Writing Techniques: Game Theory in Writing

When developing a story there are so many things to think about.  Do you have a moral you want to convey?  Are you writing several stories in a series or is it a one-off?  How many primary characters do you want?  Is it in first person or third person?  What’s the genre (or genres?)  How will you make that cool fight scene you have in mind work with the characters?

All of those things are important, but none of those will matter if the story isn’t interesting.  How do you keep a reader’s attention?  How do you keep things fresh without becoming unrelatable?  I’ve found it comes down to something I call game theory.

What is Game Theory?

Game theory is the understanding and application of certain dichotomies that produce a game.  But Devin, you say, a book is not a game!  Well, you’re not wrong, but I put it to you that what makes a book interesting is the games the characters engage in.  The better the game, the better the suspense, excitement, interest and intensity of a book.

Okay, so what is a game, then?  A game can be defined as a purpose, with barriers and freedoms that inform the actions to reach that purpose.  As you develop your characters and world, what you’re putting into place are the barriers and freedoms.  Is your protagonist good at solving puzzles?  That’s a freedom.  Is your bad guy surrounded by dozens of minions?  That’s a barrier.  Does the story take place in the freezing arctic?  That’s a barrier.

By balancing these barriers and freedoms, you create a path that your story can follow.  A good writer thinks ahead and prepares the world so that the challenges the characters face can be solved by using what has already been determined, rather than inventing something new on the spot.

What Makes a Game?

I mentioned earlier that there are dichotomies that create a game, or a no-game condition.  Some of them are surprising, others are obvious.  Let’s take a quick look at one of my favorites: Know and Not-Know.  This dichotomy might not work the way you think it does.  In fact, Know is a no-game condition, and Not-Know is a game condition.  But how does that work?  You have to know the game to play, right?

Wrong.  The more you (or the character) knows, the less a game is present.  Imagine playing poker when you knew all the cards in play.  Or monopoly, if you knew beforehand what everyone would roll on their turn.  Or chess, when you knew what your opponent would do next.  There’s not a game there.  Sure, you’d win, but at that point there’s no challenge, no barrier, and no interest.

On the flip side, as soon as you remove knowledge of a situation, things become interesting.  How many bullets are left in the gun?  Which car do the keys fit in?  Or, perhaps most succinctly, whodunnit?  Lack of knowledge makes things exciting.  By introducing the game condition early (the puzzle to solve in the story, in our example) and holding off on providing the no-game condition (knowledge) until the conclusion of the story, you maximize the duration of the game.

Game Conditions

I could go on for hours about how each of the game conditions could apply to writing, but you’re not here to read a novel.  So, I’ll just list a few of the game conditions and let you work out how to apply them in your writing.  These are listed with the game condition first.

Not-Know/Know

Problem/Solution

Enemies/Friends

Action/Motionless

Control/No-Control

Expectation/Win (or Lose)

Can’t Have/Have

Individuality/Commonality

Responsibility/No-Responsibility

There are more conditions, but I’ll save those for a later discussion.  I hope this list helps you in developing story concepts and plotting out your books!