Beyond Engagement: Competition and Exploration in Serious Games Using Digital Narrative


The following is a chapter from an upcoming book by David Chandross, whom many of you will know from his fascinating posts on LinkedIn, and others from his academic publications. David is a big-hitter in the field of games-based learning, so although this article is longer than the usual offering from Ludogogy, we are more than happy to be given the opportunity to publish it here – and look forward to reading the full text when the book is published.

The field of serious game development has reached a threshold where cinematic and literary elements can enter and help increase learning. Engagement is no longer a sufficient or necessary goal for serious game based learning (GBL). In this paper I discuss ways to work with competition and exploration as game dynamics for GBL. Games that are integrated into digital gameworlds or mixed reality simulations require a more sophisticated structure then simple points, badges and leaderboards. Harnessing these two powerful behavioral drivers in learners can lead to improvements in skill rehearsal, subject matter recall and cooperative learning.


Although the term ‘game’ denotes competition, the concept of winning or losing is not essential for this process of goal pursuit despite failures and obstacles. Although Bartle[i] and others report that many players are driven by competition, almost an equal number are averse to it or see it as non-productive. Competition needs to be carefully monitored in both design and execution in building gameworlds. It is best to have this as an optional activity rather than being core. Leaderboards work well when teams compete but can be discouraging for individuals who are faring poorly. They can provide disincentive for learning and they can fall prey to “kingmaker syndrome”. Kingmaker design flaws are those where once a player gets a lead in a game, there is no way to ever catch up. Good board games have rule sets (called game mechanics) that ensure that there is some randomness associated with outcomes; it is not a linear path. This might seem like a contradiction at first, that we want players to be able to win, but frustrate that win with chance and rules, but a nuanced view of this is essential. We have seen serious games based on competition fail in devastating ways, where the reward was so tantalizing that employees began to cheat and argue about who was winning. The cost of developing serious games is non-trivial, you might invest thousands of dollars in one, only to find that players are working against each other, rather than with each other to progress. Modulation of competition is key.

A typical leaderboard is shown below. Note that it is typically sorted into rank, listing the current score, in this case in reputation points, any badges or achievements and their time in the game system.


What we tend to build are player versus player (PvP) regions of the gameworld which players can enter or decline. Imagine a map you are exploring with a warning sign you locate which indicates that all players who proceed in this region can compete with others. Or have a leaderboard that you need to sign up to view. It should not drive the entire game. We will talk about how to build competition into immersive games later; for now our experience using it in team-based narratives is helpful to explain.

Using Group Vs Group Competition in a Role Playing Game in Medical Education

In one of my first role playing games for learning for nursing degree students, each group of 6 students formed a team who would take on medical cases each week. There were three levels of case difficulty and each paid progressively more in-game points. The teams competed over the term to see who could earn the most “healing points”. But the competition did not rest on a single variable such as number of cases solved. As they solved each case, they got 3 types of currency.

The first currency type was wisdom points, which were used to order further tests or do treatments. Those had to be managed so that one had the resources in place to treat virtual cases. The second currency type was healing points, these were used to track in-game progress. The third currency type was called mana points, and these were used to level members of the group up to gain more skills. Each group had a total of 6 players, and there were 4 character classes they could have, and any form of mix in the group they wished. One class was called the Seer. Seers could do all radiology investigations but only simple ones at a low level. At a higher level, they could order CT scans and other high tech investigations. The entire group received the points, no one student received them. The group earned these levelling up points by writing quizzes. Each pass for a quiz for each student in the group awarded them 1 point. Each score over 80% in the group awarded them 2 points. We had students staying after class begging to write more quizzes so they could level group members up. This begging for more quizzes behavior happened in Prof. Rob Bajko’s course in social media at Ryerson University when he used similar game mechanics. A student begging for more quizzes is something we rarely see in academia but it can be common in serious games.

