E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design, Training Design
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What We Can Learn From Pokemon Red/Blue – Creating a Rivalry!

This week I’m looking at what we can learn from Pokemon Red and Blue originally released on the Gameboy way back in 1999(EU).

This is a weird one as you wouldn’t expect there to be a lot of things we could pick up from a game like Pokemon, but actually the opposite is quite true. Pokemon, apart from being one of the most popular games of all time (parents I’m sure you remember your children going through this period of time) had some pretty great features we can use in E-Learning.

What is Pokemon Red/Blue


The player controls the main character from an overhead perspective and navigates him throughout the fictional region of Kanto in a quest to master Pokémon battling. The goal of the games is to become the champion of the Pokémon League by defeating the eight Gym Leaders, then the top four Pokémon trainers in the land, the Elite Four. Another objective is to complete the Pokédex, an in-game encyclopedia, by obtaining the 150 available Pokémon. The nefarious Team Rocket provide an antagonistic force, as does the player’s childhood rival. Red and Blue utilize the Game Link Cable, which connects two games together and allows Pokémon to be traded or battled between games. Both titles are independent of each other but feature the same plot and, while they can be played separately, it is necessary for players to trade among the two in order to obtain all of the first 150 Pokémon. The 151st Pokémon (Mew) is available only through a glitch in the game or an official distribution by Nintendo.

Red and Blue were well-received; critics praised the multiplayer options, especially the concept of trading. They received an aggregated score of 89% on GameRankings and are perennially ranked on top-game lists including at least four years on IGN’s Top 100 Games of All Time. The games’ releases marked the beginning of what would become a multi-billion dollar franchise, jointly selling millions of copies worldwide. In 2009 they appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records under “Best selling RPG on the Game Boy” and “Best selling RPG of all time”.

So What Did They Do?

Well the main thing I want to focus on here is how Pokemon created a rival for you as an engagement mechanic from the opening screens of the game. Through very clever writing and random encounters you are pretty much guaranteed to hate this rival, here’s a brief outline to the story:

The rival cometh

After venturing alone into deep grass, a voice warns the player to stop in which is revealed to be Professor Oak, a famous Pokémon researcher. Professor Oak explains to the player that wild Pokémon may be living there, and encountering them alone can be very dangerous. He takes the player to his laboratory where the player meets Oak’s grandson, a rival aspiring Pokémon Trainer. The player and the rival are both instructed to select a starter Pokémon for their travels out of Bulbasaur, Squirtle, and Charmander. Oak’s Grandson will always choose the Pokémon which is stronger against the player’s starting Pokémon. He will then challenge the player to a Pokémon battle with their newly obtained Pokémon, and will continue to battle the player at certain points throughout the games.



There are a couple of reasons this opening is so strong for engagement and I believe we can learn a lot from an approach like this. Firstly when we are given a decision, as I’ve covered before, we enter a state of the unknown, when the options all look similar to us we begin to question what the purpose is and if there is an ulterior motive. Pokemon gives you the chance to select one of three Pokemon, all of them are the same statistically (near enough), they just have different strengths/weaknesses against other types of Pokemon. You select one of the Pokemon that takes your fancy but then your rival swoops in and chooses the Pokemon who is strongest against your type of Pokemon.

This decision increases your anger against your rival but also your engagement with the game. If you were stuck making a decision (because let’s face it they are pretty much identical) the chances are that he has now taken the Pokemon that you mused with taking too. Through one choice, you have internally confirmed that this person if your rival, I mean look, he just took a Pokemon because he knew it would beat yours! Engagement is formed here by competition and narrative working hand in hand to drive your dislike for this character and keep you continuing with the game to see what happens.

The other confirming factor is that your first battle in the game is now against him, after taking your Pokemon the arrogant little brat challenges you to a battle right there and then. Of course as he’s taken the Pokemon that is strongest against yours, he will win this opening battle 99% of the time and he will gloat about it afterwards. All this goes to set the scene for the future encounters and your feelings about your rival. Again competition and narrative are working hand in hand to feed the emotional feelings currently being experienced – you’ve now had a chance to beat your rival, you lost and he rubbed it in. It’s a potentially dangerous tactic having you lose your first experience with the game because it could prompt you to get frustrated and turn the game off, but the power of the narrative keeps you playing.

At various intervals during the game your rival will show up and challenge you to a battle, you may be minding your own business exploring a new town or just come from a big gym leader battle. Your rival has a way of showing up at the most inconvenient times and provides you with a challenging situation to overcome.


Why the rival system works

The rival system creates engagement primarily but it is also used to test what knowledge and information you should have learnt so far in the game. Without getting into too much detail certain Pokemon are stronger against other types and vice-versa, so a Water type Pokemon would be very effective against a Fire type Pokemon but Fire types might not be so good against a Rock type Pokemon.

When you have your future battles with your rival you will have both increased your arsenal of available Pokemon so you have to know which type of Pokemon is going to be most effective against the one he is currently using.

One other thing that these battles do is show you the level that your Pokemon should be at, it sets the expectations for how far you should have progressed or gives you a reminder that you should spend a bit more time leveling them up (making them stronger). This process is independent of the storyline and requires you to spend some time defeating random Pokemon to level up and gain new abilities. If your rival’s Pokemon are all Level 40 but yours are Level 30 then the game is giving you a very obvious message that you need to spend a little more time working on them.

