Inventing Narratives as Gaming Practice

Video games provide space for the imagination

When I was a teenager, I played a ton of Rollercoaster Tycoon. I was a theme park manager in charge of a slew of parks. It was my responsibility to keep the books in the green lest the stakeholders got antsy. This required planning for the future, considering the park’s design, and managing the experiences of my guests. There were a few times when my performance was in question (park visitors can be fickle), but all-in-all I was the best theme park manager the company had seen in a long time.

Wait…What did you say? What am I talking about?! You don’t play video games like that. Well, that makes me kinda sad. But I know I can’t be alone, right?

To this day, when playing video games (especially sims), I go all in with narrative. Whether its Planet Zoo or Powerwash Sim, I’ll have a narrative whipped up in my head. When playing Planet Zoo, I was a major contributor to conservation efforts. Working in Lawnmowing Sim meant more than simply mowing lawns–it meant saving the family business. I could leave a game for months at a time and then come back and pick up that same narrative again.

This practice of situating myself into the games I play is the same imaginative wonderings that followed my reading as a kid. I absorbed everything from Animal Ark and Encyclopedia Brown to Choose Your Own Adventure and Nancy Drew. I was also fascinated by my dad’s astronomy books, but that’s a topic for a sci-fi-related post someday. Reading was enthusiastically encouraged in my house. Between regular visits to the community library to the modeling of my parents’ own reading habits, I took to reading eagerly. Books offered possibility. Through their pages I could imagine myself living various lives and going on so many adventures. Those fictional adventures led to my own stories and my eventual love for video game narratives.

According to an article in Scientific America, “We use our imagination in many ways. Novelists rely on it to dream up plots, characters and scenes. Artists use it to conjure new works. Children entertain themselves by weaving fantastical worlds in their minds” (“Why We Imagine“). In what ways do gamers use their imaginations? Arguably, most video games prompt and require that players imagine. Imagine worlds they can ‘live’ in. Characters they can interact with. Problems to solve. Levels to navigate. When I think of a game like Elden Ring, this becomes more clear. On many occasions I ran into enemies that initially wiped the floor with my body. But I would come back, try again, and improvise. Creativity saved the day on a number of occasions. Similarly, when playing Far Cry 6, I would vary my approach when infiltrating outposts. Sometimes I would go in guns blazing. Other times I would use stealth or a kind of mixed approach blending explosions and loose animals. Video games stimulate the imagination in many ways, including by their design and the choices they present. In fact, the imagining and creativity prompted by video games may carry over into other areas of our lives. A study from Michigan State University found that “the more kids played video games, the more creative they were in tasks such as drawing pictures and writing stories” (“Video game playing tied to creativity“).

When I imagined myself as an Emeril miner in No Mans Sky or as the director of a reality tv show in The Sims 4, I was practicing creativity and pushing against and into the design of those games. That’s not to say that the games I’ve mentioned in this post don’t have narratives. Some of them very much do in the form of campaigns, scenarios, and other narrative-infused elements. I believe there is as much value in video games without definite narratives as those with plotted out stories.

Video games have provided me with many opportunities to play, explore, and create. They’ve often served as a kind of studio or playground for my imagination. There’s a comfort in that. But that’s my experience. What about you? Do you find yourself creating narratives as you play?

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