So the competition had many elements to it. Teams had to accumulate game scoring points, points to take actions in the game and points to level up their team members to take on new challenges. The competition was not based only on how much people learned. It was based on a mix of learning, balancing priorities and each student’s contribution. Simplistic competition does not allow for strategy other than pushing at one goal to the exclusion of others. Strategic competition, where students have to balance several types of currency and optimize the timing and intensity of gameplay, synched to learning, is where we want to go. Games with simple competitive design do not have replayability, because the game activity itself is static. Just advancing a token along a gameboard, answering quiz questions is a game in the most rudimentary sense of the word, its really just a series of quizzes disguised as a game. These games are easy to build, they require no imagination. However, they may appeal to very casual users who are simply seeking a way to make reviewing content more interesting. They should not be discounted, but they favor a kind of childish competition where one cannot really get better at the game. They can only improve through recalling knowledge.

However, what we should aim to build in competitive games is the parallel tracks of learning connected to game strategy. We will discuss this more ahead, but for this discussion let us conclude with the idea that when we think of games, we think of competition. When we think of gameworld hypereality, we think of immersion. It is not necessary to include them both in design. Given that many people who play games enjoy some form of friendly competition, the key is to design that element so it has a few elements, compulsion loops, which when completed, advance player’s position. I will share two ways we used competition in creative ways in games designed for teaching.

Using App-Based Simulation Games for Individual Competition

In the SOS game discussed earlier, the app for simulating care of frail elderly, each case completed either paid $5,000 or $20,000, depending on its difficulty. There was also a power up system, where you had a limited number of action points for solving the case, but could set these aside in a pile, which multiplied case earnings. This meant you had less action points to solve the case with, ie, order tests and give treatments, but your earnings went up if you did solve. You could remove these action points from the power up stack if you needed them, but that would reduce the earnings on the case at the time of the solve. So, competition for earning demanded smart choices, both in selecting hard cases vs easy cases, where more time was required for the former, and in wagering a limited resource. Each game also had a timer, so that in the given time required, solving a case was better than making mistakes, since each reset brought the player back to the case opening screen. Now there were four elements needed for a successful win; knowledge, case difficulty, allocation of actions and wagering. This makes for deeper gameplay. Deeper games have high replayability, you can improve not only in knowledge, but in game tactics. However, the game tactics are tightly linked to knowledge demonstration.

Another game where competition was used in a unique way was called “El Stinko”. Here the mechanic was simple and drew on a few elements of psychology to win. This was a course training web designers how to use behavioral neuroscience in their build. The players were divided into teams of six and they were shown a series of web pages on a monitor for about one minute each. A total of four different web pages were selected. Each page had various design elements in it. Some were really bad examples and some were very good. The groups were shown the pages one at a time, in a random order. Groups had a total of 10 El Stinko vote cards, and they could award the worst page as many cards as they wished out of that total. So they were seeing web pages, one at a time, but being asked to wager on which was the worst, without being able to see what page would come next. This forced teams into relying on what they had learned about page design, because the worst page clearly violated these rules. It had dozens of images on it and a confusing interface with a variety of sales messages.

Now students had to anticipate and gauge which pages could appear, and bid their limited cards accordingly. The winners would be those who bid the most number of cards on the page which received the highest number of bids. In other words, they were rewarded for synching their learning to that of the group, but with uncertainty about how different groups would vote. This forced players to make decisions in a fun way and then during debriefing, express why they had voted that way. It is impossible to really use much strategy in that kind of competition, it is a light-hearted way to compare different qualities of something such as web page to ensure that learners rely upon knowledge presented. This game was played for the Canadian Military as an audience, a group who are not generally light-hearted about training, so it had novelty and the ability to get teams to share ideas.

Competition usually leads to some form of debriefing, to ask groups or players why they made the choices they did. This is not requisite and should not concern designers. A good game does not require debriefing. Poor games often do, because the competition is short lived and sharing ideas is the driving element. However, it is better to build game mechanics that permit players to compete without any form of outside intervention by the trainer. The learning and gameplay, if properly synched, should enable a team to take a lead. I use the term “team” a lot here and it is deliberate. One of the most powerful ways to compete is to pit team against team, which creates a learning event in the groups as they now have additional incentives to perform. Just learning in an open world lacks suspense and what we need to do is ensure that adequate levels of stress occur in the game. We can conclude this section by looking at the role of cortisol in competition builds and how it fits into the overall ACES model.