The rival system introduced a few key concepts, it demonstrates competition, feedback and narrative. The narrative is the concept that underpins everything about this opening interaction and how successful it can be in increasing engagement. Using competition or putting up a picture of someone and saying “Go beat this person” doesn’t have a great effect, narrative allows you to develop a relationship with the player and shape their thoughts. Pokemon does this brilliantly, it knows it’s using competition and feedback to generate engagement but the narrative is what ties it all together and really pulls you in to the experience.

So how can we use this in E-Learning?

Well it comes down to using two things:

How I use a rival/Introduction of a rival

Think about adding a rival in to your next project, maybe somebody who comes across as a ‘know it all’ that sets the scene for the learner. Through some clever writing and an introductory experience that backs the rival you can create an engaging opening to your course that will grab the learners attention but also provide them with a sense of “I must beat this person”.

I’ve created projects where the learner is being asked questions and each time they select and submit the right option someone else shouts out the answer before them and the teacher congratulates them not the learner. This way the learner knows they are answering correctly but this other person in the class keeps jumping in and getting the praise, creating a rivalry.

Bring your rival back

Use the rival concept as a way to test on information the learner should know by a certain stage of their learning. Bring the rival back in to the course and use him to ask questions to the learner or replicate the situation that I just mentioned but switch the roles. This time you will shout out the answers before your rival, this is a great opportunity to use visuals to show him getting more frustrated as well. It might sound a little childish but you can also use an approach where the rival comes on screen and says “I bet you don’t know what x is!” People still love the opportunity to prove characters wrong, this method has been used in game narrative for a long time to give the player a sense of achievement.


The rival concept has a lot of power within the world of gaming, also seen as the enemy, they play a large part in all games. Using a rival or enemy in E-Learning is a method that helps to promote engagement, but it also does more than that, it encompasses reflection, knowledge checks and unconscious learning. Remember though as with scenarios you need to spend a lot of time thinking about the supporting narrative to your rival character, there needs to be a situation created by yourself that hooks the learner in. Think about the situation you’re in and how the creation of a rival can be started, it doesn’t need to be a long and complicated storyline but it definitely needs some positioning. As you’ve seen with the examples I gave above just a few lines of positioning text or even some visual/interaction changes such as the rival butting in when you’re answering a question help to shape the story.

I usually urge you to go and see if you can play a few minutes of the game I’ve been discussing but I’m not sure that’s a reasonable option this week. Instead think about the way that you feel about enemy characters in films, games and books. Think about the feelings you have towards them and how you feel when they are finally overcome. The character (although generally disliked) keeps you reading, watching or playing to the conclusion.



  1. Hi, I currently research gaming and gamification in training and am a big fan of Pokemon Red/Blue. I’m a little unclear on something: do you suggest using a real person as a rival (e.g., a confederate of some sort within a training session) or do you mean that a rival character should be programmed in to e-learning? I’m not sure what the practical advice is.

    Also, I’m not so sure that the inclusion of a rival will magically lead to engagement. It seems like the underlying mechanisms at hand that you are suggesting are competition (“beat this person”) and feedback (testing knowledge during training). Competition might be motivating to some, but it doesn’t motivate everyone. Feedback seems more promising, but you don’t necessarily need a rival to add feedback to a training program.

    I like the idea of gleaning game elements from Pokemon, but I don’t know if the rival concept is what did it for me. I felt a bit more motivated by the collection of Pokemon and badges, as well as leveling up. These (i.e., levels and badges) are not universally helpful for training either. I feel it is most prudent to examine what are the mechanisms happening underneath the surface level game elements that make those game elements work.



    • Hello Michael.

      So there’s a couple of things here, my advice would be to use a rival character in your E-Learning (therefore programmed in).

      Of course a rival character has the potential to boost engagement through competition and also feedback as you’ve highlighted. But you are taking these points in isolation, you have to acknowledge the power of the narrative behind this. In this post I talk about the way the rival is introduced and the way he comes back in to the game, supporting narrative has to be used. What I’m really looking at here is an engagement mechanism from the opening slides of an E-Learning course using narrative and the promise, or at this point potentially, experienced competition.

      The mechanisms you’ve discussed are exactly what I’m suggesting but these are either successes or failures because of the story that supports them, used in isolation in any situation is very unlikely to achieve success.

      I’m surprised that the use of badges made you feel motivated. From my experience with the game receiving a badge from defeating a gym leader was the point at which I was experiencing game fatigue. There is a lot of work needed to get a badge and a lot of battles, after this was achieved it was usually the point I saved the game and shut down for a while. It gave a natural point to stop playing and definitely didn’t give me the motivation to continue!


  2. Hello again,

    So my current research is actually examining game elements in isolation from a psychological perspective. Research on the use of game elements has generally focused on “Does gamification work?” and not so much how it works. It makes sense to examine elements individually before examining them clumped together (e.g., let’s look at the effects of a narrative before looking at the effects of a narrative plus competition plus levels plus multiplayer without disentangling them). I don’t disagree about game elements probably being less effective alone rather than together, but it hasn’t been fully examined yet scientifically. My field uses science to make smarter workplaces, so we use research to justify incorporating new things like gamification into the workplace before jumping in with no direction as to how or why something will work. So that’s just the perspective I’m coming from reading your post.

    As for the badges, let me clarify. The awarding of badges after beating a gym leader wasn’t necessarily motivating me to continue playing (sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t), but it was satisfying. The badges (or rather beating the gym leaders), did drive me to continue playing, grinding through levels, trying to battle, failing, grinding again. Perhaps you could say I treated the gym leaders more like rivals than my rival. It was still set up by the story, and they were usually just as much punks.

    Also, I see now where you mentioned competition, feedback, and narrative in succession within your post. My apologies for omitting that third piece.

    Thanks for the clarification.



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