The Lens of the Story Machine

Story Machine
The Story Loom at the Story Museum, Oxford

Some time ago, I was busy designing a game which was going to support learning objectives around entrepreneurship, financial decision-making and strategic and operation decisions. As many of us do, when designing, I turned to my trusty copy of Jesse Schell’s Book of Lenses.

Experience Categories

I had already decided a list of the types of experiences my players would go through. These consisted of:

  • Identity
  • Other people
  • Goals and achievement
  • Discovery
  • Evaluation
  • Values
  • Problem Solving

And now it was time to turn my attention to one particular components in Schell’s Elemental Tetrad, Story. The following is what I wrote about this process at the time.

Jesse Schell says that, “A good game is a machine that generates stories when people play it.”

I want my players to be able to create compelling stories about running a business, about the successes and failures that arise out of the decisions they make while doing so.  Ultimately I want them to learn something useful from creating these stories, specifically about maintaining financial records and how these and simple metrics can aid decision making.

The Lens of the Story Machine

Lens of the Story Machine

I want to create a story experience which is partially pre-scripted (has some underlying structure) but will give participants freedom to create the story for themselves.  This is extremely important when considering my Experience Category “Identity”.  Participants must feel they have autonomy within the game.

Jesse Schell’s questions for Lens #65 – The Lens of the Story Machine – are as follows:

  • When players have different choices about how to achieve goals, new and different stories can arise. How can I add more of these choices?
  • Different conflicts lead to different stories. How can I allow more types of conflict to arise from my game?
  • When players can personalise the characters and setting they will care more about story outcomes and similar stories can start to feel very different. How can I let players personalise the story?
  • Good stories have good interest curves. Do my rules lead to stories with good interest curves?
  • A story is only good if you can tell it. Who can your players tell the story to that will actually care?

My answers to these questions currently are:


Participants will make choices about:

  • What kind of business they wish to run (manufacturing, service, retail etc.)
  • The products or services they offer
  • What markets to cater for (e.g. quality, service or price driven)
  • The pricing of these products and services
  • Numerous resource allocation decisions
  • Strategic decisions (e.g. exploit vs explore, growth vs consolidation etc.)
  • Operational decisions (e.g. allocation of workforce to projects)
  • How to finance their business

The goals they can strive for (the reasons for making these choices) include:

  • Making a greater profit
  • Growing the business
  • Improving cash flow
  • Increasing market share
  • Reducing staff turnover
  • Reducing costs
  • Increasing ROI

Conflict points

Fighting Viking
Image by Hans Splinter from Flickr with thanks

Potential conflict points that could feature in the story of the game are:

  • Losing out on sales to a competitor
  • Negotiating T&Cs with a supplier
  • Negotiating T&Cs with a customer
  • Operating in a shrinking marketplace
  • Conflict within their own (management) team

Personalising the experience

Opportunities to personalise the experience can arise from

  • Autonomy to decide the kind of business they wish to run within the game
  • Freedom to allocate appropriate roles within the team
  • Naming their company and designing a logo (trivial icebreaker activity)
  • Participants can choose and modify an individual skills profile
  • There is no set path through the steps which participants must take each round

Given the enormous number of potential learning situations around business, what I really want to do, rather than creating an individual game, is create a games system into which different situations and choices can be dropped in a modular fashion to create vastly different experiences which would meet vastly different learning objectives.

As a keen player of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, my ideal situation would be to create a similar system for business learning games.  This would hopefully facilitate immersive learning experiences in which participants are free to make decisions that are meaningful to them to help them to learn about real-world business situations that they are facing.

For example, the ‘skills profile’ mentioned above would equate roughly to the character stats seen in RPGs .  The skills profile of, for example, a Salesperson in the game would detail how good they are at, say, negotiating with customers on price or payment terms.

Skills profiles can be augmented by experience or training.  I would also like to see a place in my game for things such as ‘power-ups’ and ‘levelling up’ – definitely not usually associated with the serious business of business games – but with definite applications in my mind.  What is a corner office and the key to executive bathroom after all but evidence of levelling up?  What is becoming an ‘Influencer’ on LinkedIn but a kind of power-up.

Interest curves

Image by George Nafpliotis from Flickr with thanks

‘Interest Curves’ refer to variation pace.  This is not only important in games.  In learning, variation of pace helps to ensure continued engagement.  Good interest curves include periods of high excitement (peaks) interspersed with periods of low excitement (valleys), which bring about anticipation of further peaks.  Particular peaks, such as the one which should occur at the beginning of the experience (‘the hook’) and near the end (‘climax’)  help to ensure initial interest and that the participant goes away from the experience, satisfied, but still with a level of further interest.

In my experience I see potential peaks:

  • Decision making and negotiation
  • Problem solving
  • Feedback and results
  • Levelling up
  • Interactions with others
  • Achieving (or failing) at a goal

And valleys:

  • Administrative tasks or mundane tasks (paying costs etc)
  • Debriefs
  • Reflective time

Within the context of a learning event the other necessary interruptions to the game / learning (meals, coffee breaks) should also be considered and will need to fit into the overall structure appropriately to create an effective interest curve

Telling the story

Finally, the story needs to be told. I would hope that the experience will be compelling enough for the participants to tell their stories after the event, otherwise I don’t really have a viable product, but I have little control over that – other than designing an experience that will encourage that later storytelling.  From a learning perspective it is absolutely essential that the learners will spend some time telling their stories during the event.  Much of the learning will come from reflection on the decisions they have made and the sharing of their experiences from within the game and their work life with the rest of the cohort.

Editor at Ludogogy
Sarah Le-Fevre is a games-based learning professional who specialises in organisational learning around systemic ‘wicked problems’, and helping businesses spot and exploit opportunities for ethical ‘for good’ innovation. She works with tools such as Lego® Serious Play® and the Octalysis gamification framework to create compelling immersive learning experiences. She is currently writing a book outlining a systems practice approach to delivering impactful learning within organisations.

A real board games nerd, she is considering having her floors reinforced to support the ever increasing weight of the boxes. When she is not designing or facilitating learning games she is the editor of Ludogogy Magazine. Sarah lives in Oxfordshire with her husband, younger daughter, and a beautiful (but very loud) Bengal cat.

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  1. Hi Sarah, interesting article, thank you. Quite some scope to design the D&D of business games. Do you have thoughts on the context people will arrive at it by… the setting where this comes into play, beyond just a learning event? Or is it just something anyone could use when they want a simulation of any kind?

    On telling the story, it occurs to me that D&D players tell their stories to each other on forums and such… is it plausible to provide a space for such, or some kind of showcase, for the best stories that come out of it?

  2. Absolutely, I would envisage that the best way to design a digital platform to support an experience such as the above, would be to create a highly social space, preferably which also has curation capability for users, so that they can co-create a learning space, where their stories (and in-game avatars) can live on, thrive and grow. In fact I specified exactly this some time ago, but sadly, it never came to fruition, because options were watered down and a developer used who just didn’t have the skills or understanding to implement it.

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