Sunday, October 12, 2008

Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth and OCBs

In 1949, Joseph Campbell ( ) wrote "The Hero with A Thousand Faces", and although he did not coin the term monomyth, he made extensive use of it to characterize his thesis that stories through the ages shared fundamental elements that made them successful.

Many successful Hollywood projects have either deliberately or unintentionally followed the Campbell formula to create blockbuster hits. Star Wars, Thelma and Louise, Northern Exposure, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are a few of the many familiar film and television hits that drew upon the principles of the monomyth.

Over the last several years, video game designers have been evaluating these same principles as a foundation for successful storytelling in games. As we think about the use of games at work, and how to design effective productivity games, these same principles are worth considering.

Campbell's monomyth is based upon the idea of a hero.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[1]

Presumably, the hero in a productivity game is the employee. I would assert that most employees would not describe additional work as a "region of supernatural wonder" – but perhaps "the world of common day" does apply. Therefore, the game design must draw the employee out of their regular work into the "region of supernatural wonder".

This definition aligns perfectly with "organizational citizenship behaviors" – OCB's – (Wikipedia link) – which are work-related, but "are discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system." Therefore, since these behaviors are not recognized by the formal reward system, a well-designed game can provide an informal or secondary reward system. As Dennis Organ asks of managers in his book Organizational Citizenship Behavior (link), "What are the things you'd like your employees to do more of, but can't really make them do, and for which you can't guarantee any definite rewards, other than your appreciation?"

Combining the "region of supernatural wonder" of Campbell with the definitive goals of citizenship behaviors provides tremendous opportunities for productivity games. The goal of productivity games is to attract and retain players. The more players, and the more frequently people play the game, then more work gets done. Building upon the structure of Campbell's "Hero's Journey" is a tremendous way to engage players, and draw upon those fundamental elements of the monomyth to challenge the hero.

The successful deployment of the monomyth in Hollywood keeps movie-goers from leaving the Star Wars showing as Luke faces the atonement of the father with Darth Vader, or Clarice recites the story of the lamb in Silence of the Lambs, or in Titanic, when Rose has her doubts about marrying Cal despite her mother's concerns with money and status. These examples of the monomyth work well for Hollywood, so it's safe to assume that a well designed story could keep the hero at work engaged in the "region of supernatural wonder".


Joseph Campbell Foundation

Hero with A Thousand Faces on Amazon

Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers Amazon

Organizational Citizenship Behaviors – Wikipedia link

Organizational Citizenship Behavior: Its Nature, Antecedents, and Consequences (Foundations for Organizational Science) Amazon

Screenplay, Story Structure link