Gamification and storytelling from Italy to UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley

Hello, I’m an Italian writer, journalist and game designer. Here is my bio. Since some of my works have been translated into English, In 2017 a research group from UC Berkeley interviewed me as a gamification expert. David Helldén asked me about my projects, business models and the future of game design.

You can read here what I answered his questions. I hope this page can help people get closer to interactive fiction and, of course, my games and stories!

Marco, what background do you come from? How did you end up working with motivational design and gamification?

I’ve been working as a journalist since 2002 for the Italian newspaper Il Secolo XIX. I’ve also published many short stories and a novel as paper books, but no one of them has been translated into English, although I’d really love that.

I love my job and I like reading, writing and also coding, but some years ago I started having problems to publish my works as I would. Moreover, many people were stopping to buy and read paper books (and also comics), as smartphones and tablets were starting to offer new forms of entertainment.

Zork, when gamification and storytelling collide and become interactive fiction

So I looked for a different way to present my stories to the readers. I decided to use my coding skill to make stories that people could read, write and also play. I suppose you know Zork and the other good old text adventures or interactive fiction which got great success into the Seventies and Eighties. This kind of video game sets the player into a fictional universe where a story is running. By writing some simple commands, he can visite places, take objects and use them, talk with other people, fight monsters or other enemies and, of course, find theway to reach the end of the story.

Well, I thought that interactive fiction could be a good way to get people close to reading again, as it is a really exciting form of entertainment, that allows you to know how amazing, and funny, a text work can be. So, making people play with stories and texts is currently my way to work with gamification, as interactive fiction can be intended as a form of gamification applied to a narrative flow. The mission – I think – is to show that words can be as engaging as images and videos. It seems it works, as people usually appreciate my efforts to engage them in reading and playing my stories.

Marco, how would you explain motivational design and gamification to somebody?

Well, what we can read on Wikipedia is fine to me: gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. Non-game contexts could be educational processes or marketing projects, which can be difficult to promote by a conventional way. Gamification can also be a trojan horse – I hope this is not a bad word to you – which you can fill with information or stories you want to give to your audience. Ancient Romans used to say: “Ludendo docere”, which means that people – and not only very young people as kids – learn better their lesson if the teacher

manages to make them play with that. So, if I like telling stories, but people are boring with books, I write interactive fiction, which allows them to play with every row of my text.

Marco, are you using any specific frameworks or have you developed your own?

Some code from Inform 6

I write and code my works by using Inform 6. It’s a programming language and design system for interactive fiction originally created in 1993 by Graham Nelson, a British mathematician and poet.

I like Inform 6 as it is very simple and allows me to create cross-platform software, which runs both on computers and smartphones and tablets. So people can play my games on different devices, but I have to write just one program.

I am also working, together with a friend, on a touch screen framework, which should allow us to write text games for Android and iOS. That will be a good way to see if people playing on mobile devices prefer to write – as in traditional interactive fiction – or simply touch – as in other mobile non-text games – their commands and moves.

Marco, how do you work with gamification today?

I like working on a particular environment, such as a school, a park, a beach, a factory, a firm, and promote it by gamifying it. In other words: I find a way that allows people to enter virtually that place and play with his furniture, equipment, people or story. I think this a good way to make people closer to that topic.

Gamification applied to enriomental protection

In 2014 Italian Federation of Environmental Media (F.I.M.A. in Italian) asked me to write a game about waste sorting. They wanted to promote the environmental protection. So I set the game into an urban park, where the player had to find ten different types of waste and then drop them in the right rubbish bin. There were a tin can, a newspaper, a glass bottle, some plastic dishes, a syringe and so on.

I presented a draft of the game at the convention of enviromental media, at University of Genoa, but the game didn’t get the budget I needed to complete the project and release it. I have also prepared a game about a maritime village, whose inhabitants want to promote it as a beautiful place to visit, but we still no have a deal to proceed.

Marco, what digital tools or platforms are you utilizing?

As I said, I am fine with Inform 6. It allows me to make cross-platform games and distribute them both on computers and mobile devices. This thing is also appreciated by my customers. If you want to play on Windows, you just have to use the installer my_game.exe. If you want to play on mobile, there are some free interpreters, such as Text Fiction on Android and Frotz on iOS, which allow you to open the original cross-platform file. Many games of mine can also be played directly on the browser, by using the Parchment protocol.

Marco, what types of products and services related to gamification have you worked on?

Zigamus, the game set into the video game museum of Rome

One of my most popular works is Zigamus, which is the official game of Vigamus, the Video Game Museum of Rome. In 2015 Prof. Marco Accordi Rickards, director of Vigamus, asked me to make a video game to promote the museum and its exhibition. Since we were both fans of interactive fiction and zombies, I wrote a black comedy where the museum is invaded by zombies and the player has to use the relics and gadgets exhibited in the building as weapons to fight them. You can use the Mario’s hammer from Donkey Kong and the Connor Kenway’s tomahawk from Assassin’s Creed. There is even the unfamous cartridge of the E.T. video game for Atari 2600, which is so horrible that makes a zombie commit suicide. You can download Zigamus here.

