As researchers to strive to discover the best way to effect positive health behavior changes using video games, a recent spotlight has been shining on the use of story narrative. One of the leading researchers on the topic is Amy Shirong Lu, Phd, Assistant Professor at the School of Communication of Northwestern University. Dr. Lu’s masters thesis examined the cultural politics of Japanese animation, which is known for its narrative appeal to children and adolescents. Her doctoral research in mass communications focused on the impact of customization in narrative and non-narrative health blogs on physical activity intentions. Dr Lu kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her work for Health Gamers.
Q: How did you become interested in story immersion to achieve health goals?
A: As an English major in college, I was attracted to various kinds of narratives (e.g., films, animation, and video games) and often found myself lost in the story’s world. One of the oldest and still most pervasive forms of communication, narratives may be an especially powerful way to communicate about health. Today, I am interested in exploring the persuasive effects and mechanism of story immersion that may affect health.
Q: What are the story narrative basics and tricks that game designers should employ in their games?
A: Many games start with some form of narrative to draw players into the game world. To continue such immersion, designers need to consider other elements besides the narrative development. While narratives themselves are important, video game designers need to go beyond narratives in creating involving games by balancing them with the playability of the game (e.g., control, game mechanism, interactive interface, etc.). At the same time, the process of game play and the experience afforded to players should both correspond with the theme of the narrative. The story should be seamlessly embedded in every aspect of the game play and design.
Q: You recently presented a paper (Lu, A. S., Thompson, D., Baranowski, J, Buday, R., & Baranowski, T. (2012) Story immersion in a health video game for child obesity prevention. Games for Health Journal, 1(1), 37-44.) on story immersion in video games to prevent childhood obesity. What are your suggestions? Have they been proven effective?
A: This study looked at how children of different ethnic and racial backgrounds react to a narrative health game featuring a protagonist with both African-American and Hispanic phenotype features. Results suggest ethnic similarity between players and video game characters enhanced story immersion and several health outcomes. Effectively embedding characters with similar phenotype features to the target population in interactive health video game narratives may be important.
Q: Does customization always work?
A: No. I have a paper currently under review that has found something interesting. It really depends on whether the “right” aspects have been customized.
Q: How can story be used to create a tool for dietary assessment in children?
A: I have a forthcoming paper discussing this. An example would be: stories can be used to motivate the children to complete dietary assessment questionnaires, which usually take a while to complete because of their many questions (Lu, A. S., Baranowski, J., Islam, N., & Baranowski, T. How to engage children in self- administered dietary assessment programs. Forthcoming in Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics).
Q: Can you recommend a good story narrative writing resource for game developers and designers to read and integrate into their work?
A: Not that I know of as of now. I would use reference books in children’s literature and developmental psychology as a start. I also plan to find out more through working on my NIH grant project.
Health Gamers thanks Dr. Lu for sharing her insight about effectively using story narrative in health game design. We look forward to reading more about her research findings in upcoming publications.
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