Cortisol is a hormone released during stress and in high amounts, can inhibit learning. But in short bursts, it not only wakes up a sleepy audience but also energizes players and increases their emotional investment in the outcome. By adding timers to serious games we introduce a moderate level of short term stress, and this is what competition can do as well. Competition in a limited time frame, in particular, leads to some of the best gut-level decisions you can draw out of players. If you, for example, introduce an emergency to the learners, such as someone having a medical crisis, or in business, a threatened insolvency, and attach a timer to it, then players have to figure out a solution where stress drives the action. This is often done digitally in the form of daily challenges which appear on your cell phone as a notification. When we tighten up time and force teams to solve a problem we bring out the best in them and this is where competition can really shine. Using short bursts of competition we do not make it the focus of the game, it is simply another activity which will appeal to players who favor it.

Timers and Competition in Science Fiction Based Games

In one game we built, we used timers in a rather sophisticated way. This was a build for personal coaching in major, high Gartner-ranked company (one of the top 1000 in the world). They had issues with getting their management team to use personal coaching and apply it in their work, where they needed to learn how to coach teams. Further, they had undesirable outcomes using competition-based  learning in the past, to the point that they had to cancel the initiative, because there was animosity bred using that model. Our game was based on the idea of quantum tunneling. The mechanic was based on simulations, having managers come up with coaching ideas for a number of simulated cases.

The player had a limited resource, called M-25. This was used by players to open up quantum portals which provided an link to a series of simulations. As you completed one simulation with a one page summary of your action plan, it was vetted by the trainer briefly. That opened up another simulation which lead to another, each simulation point was called a node. Some portals were two nodes deep, some were up to 10 nodes deep.

Decision flowchart

When a player completed a single node, shown above as an arrow, they were awarded a standard reward of M25. The player had a choice of many portals, but they did not know how many nodes were in each one. So they had to invest M25 to open a portal, but, could not only recover it from solving cases in that node chain, but also got a healthy completion bonus of M25 when they finished the chain. The problem is that they had no idea, when they opened a portal, how many nodes it had. There were three to five portals open at any one time, each with a mystery of how many simulations it contained, ie, how many nodes to complete to get a completion bonus.

There was a timer that would go off about every two weeks, but the precise time was not made known to players. It was just about every two weeks. At that time, the game would freeze and no player could take any actions for 24 hours. Then the game would resume 24 hours later. During this time, players could convert M25 into game points, which showed who lead. The risk was that if you spent too much M25 on advancing on the leaderboard, you might not have enough left to open new portals. So when the game re-opened 24 hours later and the leaderboard was shown, it revealed your position in the game. We built the leaderboard using an electrophoresis gel model, where you were advancing up a “race track” of sorts, the higher you were on the board, the more you were in the lead as shown below;


The player on the extreme right is leading and the bars represent their position in previous rounds. The player in the column just to the left adjacent to them, is lower and the player in the third position from the right edge was even lower. Each player was attempting to reach the top of the gel graph first, like an Olympic swimmer hitting a button when they finish their laps.

The beauty of this design is that no one knew, at any point, who was going to emerge as the new leader after the 24 hour game freeze. So the kingmaker syndrome, with a runaway lead, was not possible. If you overspent M25 to get ahead now, you would threaten your chances of opening new portals during the two week game period and fall behind. If you hoarded M25 you had no position on a leaderboard gel. But you could hoard M25 all through the game and then, in the last week, dump all those saved resources on your lead position. This made it impossible to judge who would lead at any time and produced a secondary game faking out opponents and developing fairly deep strategies for advancing.

Competition can take the form of timed drills to see who can beat the best time. Simulation-based games are very well suited for this mechanic. In a game we designed for teaching cyber security, our goal was to reduce the documents they had to memorize, with contact numbers, procedures to follow if their workstation was hijacked and other things, into a playful experience. Security protocols are dull and are so similar to each other that it is hard for learners to remember them all. The key is repetition, multiple repetitions in fact, so that the content gets memorized.

We built a game based on the fact you were a cyber security expert who was responsible for a space colony of 100,000 inhabitants. When the game started, you were on a timer to save the most number of citizens that you could. The plot line had an evil hacker shutting down your life support systems randomly, including oxygen delivery, medicine units and food storage, thus killing off your ship citizens. Each minute the game advanced, you lost 1,000 citizens. Your goal in the game was to navigate through the ship from room to room to seal off security breaches. The rooms were connected by tunnels, and to enter each room you had to answer a randomly generated question from the security documents. Those who knew the answers were able to move fast through the ship to beat the timer, those who did not know lost thousands of lives.

