E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design
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Semiconscious Feedback – The new standard in E-Learning

It’s been way too long! Sorry about that, I’ve had a very busy month and I’ll have some more news on that along with the outcome of the E-Learning Awards 2015 in a small post that will coincide with this.

On with the gamification talk and this time I want to look at feedback. What is it, what does it look like in games and how can we adopt the same principles?

I believe feedback in games is the best example we can use in our industry, the way games consciously and sub-consciously shape our decisions is very powerful. Let’s remember games are an escape from reality. Within this virtual world players know if the direction they take is the right one. Feedback given at the right moment gives them guidance. When wrong decisions are taken, they won’t reach the next level. Appropriate feedback at the right moment keeps them motivated.

Gamers are a unique audience, they don’t worry about failure instead they learn, they learn how to master the controls, they learn how to solve puzzles quickly, they improve their hand eye coordination skills and in the end they learn what the game is all about. Every game provides a player with constant feedback. There are roughly two kinds of feedback: conscious and subconscious feedback that more or less triggers our senses.

Conscious feedback

All the progression and activity loops in games are there to create awareness about the progress of the player’s activity, so obviously it’s considered to be conscious feedback. We use it to motivate people, giving them signals and signs that they are on the right track. Sometimes (during game play) showing players they achieved something usually in the shape of achievements or points. Most of the time it provides progress making a player feels good. At the same time it offers transparency. This mechanism has proven to be useful in real life situations and they play an important role within Gamification.

Subconscious feedback

Subconscious feedback might even be more powerful. It’s presented in such a logical, natural way that players are no longer aware that the feedback process is happening.


Imagine Super Mario, the player pushes the joystick to the left, and our favourite Italian plumber moves to the left. That’s subconscious feedback. This kind of feedback is very powerful and closely connected to the player’s intrinsic motivation while playing a game. In this example the feedback has to be instant. When someone moves the joystick to the left, Mario has to go left immediately. The slightest delay and the feedback changes from subconscious to conscious and that doesn’t make the player happy. So controls, testing and playability all make a difference when we think about giving feedback to our learners.

Semiconscious Feedback

Now, I want to run straight down the middle of both conscious and sub-conscious feedback now. If we stick with the example of Mario we can also see that there are other opportunities for feedback that doesn’t have to be so obvious. In Mario when you are killed by something Mario does a large jump in the air and then falls off screen, no feedback is provided for how to defeat the situation and at the same time there is no text criticising the actions taken by the player. Mario allows you to figure out the situation by yourself, the only feedback needed is a visual nod to say ‘nope, that’s not how you do it.’ I think we should be thinking along the same lines in the world of learning, why do we need to show people copious amounts of text when they go wrong or slightly off course? Instead let’s look at opportunities to nudge them along the correct route. I’ve spoken about this before when it comes to learning by consequence but the same applies to feedback. If the learner selects the wrong option in a scenario style question then simply think about the best response to let the learner know that was incorrect. Think what would happen in the scenario should that have been a real life incident, what are the consequences? Showing the learner what happened as a result of their action is far more powerful than telling them off or offering congratulatory messages. This approach is a blend of both styles, a semiconscious feedback if you will.


For me, we need to take on more of the approaches in games to offer fast, responsive and helpful feedback rather than trying to criticise or patronise our learners. Look for opportunities for semiconscious feedback to take centre stage, by applying it well you increase the enjoyment of the experience. How does that work? Well…

It’s simple really, through semiconscious feedback in Mario the player learns to overcome problems and puzzles independently, they do not feel as though they are helped through the game or given an easy way out. In E-Learning we’ve focused a lot of attention in recent years giving the correct answer to learners when they get it wrong, or giving them feedback telling them why their answer is wrong which automatically gives away the correct answer. By taking more time to think how feedback can work in your entire experience rather than as part of a test score will not only improve the experience for the learner but it will help them to synthesise and apply the information with greater ease.

Don’t take the easy way out and apply conscious feedback at every opportunity, think about feedback as a way to challenge your learner to engage more with your course, the results for both parties will be far greater. This really is the standout line for this piece, use it well and feedback will become an enhancement to your course – “It’s presented in such a logical, natural way that players are no longer aware that the feedback process is happening.”


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