Inner gamification techniques for elearning. Part 2: Telling a story

In a previous blog post I introduced the term ‘Inner gamification’ to indicate the use of game development features to enhance elearning that do not use ‘outer features’ like scores or badges. I since came across another term I like – game inspired design in a diagram shared by @daverage on Twitter.

This second part handles some of the storytelling techniques we can learn from games and shares some opinions on good storytelling.


A story does not make itself, the learner makes it

More and more instructional designers move to scenario based learning, which is a great evolution. Doing this well however is still a challenge. Too often the learner is presented with a long background story to read, followed by a decision making exercise.

In many cases it is necessary for the learner to have all the background information to make correct decisions. Like in real life, the learner should assemble this information from relevant sources so they can construct the story themselves, analyse it and draw conclusions to lead to the right decision. Good game design makes sure the player discovers the story of a situation or character during the game play, and takes action accordingly.

Help the learner to construct the story

Let the learner piece together the story by a collection of means: reading an e-mail or note, talking to people involved, overhearing conversations, or observing an action/scene. Try to add emotions where relevant – in the example shown here (with thanks to @moodlelair who designed this course) an overpowering relative keeps a nurse from talking to a patient. The learner draws certain conclusions from this and makes the story in their head.

Real stories are not always complete

Provide realistic information: observation, dialogue and documentation

“But what if they miss pieces of information?”, you ask. “That is intrinsic to good scenario writing!”, I say. Missing a piece of information or interpreting it in your own, subjective way is how things happen in real life. The “safe environment” of a training allows the learner to learn from this. If they make an uninformed decision this can be pointed by consequences that are designed to change the learner’s attentiveness and insights in real life situations. You, as the instructional designer, can point them back to the missed info  and say ‘You did not consult these notes, so your conclusion was based on incomplete information’ or ‘ You forgot to talk to this interested party, so you took the wrong action’.

Do not provide information all at once, no matter what techniques you use. Your learner could discover more information while the story unfolds, by making the right decisions, e.g. order an Xray for a patient providing more medical insight or send an email to someone who provides them with a relevant document.

In a twist of plot, your learner may also be given biased information by some of the ‘players’ in the scenario.  Stan, in the screen example above, explains how the patient got hurt but the learner will feel that they will need to handle this information cautiously in their decision making.


Larger games often use “cut scenes” to move the story along. The player sits and watches a part of the story in which they are not actively involved, but it explains motives, feelings, movement of the action to another background. Game designers know these scenes should be short and to the point as they actually ‘break’ the game play.

cut_sceneAn interactive scenario-based course can benefit from this technique to bring the learner to the next action. A part of your scenario is not in the hands of the learner, e.g. while you are administering first aid someone else calls for assistance. A short cut scene showing this makes your story more complete and lifelike.

As in games, these short scenes should be limited and have a clear purpose to move the story along to the next interaction required from the learner.

The ID knows more… you can feel it

Over the past years, J.K. Rowling has revealed little bits and pieces in her Twitter and blog feeds about Harry Potter and his companions – things that are not in the books, but she knows them (e.g. why Harry named his son after Severus Snape). That these stories are world news, shows the strength of her storytelling.

Good learning and game stories should also provide a feeling of ‘more’. You, the designer, know the full background history, the intimate dreams and aspirations of your main character even when these details are unnecessary to the learning and not revealed. Invisible but powerful, this will make the reader more connected to your story.



Inner gamification techniques for elearning. Part 1: onboarding the learner

‘Inner’ and ‘outer’ gamification? Just terms I came up with to describe my thoughts. Other people have probably invented better terminology, but it works for me. Let me clarify.

Inner and outer gamification

My definition of outer gamification is the visible use of techniques and mechanics from games to enhance your course. The amazing Amy Jo Kim talks about the ‘outer trappings’ of a game: badges, points, earning levels and rewards. I would add to this the look and feel of your learning module – make it look like a board game, a virtual world, cards, or even use a TV gameshow template. I haven’t used outer gamification very much. In one instance I designed badges to bind bite-sized pieces of learning together as 5 tasks to accomplish expert level. So – not really intended as drivers for motivation. More like a gamified progress bar.

Inner gamification however is something that I try to incorporate a lot. I call ‘inner gamification’ the application of more invisible design techniques used to help and engage the player in games: information design, giving instructions and storytelling techniques. In this three-part blog I will elaborate on some of these invisible design techniques I borrow from games. This first part handles the onboarding of the learner into your elearning module.

Surprise! The learner is actually … learning

“Provide clear instructions for the learner” is a recurring warning in all lists for good instructional design. Too often this results in a very boring ‘upfront’ tour of all the navigation elements. A course with extensive instruction as the first slide  is like a thick Russian novel that starts with a three-page list of the characters. There is no context for the learner (yet). A common alternative is the endless repeat of the same instructions on every screen: ‘Click next to continue’, ‘Choose your answer and click submit’ , ‘ Click each … to learn more’.

photo 1In games, you learn the navigation while you play. This is the most visible in social games like the infamous Farmville. Introducing navigation is an ‘onboarding’ activity while you are already in the middle of the fun. Tell the player ‘just-in-time’ what to do to handle the interaction at hand but it counts towards the end result, the score, the actions.

One of my favourite examples is the ‘onboarding’ of a new player in Plants vs. Zombies. The player is guided through the first level with maximum instruction, led by the hand through the first planting, catching sunshine, destroying of Zombies. While this is a tutorial, you also earn the points for that level. You are already playing so the navigation instructions have immediate rewards! The creator of this game dedicated a full talk to the thinking process behind this in his talk at GDC2014. Lots to be learned from that talk for us instructional designers.

infection_control_text_buubleTransferring this ‘onboarding’ technique to an elearning course makes total sense. Guide the learner through navigation items only when they encounter something new, and trust their capability to learn. Indicate with a text bubble what a navigation element does when they need to use it. As it has context and the action happens when they use the element, they will remember. No need to repeat the instruction over and over, and no need for extensive navigation guides up front. Just-in-time learning, in your elearning!

