Write better elearning scenarios: subtext

Last year I embarked on a big journey. At the immature age of 50, I decided to start a PhD! It’s, to say the least, a very busy venture on top of work, but I’m really enjoying the challenge and the learning.
Over the next three years, I’m going to concentrate on bringing together three of my favourite topics: creative writing, instructional design and story-based games.

This blog post explores some initial ideas on how I want to apply the power of narrative writing for games to scenario-based learning and simulations.

80 days – an amazing narrative game

Game writers have tried and tested ways to engage players, to make them feel emotionally connected with characters and to provide choices that are meaningful and make you think. They’ve been building on this expertise since the first text-based adventure games in the 1980s. Some of you will remember Pirate Adventure and Zork. Or maybe you’ve played some of the brilliant new narrative games like 80 Days, Night in the Woods or Telltale’s the Walking Dead? Game writers can teach us instructional designers a lot…

Let’s improve a scenario intro!

An inspiring talk by John Ingold from Inkle at AdventureX18 about improving game narrative inspired me to try his techniques on a run of the mill elearning scenario. I presented this at the end of last year for NZATD in Auckland.

Let’s imagine a hospital-based Health and Safety course for nurses in Auckland – we are writing a scenario for a slip hazard. The nurse in our story arrives late, and will notice a spill in the corridor – will she clean it up or rush on?

We want to make our story authentic, and have written the following intro.

Laura has worked as a nurse at Starburst hospital for five years. She is on the early shift today, but she is running late. There was so much traffic on the Southern motorway today and her little boy, Jamie, who is 4, decided to protest against the clothes she laid out for him!
Definitely no time for a coffee before her shift starts. She speeds to the ward.

Change 1: Listen to the ‘subtext’ and write less

While we try to engage with our learner to create a story, we are providing too many details, that may actually alienate instead of engage the learner. They may for example not take the Southern Motorway … What is the essence of this intro, the ‘subtext‘ of what we are trying to bring across?

  • Laura is a nurse, just like you.
  • She’s late because of traffic and domestic stuff.

So what is irrelevant and allow us to shorten the text? Does it matter how long Laura has worked here? Where exactly she was stuck in traffic? What her little boy’s called? Not really. It just adds fluff.
So, let’s try this again.

Laura, a nurse at Starburst hospital, is late for her early morning shift. Her little boy refused to get dressed and she was stuck in traffic.
“No morning coffee”, she sighs as she rushes to the ward.

Change 2: make a connection

Much shorter, but still quite boring! Notice how I’ve changed the last sentence into a ‘dialogue’ format. It provides a change from running text and gives us an impression of Laura’s emotion. Let’s pull our reader in more and make this even better!

“There goes my morning coffee, ” Laura sighs as she rushes to the ward, late for her shift. “Ugh! Auckland traffic, and a non-cooperative 4-year old. What a morning.”.

We have now brought Laura in as a living person, by making her lateness a personal effusion and using a strong dialogue-like expression that makes her talk to the reader.

Write less to write more

We have actually made this introduction a lot shorter to read, but more engaging at the same time. Note how we have in general written less, but by keeping some things more generic, we connect with more people. By taking away the details about traffic and the child situation, but leaving them in as a reason for the lateness, we have actually allowed more readers to feel connected.

Our learners may have traffic trouble elsewhere, may have a small child in the family but they are not the Mum, it may be a little girl, not a boy etc. Their child may have been a fussy eater, or bad sleeper, so “non-cooperative” makes that connection with personal experience, but does not provide details that do not ring any bells for some (remember, in the first version we detailed that little Jamie refused to get dressed…) .

Next time you write a scenario intro, try some of the techniques above. Ask yourself:

  • What is the subtext?
  • Which details can be generalised so you connect to more learners?
  • Can you draw the learner in by using a bit of dialogue?

In my next blog post, I will look at some of the ways game writers craft their choices.