E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design, Training Design
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Choices and Decisions in E-Learning – What We Can Learn From The Walking Dead (Video Game) Series

There are no spoilers in this article for those of you who haven’t played the game yet, so do not fear! I’d like to start this post by thinking about what we really mean by choice and decisions, how these are formed and what most effectively sits in E-Learning and gamification of learning material. Do you currently use choice in your E-Learning modules? Are you focusing on simple choice such as clicking one button or another? Or are you looking deeper into the power and impact that choices can have on our learners. Of the posts I have done so far this one carries the most weight with me personally and I also think it is one of the easier gamification principles to start using immediately in your Instructional Design and E-Learning development. We will go on to look at the Walking Dead Game series which are one of the most immersive and emotional games I have ever played.

Choice is very hard to actually define, there are a lot of meanings for what this could truly be. There are a couple of key “choice” types we should look at, both to eliminate them from this discussion but to also define the best types to use in E-Learning development and begin to provide real examples of just how powerful these choices can be inside video games and therefore E-Learning content.

So, choice.

Autonomic Actions: These are more actions than choice, ones we make automatically, such as breathing, something which cannot factor in with learning development.

Reactions: An example is pulling your hand away from a hot object, simply actions again not really a true choice.

Calculations: This is where the lines begin to blur between actions and choices – if two people offer to sell you something but one would like £40 for the item and the other person would like £25 you simply make a calculation to decide the cheaper offer is better for you. Calculations involve decisions, but they are not choice – they are logical decisions.

This needs to be considered in E-Learning, when we offer calculated decisions to our learners we are not truly asking them to make a choice, not one that drives engagement and a deeper association anyway. This isn’t to say that calculated decisions do not have their place, they do, just not within what we’re discussing today.

Well, now we know what choice isn’t – tell me what it is.

Choice is a situation where we have to overcome some form of internal conflict. This overcoming of internal conflict becomes the engaging principle that can help to drive success in learning.

Now is the perfect time to introduce our game choice this week – The Walking Dead Game Series. Back to the usual format.

What is The Walking Dead Game Series?

The Walking Dead (also known as The Walking Dead: The Game and The Walking Dead: Season One) is an episodicinteractive dramagraphic adventure video game developed and published by Telltale Games. Based on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book series , the game consists of five episodes, released between April and November 2012. It is available for Android, iOS, Kindle Fire HDX, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One; a version for the Ouya is planned for 2014. The game is the first of The Walking Dead video game seriespublished by Telltale.

The game takes place in the same fictional world as the comic, with events occurring shortly after the onset of the zombie apocalypse in Georgia. However, most of the characters are original to the game, which centers on university professor and convicted murderer Lee Everett, who helps to rescue and subsequently care for a young girl named Clementine. Kirkman provided oversight for the game’s story to ensure it corresponded to the tone of the comic, but allowed Telltale to handle the bulk of the developmental work and story specifics. Some characters from the original comic book series also make in-game appearances.

Unlike many graphic adventure games, The Walking Dead does not emphasize puzzle solving, but instead focuses on story and character development. The story is affected by both the dialogue choices of the player and their actions during quick time events, which can often lead to, for example, certain characters being killed, or an adverse change in the disposition of a certain character or characters towards Lee. The choices made by the player carry over from episode to episode. Choices were also tracked by Telltale, and used to influence their writing in later episodes.

The Walking Dead has been critically acclaimed, with reviewers praising the harsh emotional tone of the story and the empathetic connection established between Lee and Clementine. It won year-end accolades, including Game of the Yearawards from several gaming publications. More than one million unique players have purchased at least one episode from the series, with over 8.5 million individual episodes sold by the end of 2012, and its success has been seen as constituting a revitalization of the weakened adventure game genre. In July 2013, Telltale released an additional downloadable episode, “400 Days”, to extend the first season and bridge the gap towards the second season. At the July 2014 San Diego Comic Con Telltale Games and Skybound have announced that a third season is being developed, and that the first two seasons to date have sold more than 28 million episodes.

For those of you who are old enough to remember this is an advancement from the classic point and click games such as Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and the like.

Why the Walking Dead Game Works 

The game itself runs on a very simple basis, you usually watch a cut scene or event unfold, walk around talking to different characters about the best way to advance from the current situation and then you’re faced with a choice. A true choice. All of the options you select in the WDG are those that ignite the internal conflict. You are timed on your choices so have to react quickly and make decisions that you may be uncomfortable with. Again this is perfect for true choice development – there needs to be fear of the unknown. These decisions are usually labelled as “incomplete information problems”, the long term goals of the player are conflicted with the short term decision they have to make. The player doesn’t know enough information about what their decision will do to their long term goals and if you add in the emotional element derived from the exceptional character development you end up with an even greater choice.


