“…And that’s how I met these group of players. I had no friends, man. I’m not used to being around people.” And then he stretched his arms out wide pointing at the 30 or so people in the bar and said with tears in his eyes, “These people are my family.”
I was at an Ingress game event in San Francisco (where a few hundred “Ingress players” got together to explore the city and play a scavenger hunt style mobile game) and had just heard the story of “Palko” (that’s his game codename), a kid from San Jose who met a group of people after playing Ingress. Before becoming part of this real world gaming adventure, Palko was a self-professed introvert who struggled with depression.Through socializing with other gamers, he made close friendships that completely altered the course of his life for the better.
Even as I type this, I feel the goosebumps I did when I first heard Palko’s story.
A story is simply a quick account of his past that conjured vivid images in my brain and moved me emotionally to feel empathy, amazement and gratitude.
I’ve always felt the power of stories, but never quite reflected on how deep and significant they can be. Stories shape narratives, thought and actions. When I’ve shared Palko’s story with friends and family, they’ve completely changed their perspective on what mobile games can do. Used well, stories can be tools for change. When I got introduced to Story For All, I saw – for the first time in my life – how stories were used to make a positive impact.
My earliest memory of stories go back to my mom reading fairy tales and myths to put me and my sister to bed. I remember Aloshya Popvich, a famed mythical Russian warrior who slays a dragon to rescue a group of people, the story of Mahabharata (Indian mythological tale about good and evil) and many more. As I reflect on my childhood and teenage years, I can remember numerous instances where my teachers would use stories to enable us to grasp complex concepts in physics, chemistry and biology. Recently, the power of story in human history became even more apparent to me as I read Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind, in which Yuval Harari says this about stories and storytelling:
“Sapiens rule the world, because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards common goals. One-on-one, even ten-on-ten, we humans are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Any attempt to understand our unique role in the world by studying our brains, our bodies, or our family relations, is doomed to failure. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively.
“This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money and no human rights—except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories.”
I work at Niantic, Inc. – a technology company. At work, we’ve used stories in all of our products. Our first app – Field Trip – was created with the thesis that the stories of places would enable us to be better informed of our surroundings and possibly trigger serendipitous discovery. I remember receiving a Field Trip notification along the San Francisco Embarcadero; this notification pointed me to the Audiffred building (home to the famous Boulevard restaurant). Fascinating story – this building was amongst the few that survived the 1906 earthquake and fires. As the fires were raging through downtown and the fire department was set to blow up the building, a bartender supposedly promised two quarts of whiskey to each fireman if they didn’t destroy the building. The fire department obliged. This building is so much more meaningful to me now – every time I walk past it.
I’ve often found that sharing my own story – be it something going on in the moment for me, a recent reflection based on an experience or something relevant that occured in my life – can be invaluable in breaking barriers with my colleagues and work associates. Staying mindful of the power of story has prompted me to be more open, communicative and comfortable with vulnerability – which in turn has allowed me to foster deep relationships, and elicited cooperation and compromise in the toughest of business negotiations.
I joined Story For All’s board in 2014 because I was compelled by the founder – Angela Zusman’s observation that stories could help heal communities and empower opportunity youth. Angela and our team bring deep emotional empathy, compassion and vulnerability to group discussions and storytelling sessions, thereby creating a safe space to elicit stories and experiences, impart skills and empower youth. Overheard at one of these programs: “My story is different from yours, but I can totally relate to where you come from.” Previous participants from programs in Oakland, California and Sunflower County, Mississippi reported a 100% recommendation rate; every participant reported increased confidence, self-esteem, communication skills, and feelings of connection with peers and community. And the impact ripples through the families and communities of these youth.
Stories. They’re everywhere. Let’s use their power effectively to make our world a better place. To learn more about Story For All and its upcoming programs, visit www.storyforall.org.