Thursday, July 21, 2011

How Books Work: The Hunger Games (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post, INTERN mentioned Stephen King’s review of The Hunger Games: “Reading The Hunger Games is as addictive (and as violently simple) as playing one of those shoot-it-if-it-moves videogames in the lobby of the local eightplex; you know it's not real, but you keep plugging in quarters anyway.”

He’s right, of course. But what makes this comparison so apt? How does The Hunger Games deliver a similar experience to playing a video game? And why are books about games (and books that read like games) so addictive?

INTERN recently discovered a fascinating non-fiction book that answers exactly this question.

In Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken, she argues that games step in to fill basic human needs when reality fails us. When real life doesn’t provide enough goals, rewards, community, meaningful work, or sense of cause-and-effect—when real life is boring, alienating, ambiguous and unintelligible—games provide us with challenges, adventures, and authentic camaraderie with other players. Where real life can feel pointless, games test our abilities and present us a constant stream of obstacles and rewards. Games give us experiences we deeply crave—and which can be sadly lacking from modern life.

Which brings INTERN to The Hunger Games. Like the video games described in Jane McGonigal’s book, The Hunger Games provides readers with near-constant obstacles and rewards. Not only that, but the obstacles and rewards in The Hunger Games could literally have been pulled from a video game: a nest of trackerjackers, a silver parachute that drops from the sky…

Like (most) video games, there is ALWAYS a clear goal: find water, find Peeta, blow up Careers’ food pile. To achieve these goals requires skill (how many activities in modern highschools and workplaces still call for that?). Katniss shoots a bow and arrow, distinguishes edible plants from poisonous ones, skins and cooks meat, dresses wounds. Like a videogame, The Hunger Games fulfills our basic hunger to be useful, to not be alienated from our labor. Katniss isn’t skinning rabbits in a rabbit-meat factory where the results of her labor will be shipped to Wal-Marts across the nation—she’s doing work that directly literally means survival.

Like a video game, the ever-changing arena in which the Hunger Games take place always keeps Katniss at the very edge of her skill level. It’s never so easy as to become boring, and never so impossible the players give up. Dancing at the edge of your skill level—whether you’re playing a video game or sailing a boat—is where humans enter the psychological state called flow (a state of absorption in a task that can feel almost euphoric).

And reading The Hunger Games can put you in flow as well as any video game.


So what does this mean for writers?

Obviously, writing dozens of Hunger Games knock-offs isn’t a very attractive option. But more writers could harness the game-like qualities exhibited in The Hunger Games in their own books, whether or not the books themselves are about games (or even dystopias at all).

Readers are human. Humans, like lab rats, have basic cravings. If you can speak to these cravings, you’ll win a reader for 300 pages.

So what are some game-like qualities writers can apply to their manuscripts to make them more addictive?

Clear goals. Characters are always in pursuit of something, which the reader should be able to name on demand.

Cause and effect. Characters’ actions have consequences. Always.

Obstacles and rewards. Obstacles speak for themselves. But rewards are just as important. Finding a tool, weapon, magical object, or guide adds excitement and gives readers an emotional boost. Rewards don’t have to be limited to adventure and fantasy stories, either—even a contemporary novel can use them, although they’ll come in a different form.

The right level of difficulty. i.e. stakes. Just like a video game, readers will get bored if your character’s trials are too easy, and worn out if they go too long without a small victory or reward. To put your readers in flow, keep the challenges coming at the very edge of your character’s ability to deal with them. And don’t neglect internal (emotional) challenges either.

A conflict-rich environment. Your story’s setting shouldn’t be inert. Again, think of games: if you land on the black square, you get bounced back six spaces. If you jump on the yellow crate, you accidentally release a monster. The setting dispenses dangers and rewards at every turn.

None of this is new or surprising—indeed, it’s the oldest writing advice in the book. But then again, humans have played games forever too.


INTERN thinks not.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Writer thinks Intern is spot-freaking-on.

    I'm in Utah, the heart of Pioneer History, and we're always comparing time periods. So I love the point made about whats lacking in modern times. You'd be amazed how popular reinactments are around here, just for that taste of basic urges to survive.

    Thanks for the insight. I'll try to use it.

  3. Great stuff again, INTERN. Hopefully your slush pile gets more interesting because of it.

  4. Great insights here, especially plugging in rewards instead of just one obstacle after another. Let them power up – as when Harry Potter is given a wand, Luke is given a lightsaber, or King Arthur’s given Excaliber – and the challenges they can meet get even better.

  5. These are really superb insights. I'm putting you in my sidebar based on this week's posts.

    Thank you for your blog!

  6. This reminds me of a book I've used to influence and improve my own writing: the Art of Game Design. Though targeted at those designing computer games, author Jesse Schell gets down to the roots of what makes narrative work, including a lot of the things you've just mentioned. I really recommend it for writers looking for a new perspective on how to improve their writing.

  7. Brilliant post - AGAIN. *stars* Thanks, Intern. :)

  8. These two posts are fantastic. Spot-on analysis and concrete, practical advice condensed from it. And bonus points for the visualization in part one. Fiction visualizations are awesome.

  9. For all the superficialities they may (or may not) have in common, the distinction between art and games is sharp and specific, and if Jane McGonigal doesn't explicitly point that out in her pretty good book, she implies it: games by definition don't have the power to convey abstract meaning or conceptual themes, as art does. Why so? They're games.

    Over the centuries, many are the chess and go players who've told the world that those two games are life, and they are art. But they're not: they're games. Important and perhaps no less valuable, but distinct from art nonetheless.

    Art, like everything, is something specific, and when the defining characteristic of art is lost, art degenerates.

    Your articles, incidentally, are almost always relevant, and that's just one of the many things I like about your blog.

  10. Awesome, INTERN! I think these are your best posts yet!! They must have taken a fair bit of work and we're all grateful.

  11. I'm a former game designer, who is jumping into the world of writing after dabbling for years on the side. There is a lot of elements of game development I'm hoping to carry over, and really enjoyed this analysis. I haven't actually read the hunger games but I think I might need to add them to my "to-read" list, which currently includes Harry Potter (I'm on book 5) and Twilight (part way through book 1, had to take a break)among scattered scifi and fantasy books.

  12. Unknown: Interesting point. INTERN is by no means trying to say that art and games are the same thing! But Stephen King's comment re: the Hunger Games feeling like an arcade game does ring a bell.

  13. Thanks, JenniferWriter! *eats encouragement like PacMan eating a trail of yellow dots*

  14. This is a very cool post. I've noticed a huge crossover between boardgame players and avid readers, so this made perfect sense to me.

    @Unknown: What games are you playing? I'd never though about whether or not games are/aren't art (though it's certainly a creative endeavor, and a lot of games includes illustrations worthy of a frame and my wall -- see 7 Wonders), but if the only definition of art is abstract meaning or conceptual themes, games make it. Rio Grande (one of the best game companies out there) states their goal is to get families to spend more time together, but also that:

    "We consider the games we offer to be choice games because each player is asked to make a choice on each turn. Thus, these are not games based on luck, but reward good choices and teach children that the choices they make are important. We hope the lessons children learn while playing our games will be carried into their lives and they will learn that making good choices in life leads to the same good results as they do in games."

    If you really want something with abstract meaning/conceptual themes, play Go (learning how is easy; playing is hard). I suppose people take away different things from boardgames, but people take away different things from books as well. Not all games are created equal...but you've just convinced me that some are art. Thanks!