What continues to drive the importance of choice in the WDG is that the decisions you make are also remembered by the characters, they will change depending on how you treat them or respond.


Once again this adds to the internal conflict throughout the course of the game, say for example you’ve been very friendly with one character throughout the game, you had his back from day one but now he’s threatening to kill a group of innocent survivors because he doesn’t like the look of them. How do you respond? You know you’ve protected him and he trusts you, you know he wants to do something that is considered wrong, but then again you don’t know this group of survivors, are they really innocent? Maybe your friend could be harmed by them if you choose to leave them. The element of choice in this game is a masterstroke of genius.


How We Can Apply This To E-Learning

So let’s think about how we can apply this internal conflict to E-Learning to create truly meaningful choices, driving engagement up alongside introducing a gamification approach. I’ve recently worked on a Diversity and Inclusion module I transformed into a story – giving the users tough moral choices to make in a multitude of situations. We can use narrative to drive an incredibly powerful story in E-Learning. We have some of the most powerful case studies and examples possible to use when we work with clients, there’s always an emotional story within a business – no matter which sector.

Through clever narrative and choices you can begin to build a game based environment for your learner. These sorts of decisions drive information retention and can be extremely powerful in getting across the objectives of the course. In an authoring tool such as Articulate Storyline you can even add variables to ensure that a character remembers an answer you gave. In the project I mentioned earlier I had a character remember if you chose to defend him or not when he was being abused by other staff members and when you meet him later in the module he reacts differently depending on what you did. Start thinking about your content in a way that doesn’t just involve calculations for the learner, it involves struggle – something morally challenging. As a result of this the E-Learning we put out into the world will have a far greater value and will be full of meaningful choices. Engagement is driven from us having to make choices like this, we want to know the outcome, how did the character respond, how do I save the relationship?

Use first person scenarios, place the user in direct control of their actions. There is already very strong evidence that suggests placing the learner in situations like these greatly increases engagement rates along with retention of information. Present multiple choices to the user (you can use the freeform function in Storyline for this) which will offer right, wrong and “in between” decisions. You can even score these responses instead of having an assessment at the end of the module. Placing the learner in situations in this new environment will automatically peak their interest whilst offering you academic backing for your new approach.

Instructional Designers, E-Learning Developers and those just getting into gamification, I urge you to read this post carefully, go out and read about the WDG and start to think about if you can use a theory like this in your next project. We have a great deal of power to change people’s perceptions and create truly gripping ‘edutainment’ – don’t let this go to waste by boring your learner and asking them to select between two different buttons.

If you would like any further information on the WDG Series just send me a message over Twitter and I’ll be glad to help. Likewise if you’d like to discuss anything with me or speak to me about how you can implement a system like this do not hesitate to get in touch.

I’m going to come back to the WDG in the future to discuss the importance of narrative in E-Learning but for now we’ll leave it here.

Until next time E-Learning world!



    • Thank you – a lot of the work I produce have non-disclosure agreements attached from the clients perspective. But I can elude to the examples I create! Trust me a lot of what I write about goes straight into the content.

      I will have work I can share in the future so keep checking back and I’ll try to bring in some playable examples!

      Again thank you for the kind comments and I look forward to checking out your blog as well!


      • Of course, as can be expected I guess. But awesome stuff nonetheless, I’ll keep checking back in! Cheers 🙂


  1. Joshua,

    Great discussion of the importance of meaningful decision making. When learners are face with a difficult and meaningful decision, they tend to pay more attention, be more vested in the process and care more about the outcome. I really liked how you applied basic elements of a video game such as WDG to elearning design. An effective convergence. Interesting, last year I was involved in developing a game to teach sales skills to retail employees with a zombie theme. The learner was involved in a sales conversation and every question they got right, the zombie moved closer to them and every question they got wrong the zombie moved further back. The learning game got great reviews and it was a lot of fun to play.

    Keep up the great work integrating elearning and video game design, I enjoyed reading your article.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for commenting Karl, it’s great to hear from someone so established. It certainly gives me another boost of energy to get another post out.

      I agree, decision making (true decision making) is an incredibly powerful tool instructional designers should have in their arsenal – games like the WDG exploit that perfectly.

      I’ll be posting new content this week and welcome your thoughts on that as well.


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