A Home For Every Hero
Mapping the diverse storyscapes in media to inspire the creative development of new characters, worlds, and stories for game experiences that can resonate with users’ values.
Can we design an inclusive digital society?
This analysis is for narrative worldbuilders who want to write stories that support healthy, inclusive societies, online and off. In stories, there are many paths that lead to feeling like we’re experiencing something that matters: because we identify with the hero (or anti-hero); because we’re invested in the conflict, challenge, or competition; because the character’s journey becomes our journey.
What if we began the process of storytelling by rooting ourselves where we already find people in culture? Where do they feel that they most belong? What do they value, what media do they consume, what do they want in the world? By merging audience research with strategic insights and creative production, we can craft stories that not only engage but also inspire societal shifts. This kind of vision of creativity can move narrative change into practical reality.
01. Project Background
Harmony Labs and Gutsy Media teamed up to use media consumption data to analyze games and stories that diverse audiences engage with as fans. The result is a first-of-its-kind map of storyscapes that can be used as a tool to construct truly diverse, truly engaging stories where audiences can see themselves as a hero. With it, we’re offering storytellers a new set of provocations.
Provocations for storytellers
Society is a set of narratives. The foundation for how people organize into communities and societies—digital or IRL—are narratives about who we are, how the world works, and why stuff matters.
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.
We can map the stories and underlying values that animate us. Our values—everything from faith to fun—drive our personal goals, and they anchor our stories in the outcomes we envision, framing our conflicts, motivating action, and can even lead to happy endings.
We invite you to explore our detailed findings below.
02. Locating the audiences
Designing for everyone
“Values” is a psychological driver of goals, and it’s a story term for the foundation of a character. Psychologically, anything from faith to family to shoes can be a value. When we write stories, values motivate many individual, ephemeral goals.
There are lots of values that can motivate characters, but some values are things that every society shares.
Not every individual holds all these values, but a healthy society has narratives that open up the idea of “hero” to encompass a large spectrum of value sets so more people can find their way in. These value clusters derive from Shalom Schwartz’s theory of basic human values.
This map of our 4 values-distinct audiences represents the balance of a culture and can help storytellers imagine how to reach people different from themselves, while making more manageable a reality where every human being is unique. It also allows us to think about where we are, where they are, and what the spaces between us, and the bridges in our story preferences, look like.
03. mapping the media
The games people play (and the shows they watch)
We used more than 8 million internet queries for games, shows, seasons, series, merch, cheats, and hacks from opt-in media measurement panels to map hundreds of fandoms to the audiences. Then we analyzed each piece of media manually to identify the story settings, themes, heroes, antagonists, conflicts, resolutions, and rewards, and mapped them according to each audience’s values. You can explore these media below.
04. EIGHT DISTINCT STORYSCAPES
Bridging audiences and exploring storyscapes
Our four audiences are qualitatively distinct and they represent zones on a map. Each zone is associated with a different narrative which include story elements like setting, tone and texture, and character traits. A walk around the whole map, including the zones between audiences, describes the full range of experiences that can help creators build balanced narrative worlds.
05. Putting it into practice
Creating stories with audience insights
To help imagine how you might use this research to craft engaging and entertaining narratives that are expressive of a journey filled with obstacles to overcome, relationships to explore, and experiences to shape its characters (and by extension, its audience), we close with these simple steps as a guide:
Connect with your creative impulse
At the core of every creative impulse lies the seed of an impactful narrative. It embodies the crucial spark of inspiration that fuels a creator’s belief in the significance of their storytelling. What defines the fundamental essence of the main characters’ experiences in this story? How can you craft and hone this story so that it resonates with your audience on a profound level?
Identify the storyteller
Who needs to tell the story you want to tell? What is their unique lived experience? Who are they in the world, and what of their background, family history, and personal experiences inform their world view? If you are the creator, ask yourself these questions so you can connect with the aspects of your own life’s experience that make you uniquely prepared to craft the story you intend to tell.
Define the story’s core audience
Who do you want your story to reach? How do you hope they’ll be moved by it? Understanding your audience’s values and crafting a story that might be found in the media landscape they are drawn to can create a stronger connection with an audience. By expanding the storyscape and crafting a tapestry of a variety of character types, stories can reach multiple audience groups at once.
You can use this story map to imagine a whole universe in the intended “neighborhood” where characters are rich and faceted but coherent with respect to their values. We have used the map to imagine how real conflict arises for characters who occupy various hero zones. Imagination can reign free here. Don’t forget, not all heroes are found in zones that align with their personal values, like worlds where they don’t comfortably belong (this is often true in “fish out of water” stories, for instance). Thinking about where your world, theme and characters fall on the map allows you 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.
06. APPENDIX: METHODS & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Every story affords ways of feeling, being, & doing
In order to identify what each of the stories in the map have in common, we took a deeper look at key narrative elements like story settings, themes, heroes, antagonists, conflicts, resolutions, and rewards, condensing patterns within these elements into three key categories. Every zone in the map or storyscape “affords” or makes possible very different ways of feeling, being, and doing—what we refer to as setting, tone, & texture; character traits; and story engines, respectively.
These story elements (setting, tone, & texture; character traits; and story engines) can describe every corner of this map, and are useful to demonstrate, among many other things, key components that make a story—and the worlds and characters within them.
case study: If you say so
GPT4 DESCRIBES 6 CATEGORIES OF INFORMATION BASED ON THE REAL MEDIA
Fortnite is a popular online battle royale game that is set on a post-apocalyptic earth where 98% of the world's population has disappeared and the survivors are forced to fight for their survival. The game is set in a world where a mysterious storm has caused the disappearance of most of the world's population, leaving behind a barren and chaotic landscape. Players must scavenge for resources, build structures, and fight against other players and zombie-like creatures in order to survive. The ultimate goal of the game is to be the last player or team standing. The game can be played on a variety of platforms, including PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch.
