I’ve been playing video games quite a bit lately. As I told my husband, “it’s research, I swear.” Mainly, I’ve been trying out new-to-me games that use interactive stories, gathering ideas for a project. I’ve also been scouring the internet for examples of various types of eLearning games.
I tried out some really wonderful, creative games that left me reflecting on the design choices that made them fun and engaging. On the other hand, some of the games I tried were painfully bad. Like, “Why did I waste my time on that?” bad. Luckily, those hours weren’t completely wasted because I learned a lot about effective (and ineffective) game design.
In this post, I’ll share six questions to consider when designing eLearning games that use interactive stories.
1. What's the Point?
Imagine this scenario: A big, well-known company contacts you and says they want to build an eLearning game to train their employees about one of their policies. They want to see some examples and talk about design ideas. You’re excited about the possibility of working with them, and your mind’s gears are already turning, thinking of game ideas. What do you do first?
- Show them examples of games you’ve developed in the past.
- Get a team together to brainstorm game design concepts.
- Ask questions to gain clarity about the problem and goal.
If you picked #3, congratulations! Asking questions is always the place to start when you get a training request. You need to start with “What’s the point of the game?” That is, “What goal do we want learners to achieve?”
It’s easy to get caught up in game elements like points, leaderboards, timers, and escape-room-style puzzles. But the most important thing to remember when designing eLearning games is that, unlike video games, we can’t focus only on the fun. We are in the business of solving performance problems. So, we need to understand what the problem is and what business goal the organization is trying to achieve. As exciting as games are, they’re not always the best solution. Training might not even be the solution.
After you understand the learning needs, if you determine that a game is the right solution, make sure it helps achieve the goal—because that’s the whole point. For example, designing an escape room for sexual harassment training could be triggering and is unlikely to effect the change we’re looking for.
2. Does It Matter?
Also critical to successful learning experience design is relevance to the learner. When we’re using interactive stories, we have to make sure those stories matter. All the badges and leaderboards in the world will not make your learner care if the story doesn’t matter to them. Learners need to be able to see themselves reflected in realistic situations they can expect to encounter in their work.
Incorporate design elements that matter to the work employees do. We shouldn’t use timers unless time is a critical factor of the job. And even then, the situation needs to be something the learner would realistically encounter. For example, a game designed for retail store clerks shouldn’t ask them to diffuse a bomb in 30 seconds.
Another aspect of making it matter is ensuring that every interaction in the course does something to move the story along in support of the learning goal. In one of the games I tested a few days ago—a mystery-themed interactive story—there were many objects I could pick up and examine that had no relevance at all. These were things like books, soap, and household cleaning products. It was annoying and frustrating to have so many pointless interactions as I was looking for clues.
To be clear, red herrings (misleading details) are important elements in mystery stories. They keep the learner guessing so they don’t figure out the mystery too soon. But they have to be used skillfully and should be, at a minimum, interesting details. If you’re writing interactive stories that incorporate mystery, I recommend that you read mystery novels and play mystery-themed video games to become more familiar with how to use clues and red herrings effectively.
3. Is It Fun?
After you’ve established the learning goal, written objectives that support that goal, and come up with a premise for your interactive story that matters to your learners, then it’s time to make it fun. Flex your creative muscles and let those design ideas fly!
Well-told interactive stories are fun by nature. So, you might not need a lot of other typical game elements. But if you want to incorporate quests, adventures, mystery, escape room elements, and other ideas that seem fun to you, test out your ideas with others—ideally including your target audience—to verify that they also find these elements fun. The same goes for incorporating humor.
In a game I played a few days ago, one interaction that took several minutes involved heating up a can of soup—not exactly the most riveting game play. Every minute matters in any kind of training. Don’t waste them having your learners heat up soup. (Unless, of course, you’re developing a course to teach them how to use a microwave.)
4. Does It Make Sense?
One problem in several games I played recently was that it seemed like no one did a careful review of the final script. There were plot holes and storylines that just didn’t make sense. Remember, the script is king, so take time to get it right.
When designing interactive stories using branching, it can be difficult to keep track of the different paths the learner can take. That difficulty makes it more likely that key pieces of the plot get lost—only showing up on certain paths. When reviewing your script, follow each possible path to make sure it will make sense to the learner. And when changes happen during the development process, look for the ripple effects.
Christy Tucker has written several books’ worth of blog posts about branching scenarios for eLearning. Take her advice and use the free tool, Twine, to develop your story and plan out the branching paths. It will save you time, money, and headaches in the end.
A few games I played eliminated the complexities of branching by locking down certain interactions if I hadn’t done other things first. Use this method with caution because it can cause frustration (thus taking away from the fun factor).
