Some other thoughts on gaming and instructional design – choice

A matter of choice …
I mused awhile ago about incorporating gaming elements into instructional designs … well …
I’ve been having more conversations about gaming and how it can influence our instructional designs. At one point I mentioned, “Something that games do is give players choice … ” I explained that some games allow you to choose the type of character you’re going to play in the game as well as choosing which tools to use at various moments and choosing which missions to tackle and in which order to tackle them. Suffice it to say, games give players lots and lots of choices.

And I believe that this is so prevalent that choice is a principle of good game design.
“Oh, we do that with scenario-based learning,” came a reply.

Well … okayyyyyy … one can rightly say that making choices is a key element of learning through scenarios; however, there is a fundamental difference between how many training designs use choice (at least from those that I’ve experienced – and even those that I’ve designed) compared to how games use it. And this difference can make all the difference!

In most training programs I’ve encountered that use scenarios, the choices can be characterized as:

  • mostly in the vain of multiple-choice test questions where there is one clearly correct answer and all others are fairly clearly incorrect.
  • the scenario includes one, maybe two, choices (still in the form of multiple choice questions).
  • I receive direct feedback after making a choice in the form of ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect.’ (a very binary approach to decision making and responding to situations)
  • the choices are often very simple to discriminate correct and incorrect … poorly developed multiple choice questions and responses – in some cases I’ve not had to read the scenario to answer correctly (and this is a subject all to itself for another blog post perhaps)

No matter how much I’d dress up a multiple choice question, it’s still a multiple choice question that more often than not tests how well someone read the scenario and whether the learner can simply recall what was read.

But in a game a player’s choice has a very real impact on the game itself.
And the sum of the choices made can influence my character, the types of tools or weapons and equipment I can use, the types of skills I can learn and master, the types of missions that are unlocked for me, how the non-player characters react to me, and so on and so on …

It would be VERY DIFFICULT, perhaps impossible, to design a training program that has the breadth and amount of depth of choices available to players in a game. Frankly, I’m not interested in designing a real game … I’m working on designing a learning experience to help folks do their job and do it well.

But there is a possibility of using the element of choice, in a game-like fashion, in an instructional design. And there are likely many ways to incorporate choice.

One way is to develop more realistic choices within scenarios. The choices can include “shades of gray,” where there are better or not-so-good responses as opposed to clearly correct versus incorrect choices.
The choices should be rooted in what the person would DO in the given situation … and not what she remembers from the information presented in previous screens.

Then, rather than providing direct feedback such as “That is correct!” or “Incorrect,” have the scenario continue with the impact of the choice made.

For example, suppose for a compliance course (one that deals with protecting and securing confidential information) the learner is given just enough information … she’s observed a coworker doing something well and also something that might be a violation of the company’s policy. The learner’s choice in the situation moves to the next part of the scenario – the next scene being related to the choice made.

For instance, if the learner chooses to say something to the coworker such as, “I think that’s not a good idea … perhaps you …,” the next scene shows the coworker responding with surprise (“Huh? I didn’t know that”) or maybe with gratitude (“Gee, you might be right. Thanks.”) or maybe even a confrontation (“Who do you think you are? The policy police?”). The learner then as another choice to make … and it continues like this until the scenario is completed.

Then there can be a summary of the scenario – this is a learning program after all – that lists the choices made, the responses received for each choice, and a statement of what the learner could do better next time or what she could consider when she encounters a similar situation in the workplace.

Another possibility would be to assign a number of experience points or skill points for each response in a scenario. When the scenario is completed the learner sees the total points received out of the total number of points possible. And there can be a range of points that categorizes the learner’s performance in the scenario … 850-1220 = expert or advanced, 726-849 = novice, 515-725 = new hire, and the like (of course making these categories unoffensive).

Perhaps have some leader board published with learners’ total skill points showing in ranked order of top scores.

There are many possibilities … the gist being, however, that the scenarios provide realistic choices, include shades of gray, and the responses trigger subsequent events in the scenario.

This will, of course, take more design effort … but would be well worth that effort.

Player choice can come into play in other aspects of instructional designs … I’ll likely tackle those ideas in another post.


About Rory

I make my home in the central part of the Garden State along with my family. When I'm not working as an Instructional Designer (focusing mostly on Web-Based learning ... and other eLearning technologies) or researching something, I'm found at home playing computer or video games. Among other things, I volunteer as a choir member and catechist for 8th graders at my parish.
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4 Responses to Some other thoughts on gaming and instructional design – choice

  1. Excellent, thanks for this write-up.


  2. Sheri Glew says:

    The real value of gaming use in instruction is its ability to completely engage the learner and get them involved with decision making and choices. I agree with your comments. The choices in the game are important pieces the instructional designer must consider. This is where the learning and critical thinking takes place. This also mimics real life – in making daily choices that have an outcome. You can not simply guess at an answer, or multiple choice answer, but rather must think through the actions and decisions needed. There is a resulting action from your choice. The real challenge for the designer is to formulate the various choice options and the subsequent consequences.

  3. *Noah says:

    I have been struggling with this as well and would like to find a better way to approximate a game without the complexity and involvement game development requires. Yet, to be effective the choices have to seem viable and transparent, not indicative of the “correct” path. I am working in SmartBuilder and have found that this tool lends itself well to creating a template for game-type qualities. The challenging part is figuring out how to fill in the placeholders.

  4. One thing that games do is to indulge our deepest desires for wrongness.

    The greatest rush in SuperMonkeyBall was, apparently, when the player first ‘dies’ and falls off the side of the puzzle-maze. I spoke to the designers of the browser game, Echo Bazaar, and they told me that as soon as they introduced a number of failure/penalty mechanics, players *immediately* wanted to die/descend into madness/be excommunicated to the ‘tomb colonies’.

    I guess I’m trying to say that learning design fails when you only receive an ‘incorrect’ message. You should be allowed to play with it. I want more than shades of grey, I want to know what it *feels* like.

    We seem to have got locked into a mindset where ‘rich content’ is about multimedia. But it should be about introducing ‘wrongness’ into our learning designs so we can enjoy playing with it.

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