HUMANS WILL THEN QUALITATIVELY PICK OUT COMMON THEMES AND KEYWORDS SURFACING THROUGH ALL AUDIENCE MEDIA
HUMANS WILL THEN ANALYZE THOSE COMMON THEMES AND DISTILL THEM INTO 3 MAIN CATEGORIES OF FEELING, BEING, AND DOING.
Feeling, being, and doing become setting, tone, & texture; character traits; and story engines, respectively.
Example: If you say so Feeling
If You Say So, the most avid gamers, are motivated by autonomy. They just want to do what they want to do. Their games and stories are exciting and suspenseful, often imbued with a sense of wonder. Heroes are just regular people, often kids, who need to find a way to escape from the oppression of powerful, often supernatural forces. While there’s no better world for everyone in these stories, protagonists do dream of escaping to live their lives free.
Frequently Asked Questions
To measure the audience values that form the foundation of the map, we used surveys that explore attitudes on race, gender, place, and class, along with core values. Using these results, we created four audiences and a suite of predictive models that helped us assign audience scores to the nationally representative, opt-in media consumption panels based on demography, geography, and lifestyle features (e.g., age, gender, race, zip code).
Media consumption panels gave us visibility into the minute-by-minute media behaviors—of over 300,000 people in the U.S., who opted in and are compensated for their participation—across desktop, mobile, tablet, and TV. This allowed us to enrich our audience profiles with the media artifacts—videos, news articles, TV shows, Tweets, Pinterest pins—that actual audience members actually engaged with.
We measured audience interest in games using internet searches conducted by more than 250,000 panelists included in a research panel maintained by Comscore. We generated a list of relevant games using three methods: 1) top grossing games from 2021, 2) search terms including the word “play," and 3) a priori recommendations from our staff’s gamers. We retrieved more than 6,000,000 searches relevant to 212 games.
We estimate membership in each of the 8 audience zones using big values surveys and predictive models. We have a good guess about audience membership for every person in the anonymous panel who has supplied demography, lifestyle characteristics, and geographic information.
We analyzed all the game mentions to find those that were most distinctively associated with each of the 8 audience zones. Importantly, distinctive engagement doesn’t mean that a particular audience consumes the most of a game—the If You Say So audience games more than other audiences, so they play more of lots of individual games than anyone else. Distinctive engagement means an audience over-indexes on a game relative to how much they play games overall. Focusing on distinctiveness helps to identify the games that speak uniquely to each audience.
Since the goal of this project is to understand all the narrative components of each audience’s storyscape, we supplemented the games data with data about movies and TV series that each audience was particularly interested in. In the past, we have explored this using data from individual platforms like YouTube or TikTok, but here we didn’t want to constrain the medium or the platform, so we used user searches again and retrieved everything (more than 2,000,000 queries) that mentioned “show,” “series,” or “season.” This is only a sample of the media that interests fans, obviously, but it yielded distinctive titles like Haikyuu, Yellowstone, and The Ellen Degeneres Show for the 8 audience zones that supplemented our narrative analysis.
For each distinctive game and media property, we collected the setting, tone, themes, core conflict, protagonist portrayal, and antagonist portrayal. For games, we also collected information about core in-game rewards. We analyzed all these story components to find the common elements within each audience that set that audience’s storyscape apart from those of the other audiences.
To help create a visual sense of the storyscape for each audience, we used Midjourney, an artificial intelligence image generator, to create examples of settings, heroes, and antagonists which shared the characteristics of games and stories appealing to the audience and were “inspired by” those narratives. See more about this process in the If You Say So case study above.
It’s important to acknowledge that outputs from AI tools like Midjourney represent averages, and may inherently prioritize big and popular types of media due to the nature of the data sets it draws from. This means that certain images or portrayals that represent prevailing visual trends in media are often featured, like female characters with exaggerated and unrealistic body features as in People Power + If You Say So, because the generated images capture major themes in patterns across storyscapes.
The figures/characters featured in the map of media consumption were based on actual findings. The inclusion of specific content was driven by quantitative data analysis of actual user search patterns and interests.
The representation of race and gender in the media consumption map is the result of user searches and interests, all of which influence the prominence of specific media and its characters. The data in this map show the current landscape of media as it currently is, and how audiences are actually consuming media, based on actual user behavior and analyses.
Gutsy Media and Harmony Labs are deeply grateful to everyone who made this work possible. Your support and dedication have been invaluable. Special thanks to our funders, including the Pop Culture Collaborative, and our esteemed partners The Wildcard Alliance, Comscore, TVEyes, and Nielsen. Additionally, we’d like to extend our appreciation to our friends Tony Patrick, Ali Weinstein, and the Work In Progress team for their invaluable assistance and support throughout this journey. You’re the best!
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 forward, research-backed narrative change storytelling studio. Harnessing humor, drama, suspense and everything in between, we catalyze change by producing innovative audience-specific, multi-platform content. We inspire empathy through stories that move our culture and society with a lasting positive impact. Interested in learning more about what we do? We’d love to connect with you! Learn more here.
Researching and reshaping our relationship
In partnership with advocacy organizations, philanthropic foundations, entertainment and news media brands, and creators, the Narrative Observatory has helped shape the cultural strategy and media making of dozens of partners to-date. You can explore some of this work below:
If you’re interested in learning more about the Narrative Observatory and how it might be leveraged for your work, get in touch.