I hope the game is funny enough to convince people to visit Vigamus in Rome. It is also available in English, thanks to the translation made by Ms. Francesca Noto. Three other games of mine have been translated into English: Darkiss 1 and Darkiss 2, which are the first episodes of a horror saga about an evil vampire, and Save the Cheshire Cat, a comedy about a missing cat.

I still work as gamification teacher in the high-school Guglielmo Marconi of Imperia, the city where I live. I started in 2015, when the principal was looking for a way to help students develop their imagination and also take practice with design works.

Gamification a scuola

The first project I developed together with them was an interactive tour of the school, to promote its structures and lessons, with many photos of the rooms and equipment. As the player, you play the role of a kid who has to choose which high-school to enroll. You may visit the edifice and take aptitude tests to know which subjects you prefer among information technology, electronics, mechanical engineering, hydraulics. You have to repair a radiator, change the oil in a car, translate a text from English to Italian, make a printed circuit board, program a chip, build a little robot. There is also a final secret test. That game got a good success and also the final into the first edition of the Italian Gamification Awards, in 2016.

After that, at Marconi, we started gamifying history lessons, by writing text games set in different ages and places, as episodes of a time travel made by a student of the school. The last one was set in the ancient Greece. We are convinced that students can take better results in history studying if they can do that how they like.

Marco, how would you describe those offerings to customers and users?

My interactive fiction Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire

When a potential customer asks me about gamification, I get information about their particular need and tell them that gamification – sometime along with storytelling – can turn their product or service into a game or a story which can make their customers curious about that. The one who plays a game usually feels emotions like a desire to win and a fear of failing which should get them interested in that thing. It can also be a way to get information about that thing from other people: while they play, they may show reactions or say things which could be useful to know whether the product (and not only the game) works or not.

They may also give us feedback, by simply playing or writing us or talking to us. If the game works fine, the customer can obtain a lot of information about its users, which can help them to get them involved in their business. What I like about gamification is that it makes people willing to give you information which they usually don’t want to give. When they play, they are happy, relaxed and ready to share the “secrets” of their life with us. On the contrary, when they watch a normal advertisement, they feel annoyed, or even angry, as they think that someone want to take their money in exchange for something they – usually – don’t need. But the first rule of marketing is to create needs. And I’m sure we can do that much easier by gamifying products and services.

Marco, if you have worked with a gamification related offering: what kind of business models have worked or not worked?

As I said, my favourite business model is a cross-platform and text oriented game, which makes the user play the product or the service as an interactive story, that has to come to an (happy) end. I like reading and writing, so I like working with texts in gamification, but I know images are very important in marketing. So, when I can and my customers ask, I use photos or drawings along with texts.

A public meeting about gamification I attended in Milan in 2017

I often promote my work of game designer and present my single works in plubic meetings, set in high-schools, universities, academies and also fairs. I make the audience play by showing the game on a giant monitor. I move the protagonist in the interactive story as they ask me to do. They usually love this experience and I think this is what I have to do in Italy, today. Since many Italian people don’t know what gamification is, I think the best way to tell them about that is by playing live with them. Of course, I also have a slideshow I made with Impress, but it’s very short, as action is best than 1000 words.

About business models that have not worked, I recently had a not-so-good experience with my “play live” shows. I was at a cosplay, comics and video game fair, where I had to present my interactive comedy Save the Cheshire Cat. I was in a big square, into the historical center of the city. There were hundreds of people there, the monitor showing the game was enormous, but the show didn’t had great success. The people were too many to play together and cooperate the right way. So, I understood there is a limit about the number of people I can make involved in a situation like that. “Play live” shows are fine for the rooms (also big rooms) of schools and universities but a square can be dispersive.

Marco, what trends are you seeing in the future for gamification and motivational design?

Press the key to gamify your job and life!

I am pretty sure that the interactive way to do creative things will soon prevail on the non-interactive one. People enjoy video games as they, when playing, are always in the middle of the action and can lead the story as they want or would (they may also lose and don’t get the happy end).

They are the protagonist of the story they watch or read (and, of course, play). This is what marketing tries to do since ever: giving people great feelings which may convince them to buy things that (sometimes) they don’t even need. So, I think that we’ll continue to watch, read and, of course, buy things, but we’ll do that by playing them.

I like to do that by writing (interactive) texts, since I have great feelings with words. I know many other creative people are using images and videos and also like that. In Italy, young people watch YouTube (and other webchannels) much more than traditional tv shows, for they can find all that they want online. And Internet is the best place and way to make gamification the creative trend of the future.

What is important is not to forget that people don’t need products, services or even (boring) stories or lessons. People need emotions and they always get great emotions when they play. So, people may win or lose their game, but gamification always wins when it makes people play.