Static images like the one below were used in the game which was coded for Android as a mobile learning solution. This was consistent with the narrative and the competition was against one’s own self, to beat your best time each time you played. Best times were shown on a leaderboard. Best times meant you knew your cyber security protocols in the real world. So competition need not be against other players, but against one’s own personal best.

Futuristic interior

Cooperative competition games can be designed as well, which reward players for helping each other learn. To do this in one game for a Ministry of Health approved program on long term care for seniors, we developed the idea of “Kudo” points. These were points you could award to other players for making helpful contributions on discussion forums. With enough Kudo points, one would achieve the status of “most valuable player – MVP” on the forums, which signified that according to the class, you were a good person to come to with questions or help even in future classes. So this status of MVP persisted over time, so that in future incoming classes, you could, if you wished, stay in the game to help the newer players. This type of competition is not based on winning, but on personal achievements against oneself, to be so helpful that other players would reward you by an up vote.

Other competition mechanics consist of having teams complete learning challenges such as solving a simulation problem and then having the group vote on the best solution. This adds an element of entertainment to the experience but is prone to creating an adversarial atmosphere, so it should be used sparingly. The other model is that of PvP matches, where two players compete in a series of challenges against a timer. We will discuss this and the use of other “combat systems” in chapters ahead. The key take away message is that competition is a vital component of the ACES learning model and almost 40% of your students, according to Bartle’s data, will expect it and enjoy it. Don’t let your own aversions and philosophies on competition direct the design, the evidence is clear from the video and board game industries, almost half your learners like to compete. I don’t like competition much myself, it reminds me of being picked last for baseball teams as an awkward child. But I still build them into almost every game. The ACES framework dictates that we use all four components in game design, to satisfy variations in audience demand. You need to give moviegoers a film they want, not what you insist they watch. The first is entertainment, the latter is propaganda.

For those who dislike this style of play, however, it can be a turn off, and so we add to achievement and competition as mechanics our third component of ACES, exploration. Exploration is something that many people thrive on in learning, needing to know what lies ahead or what can be discovered. Exploration is the heartbeat of doing science, archeology or any form of research. This is the area we will explore….next.

Exploration Based Learning

Exploration is a game mechanic that has been widely used to increase engagement and provide a gateway to new experiences. Experiential learning, the strongest new trend in higher education, is about participating in work rather then learning about it as the core training activity. Linking experiential learning to exploration and discovery is the core structure of an ACES-derived curriculum. The umbrella narrative in any serious game should be based on exploration, to omit this element is to preclude any form of sustained motivation in a game system. What makes discovery so compelling is that our brains are hard-wired to do so. To fail at this would be to starve in neolithic times. Our entire nervous system is built to detect threat and abundance and to seek these out actively. Our psychological apparatus, from flavor, to scent, to vision and hearing is all designed to do one thing, detect small changes in patterns. Those detection mechanisms can be measured in human subjects and indicate that we parse the environment for any deviation from salient backgrounds. We are walking through a forest, it is quiet. We hear a wolf, we focus on the wolf. Everything else disappears, as we evaluate threat or opportunity. Exploration is simply searching for new opportunities or threats.

In open world games it is common to award achievements based on exploration. This is used in World of Warcraft as a key quest line to unlock powerful game upgrades, such as being able to fly instead of ride a horse everywhere. As the player explores the open world, which is scaled to represent hundreds of real world miles, they might get a notification on their screen saying “Explore Broken Isles Completed!”. They player gets immediate feedback when they complete exploration, which usually involves travelling to every region of that map.

Achievements earned

It is not difficult to adopt exploration mechanics to learning gameworlds. In order to do this, however, one needs to write a storyline where the narrative demands that the player explore. It is not enough to simply let people wander about in a curriculum, we need to build attractor regions and domains. So when we design gameworlds we need to create a fictional place which then can be travelled through in some way to discover domains and attractors.

