E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design
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The Beginner’s Guide… (Using weird video games as inspiration for E-Learning)

So this week I want to take a look at a rather unusual game that has just been released, The Beginner’s Guide. This is an experience that we don’t often see in the world of video games. I’m going to leave an entire review of the game in the block quote below, I’m doing this because I feel there is a lot of value and creative inspiration that can be taken from reading more about the game. The review is provided by Eurogamer.net.

Once we’ve had a look through and you’ve got your head around the concept we’ll move on to look at how we can take something this abstract and creative and apply it to E-Learning.

The Beginner’s Guide, dials down the humour, nixes the satire, and cranks the meta narrative up to 11 in one of gaming’s most overtly autobiographical commercial projects.

Much like The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide is a linear first-person game shorn of conventional mechanics like combat or puzzles (besides a single, relatively easy one early on). It also has a narrator commenting on your journey. That’s where the similarities end.

This time out, the narrator isn’t an enthusiastic Englishman, but rather Wreden playing himself. Wreden explains that he’s here to show off the works of his friend, Coda, an enigmatic figure with a penchant for unique, experimental games. Coda is an odd duck, however, in that he never shows his games to anyone. He makes them, deletes them, then makes more. Wreden hypothesises that we can get to know this man through his work, so off we go cataloguing the digital scrapbook of this hermetic oddball.

It’s a fascinating premise that flips the way we usually think about games. Typically video games present worlds that we’re meant to buy into. They usually contain their own lore, characters, mechanics and stories. Even more abstract titles like Journey, Rez or El Shaddai have a thematic or metaphorical consistency that guides us through their fantastical settings. With The Beginner’s Guide, however, we’re not meant to make sense of Coda’s postmodern landscapes on their own terms, but rather to use them to paint a picture of the person who made them.

As such, The Beginner’s Guide is actually a character study. Coda is one of gaming’s most intriguing, mysterious figures. His games tend to deal with themes of alienation, self-doubt, obsession, depression and occasionally giddy mania. At one point he becomes obsessed with making games about various abstract interpretations of prisons, another title is a tranquil love letter to the simple pleasures of household chores, and one project mockingly uses fake online player notes scattered around a cavern as a metaphor for loneliness. Some of these games aren’t particularly interesting on their own, but when splayed out in an anthology they start to tell the story of who this person really is.

Despite this, The Beginner’s Guide isn’t about Coda as much as it is about Wreden, the young developer from Sacramento who went from a nobody to a minor celebrity after releasing only one game. Wreden is obsessed with Coda; he’s in awe of the man’s rampant idea generation, unconventional design choices, and most importantly his aversion to seeking validation. Wreden’s stubborn journey to understand this unique creature through their work is as captivating as the work itself – perhaps even more so.

What makes The Beginner’s Guide work so well is that Wreden’s quest is an inexorably human one that touches upon several universal struggles: How do you get to know someone who doesn’t want to be known? How do you respond to a seemingly kindred spirit who may not be as relatable as we think? How do we interpret others by placing ourselves in their shoes when we’re still trapped in our own heads?

It’s a shockingly personal look into Wreden’s psyche and the more we learn about his in-game persona and friend, the more we grow to care – and quite frankly worry – about the person who made this. Some will no doubt argue that it’s self-indulgent, but I for one appreciate its rawness. Wreden doesn’t hold back on his complex – and not always flattering – feelings about his plight in recent years, which makes The Beginner’s Guide a gut-wrenching experience at times.

The Beginner’s Guide is one of the most daring and creative commercial games to come out in a good long while. Some may call it pretentious or navel-gazing, and one could argue that its tight, linear design and scripted narration almost feel like an interactive LiveJournal entry. But when it’s told with this level of craft and imagination I simply don’t care. The Beginner’s Guide’s provocative imagery and personal prose set it apart from just about anything else out there. Those interested in how to tell personal stories in interactive media without resorting to waxy-faced NPCs or collectible audio diaries will find Wreden’s latest a masterclass in character-driven storytelling.

 

Woahhh.

Now, how on Earth do we apply something like that to E-Learning?

Well, it’s all about the story. Depending on the topics we’re creating we need to look at creative ways of portraying the content. Often the content is left to fit in around the great design concepts or ideas that we have. What I am proposing in this blog post is that we spend more time using the content as the central engagement point for the course. The Beginner’s Guide isn’t a graphical masterpiece yet the reviewers are still hooked by the experience it offers, this is down to the story and approach.

I’ve worked with a client who wanted a Health & Safety course designed due to a number of serious accidents that have happened over recent years at the Business. The way I decided to approach this (and what sparked my imagination again when I read about The Beginner’s Guide) was by using one of the staff members who suffered an injury to aid with the script writing.

I worked for a long time with the employee to craft out the script, including the key content but playing with the language to create something ‘more.’ I knew narration would be key to this piece of learning and on screen text was limited to key phrases. My aim was to create what people would consider a ‘normal’ H&S course to begin with but as they progressed things started to change, noticeably change. The tone became a lot darker, more real, very real in fact as we began to get into the accident report for the employee. Around ¾ of the way through the course it was made clear to the learner that these were the words of the employee who had suffered the injury, a powerful moment where a natural period of reflection occurs.

What The Beginner’s Guide and the course I’ve described do is make you stop and think. To me there is nothing more powerful that creating something that keeps people thinking about what they have just experienced hours after it’s all finished. As we move forward and think about new projects let’s go back to keeping content at the centre of our design. My current approach and I’m sure the approach of others is taking content, knowing it’s full of overly complicated words, starting a debate with the SME on the reasoning behind the inclusion of paragraph 16 on page 506a of the employee handbook and then sighing heavily when they produce a reason why the learner absolutely, without question needs to know that information.

In most projects I take the content, strip it back as much as I can and look at ways to ‘sexily’ portray it. This option takes us back to basics and designs with clever manipulation of the content along with emphasis on tone, delays and subtle messages. Think about asking your SME what additional information you can get your hands on (shock!) It was also provide you with an opportunity to look at case studies or willing volunteers who can share in depth stories you can weave in.

It takes a lot of time and effort to produce a great course by making content the central feature, but if you manage to pull it off you’ll create a unique experience guaranteed to get people talking (and listening!)

 

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