A person holding a controller and playing a video game.

Scenarios have always been one of my favorite things to write as an instructional designer. I love coming up with different characters, deciding what makes them tick, and figuring out how that should impact what they say or do in the story. And while books, movies, and TV shows have taught me much of what I know about designing scenarios, at the end of the day video games have been an even better teacher. 

Sure, not every game has fully developed characters or a gripping plot—but the ones that do can be a great source of inspiration for e-learning scenarios. From the way you interact with the experience to the approaches used to write interesting and immersive stories, there’s so much shared DNA between games and learning scenarios. And it makes sense because they both have a similar goal: to find interesting ways to challenge their audience and help them improve their skills.

This means I’ve now become that nerd who can’t play a video game without also being inspired to create future e-learning projects. Here are a few of the most helpful scenario-writing insights I’ve pulled from inadvertently turning my hobby into instructional design research.

1. A compelling plot trumps high-end graphics

When you think about creating exciting scenarios, you might worry about not having the skills or resources to make cutting-edge visuals. Will it fall flat if the characters and setting don’t look photorealistic? Do you need to have a huge budget to make top-notch, custom graphics? Thankfully, video games have a resounding answer for you: no! When it comes to scenario-based games, it’s been proven time and time again that the story you tell often matters more to players than your graphics. 

One fantastic example of this is the game Lifeline. It’s a gripping, sometimes stressful, experience told entirely through text messages between the player and an astronaut lost in space. And as it plays out, the fact that you can’t see anything but text actually adds tension to the story. Another example of compelling storytelling paired with basic graphics is Reigns—a royalty simulator that uses simple cards to give you choices on how you want to rule. It’s incredible how quickly you can get immersed in the game even when there aren’t many visuals.

Now, this isn’t to say your scenario’s aesthetics are meaningless. It’s more that if you have a limited amount of time and resources, it’s best to focus on crafting the story and keep the look and feel simple.

2. It's less fun when the right decision is obvious

A common mistake I see in many learning scenarios is that it’s incredibly easy to guess what the best conversation or decision option is. Maybe it’s longer than the other choices, or the wording is strangely formal. Or perhaps the weaker options are so terrible that anyone would know they were a bad idea. When it doesn’t take much thinking to identify the correct choice, it quickly becomes boring.

Instead, it’s better to give your audience challenging yet realistic decisions to ponder. Things that make them think hard about what the best option could be. And games have been doing this incredibly well for years. Take The Walking Dead series from Telltale Games. Set in a grim zombie apocalypse, this series excels at forcing players to make tough decisions where nearly every option has both strengths and drawbacks. And that difficulty gives those choices weight, drawing players into the story to evaluate their options and see what happens as a result.

By using this approach in your scenarios, you can take full advantage of a significant strength of this format: making people think deeply about challenging situations.

3. Make sure your learners have enough information to succeed

On the other side of the pendulum, you don’t want to make a scenario frustratingly hard either. I’ve seen training scenarios where learners aren’t given enough information to make informed decisions. For instance, sometimes they’re expected to act on content or character details that haven’t been shared with them. And when the only way to get the right answer is a lucky guess, learners tend to feel annoyed or tune out.

This also happens quite frequently in video games. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to make my game character stumble around every inch of a room to try and figure out what I might be able to interact with. Or how many times I’ve gotten so stuck in a game that I broke down and looked up a walkthrough to get spoilers on what to do next.

These issues often result from learning professionals or game developers not realizing that what’s obvious for them as creators isn’t nearly as apparent to a player entering this world for the first time. This is why you’ll want to keep track of what information you’ve shared with learners (and when) as you plan out your scenario. Another good way to catch these issues is to have people who didn’t create the scenario test it out, as they can point out where things might still be unclear.

4. Think about the subtle ways you can give learners feedback

Most people are familiar with the basic methods older games used to communicate how well (or terribly) you were doing: points and lives. And while these approaches are still used in many games today, story-based games often use more subtle and realistic signals instead. And think about it, what feels more woven into a scenario: an on-screen notification that you just gained 100 points or the character you’re talking to smiling at what you just said?

One of the best video game genres to see this kind of story-based feedback is one you might not think of initially: dating simulations. Since the gameplay revolves around interpersonal communication, they’re a wealth of ideas for subtly signaling progress. Take the dating sim parody Hatoful Boyfriend. You can tell so much about how your conversation is going based on the written tone of the characters’ responses. And in Scarlet Hollow, a hybrid horror game and dating sim, characters often use body language to signal how they feel about your conversation choices. And that game also gives you access to different conversation options depending on whether you’re connecting with a character or irritating them.

Subtle feedback like this is more similar to real-life situations, making for a more realistic experience for your learners.

5. Make dialogue sound conversational

One thing that can quickly take conversations in a scenario from useful to unintentionally hilarious is awkward wording. When it’s noticeably different from how people actually talk, it can easily pull people out of a story. And when those speech patterns are also stilted and formal—a common issue in training scenarios—that further removes the experience from the real world.

Video games have fantastic examples of just how bad this can get. Many older games are infamous for clunky writing, whether due to bad translations or too little thought put into the dialogue. For instance, I spent a good portion of my teenage years snickering every time someone opened their mouth in the Resident Evil series. But over the years, improvements in game writing (and voice acting) have shown how getting these things right can elevate the experience. Take this comparison of the original Resident Evil game dialogue versus a more recent remake. Sure, the updated writing still isn’t perfect, but it’s substantially better than the original and doesn’t inadvertently turn a horror game into a joke.

So what’s the best way to avoid clunky 90’s video game dialogue in your scenarios? Read your script out loud as you’re drafting it. If it sounds weird as you say it, that’s a good sign that it could use reworking.

6. Don’t make it more fun to make bad choices than good ones

One of my early gaming memories is playing SimCity on the computers at my middle school. While the official goal in the game was to create an ever-expanding metropolis, I instead took delight in taking that city and inflicting every disaster I could on it. What can I say—when a game gives you a monster attack option, how can you not use it?! Absurd destruction wasn’t remotely the point of the game, but I can’t deny it was fun. Sometimes even more fun than the actual game.

This is important to keep in mind as you consider the different paths in your scenarios. It can be amusing as you’re writing to make the less desirable choices funny or over the top. Maybe your worst dialogue options are the snarky things people always wish they could say to rude customers. Or perhaps you hide Easter eggs in the experience that unlock silly bonus endings. Now, these choices aren’t in and of themselves wrong. But if you end up making it more enjoyable to do all the wrong things rather than use your scenario for practice, you can’t be surprised if your learners choose amusement over work.

Fun is a crucial part of what makes game-like experiences like scenarios so engaging. Just make sure that the majority of the fun serves to reinforce the project’s learning goals.

Wrap-Up

So there you have it. Hidden in an admittedly frightful number of hours spent on solving puzzles to escape from a sinking cruise liner, exploring haunted islands, and being a horrible goose was also a goldmine of ideas for writing learning scenarios. From the most effective places to focus limited resources, how much information to give learners to keep things enjoyable but challenging, and where you should focus the fun factor to reinforce learning, video games are full of all sorts of insights we can apply to creating our own learning scenarios.

So you know what that means: you now have solid justification to splurge on a few games in the name of work research!

Have you picked up your own scenario-writing insights from gaming? Be sure to add them to the comments. And if you want to know even more about making compelling e-learning scenarios, check out these articles:

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