Building a Virtual Hospital Using Exploration as a Core Mechanic

In “The Grid’ we built a virtual hospital, a VLE. There are four wards in this hospital and the student is free to enter any of them at any time and see virtual patients. When they see these patients, as we discussed earlier, they only have access to some of the vital information needed to solve the case. By purchasing in-game items such as “Spectral Goggles” or a “medical consult” they can obtain information buried in that case to enhance the solve rate and learning associated with it. So it is not enough simply to have a fictional map, there must be something to do once you discover something. It is also nice to be able to explore more deeply if you have earned an achievement in the game. It is even  more compelling if there is some competition linked to this, as in being the “first” to find a rare item. Being “the first” scientist to discover insulin or the “first” astronaut to  land on the moon is very satisfying. The race to the summit of Mount Everest that took place between 1924 and 1956 is an example of how competition to explore can fuel nations to take pride in discovery. Competition is not so much a case of beating other players by exploring a map faster, but in what they achieve as a result of exploration. So exploration is just a means to an end, that of increasing a sense of pride and ownership in the journey of one’s avatar.

Exploration maps need not take place in virtual space, they might just be learning course content in any way they wish, what is called a “reading course” in Canadian universities, a series of essays. But this is not what we are aiming for in hyperreality design. Maps are essential in gameworlds because the very name suggests a world. The key decisions to make are what the theme is going to be, what the storyline is and where this all will take place. Basic writing 101. However, we can also make exploration the key activity which yields the highest reward as one pursues an in-game goal.


The above map is typical of the video game open world. You can travel from location to location to unlock quests by locating quest givers.

World of Warcraft quest giver

The quest giver depicted above is from World of Warcraft, the bold exclamation sign indicates that this non-player character has a quest to offer. When you click on this character, the dialogue box opens to the left. This tells you how the quest fits into the storyline and what you need to do to complete it. It also shows the rewards.

Reward choices

Note that there are choices of rewards in many quests, not just a bit of gold. In the case above, the player must fight many tough enemies as part of a 5-person team to have a choice of 6 different weapons, each with its own abilities for a specific type of player. Warriors will like an axe, but mages will like a staff. This linkage of exploration to quest givers is the key component of open world game design. There is no motivation to explore if there is nothing awarded for doing so, time is always precious for players. And rewards can substantially improve the players ability to do two things; a. gain increased status in the game and pride in achievement and b. open up further exploration that is forbidden without these elements. There are high level dungeons in Warcraft that can only be enjoyed once one has the right “gear level”. One improves their gear level by questing enough to unlock access to a new place, a set of dungeons, which have the most powerful weapons and armor in the game.

Dungeon Map

Each dungeon has a map, as shown above. In the dungeon, there are patrols, groups of mobs that do not reward you, but challenge you. Eventually you “clear” that patrols (called pats, or ‘trash mobs’ by players) and get to the boss fight. Each boss you fight is different, they can kill you in all kinds of ways . The final boss is the toughest challenge. This is similar to medical school, you go through lectures, then clerkship, then internship and so forth, so progression is the core element here.

Linking progression in the game to exploration is therefore vital in order for the player to have any motivation at all to travel and locate new regions. This compelling blend leads to a basic curriculum design model for open world builds shown in the table below.

Order of DesignFunction
Learning Domains and AttractorsGuide learning
ThemeCreate a setting and world
NarrativeCreate a story
MapCreate exploration for achievements
Quest DesignProvide learning experience

This replaces a standard course outline as we have come to know them.

Course outline

Note that course outlines, aside from being a kind of legal document to inform students about what they need to do to pass, are a map. They can be a good map, or a dry boring one. But they do serve as templates for designing exploration in the ACES model. Each week there are things we teach that let us talk about new things in the following session. Instead of this being a linear progression however, it can be randomized and linked to map locations. Imagine that in learning coding above,  you had to visit each topic that was located on an island. Your goal might be to conquer that island, or even better, to get an exploration achievement for doing so. One island might be on number theory taken from the course outline, another island might be on encryption theory, the outline above is on programming secure internet sites. But that is not so interesting to do, exploring the island of encryption theory. This is where we now link our theme, narrative and map to learning. This is where the art of open world design begins

The art of open design is based on having a vivid imagination to see an entire world populated with learning attractors[ii]. An attractor region for learning encryption might be inserted in a location. Let us imagine, for a moment, what this game could look like. First, let us set the entire game in 1943, and have the student play the role of an intelligence expert working to fight the Nazis. In order to beat them at intelligence and block their communication, you would have to locate scholars or scientists in the open world of 1940s Europe, travelling from town to town. This gets engagement going. Now the whole theme has to make sense as a story and it will all be constrained by reality. Immersion is based on suspension of disbelief, the willingness to enter a gameworld and pretend to participate in it. This is why we go to the movies. Immersion is not something we build for millenial learners only, all people love the movies and the feeling of being transported to another place that they provide. So lets take a second look at theme and maps for the course outline above. Let us set this in a high technology but interesting, non conventional space this time instead of locating it in reality. Both are good. Let’s see what other juicy things we can do.

