With the proliferation of digital media, we live in a “choose your own adventure” storytelling landscape where it’s evident that audiences connect with stories that align with their values. Stories have the power to captivate, inspire, and unite, but as digital storytelling scales up, the question arises: can we create an inclusive digital world that offers bridges between diverse perspectives? The Wildcard Alliance sought to address this by developing the narrative elements in an immersive video game to create the conditions that foster an inclusive community, and counteract the toxicity often found in insular digital spaces. To help construct this experience, Harmony Labs and Gutsy Media teamed up to explore how people’s diverse values shape the media they consume and create across video games, TV shows, and movies. The result is a first-of-its-kind map of storyscapes that Gutsy Media and the Wildcard development team, are using as a tool to craft their approach to developing their IP. This exciting collaboration unlocks incredible potential for the broader storytelling & world-building community. This work can be used as a tool to construct truly diverse, truly engaging stories where every audience member can see themselves as a hero.
At Harmony Labs, we use 4 values-based audiences that hold distinct attitudes, distinct cultural affinities, and participate in distinct media cultures.
Every human being is unique—and everyone is a protagonist in their own story. Each of us is living a story characterized by distinct goals and values, which contribute to and ladder up to the narratives that make society go. Thoroughly mapping the experiential side of stories—the heroes, their emotions, their motivations, their challenges—and relating them to audiences’ values lends an important, if not crucial, launching point for any creator looking to connect with audiences. After an extensive analysis of the media landscape these audiences inhabit across video games, TV, and movies, Harmony Labs was able to build the storyscapes map across the core 4 audiences and, very importantly, the spaces that bridge them. Because each of us, based on who we are within our lived experiences, are a complex mix of values, shifting, evolving, and learning, this approach gives us the opportunity to more accurately approach individuals with a nuanced understanding of their complexities. It also allows for individuals or characters in stories to “bridge,” i.e. find paths to build dynamic understandings between each other.
With this map, creators can identify story settings, themes, heroes, antagonists, conflicts, resolutions, and rewards, mapping them according to audience values, depicting a full range of lived experiences in order to build balanced narrative worlds.
In the northernmost space of this map, audiences connect with stories that hold a core value of personal growth, and they are consuming scripted entertainment like Umbrella Academy, The Seven Deadly Sins, and Harley Quinn, and video games like Overwatch and Apex Legends.
Stories here are both creative and productive. In this audience:
Wildcard’s vision for a collaborative, inclusive digital society would resonate naturally with this audience: people who want to pursue their dreams and create something new, to make something of our shared world as well as of themselves. Naturally, this is the audience we isolated as the natural home for Wildcard to begin building out its digital world.
Also in this northern part of the map is HBO’s 2023 show The Last of Us, a show that brought to life a beloved digital world from Naughty Dog’s original 2013 video game of the same name. While the video game was most distinctive with the far east edge of the map (If You Say So + Don’t Tread On Me), the show itself flagged as People Power + If You Say So. Its massive success, particularly with the northernmost audience, serves as a guiding example for how storytelling can unite diverse audiences, transcending subject matter that is traditionally siloed into a certain corner by featuring themes and values more universally felt, bridging other audiences across the map. Showcasing a diverse cast, complex relationships between unlikely characters, universal themes of survival and sacrifice, and protagonists layered with vulnerability and moral ambiguity, the show teaches us how storytellers can meet audiences’ values where they are at and expand upon them—nurturing a more diverse and empathetic world on and off the screen.
Audiences gravitate to certain kinds of cultural experiences in media because these experiences, like The Last of Us, connect to something deep inside of them. Creating audience profiles helps storytellers imagine how to reach people different from themselves, while making more manageable a reality where every human being is unique. It begs the question: what if we began the process of crafting stories by rooting ourselves in peoples’ values, learning how those values are presented in the stories they connect with, and creating new media that can speak from those values and expand to bridge audiences across one another?