Scaffold interactions

This technique also teaches you to scaffold your different interactions well. Do not overwhelm the learner with lots of different things to do in a short space of time: space them well.  Explain each new type of interaction when they encounter it. Create clear patterns and repetitions in the interactions with small variations to avoid monotony. Slowly guide your learner on the path of mastery!

And that is the icing on the cake for using this technique – it makes for a consistent and clear elearning course where you do not have to be afraid to introduce a more complicated interaction out of fear for the poor digitally challenged learner. You can trust the learner to be learning… because you are teaching them just-in-time.

Guiding the eye

The guide is shown, and then transitions off to the side, changing into the icon that is used throughout the course.

Another tutorial technique I recently applied is also commonly found in social games like Farmville. When you earn coins, or gems, these are in the immediate action field first and then fly off to the corner where you total money is displayed – thus guiding the eye of the player to the place where their fortune can be checked at all times.

When I use a ‘guide on the side’ for scenariobased elearning (aka Cathy Moore’s essential info to complete the activities), I present the guide to the learner first and then make it fly off (animate in Storyline e.g.) to a corner of the screen where it will sit for constant use. The learner sees the guide in its full form, then watches it change into the icon they can use throughout the course. An easy but very effective technique to introduce an important element of the course.

Coming up: Inner gamification techniques (part 2). Ways to tell a story.

Why Jane Austen would have been a brilliant instructional designer

The art of storytelling is so much part of good instructional design, that it makes a lot of sense to seek brilliant examples across media, even if they are over 2 centuries old.

When reflecting about better scenario writing for elearning, it suddenly struck me that I should look at my favourite author, Jane Austen, and learn from how she works a story.

A strong start is half the work

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. This famous introduction from Pride and Prejudice (P&P) tells you immediately what the book is all about and reveals the task at hand. All single men of some consequence need a wife by the end of the book.

Always start your course with a clear introduction of the goal of the course and give your learners a compelling reason to read on. Listing the learning objectives is definitely not the way to do this. You should be able to sum up the course in a mini-story, a short paragraph, or even a oneliner that conveys it all. If you struggle writing this piece of text, you may need more thinking around your course, or it may be a sign you are trying to cover too much content.

Here’s an example: instead of writing “In this course, you will learn how to prevent hospital infections. After completing this module, you will know how to…’; you can start by “Every year, hundreds of patients are infected in our hospital. A few simple actions every day can avoid this.”.

Dora The Explorer or Mrs Bennet to present the ‘task’?

The people populating your scenario-based learning should feel like they have a life and a personality. They need to reveal their task in small chunks, and good instructional design uses different techniques to accomplish that. Many scenario-based courses make me feel like I have landed in an episode of Dora The Explorer. ‘Meet Anna, she’s an employee at Company X. She needs to decide what to do with the pile of documents on her desk. Can you help her?”. It feels like I should shout “Ola Anna! Me, yes I can help!”, jumping up and down in front of my screen…

So how does Jane Austen help us do this better?

In P&P, the chapter 1 dialogue between Mr and Mrs Bennet is fun to read and draws you into the environment where the ‘conflict’ or ‘decision’ will happen. It reveals insights in both characters, informs about the background and the problem that needs to be solved.  The reader learns about the problem at hand (single daughters) and a technique that can help solve it – Mr Bennet needs to visit the rich new neighbour so his daughters can meet the young man according to society regulations at the time.

Enters decision time… Mrs Bennet seems to think that the visit is the only option, but it seems her husband does not agree. So at the end of chapter one, an elearning course would ask the learner – what does Mr Bennet need to do? Does he need to go and visit Mr Bingley to achieve the goal? Jane Austen gives us some extra information in a kind of ‘summary slide’ about the Bennet couple, their disposition and relationship.

Remember the Anna scenario we encountered in the document management course? Let’s rewrite that with Jane’s lesson in mind.
“Hi Anna”, says Ella. “you look a bit unhappy. Do you want to go get a coffee and tell me all about it?”. “I can’t, no time”, Anna sighs, staring at the pile of documents in front of her. “These need sorting. Now.”. Ella eyes the documents. “Do you know where they need to go?”, she asks, ” It can be done quickly, you know. You know what? Let’s give ourselves five minutes as a challenge. And then we can get coffee.”

You’ve met unhappy Anna, and decisive Ella. You’ve learned about the task at hand in a fun, engaging dialogue. Enters the decision exercise… timed sorting through documents, with a virtual coffee at the end maybe?

It’s feedback time, and the story goes on

Chapter 2 of P&P brings me to handling feedback. We learn that Mr Bennet has actually paid the visit to Mr Bingley – this was the right decision. The conversation reveals how this event happened and the fact that Mr Bennet did it because he cares about his daughters. Perfect feedback in a storytelling manner.

So how do we apply that?

Anna and Ella return from the coffee machine. “I feel so much better”, says Anna. “Who could have thought it was so simple. Red documents in the cupboard, blue documents in the bin. I’ll never let them pile up so high again”. “I’ll believe that when I see it”, says Ella laughing, “Maybe I just need to promise you coffee every day”. Nice closure, and a wink to the learner that we do not think they will now be perfect. We are confident however they now know how to handle the task when confronted with it.

Do you have a favourite author? Analyse why you love their books. How do they draw you in? How do they reveal the story? Get reading, and get writing.