Is an eLearning Branched Scenario a Game?

Clark Aldrich

There has been an upsurge in the use of branching scenarios within eLearning development.  Gamification advocates are now sprinkling in video game mechanics to turn the branching story into a game.   Branching stories allow players to make a sequence of decisions that goes on to shape the scenario they are participating in.  While branching scenarios can be a great addition to online learning, creating the scenarios poorly could actually distract from relaying good information.  Web Courseworks has often partnered with leading simulation expert Clark Aldrich to design and develop online serious games and simulations for business and nonprofit initiatives, and in an attempt to better your creation of branching scenarios, I decided to highlight and summarize Clark Aldrich’s recent blog series on branching story techniques.  First though, I feel it would be helpful to quickly describe what a branching scenario exactly is.

A branching scenario is an educational document similar to a case study, but with the ability to see the potential outcomes of a number of different possible choices. Users can see the potential outcome of poor choices, as well as attempt to make choices leading to the best possible outcome. Afterwards, the user is presented with an “After Action Report” describing exactly which choices led to the current outcome, and what might have been a better choice.

So, without further delay, here are Clark’s ten top branching scenario techniques…

Branching Technique #1: Creating the Feel of Time Passing.  Use a simple “advance to the next slide” framework to create the feel for the passing of time.  This technique can help to simulate real life emotions as well as real life options.

Branching Technique #2: Use Actions, Direct Quotes, and Intentions.  Give the player different choices between actions, direct quotes/speech options, and “intention” statements.  Aldrich gives example of an intention statement as the difference between a direct quote:  “Can you drive me to the airport,” with two optional responses, “I would be happy to” or “I don’t think so” compared with that of the same question, “Can you drive me to the airport,” with two optional answers that show intention, [Agree to Drive] vs. [Do Not Agree to Drive].  Advantages of intention statements include: a faster authorization of the simulation, avoidance of a situation in which the actual player might not speak the way the answers are reflected and furthermore be deterred from a specific answer, and lastly it can help prevent tipping the player into the “right” or “correct” choice.

Branching Technique #3: Give the Player No-Consequence Decisions.  Aldrich explains that players often become overly intellectual in their choice making while choosing the path to go down.  He explains that it is helpful to give the player no-consequence decisions to desensitize them to the type of decision they will ultimately be making.  An example of this would be something simple like the user deciding where to go get coffee—his/her choice will not affect the outcome.

Branching Technique #4: Embed Important Background Content in Player Dialog Choices. Instead of setting up background information in an introductory section, it is better to embed this important information in the dialogues.  For example, if it is necessary to know that a character is married—you may not want to introduce the character as a married man/woman, but instead, in the dialogue between your character and the married character have the option to congratulate them on their recent marriage.  This choice, again, shouldn’t have any consequences towards the final outcome, but it does take care of informing the player the status of the character.

Branching Technique #5: Use Character and Mood to Seduce.  It may be easy to make the right decision when no emotion is involved, but what happens when your boss comes into the office in a huff and asks you to do something that may be against protocol?  More than likely you will fear losing your job if you don’t do as he/she asks.  Using character development and mood to seduce different answers provides a more dramatic, and more realistic approach for players when attempting to choose how they would/should act.

Branching Technique #6: Keep all names descriptive and back stories lean.  Players tend to dislike hearing long backstories of companies, characters, places, etc.  While it is obvious that some information is necessary to relay, keep it short and to the point.  Note that this does not mean that characters cannot or should not be interesting.

Branching Technique #7: Keep the Player Active by breaking up Long Passages.  Avoid using more than three sentences at a time to describe/perform an activity.

Branching Technique #8: Nest Information and Available Actions.  Especially when non-essential and critical information is used in the same simulation, make some information and actions only available if the player seeks them out.

Branching Technique #9: Sometimes Put Players in the Role of Coach.  Usually the most effective branching scenarios are in the first-person role, from the player’s perspective, but another intriguing position is that of a coach or adviser.

Branching Technique #10: Make sure Players know, when they failed, why. Exactly.  It is exceptionally important that when and if a player fails, he/she knows exactly why his/her path was wrong.  Specifically, you should show the player both the (probable) immediate, positive aspects of their decision, but also the negative, long-term effects.  Then, also make sure to describe why the choice was wrong, not just if it was wrong.  An example that Aldrich gives is instead of just saying “You fail. Putting the thumb drive in the computer is a violation of IA Policy 17543b,” one should say “Unknown to you, the thumb drive had been infected with a worm during the manufacturing process that had not yet been identified by a major anti-virus company.  When any thumb drive is put into a USB court, it auto-runs a small program….etc.”  Players then can try again, and most likely will not only succeed, but will become an ardent supporter of the rules they learned.  This is why branching stories are successful.

After considering these tips, and scenario building in general, I wanted some input from my team at Web Courseworks.  Joe Rheaume has been designing educational games and software at Web Courseworks since 2005 for many clients including Miller Brewing, The Children’s Health Education Center of Milwaukee, and the World Anti-Doping Association. He developed the popular and critically recognized indie game “Chronotron” (One of the 2008 “PAX 10”), and was a developer on the commercial MMO “Doctor Who: Worlds in Time” at Three Rings – SEGA.  Web Courseworks has created numerous games that include the branching scenario method and Joe’s input on a recent program we developed was as such:

“The NCRA game “Courting Disaster” is an excellent example of how a branching scenario can be used to instruct newcomers to a field by allowing them to try to make the right choices in a situation based on their best guesses, and correcting them when they fail. I started the scenario with no idea what the laws regulating court reporting said, and after trying and retrying the scenarios in a story with some emotional impact, I think I will remember the content much better than I would have just reading the statutes. The scenarios do an excellent job at using emotional and socially stressful situations to try to push the player into making the wrong decision. Overcoming that pressure is part of the learning objective, and not something that can be easily taught by simply reading text.”

NCRA Game Developed by Web Courseworks

Furthermore, I was interested to see what types of comments Joe had on the “10 Tips for Making a Better Branching Scenario”:

“The “Courting Disaster” scenario also displays each of Clark’s 10 tips for making a better branching scenario very well. My only criticism of these points is that Number 4 – “Embed Important Background Content in Player Dialog Choices” – can sometimes be a little confusing in practice. For instance, one of the choices in one of the scenarios is “Congratulations on getting married”. Clark intends this to give the player some information that the characters in the scenario already have, but someone not familiar with this technique might suspect that this choice is a non sequitur. It would be awkward to congratulate someone on getting married if they hadn’t actually gotten married. Even knowing the intent of these sorts of choices, it is a bit counter-intuitive that the only way to get more information about the character’s marriage is for the player to choose the option that implies they already knew the character had gotten married.  This technique does accomplish its intended goal once the player in familiar with the conceit, but it may be useful to take the potential confusion into account when using it in a scenario.”

Managing eLearning is written by the Blog team at Web Courseworks which includes Jon Aleckson, Jillian Bichanich and Joe Rheaume.  Ideas and concepts are originated and final copy reviewed by Jon Aleckson.

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