Given Wildcard’s goal of reaching a broad audience, their current challenge lies not in honing in on a specific audience segment but, rather, in developing an approach that allows them to successfully reach each audience segment over time as they release more game features, more characters, and the stories that underpin them.
In the storyscape, users will discover a variety of planets, cultures, characters, histories, and relationships. The Wildcard team understands that, at its best, its essence lies in a vibrant community who experience a satisfying sense of belonging within its universe.
Game developers typically use archetypes in the game development process. One commonly used is Marczewski’s Player and User Types Hexad. In this model, there are six types of users described (at a basic level). There are four basic intrinsic types: Achiever, Socialiser, Philanthropist, and Free Spirit. They are motivated by Relatedness, Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose—or, RAMP. The other two types, whose motivations are a little less black and white, are Disruptor and Player.
This Hexad is remarkably similar to the map of storyscapes created for this project, a near-perfect alignment with no rotation required. Each archetype in Marczewski’s model bears a direct correspondence to a specific octant in the map. Noteworthy parallels include the alignment of Free Spirit with the northeast autonomy-focused If You Say So, preferring constraint-free games like Roblox and Fortnite, and the alignment of Achiever with southeast winning-focused Don’t Tread On Me, preferring winning/rewards-focused games based on Dune or Lord of the Rings. A notable difference emerges with southwest Tough Cookies, who correspond less with “Socializers” (the people collaborating for rewards seem to be closer to People Power) and more toward satisfaction-oriented gameplay like Candy Crush or Diner Dash.
Wildcard is in open development* and the current characters in the game are from “houses” that align very closely with two audience segments on this map.
Open Development involves transparent and inclusive development processes. It means getting the game into the public's hands before it's done, polished, or finished. The term open development method (ODM), or sometimes “community led development,” has been coined to describe a collaborative way of working. In this model, there is a primary emphasis on collaboration and the role of a community. Building a game in a way that brings game developers and the community together is not just about giving peeks behind the curtain, and it’s not just to obtain feedback (though that’s an important aspect of the approach). ODM is designed to actually include the community in every step of the process along the way, to truly build a game and user relationship together.
While the game developers are world building by intentionally developing characters, worlds, and lore that embody the characteristics we find in the heroes and antagonists around the audience map, they are also inviting users to explore where they fall around the map and to share how the characters and stories resonate with them along the way.
The hope is that, in doing this work together with the participation of the Wildcard community in these early stages, the Wildcard team is creating the conditions for a healthy fandom to evolve as more users come onboard. By the time the game is publicly launched, the Wildcard society will be established as one that is built on one of Wildcard’s three key pillars: Community (the other two are Competition and Collection), one that is diverse, collaborative, and open to consider each individual’s specific nature with respect and, hopefully, curiosity.
The hope was that this foundational work can offer an immersive experience for people who want to be saturated within an audience’s world: the stories they connect with and why, both in a digital world and reality.
This project marks a significant milestone in the realm of inclusive storytelling, and it promises to empower creators to shape a more nuanced, complex future for media. The work is as applicable to linear media, like film and television, as it is to nonlinear media like video games. Thinking about where a world, theme, and characters fall on the map allows creators to play with narratives that, taken together, can create a society of cultures that are balanced around the circle, and to explore how those cultures can come into and resolve conflict—both in storyscapes and in real life.
You can learn more about the process of turning this research into creative briefs for Wildcard here.
About Harmony Labs
We are a media research lab, using science, data, and creativity to research and reshape our relationship with media. For more than a decade, our work has helped storytellers and strategists, decision makers and dreamers, harness the immense power of media to shape a positive, pluralistic future. Learn more here.
About Gutsy Media
Gutsy Media is an entertainment first, research-backed narrative change storytelling studio. Harnessing humor, drama, suspense and everything in between, we catalyze change producing innovative audience-specific, multi-platform content. We inspire cultural empathy through stories that move our society with a lasting positive impact. Interested in learning more about what we do? We’d love to connect with you! Learn more here.