to create an engaged, competitive community. In a way, these wargames allow players to perform roles as military strategists fighting for the glory of their chosen kingdom and for the top spot of the leaderboard.

At the same time, Clash players and the internet culture are not beyond making jokes and mocking aspects of the game in ways that only fans could fully appreciate. The web is full of player-created memes and cartoons poking fun at themselves or authoring humorous stories between non-player characters in the game.

Clash of Clans cartoon

I admit it can seem strange to ascribe so many storytelling elements to a game that appears to be low-stakes and casual. And yet, immersion becomes easy in this game because the player’s role and the driving purpose of Clash of Clans (being the architect and defender of one’s village) are one and the same.

If we consider Alexander’s claim that small-scale games, as a form of social gaming, is similar to “social representation through small worlds,” it is hard not to see games such as Clash of Clans as not just opportunities to immerse in roleplay and imagined narrative, but as a connection between many in an invisible community of would-be conquerors and architects.


Bryan Alexander, The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media (Praeger, 2017, second edition).




Published by bensleyhistoryhivemindloyola

Hi there--welcome to my blog! My name is Lucas Bensley. At the time of writing (August of 2018), I am a doctoral candidate for the History department at Loyola University in Chicago. This blog began as an ongoing project for a course titled "Public History New Media/Introduction to Digital Humanities," under the direction of Professor Kyle Roberts. My objective then, as now, is to not just provide posts, updates, and writings that fulfill the requirements of that course, but to periodically keep you--the reader--informed of developments I make in my research-strewn trek to become an educator and researcher of 20th century American history and politics, as well as any interesting kernels of information related to events known and obscure that may be of public interest and use. As I write this prologue, I retain doubts over what the utility of this blog will ultimately be--not just to myself but to my potential audience. Still, that is a constant concern that faces scholars of all fields and media. Given the increasingly digital and instant gratification-driven nature of our information sharing devices and habits, however, I cannot invent nor support an argument against trying to contribute into this global web (or hivemind) of ideas and data born of collaboration, conversation, and consumption. With discipline and your help, I hope to maintain this blog as a place of idea-sharing and mutual inspiration for scholars, students, and normal folk outside of academia. With that said, let's get to work!

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