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.