I love to use steampunk themes in design, they fuse tradition with technology. Below is a typical steampunk character. Note the mix of modern and old, as though her entire wardrobe was cobbled together from bits and parts.

Note the appearance of the avatar. In the gameworld “Second Life” people are free to pick the appearance of their avatar and customize it using “mesh skins” which are photorealistic body parts. The vast majority of players love to customize their appearance. In video games like Warcraft, you can customize your appearance as well, but in a way compatible with the theme and storyline.

So now we have a steampunk world, let’s put it in outer space. Let’s say that you are being hacked by evil beings, like our cyber security game proposed. Let us say that you have to explore a new planet which has technology to decipher or cipher for intelligence. Let us now create some tension. All stories need conflict to be effective. So let us now be searching different planets for pieces of a puzzle, how to encrypt or decipher data to protect it from the evil beings. On each planet, students will find attractor regions with a ton of simulacra, case studies, which will guide them in their learning. They will access Google Scholar and other online resources to learn the basics, as they apply them using experiential learning in simulated space. Do you see how we are building an experience for the student, based on the desired content? We are not designing for content presentation any more, we are designing for experiential learning in virtual space, creating a symphony of elements. A broad, deeply constructed emotional palette.

Forming teams of explorers is a key element needed to drive socially-based learning. In order to explore some hazardous regions of space, for example, we might insist that players form small teams, each with its own ability among members. This means we would build the game using character classes, such as the Seers or Alchemists in my earliest role-playing game, “Healers’ Quest”. You simply could not solve cases as an individual, because your character might only be able to get diagnostic data or provide drug treatments, depending on your class.

Another key element in exploration is not so much in travelling through virtual space or locating learning experiences, but in trying out different combinations of in-game assets to customize. In our travel game design, built for hospitality students, each time you created a one-minute video to practice selling a destination, it unlocked new destinations. Different combinations of destinations could be scored as a set. Different sets were used to unlock further reward experiences. So by posting one destination pitch in the North American hub and one from the Asian hub, this unlocked a set of new ways to earn in-game currency. Players could personalize their simulation experience by selectively unlocking various types of travel packages they could offer, thus increasing their earnings.

This can be taken to a next step where you can choose “talents” from a talent tree, which customizes how your character can interact with the world. These talents are rule-breakers, that is, they permit you to do something special in the game.

Talent tree

Each point on a talent tree is called a node and as the player advanced in experience in the game, they are able to make some choices about what abilities their avatar has. Typically this is linked to experience points (XP), which increase as the player progresses in the game. For a typical game we usually build about 10 levels to start, then add to that later in the form of creating “expansion packs”. So at level 2, you get to pick a talent point, at level 3 another and so forth, each new level you achieve rewards you with a customization decision. These decisions impact game play and permit learners to select the way they progress in the game.

In the real world, we do this all the time and its so engaging that there are names for its excess. Gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) is something widely discussed on web-sites like the Acoustic Guitar Forum. GAS refers to buying new gear all the time, it becomes almost compulsive. A similar thing happens with “gear freaks”, usually men, who love buying things related to the outdoors, or photography. Its a dopaminergic cycle of addiction in some cases. But in most instances, it is the desire to explore that drives the behavior. In purchasing my gear for cycling throughout our cold Ontario winters, I went on a $1,000 spree. The first ride I took I was freezing, but my head was warm, my ears were cold, my hands were okay. Then I bought a down vest and layered my clothing more, adding some cold resistant gloves. Then I was too hot when going uphill and I was drenched from sweat. So I had to consider a breathable jacket, but they were $400 and I searched until I found one for $70. Then it rained. That was cold rain, and my feet and hands were wet, my head was cold. So now I bought GoreTex boots, neoprene cycling gloves and a rain pants. But I could not put the pants on fast if I got caught in a downpour. So I had to find pants that unzipped at top and bottom of the leg so I could wear them easily over work pants. Then it got really cold and I bought a waterproof parka.

