Agency in scenario driven eLearning

me 04 high res2 By Paco Garcia Jaen

First of all I will make this very clear; I am a game player -a big, big games fan. I have been playing videogames, board games and role playing games since I was a child and they have had a massive impact in developing my imagination, my visualisation skills, my social skills and even my empathy skills. This is important for me to make clear since the start of this article because I want everyone to know that I am biased. Yes, I believe in games as a medium to develop healthy personality traits and interaction skills.

Having said that, and before you dismiss me as yet another geek, I will also let you know that I am a psychotherapist specialised in relationships and run a gaming club where more than 100 people interact online and about 50% of those meet regularly around a table to play games and interact socially. If you disagree with my musings and my reasoning, please do tell. After all interactions like that help form relationships!

If you are a video-game hater… well… I’ll deal with you in another article! 🙂

Agency has been defined in video games as the feeling the player gets as a result of the consequences of the actions taken during gameplay. This is my own rephrasing of the definition, I am sure you can find something more accurate, but I’ll leave that up to you.

This is a very important concept to keep in mind because it implies that the player needs to be able to make decisions that will have an impact he or she will care about. Many recent videogames’ biggest strengths have relied on achieving a big sense of agency. Dragon Age: Origins, Bioshock 2, Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain, Alan Wake, to name but a few, have been applauded for giving the player a credible sense that their decisions would have an impact in the development of the game.

Recent games have also been able to provide with environments that, either fantastic-looking in the extreme (Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2, Bioshock 2), or as realistic-looking as possible (Alan Wake, Heavy Rain), allow the player to suspend disbelief and accept the the environments presented as believable. The very same environments have also managed to emotionally connect with the player to the extent that a desire to preserve it and the virtual people who populate it becomes an integral part of the gaming experience.

The importance of the ability of the environment to help disbelief, and to provide with characters to connect with, are two of the elements that help to form an emotional connection and enhance agency. Of course the congruence of the choices will also impact on whether the player cares about the consequences or not. If one has to make a decision that will affect what cup of coffee has to be bought, that is likely to matter less than to make a decision where the fate of a kingdom is at stake.

For me, it is quite interesting to extrapolate those situations to board-games. I don’t mean Cluedo, or Monopoly (please don’t get me started on those!!!!). I refer to more modern and recent design board-games and role playing games, where players are presented with mechanics that allow for much more creative approaches to gaming and strategy. Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Agricola, Battlestar Galactica… most of the modern games I am talking about have a very large scope for decision making. Despite the fact that some games are competitive and others are cooperative, they all have one thing in common: They provide a strong feeling or emotion as a result of the decision one takes throughout the game. Not just because our decisions (and a good share of luck!) will determine if we win the game or not, but because we can see the consequence of each decision, as well as the consequences of all the decisions we take.

That has left me feeling many times that scenario driven e-Learning attempts and mostly fails to create agency.

Most scenarios present a situation in which the learner’s input is simply to choose from a very limited number of reactions. There is no chance for the learner to improvise an alternative solution that the designer didn’t think about. Also there is little chance for the designer or the client to learn about those alternatives in order to implement them later on.

The consequences of the few options we’re given are of little or no importance to the user either. Let’s take a look at this storyboard example:

  • The first image shows how Roger, a customer service representative is on the phone to a client. The client is complaining because some paperwork has gone astray and now they have to pay a fine.
  • The second image shows Roger explaining that he needs to get some details from the customer in order to proceed further
  • The third image shows Roger looking at the phone perplexed because the client has insulted him and put the phone down.

The following screen is a quiz asking Roger what he should do next. The options are:

  • Log the call and jump onto helping the next customer
  • Report the client in the database so he’s flagged as problematic
  • Talk to the manager about the call

Although the learners will be familiar with the situation (let’s assume this course is delivered to a customer support team) and will have probably been there themselves, why should they care about Roger? What if they think of another solution? And if they’ve been in that situation before and resolved it in a different way?

Although the environment is perfectly credible and the situation is familiar, the agency in that scenario is very close to null. The learner will feel very little out of answering the questions.

Why?, because the learner didn’t have an input. They didn’t have a choice. The designer did, and then gave them the choices. For that matter, they were given very few choices that they might not agree with.

In videogames the impact and moral dilemma compensates for the limited number of choices. In board-games the number of choices is high enough, and are influenced by the other players, so there is an element of unpredictability to them, and thus to the outcome. Most important there is an element of the player’s personality. They can be more cautious or aggressive, cooperative or dictatorial, straight forward or devious, forward or lateral thinking…

In Elearning?… not so much!

Lastly in scenarios as currently presented in the vast majority of Elearning courses, there is very little (if any) of the learner’s imagination to be exercised. It is the designer’s imagination that gets exercised, based on that he or she thinks the learner needs or will understand, and unarguably, limits the scope of the learning experience. Then whatever the designer imagined as a good scenario is presented to the learner… thus the learner has no input. In this day and age where technology is more powerful, easier to reach, and where we understand how humans react to machines and machine scenarios better than ever before, there is little excuse for Elearning not to catch up with Agency and start giving the learner a more engaging and satisfying experience.

Unfortunately, the sort of Artificial Intelligence that drive video-games, and the very nature of human interaction that is so essential to board-games, are not something we’ll be able to recreate easily anytime soon. So what is the solution? How could eLearning actually learn from the videogames industry and the recent generation of board-games and improve the user experience?

Personally I think the learner should have a much greater and active role than just reading screen, watching videos or animations, listening to (often tedious!) narration or dialogue and clicking answers and provide inflexible and terribly predictable feedback. A more customisable application where the learner can input text that will receive coherent and congruous feedback rather than a set reply. The chance of participating as the character in the scenarios, rather than looking at the photo of someone they don’t care about. To witness the consequences or their mistakes rather than just being told their decision wasn’t the right one. Cooperative eLearning, where two different individuals can drive the same scenario independently and see how their reactions affect both the other person and the global outcome.

Easier said than done?… Maybe. But then, are you really going to tell me you’re not up to the challenge?

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