E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design, Training Design
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What’s in a UI? Team Fortress 2 and E-Learning!

You’ll find that this post is more of an introduction into looking at how UIs are designed within games, giving some background information and detail which will help with later posts on this topic. I will discuss some of the options we can take forward into E-Learning to get the best out of onscreen content. This article should be of particular benefit if you’re created adventure based or explorative E-Learning courses.

Before reading further in this post there is some terminology you need to be familiar with – although not for any other purpose so that I can use it below it will help should you come across these terms again in our exploration of UIs.

Diegetic: Interface that is included in the game world — i.e., it can be seen and heard by the game characters. An example of this is the would be holographic computer terminals in a game.

Non-diegetic: Interface that is rendered outside the game world, only visible and audible to the players in the real world. Example: most classic heads-up display (HUD) elements.

I’d like to have a look in this post at a game that I feel really does a good job of presenting information in a way that not only looks good but is transferable to E-Learning. That game is Team Fortress 2!

What is Team Fortress 2?

In Team Fortress 2, players join one of two teams comprising nine character classes, battling in a variety of game modes including capture the flag and king of the hill. The development is led by John Cook and Robin Walker, creators of the original Team Fortress. Announced in 1998, the game once had more realistic, militaristic visuals and gameplay, but this changed over the protracted nine-year development. After Valve released no information for six years, Team Fortress 2 regularly featured in Wired News‍ ’​ annual vaporware list among other ignominies. The finished Team Fortress 2 has cartoon-like visuals influenced by the art of J. C. Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell and Norman Rockwell and is powered by Valve’s Source engine.

Team Fortress 2 UI

Team Fortress 2 took a very straightforward approach to interface. “Use whatever means to inform the player” seems to be the developers’ modus operandi, as their interface solution is spread across all methods of interface design. But for the purpose of us using this method in E-Learning it actually works really well.

Information such as ammo, health, and critical game mode information is permanently displayed on static positions in the HUD (non-diegetic).

You can see Health (bottom left), ammo (bottom right) along with key game statistics (centre bottom and top right) displayed in a static and permanent fashion.

You can see Health (bottom left), ammo (bottom right) along with key game statistics (centre bottom and top right) displayed in a static and permanent fashion.

On this image you can see the same statistics as above but instead we now have a pop-up box in the game environment to show us who we (as the medic) are healing.

There is a complementary second layer of static “pop-up” non-diegetic HUD elements that appear based on player actions, such as when the player stands on a control point or equips a construction kit.

On this image you can see the same statistics as above but instead we now have a pop-up box in the game environment to show us who we (as the medic) are healing.

On this image you can see the same statistics as above but instead we now have a pop-up box in the game environment to show us who we (as the medic) are healing.

On top of that, TF2 also uses a diegetic interface, particularly for the engineer class, who can build objects in the world. In this case a blueprint hologram appears in 3D that allows the player to know exactly how the object will appear when completed. It’s worth noting that non-diegetic HUD elements co-exist on the screen at the same time.

TF2 also makes heavy use of “spatial non-diegetic” elements, like icons over players’ heads, and other markers. It’s worth noting that the nametag is not spatial but rather fixed to the observer’s camera, just below the crosshair. This should give you a little food for thought on how you display interactivity with characters in your courses.

What works?

Mixing UI elements from various categories (diegetic, non-diegetic, etc) can really allow for providing loads of information without having all of it in the HUD.

UI components do not have to follow an immediately obvious theme or be immersive to work. For E-Learning purposes though they must fit in with the existing HUD. I usually do this through using similar colours or shapes but then changing small elements (transparency, shading or edges) to visually differentiate them.

Final Analysis

So how can we take the elements and information from this post and apply it to E-Learning design? Well, one thing to consider is the placement of key UI aspects on our courses – don’t just be limited to the static UI elements. Think about using what I consider “quick info boxes” – these would appear like the “Healing” box from the medic screenshot above. Use pop up information boxes to display additional information; this is still a very commonly used method in games. Information should be immediate and displayed for the learner without delay, consider using rollover effects or quick display pop-ups when a new concept/character/function is introduced.

Focus on creating a non-diagetic UI that is minimalistic in design. In our courses our SMEs usually want a lot of information – use diagetic UI methods to provide additional non-intrusive information to the learner.

The best way to apply a UI such as TF2s is through an explorative gamified module. Using diagetic methods to provide additional information in a manageable way to the learner means that you can please your SME but also provide a free-flowing experience for the learner.

Think about the use of both types of UI within your E-Learning design, I personally think that both approaches have merit and for E-Learning design we should be looking at incorporating elements of both. One thing that should have been brought to your attention is to not be scared about using pop up text boxes, as I’ve previously mentioned games are still using variations of these all the time. Spend time designing them so that they blend in with your UI – but at the same time don’t look like Powerpoint shapes you’ve drawn straight in. Can you bring in additional information only when a learner is standing or has clicked on a certain area? Think about the changing HUD TF2 displays when completing actions outside of the standard HUD.

Hopefully this post has given you a quick overview to some new gaming terminology, how a game like TF2 uses a UI to display a lot of information but also how to keep your UI sleek and fit for purpose.

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