At each phase of this spree, I was testing out combinations of gear. Eventually, over a month, I was able to cycle comfortably in bitter weather. The reward was supreme, I was gliding through snow flurries on a bike with studded tires, racing past traffic that was gridlocked. I saw Fall leaves in their last majesty, intense crimsons, sunset yellows, I smelled the leaves and felt the wind. My body was filled with energy, the feeling of cycling has the same thrill as flying for me. The point of my story is that I was exploring to find a solution and enjoying evaluating each solution, learning as I went, and now was able to do things I could not before with deep rewards. These clothes will last me the rest of my life, good outdoor gear is like that. Think of each course you design now, as this kind of thing for your students. Let them try different combinations of learning experiences, see what fits, what works for them and keep the options expanding all the time. Don’t just design an experience and dump it on them like so much offal in a fish market. Sadly, that is what we often default to. “Here, learn this”. Unlearn what you know about teaching. Let emotional artistry guide your class.

In a game we built for an award-winning personal coaching company, they wanted the theme to be set in space, where each planet of three had simulations of different types. For example, the red planet had cases about conflict resolution, the blue planet had cases about creativity and team building. In order to visit these planets you needed to spend a limited resource called Iridium. The first thing players did was arrive at the ship console where they could see a map of the three planets. They were all located at different distances from the main ship, and it cost Iridium to use as fuel. In order to access the furthest planets you needed to earn Iridium in the game. At each level you were permitted one talent tree option. One choice was to be able to conduct more than one mission (solve more than one simulation) at a time. Without this talent you could only work on one case study before you opened further ones. When you finished case studies, that awarded more Iridium, which could be used as fuel for travel, or could be traded for in-game assets such as better armor on the ship, or things to enhance your ability to create diplomacy and recruit new crew members from each planet.

The talent trees then directly influenced game play and by doing that, learning. Another talent choice was to travel faster with less Iridium cost for all further missions. So a learner could either take the talent for more cases to be opened, thus increasing the potential earnings over time when they all were solved instead of proceeding one case at a time, or be able to travel more cheaply and unlock different types of cases. Personalization of learning is very easy to build into games and is a core exploration mechanic. We are not so much exploring virtual space as we are exploring how different combinations of abilities can be used. A student in this kind of game can test out talent “builds”, but has to make hard choices each step of the way. Hard choices, where we want to do three things, but must only pick one, make games compelling. They force the learner to think about how they want to learn. This makes training fulfilling, one really has a sense of agency. These are forward-decision games, the same type we used in building SOS to solve medical issues for the frail elderly. You cannot go back and undo your talents or your decisions, you must live with the consequence – which makes decisions actually matter.

Agency refers to the feeling that a player has control of their character. If you have a game where the player can only do one thing, there is little agency. Studying player experience ratings are a new way that serious game designers are approaching selection of game mechanics. High experience or player ratings are instructive. They reveal what kinds of things we like to do in gameworlds. One of the highest ratings in studies conducted recently was for the game Bioshock. It satisfied several criteria of replayability; a good story line and real character development synched to the main narrative. It had high player agency. What you did in the game mattered and there were tons of things to do, places to explore and ways to use your abilities. A game named Darfur with very low scores was one designed to teach students about civil war and its effects on society. In this game you played the part of a refugee whose only goal each day was to get water from a well one mile away. The theme should have been an amazing opportunity to really feel what it is like to live in a war zone to create empathy.

However the game mechanics defeated the learning due to weak implementation of agency. The only thing to do in the game was get water – not so compelling. To make matters worse, and, this is key, military vehicles would appear as you tried to do so, and they would run into you and kill you, pushing you back to the village to start again. The vehicles sounded ugly and were irritating to encounter and avoiding them was difficult.