As an example, in one game, I saw a screwdriver as I was exploring. It was selectable, but I only had the option to view it, not pick it up. Later in the story, I was able to pick it up, but only after I came to the point in the story where I needed it. The game used a fairly large map (not The Legend of Zelda large, but big enough), and it annoyed me that I had to walk all the way back to where I had seen it. (Virtually walking long distances isn’t fun.)
5. Is It Immersive?
The best interactive story games are immersive. We get invested in the story and feel like we’re living in the world we’re exploring. This is why you can play for hours on end, losing all touch with reality until you realize you’re starving and about to wet yourself because you haven’t moved from the couch all day. (Just me?)
Don't Break the Spell
Some things can pull learners out of the story and break the immersion spell:
- Telling instead of showing. The old advice, “Show, don’t tell,” holds true for eLearning games that use interactive stories. For example, if you need to present backstory, show a flashback using imagery and text or audio, not just text or audio alone. Instead of telling the learner that the new supervisor is demanding and disrespectful, show her being demanding and disrespectful.
- Bad graphics. Your course doesn’t need to be as beautiful as Hogwarts Legacy, but it should be visually appealing. If you use mismatched clip art or pixelated images that have your learners squinting at the screen, you risk pulling them out of the story. You don’t have to break the bank to make a beautiful eLearning game. Consider the graphics in Minecraft. They’re basic and blocky, but somehow appealing in their simplicity. Some keys to good visual design are color, consistency, and contrast. Check out the resources at the end of this post to learn more about visual design.
- Bad acting. Poor acting is one of the quickest ways you can unintentionally pull your learners out of the immersive experience. If you’re presenting an interactive story through video or audio, I recommend hiring professional actors. If you don’t have the budget, consider alternatives to true video or whether it’s important to narrate the text. You could also make the narration optional.
- Lecturing. Nobody wants to be lectured while they’re playing a game. It’s supposed to be fun, right? So don’t just have your characters read a policy and call it a game. (Or, as my mother used to say, “Don’t spit in my face and tell me it’s raining.”) Your learners are smart, and they know when they’re being preached to.
6. Does It Exclude Anyone?
Finally, great learning experiences are inclusive learning experiences. Consider whether you are unintentionally excluding or othering any of your learners. Here are some tips for improving the inclusion of your interactive stories:
- Include diverse characters. Gender and skin color are a great place to start, but think beyond that to age, body size, disabilities, religious clothing, gender expression, etc.
- Avoid stereotypes and tokenism. Take time to round out your characters rather than presenting flat caricatures based on stereotypes. Be thoughtful in how you represent often-excluded groups.
- Use inclusive language. Whoever made up the “sticks and stones” adage didn’t know what they were talking about. Words can definitely hurt. Not only can hurtful language pull learners out of the immersive experience, but they can also cause them to shut down so learning is impossible. One of the games I played recently used the “R” slur, and I’m still mad about it. We need to be mindful of the language we use, always. If your course deals with sensitive topics, include a content warning.
- Make sure the course is accessible. When we create inaccessible eLearning, we’re saying that some learners are more important than others—that it’s okay to exclude about a quarter of the population. Consider accessibility from the start so you won’t have to redesign at the end.
Here’s the TL;DR.
When designing eLearning games using interactive stories, ask yourself the following six questions:
- What’s the point? Be clear about the learning goal.
- Does it matter? Make sure the story is realistic, relevant, and tied to the learning goal.
- Is it fun? Slapping a leaderboard onto a course doesn’t make it a game. Games need to be fun. Test the fun factor by getting input from learners.
- Does it make sense? Take time to get the script right in the beginning, and check it with every change to make sure all the branching paths still make sense.
- Is it immersive? Don’t pull your learner out of the story. Show, don’t tell. Use high-quality visual design and audio (if narrated). And don’t preach.
- Does it exclude anyone? Include diverse characters and avoid stereotypes. Use inclusive language, and design with accessibility in mind.
Below are some resources to help you learn more about designing interactive stories for eLearning games. Share your favorite resources in the comments!
Books About Game Design
- The Art of Game Design, by Jesse Schell
- The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, by Karl M. Kapp
- Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games, by Sharon Boller and Karl M. Kapp
- A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster
Books About Writing
- Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
- Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, by Steven Pressfield
- On Writing, by Stephen King
Books About Visual Design
- Graphic Design for Everyone, by Cath Caldwell
- The Non-Designer’s Design Book, by Robin Williams
- The Non-Designer’s Presentation Book, by Robin Williams
- Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds
- Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences, by Nancy Duarte
- Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, by Nancy Duarte
- Visual Design Solutions, by Connie Malamed
- Visual Language for Designers, by Connie Malamed
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