After some kills by vehicles, the game unlocked a new location and mission. Players began to run into the moving vehicles just to die and get onto further missions. There was no real agency. They had one thing to do and got killed doing it most of the time. Depressing. Other games that failed on exploration mechanics were based on fighting in Viet Nam, where when your player got ambushed, you had to start a tedious mission all over again. Equally frustrating was the permadeath of the original role playing video game, Everquest. If you died in that game, you were gone. Everything your player had collected through blood, sweat and tears for years, could be erased in one bad second. The game Remission was designed to teach kids about cancer, where you searched the body for tumors to kill them off, a great idea! But it failed because once you found cancer, you just shot a beam at it and hoped for the best. Each tumor looked the same so nothing was unique about a quest. These are plodding, well-intentioned game designs which held great promise but failed due to poor mechanics. Everquest, in fairness, was very popular, but when the new generation of MMORPGs was released, where you could resurrect after being killed with a small penalty, it faded. Now players could try crazy things to see how to use their abilities and if they died, they learned from it and improved.

Bad mechanics which punish players for mistakes are referred to as digital leashes. They are ways to force players into learning and deny any form of agency. Games with high agency such as Black and White, by designer Pierre Moulineux and Fable both had fascinating agency – without the leash. In Black and White, you played the part of a God, who oversaw an entire Island. Your job was to create more followers by helping your people do things, or to just play on the Island and create things of your own. These “God” games give high levels of agency and exploration. In the game Black and White, your game was open ended, it was the first game of its genre. You were there just to explore what you could do with your God abilities and see how you could shape your Island’s progression. In Fable, Moulineaux had you playing the part of a character travelling through a mythological kingdom. As you did things that were morally right, your character looked nicer and nicer. If you did morally bad things like killing random characters in the game, your “toon” (gamer’s name for avatar) would get uglier over time. So in strong agency exploration games, you can explore consequences of your decisions.

When I interviewed the design lead for Deus Ex, he discussed this extensively when asked about why he thought this game had been a AAA commercial success. In this game, depending on moral choices you make, new game worlds would open up. So you could try playing the game a few different ways, and see what kinds of experience that provides. In World of Warcraft  you can level a character as either Horde or Alliance, two different factions in the game. They both provide completely different experiences. They take place in two different continents, with entirely different storylines connected to the main theme and overall narrative. So in really strong agency exploration games you can play again and again, each time changing talents, game story, visual experiences and challenges. Very few serious games anticipate these player needs and most are composed of simplistic elements where you do one or two things. Remember, we are aiming in open world design to build conglomerations of player satisfaction, not just one or two goals, such as selling real estate or doing well at a quiz.

Exploration mechanics build highly motivating and engaging elements into learning of subjects as un-sexy as accounting or coding by creating agency and curiosity. However, none of these things works as well as it might for learning unless it is socially connected. This is where the video game world informs, but does not dictate best practices. There are thousands of video games you can play by yourself and they are highly successful. Complete agency. But there are many which also demand you play with other people which have achieved success such as Warcraft. In learning we can use one of the most powerful tools available, teamwork, to advance a game narrative. To fail to take advantage of this potent learning strategy, problem-based learning (PBL), would be a major oversight in game development. The impressive literature on team-based case simulation learning produced over the past 40 years is difficult to ignore for people with even a passing interest in education.

[i] Chandross, D.  and DeCourcy, E. :Serious Games and Online Learning, International Journal of Innovation in Online Education, Vol 2, Issue 3, 2018

[ii] Chandross, D, Tripping the Light Fantastic, Online Learning, Autopoiesis and Hyperreality in Open Gameworlds, International Journal of Innovation in Online Education, Vol 4, Issue 3, 2020

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Researcher / Designer at Ryerson University
David Chandross, M.Sc., M.Ed., Ph.D. is a researcher and designer in the field of gamification, game worlds and mixed reality in professional education and training. He holds a doctorate in the field of curriculum design in higher education and masters degrees in cognitive neuroscience and medical education. Over his career he has served as academic dean, program coordinator and faculty in the field of medical education across Canada before focusing his work on the emerging field of digital game worlds.
Current clients include the United Nations World Food Programme (Nobel laureates 2020), the World Health Organization, the Insurance Institute of Canada and Baycrest Health Sciences. He is a faculty member in the Yeates School of Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Communication and Design at Ryerson University and also a Senior scholar at the Ted Rogers School of Management in the Inclusive Media and Design Center specializing in technology for aging.
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